February 1, 2014
Why not write about the impact of your unkind words upon yourself? It’s a surrender discipline.
She went there. She used my word of the year against me. Haha. Well…what are friends for, right? This accountability stuff sucks…except that if I didn’t have it, I’d probably still be effing around on Facebook right now. Fair enough.
As a writer, a poet, an English major, an English teacher, a frequent counselor of students, I am acutely aware of the impact of words. Word spoken by me. Words written by me. Words read by me. Words spoken to me by others. Words written to me by others. In a poem or even a well-written essay, the effect of changing a single word can be monumental.
I teach my lower level students about connotation using a series of words that, according to the dictionary, mean almost the same thing: skinny, slender, slim, trim, thin, fit, scrawny, anorexic, rail-thin. They all essentially indicate the absence of fat. And yet the emotion that goes along with each of those words is different, in some cases radically so. Some of those words I wouldn’t mind being called. Some of those words I would mind very much.
Not that I would ever be called any of those words. Ever. For as long as I live. Because I am none of those. Nowhere even close. Nope, I’m fat. In fact, in the words I usually use to present my status to myself, I’m fucking fat.
And now we’ve arrived at the one impact direction I generally forget to consider. The impact of my own words upon me.
It’s easy to forget because they don’t generally get spoken aloud. I can’t hear them. They’re part of my background noise. Like the trash truck I hardly ever hear anymore on Monday mornings, or the nighttime train horn I subconsciously know is there but that is regularly masked by the white noise of the fan in my window. It’s just part of the routine, the usual, the unnoticed, the overlooked.
But just because I don’t hear them overtly doesn’t mean they have no impact. The trash still gets emptied, the bin replaced crookedly by the curb. Hundreds of passengers and tons of cargo still get transported from point A to point B. The words I speak to myself still carry the weight of a stone hurled. It doesn’t matter that I’m used to it.
Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Bullshit. It’s bullshit, and we all know it.
I’m not meaning to insult myself, though. I’m just a forthright person. I deal in truth frankly. I’m just being honest. I’m just stating facts. I’m just observing reality. Bullshit.
When I dig to the next level of honesty, I am forced to admit that I speak these things to myself in a constant tape loop because if I say them first, no one else can beat me to the punch. Fuck you, I know I’m fat (lazy) (imperfect) (a failure)—what about it???
If I preemptively tell you what’s wrong with this piece of writing, before you start reading it—in writer’s workshop, we call this “ritual apologies”—then you can’t point it out to me. I already told you about all the inappropriate profanity, the stream-of-consciousness sort of self-awareness, the over-wordiness. I’ll make you have to work harder to find something to criticize. And that works for me.
I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. I have a distinct memory of sitting in my bedroom, in my kid-sized wooden rocking chair—I must have been six—looking at my flattened thighs against the chair seat and thinking, “Oh, man, my legs are fat.” I was six. I wasn’t fat when I was six. I wasn’t fat when I was ten. I wasn’t fat when I was sixteen. But I thought I was. (I look back at pictures now and cry.) But I told myself I was.
Old habits die hard. Old habits that have been with me since my memories begin? Those die even harder.
Like any verbal abuse, though, the impact of these vicious words (I haven’t told you everything I say to myself, or even all of the topics I tend to cover) is cumulative, long term, and deep.
I have friends right now who are taking better care of me than I take of me. These are friends who believe that awareness is the first step to solving a problem. These friends regularly call me on my abusive behavior and language. “Do you hear yourself?” they ask. “Put down the emotional stick,” they insist.
And awareness is working. I’m catching myself more frequently, becoming aware more often of the incessant drone of dreck and blather playing in my head, language felt like a blow, the impact of which resounds and resonates throughout my entire body.
My friends are teaching me to be a better friend…to myself. This is, too, the impact of words.