I’m in the place where words can’t reach me. I come here sometimes. When words become superfluous I return to the room with no windows and I close the door. It is underground and smells of must. It’s dark and cold and moldy. I’m allergic to it all. I cannot hear when I am told it will get better. In the dark room of the sad place, do not try to speak to me; I cannot hear your words. All I have are my words— thinking and formatting, refining and revising, re-envisioning and renegotiating, restating and rephrasing. I am a lackluster lexicon, slipshod syntax, dilapidated diction; a selection of sounds seeking to share, to explain, to release. My words crash inside my skull like bumper cars. The why’s, the what if’s, the how come’s? They slam from my frontal bone to my parietal, from my occipital bone to my temporal, thrashing through my amygdala, tearing across Broca’s area, hacking up my hippocampus. The words don’t stop, even when I can’t remember why I think them.
When I try to avoid my words I take a walk and listen to someone else’s. I plug my ears with AirPods and crank the volume and move my legs and listen. I then try to think my words over the words on the recording. I turn it up and rewind. I listen to Glennon Doyle tell me to sink. She tells me to “be still and know.” I still avoid the stillness. I listen to Brené Brown implore me to leap into the arena. She tells me I’m no happier sitting safely on the sidelines. If the stands were safe I wouldn’t have so many silent words. I listen to Elizabeth Gilbert tell me what makes a magic life, to chase curiosity, to release the myth of passion. I listen as all of these women tell me to write my words. You’re a writer, they whisper into the mic. You wouldn’t think you were if you weren’t. Sometimes I scoff, but mostly I cry. If that were true, I’d do something with all these words. Glennon tells me to stop asking people for directions to places they have never been. I don’t listen and ask everyone for directions to everywhere. This does not make sense, though, because I’ve been here before.
I don’t know how I get here. The trail is dusty and fuzzy and hazy. There was once grass, but nothing is green. Everything is brown and muted and dim. The mangled trees are bare and line a dry copper path that twists and turns for miles. There is nothing but smog in the distance. This is the road to the wordless place.
In the place where words can’t reach me I still have my words but they’ve lost their shine. They’re dusty and dull like the road. They feel cumbersome and hollow. They are tired. My words feel heavier here. Like they’ve been marching in the same formation for so long they’ve forgotten how to move any other way. Like they’ve been saying the same things for so long they don’t know what else to say. They bump and bounce and tease that I will always end up back here, in the place where I cannot be reached. The words tell me I’m unworthy. They say I’m unlovable. I won’t hear you say the opposite, don’t bother using your words with me here.
I know this is not true, that I am not unworthy of love. When the door is open I smile wide and laugh loud and take up space. In the world where words can reach me I believe you when you tell me you love me, when you say that you care. Words mean something to me. Words of affirmation, congratulations, words that seek to speak what the soul searches to say— words are the most magical thing humans have made. Animals have been found to use sound and gesture to communicate— to ask, to respond, to warn. Like us, animals have signals. Unlike animals, we have words. The creation and utilization of language is our magnum opus, though it doesn’t seem to be helping me now.
In high school, I took an anthropology class that introduced linguistics. I found this to be so interesting that I signed up for a linguistics course in college. I learned all about morphemes and phonemes, glottal sounds, and vocal fries. I soon abandoned linguistics and earned my B.A. in English, with a minor in anthropology. It turns out I care much more about why we use words than how we use them. We use our words to write our stories, to share our stories. We use words to connect, to inform, to implore. We use words to bridge the gaps that separate us, break the binds that hold us, to reframe what defines us. I got my M.F.A. in creative writing to better use my words, to help people find and make sense of theirs. But my words are still so tired. They feel so hollow and brown.
Sitting in a writer’s workshop on a coastal Connecticut island, my classmates discussed their ticks as writers, what their essays kept returning to: the color pink, the Pacific Northwest, a preoccupation with sleep. I flippantly teased that I don’t have one, as I tore open my third teabag of the hour. I collected my manuscript in my hands and tapped the dented pages down on the desk in an attempt to make them uniform. Ana Maria, a real writer, looked at me warmly and earnestly. “It’s your family,” she said. “You always go back to that.”
I recently learned that analyzing trauma is a trauma response. That it’s too many layers of words away from the actual trauma. In my case, using words to talk about the wounds that break me doesn’t heal, it only deepens the fracture. I use words to disconnect, to disembody, to deploy my awareness from the present. How wild that words can be a shiny invitation to dissociate, no matter how brown they feel.
I was recently on a call with a spiritual life coach and he told me I didn’t think myself into trauma. The feelings made the wounds. No one can make you feel anything. The stories I built around the feelings are what bump and rattle in my brain. I can’t think myself out of trauma because I didn’t think myself into it. I’ve thought myself out of the feelings. I now have to feel myself out of the thoughts.
In the place where words can’t reach me, I see in movies: images, clips, feelings, and sounds. I am paralyzed inside a trauma montage of brick walls and squeaky swings. Stuck on a loop of dead brothers and absent mothers. And then the trauma show unfurls and lays out flashes of high school and college and grad school and post-grad. Spurts of self-harm, self-loathing, of sexual assault.
I had a therapist explain the “window of tolerance,” which is the space on the emotional spectrum where most emotionally stable people live. Unprocessed trauma triggers a response outside the window of tolerance. Well-adjusted people function closer towards 1 and when they’re met with challenge and struggle they fall somewhere towards the middle of the spectrum. They raise their voices. They slam a door. My therapist told me I live at a 7. It takes very little to propel me off the chart, out the window, onto the path to the place where words can’t reach.
I tried EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, which is meant to lessen the reaction to trauma events stored in the brain. My therapist placed a vibrating device she called a bilateral in each of my hands and they alternated pulsing while I let my mind wander through my trauma movie montage. She told me I had to submit, to give over to the memories, to feel the feelings. She would periodically pause the bilateral vibrations and ask me to describe the scene I was in. I wondered if she was analyzing what I saw, because I am story-driven and analysis prone and my words are all I have. I later discovered she was listening not for what I said, but how I sounded. For cracks in my voice, some form of strain, of pain, of emotional unrest. She told me it wasn’t working because I wasn’t feeling. I was too busy thinking and waiting for words.
In the place where words can’t reach me I feel like I could blow away. I feel like I need to be cemented into the floor, strapped down to my bed, nailed into the wall. I feel a void so deep and wide and empty in my chest even air refuses to stay. I feel a chill so sharp and cold and biting I may never be warm again. Under four blankets, a quilt, and two comforters, I shake to the music of my montage. I tell you I want to crawl into your skin, but even that wouldn’t be close enough. I think: I want to climb inside you. I want our bones to fuse and our blood to merge. I want to feel the fullness of two people in one body, filling the void of air and heart and breath. I want to fit so tightly there isn’t space to move, there is hardly room to breathe. I want to feel only your heartbeat as my body becomes yours and I disappear. I want to be so close I cease to exist. Once we are fused, and right before I’m gone, I want my words to drip from our ears, leaving nothing but the sound of silence, which really sounds more like vibrating and beeping and ringing. Which really sounds like all the things I cannot say. But I won’t need to say them anymore— they’ll have already been inside our ears and fallen out. We don’t need my words because we are just the feeling of tight arms and warm skin. We will smell of vanilla and shampoo and detergent. It will no be longer silent. All we will hear is the sound of your strong and steady heartbeat guiding us closer to the feeling of home.
Spiritual teachings tell me separation is an illusion. That we are all one. That we are all connected. That the only thing that isolates me is my perception. Perception is projection. I project my trauma movies on the big screen. My words are married to this story. My words are so tired.
In the place where words can’t reach me, I feel unlovable. Those words are tired, too. I feel stuck floating in the montage, drowning in my illusions of abandonment, and I can’t hear that you love me, but I can hear your heartbeat. I can smell your detergent. I can’t crush my bones into yours, but I can feel your collarbone underneath my cheek, and your hand on my side. I can feel your arms wrapped around my chest and your deep inhale, then exhale. I can feel you bringing me home. I can’t be talked out of the place where words can’t reach me. I can only feel the warmth of your body and follow where you lead.
When I am alone, I lie on my stomach and wrap my arms around a pillow so tightly I wake up sore. I crush myself under a 25 pound weighted blanket. I sometimes pile pillows over my head. I seek to fill the space around me to shrink the space inside me. How ironic that my body craves to be crushed the way my heart has felt. So ironic that even now I attempt to use words to convey the wordlessness.
Spiritual teachings tell me we are all just walking each other home. That we are perpetually, simultaneously alone on our journeys and one with humanity— there is no separation. We all have the words. We all are the words.
My words aren’t serving me anymore. They are too tired and too brown. The stories are mechanical. They take off and land in Alaska. It’s dark all the time. Perhaps to resuscitate the words, I must be wordless. To connect with humanity, I must disconnect from story. The stories I’ve been telling myself don’t allow for stillness. The stories I tell myself have me asking for directions to a path I know.
I cry the most in the place where words can’t reach me. I try to explain why, but my words don’t reach outside the door. The movie keeps playing. Sometimes I submit. Often I just squeeze myself, breathing in my lotion, feeling my brain bump and my heart pound and my tears run. Feeling my body feel, while I wait for my words to be reached and for the story to change. Feeling the feelings I use my words to think away. Feeling my way towards a new story with words that shine.