For most of my life, if someone asked how I was, I automatically responded, “Fine.” I didn’t trust that anyone wanted to hear about dealing with lifelong depression or a chronic blood cancer that periodically caused me to be out of remission. This left me feeling lonely, but I remembered my father’s words from the time I was old enough to understand them, “You’re strong, you can manage.” In my family, talking about feelings was taboo. The few times I tried I was told: It’s all in your imagination.” I coped by doing what I could to take care of myself. I disassociated—body from mind. I lived like a horse with blinders, paying attention to what was directly in front of me. Managing.
Coping mechanisms often have a shelf life. What saves us at one time can cripple us as we change and grow. Recognizing this is difficult. Changing is harder. After I turned 80, and did a vision quest, I realized I wanted to talk about my life honestly, depending on who asked. I didn’t want judgment, unasked for advice, defensiveness, or the person to “fix” my problem so they could feel better.
It took a while to learn how to talk about my inner life. I discovered the analogy of the weather report—this is what’s happening at the moment. I developed friendships with people who wanted to know. They listened patiently as I described what I was feeling as best I could. They didn’t try to “fix” me.
I do the same. In a conversation, I listen. I ask if they want to know what I’m thinking or feeling about their situation. I let them know I care, that I want to know what their life is like. As a result, I no longer feel emotionally isolated. Friendships have deepened. I feel known. I know I’m making progress being more honest with my thoughts and feelings when a friend said recently, “I love you even when you make mistakes.” Imagine that!
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.