It was my freshman year in college. There I was, sitting at a table in the dining hall with four other people. The other students animatedly told stories and cracked jokes. I envied how words seemed to come so easily for them. It was as if they never ran out of things to say.
There came a lull in conversation. Everyone turned toward me and stared. “You hardly ever say anything!” someone quipped. My palms were suddenly sticky, and my heart and face were behaving as if I were running a 5K race. They waited. Now was the time to say something brilliant.
“I … just. I …. don’t … I can never think of anything to say,” I stammered.
In reality, I thought of lots of things to say on a regular basis. Inside my mind, there was always a lively conversation going on. In that safe inner space, I told jokes and I imagined people laughing at them. I gave speeches that were followed by applause.
In my own mind, I was the center of attention.
But, whenever I thought about sharing those stories with others, I edited my words until all I had left was a blank mental page. My words and sentences seemed too silly, too inconsequential, too unworthy. I deleted them before they ever came out of my mouth.
Before college, I’d been teased for being an “air head” and for having “no common sense.” I’d been told this so much that I believed it. During high school, I wore the “airhead” label as if it were my daily uniform.
Then I went to college hours away, in a town where no one knew me. If I chose my words carefully, no one would ever have to know about me being an airhead. I could start over. I could hide my weakness.
So I remained nearly mute, and it took a lot of coaxing or a great deal of alcohol to change that. Rather than wear the uniform of the air-headed girl, I began wearing the garb of the shy journalism major.
When I graduated and became a newspaper reporter, I learned how to keep a conversation going not by talking, but by listening. Mostly, I interviewed people: What do you love about what you do for a living? What do you hate about it? What are your hobbies? What do you love about them? I noticed that you always seem to wear purple. What is it about purple that you love so much?
It didn’t take much for someone to open up. All I had to do was ask a question and wait for the answer. Once I heard the answer, I found a way to ask another question based on what I had just heard. It was wonderful. I loved it because I never had to reveal anything about myself, and the people I interviewed loved it because attention is more addictive than any mood-elevating drug. It makes people feel seen, heard, appreciated, and loved. When you listen, you are saying, “You are important. You are interesting. You matter.”
But there was a downside. The people in my life grew to love me, but they didn’t truly know me. As a result, they projected themselves onto me. They assumed I loved the things that they loved and hated the things they hated. It was disconcerting to, during a conversation, be told, “Oh, you love romantic comedies, so you’ll definitely love …” People: I would rather clean the port-o-lets in the tailgating area of a huge bowl game than watch a romantic comedy. Just so you know.
Because I felt safe with him, I did talk to my husband. I told him about my fears and annoyances. I cracked jokes and told stories. During the early years of our marriage, he got to experience the unedited Alisa. In our marriage, he was the quiet one, and I was the loud one.
But then we went and had a baby, and that baby developed colic, then extreme separation anxiety, then many different colds and GI illnesses. By the time that baby was 1 year old, I felt as if I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since the day I’d been born. Fatigue became a vicious thief who stole my sentences. My questions became empty. There were times when I’d ask “how was your day?” and find myself walking away even as my husband was answering.
As a result, he said less and less. Because it was harder and harder to get a response, I began asking fewer and fewer questions. Our marriage settled into a painful silence. When we’d go out to dinner on a rare date night, I’d be overcome with a sense of gloom. I had no idea how to start a conversation with the man I’d married. I’d look around at other animated couples in the restaurant and I’d think, “Why can’t we be more like them?”
A few years went by. I became more rested. I also prioritized my marriage, and I worked on my ability to converse. At first, I leaned on my tried and true interviewing technique, asking him about aspects of his behavior that had always perplexed me: Why do you turn up the volume at the start of a Formula One car race? Why do you love the Tour de France? What do you and your friends talk about when you go out for a beer? These initial conversations were stilted. It was as if he suspected I were setting a trap, gathering intel to use against him during our next argument. He kept his answers short, often to just a few words. Sometimes I only got a grunt.
To help him feel safe, I made an effort to be warmer, more engaging, and more accepting. And I pushed myself to reveal more about myself. I tried to tell one story each evening, something about my day that I thought he’d enjoy knowing. Sometimes the story was tragic, such as the time I witnessed a car accident involving a pedestrian mother and her toddler. Other times it was funny or just plain weird.
Over time, we grew closer. Soon I was allowing myself to be the brunt of a family joke. “What exactly is YouTube?” I asked one day, even though I knew I was probably the last person in the world to find out about it. That fear of ridicule — the fear that dated all the way back to childhood — swirled and coalesced and tried to convince me that I would just die if he laughed at my stupidity. He did laugh, but I didn’t die. Instead, I laughed with him, and then he showed me the best videos on YouTube.
My husband loved me. When he looked at me, he saw a smart, resourceful woman who, every once in a while, was brave enough to share an inner weakness. He didn’t see Alisa the Airhead. He saw Alisa the Honor Student with a Big Heart.
It was then that I realized that those kids who’d teased me back during my teenage years had been as insecure as I’d been. Some of them were envious, teasing me in an attempt to make themselves feel better. Others were just responding to peer pressure. Their teasing made me self-conscious, and that self-consciousness led to a case of nerves. The nerves caused me to say stupid things, and those stupid things caused the kids to tease me even more.
My words are worthy. They always have been. They are the gift I offer to people I respect and love. They lift people up and make sad people smile. They bring comfort. They are cake for the jubilant and medicine for the wounded.
When seen as a gift, words flow like water out of a faucet. Yes, there are still moments when I’m in the middle of a story and my inner shy girl says, “Why are you talking so much?” My face feels a little hot and maybe my palms sweat some, too. For a moment, I can feel those mean-spirited teens yelling snarky quips. But then I remind myself that I am no longer a teen, and I am not surrounded by envious adolescents with low self-esteem, either.
I’m a grownup who is talking to people who are listening because they want to hear what I have to say.
Most of all, I remind myself that words are not about me, and they are not for me, either. They are about and for others. They are not mine. They are yours. Then I take a deep breath, and I offer another sentence to the world.
Read more of Alisa’s writing at ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com.