I do not find lack of conversation confronting when with another, and am quite happy to share silence with a friend – but silence at a distance, lack of reciprocal communication – especially if it is allied with some form of falling-out or blame – turns me to petrified stone.
It is terribly hard for me to cope at such times – which is why I am trying to face up to it.
Punitive silence is, as I have said many times before, a particularly effective and damaging form of control. It breeds a really sad and disturbing, though predictable, offspring: looking around, in frantic haste, to find areas of transgression; trying desperately to apologise for whatever it is that has caused the punishment this time – and, always, this absolute horror, even when the lack of communication has no basis in hostility, of having done something wrong.
I am used to being told that I am at fault – in everything. I am used to being asked, ‘What have you done now?’ in so many words. I am used to apologising and being punished. I am used to people turning their backs on me for ‘crimes’ real or invented.
But, most sinister and sorrowful of all, I am accustomed to taking the blame for other people’s abuse; I am used to being told I have deserved or provoked it – that standing up for myself and saying, ‘No…’ is an inherently hostile, and therefore punishable, act.
Let me share a typical example of an interaction that can set this cycle off: whenever I have to stand up to a dominant person, or in any way assert my own boundaries – and significant silence, whether deliberate or not, follows my show of courage.
Under such circumstances, I very speedily become frantic with pain and terror. Even though the adult self knows that standing up for my boundaries was the correct thing to do, the insecure little girl is desperate to grovel her way back into favour, to apologise (even though she was not at fault), to open communication once more by any means (because the silence is so hurtful and confronting).
But – to grovel for what? To apologise for what? Why should I do either? What my little child is suggesting is highly inappropriate. To grovel for being hurt? What the fuck?! To apologise for standing up for myself? What the fuck times twenty?!
I will typically start saying to myself, ‘Am I not even worth a text? An email? A phone call? What have I done to offend or upset Person A?’ and feeling so frightened and frozen that I can barely think.
This is the way I have been trained to respond. This is the direct effect of the Weapon of Silence applied with a vicious swish round the back of my mind time and time again. This is my Achilles Heel. This is what can bring on a panic attack almost immediately.
So now I am facing this monster of the mind too. I am not expecting to overcome it, not immediately. But I am hoping that, by looking at it, I will, eventually, be able to see it reducing in size, potency and menace.
My problem is this: trust. How, after an extended punitive regime, can I know that a silence is benign? How can I let go of my frantic need to apologise just in case I have done something wrong?
How, in a word, can I tell the difference between genuine busyness in life and malignant ignoring?