My life has been defined by silent screaming.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a world that was whole. Parents who remained together and didn’t bicker in front of me, never experiencing the feeling of helplessness from watching loved ones spar and fight in misery; hobbies that were fulfilling; no physical ailments.
Though I have had my challenges (as has every person born), I felt that they were things to work on.
But I was always aware that there were others who weren’t as lucky as I was, and as many of my friends were.
I started noticing when I was eight, with dear friends. People whose parents were going through divorce, or struggling with poverty. Children who had something that made them different and maybe made them feel damaged.
Then, in junior high and high school, the realizations of the possibilities for human violence. Being exposed to anorexics, beautiful people who couldn’t love themselves and for whom every mirror was a trip to the carnival. Meeting drug addicts, victims of sexual assault and molestation, victims of intimate partner violence.
In junior high and high school, we started hearing the words that would label people for the rest of their lives. “Attention deficit disorder.” “Autism.” “Social anxiety disorder.” “Depression.” Translation: “Freak, misfit, outcast.” Children given a grave diagnosis that would change their lives, medication to fix them and make them fit in like a square peg in a round hole. Keep pushing medication and therapy until they can be quiet enough and call it a success.
And I started having a recurring experience.
I would see people eating their lunch and sitting on a ramp alone, looking down. I would see people in conversations with friends, standing just a few inches outside of what was otherwise a geometrically perfect circle, part of things but distant. I would see the eyes that glanced askew in moments of introspection and pain.
I had a perspective of myself, standing in my sunny field of grass and trees, and hearing screaming.
Only when I looked at their physical bodies, there were smiles.
I started calling it “silent screaming” a few years ago. Screaming for help, for attention, for love, for someone to see and pay attention. Begging and pleading the cosmos for it to end. Asking anyone to just push past the socially acceptable Parry and Riposte cycle of “How are you doing?” “Okay,” to something real.
I am ashamed of how many times I stood there, thinking it wasn’t my business or my place. Wondering what I could possibly have done. Thinking myself not up to the challenge. Feeling helpless.
I’ve endured a lot of things in my efforts to develop the abilities to heal souls, but that’s one thing that I don’t feel anymore: Helpless.
I’m not the only one who feels this way, not by a long shot. It’s been the secret motivation of almost every reporter, police officer, therapist, doctor and nurse I’ve had the privilege of calling my friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And we all have to learn to forgive ourselves for our failures, for being human and being unable to help.
When a person only has a sledgehammer and the task is to cut glass, they are useless.
We need the proper cognitive and emotional tools to help.
In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter brutally interrogates Clarice until she is able to admit her true motivation for being an FBI agent: Wanting to hear the screams of the lambs end when she goes to bed at night.
I will admit, I go to bed most nights with a smile on my face. And for me, the screams of the lambs never had such an obvious appearance. But I realized, as much as I have often empathized with Lecter, that Clarice’s motivation is much more like my own.
Many of you reading this hear the silent screaming.
I’ve been told by many victims and people in pain that the vast majority of people don’t see their pain, don’t see that something is wrong. I understand why they might think that, but I just don’t think it’s true. We as human beings have an empathic instinct evolved in order to make us viable social animals.
If you hear it, I want you to know: You need not be helpless. You need not sit there and let someone inside their soul scream until they are hoarse. You can make a difference. You can be the person who teaches them that someone is listening and was always listening.
You can send them a message on Facebook and check in on them, telling them you’re always available to talk. You can give them a piece of candy or share some of your sandwich. You can start sharing with them about a shitty part of your day, a technique I call “sitting in the darkness.” You can invite them to a party and a social gathering, and accept it graciously if they say “No.” You can tell them a joke, or sing them a song, or share them a video.
And those of us who are activists, bloggers and writers, we can tell our stories and push toward policies for better mental health, policing, and social liberty and equality that will prevent those pains that cause the screaming in the first place.
I hope for a day when the screaming stops. But it is wholly possible that it’s just impossible for that to occur.
What is possible, though, is for the screaming to stop resonating inside of you like an echo chamber.
It is possible to hear the lambs stop screaming.
And the quest to get there is one of the most rewarding adventures you will ever undertake.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Frederic Christie
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Ben Cumming/Flickr