I was mute once for years–three years to be exact. I had to be stoic as well, if I knew what was good for me.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t physically talk, technically. My mouth could move. Sound could come out. (And I certainly don’t want to disrespect anyone who has no choice in muteness by using the word.) It wasn’t that I was physically unable to smile or laugh. My lips could curve up in the corners, and the intense desire to do so was present.
This wasn’t a depression. It wasn’t a chosen, monastic experience (although after having an extroverted 4-year old, I may choose one). I was simply in the midst of what I call The Dental Debacle.
Yes, I titled it, this phase of my life from late 2002 through 2010. Anything that hangs on for eight years rightfully earns a proud title. The worst of it was the first three years. An annoyingly slow recovery of five years followed. I’ve been in maintenance mode ever since, which means most of the time I don’t suffer but occasionally my face still reminds me who’s boss. And I’m always instinctively measuring my words.
But I skipped the story. So, it’s not that I couldn’t talk or smile or laugh or sing. It’s that if I did, I couldn’t afford the price tag (on par with the sticker shock of shopping in Manhattan after being raised in the Midwest).
Per my vow to never exaggerate my life experiences when I write, it isn’t accurate to say I was 100% mute or stoic. Since my face could function and I couldn’t bear not expressing some kindness or interest (or attitude) most days, I’d risk a few smiles and sentences. (There were exceptions, where I threw caution to the wind, didn’t limit myself and planned to pay, e.g., my wedding. Man did I pay.) Any more gesticulations than that, and sometimes just those paltry few, would lay me up with a neck/jaw pain episode for days.
And by laid up, I mean, I actually have hip damage because I needed to lay my neck up at a 45-degree angle, in one position, on one side, for a day or two, just so, in order to endure it. No drugs worked. Ya’ll know I’m pretty crunchy granola holistic, but I’d have taken the drugs, thank you very much. Nothing touched the pain. Nothing would even take the edge off.
I had on average two of these episodes a week for years. They’ve decreased to about one every month or two. It’s good. It’s enough. I’m grateful. (Although next year might bring experiments in hyperbaric chambers for me. #neverstopsearching)
So if you can say I had a choice, then I chose muteness. I chose to look sad (because my relaxed face isn’t cheerful, doggoneit). I chose to stand with a lifeless face during the singing at church. I chose to stifle laughter. All the good stuff was all happening on my insides–very loudly, very lively–but I dared not let it out, not even through my fingertips. Communicating via computer also brought on a neck pain crisis in Russian roulette fashion. And forget about playing piano, which had been an enormous part of life since age 6, much less picking up a pitcher of water or sweeping the front steps. My neck was done getting along with my arms and head.
The details of my bizarre phenomena are never my point when I write, so I’ll condense eight years down to one (albeit long) sentence. Here you go. A routine tooth refilling eventually turned into trigeminal neuralgia, four root canals, gum surgery (without effective anesthetic), four crown attempts (with gold ones on just long enough to glint in my wedding photos), the extraction of two molars, a tooth implant (with complications galore), a month on baby food and liquids, a damaged bite, jaw and neck vertebrae, all total requiring sixteen dental professionals and about 200 dental and chiropractor visits, etc…and pain. Oh the pain.
I can’t describe this pain, in my teeth, my jaw, my neck, my heart (both figuratively and literally because of tooth abscesses). It was pain without momentary relief for years. Before it was over, I was almost out of hope. Almost.
I think I’m catching onto a theme in my life (maybe even hoping I am, however tough it is to swallow down this particular theme). There’s a category into which most of my significant life experiences fit. And patterns excite me, because I think they reveal callings and destinies. So all this craziness is hopefully my compass to due north on my future life map.
Anyway, here’s my (ridiculous?) motif then: I contract the sorts of ills and conundrums at which professionals, after doing their best, shake their heads and toss up their hands. They announce me a lost (or crazy) cause and pass me along to someone better equipped to help. The more equipped souls try and, most often, shake their heads and toss up their hands. We all end up in a sort of hands-in-the-air dance, just trying to avoid bruised professional egos colliding with my crushed hopes, because that would certainly be an ugly dance none of us wants to do. But for the most part, the blame-and-shame dance isn’t worth dancing, so I bow out of that one. I was dealt my cards. They’re the ones with which I must play the game. And in this case, as in so many different kinds of cases for me, modern dentistry just didn’t have my answers even when they were sure they did. Results speak (and I’ve learned to never bark up a tree that’s not producing fruit).
So, I end up with mysterious problem. Check. I strenuously pursue professional help. Check. Pain and problems increase with therapy. Check. Years and years of waiting follow. Check. But then God whispers and points. The exit door is finally illuminated, most often located directly opposite where most of the experts sent me. And it’s not delayed asking that produces all this waiting. God simply delays until it’s time, until the right resource or person is ready, until I am ready. (I don’t like this modus operandi of the Man Upstairs until hindsight is 20/20, personally. Clearly, I’m always ready yesterday, and His flight must just get delayed.)
I must say that normally I don’t have trouble writing about the tough stuff in my life. I’m usually very clear about what pearl I’ve extracted from which mucky oyster and can chat about it just as easily as what I ate for breakfast. Once a scar has healed right, you can touch it without going through the roof. But this Debacle is different.
I still cringe a little. Maybe it’s because some people did unwittingly cause me some of the worst pain of my life, some of which still remains, some of which could’ve been avoided had they listened and been humble or had I been more confident and not submitted unwisely. Maybe it’s because I’m not absolutely sure I learned all I was supposed to learn. Maybe I don’t feel I’ve fully yanked the silver lining down off this storm cloud that still circles back around ocassionally. Maybe a sort of solitary confinement, where you still exist but can’t fully engage, is just a difficult memory, period.
Yet somehow I remember that intense time period in my life with some fondness, so I trust my character was forged, whether or not I can express it perfectly here. But the following are a few things I do now know because of my mute years:
Almost out of hope isn’t out of hope. A teeny tiny morsel of hope placed in the right Hands is enough. Mustard seeds do move mountains. The hope of one foot placed in front of the other, and a mutely prayed prayer, is enough.
People mean well, and God uses people to help us sometimes–sometimes–but people aren’t enough. And the more unusual the circumstance, the number of people there are to rely on falls off exponentially. Let them off the hook, and don’t panic. (You’ll SO want to panic. You’ll BE panicking when you desparately need help. Decide not to panic anyway, even in the middle of accidentally panicking again and trying to keep them on the hook. There’s an alternative to people.)
Alternative: A lot of good comes from the noise of the world being shushed. Being alone with God for a long desert season is the hardest good thing there is. Sometimes He wants to teach you some uncommon knowledge that people will undo if they’ve got your ear and confidence. Every human is of imperfect character and doesn’t really know what in the world they’re doing in some way, shape or form either, just like you and me, so nobody can be promoted to savior status.
Hey, it’s an extreme example, and I’m not saying it’s our guaranteed fate in similar circumstances, but King Asa got in trouble (he died) because he only asked for a doctor’s help when he got ill (2 Chronicles 16; 12-13). He never asked God. Doctors can be great. But put the Physician before physicians.
These past few months, I almost became mute again, in a way. I almost let two disparaging remarks about my writing shut me up. Out of all the feedback and love, I almost let two people undo me. Two! How, well, stupid was that? I also didn’t write during that time because life pressed in and really needed me. But I realized I chose, too, to silence myself just because the put-downs hurt.
But what hurts more: letting people have their opinions or losing my voice again? This is a no-brainer. Come on, Carolyn. Learn from living.
So hello there. Here I am again. I most definitely won’t choose to be mute (although anyone at all is certainly entitled to wish I were!). Who among us is exempt from a bit of dislike here and there, and is it really so devastating? There are legitimate causes to shut down a voice box and surrender a smile. Hearing from a few harsh critics isn’t one of them.
On the other hand, if the All-Knowing Teacher leans in super close and whispers,”Quiet down, because it’s you and me for a while again, kid,” then I’ll urgently find me some duct tape. Otherwise, no thanks. Once silenced was enough for me.
With Hope and Heart in Hand,
Though only a brief glimpse of your life, that is an amazing story. You are an excellent writer. There will always be those who are out to hurt us and tear us down. Don’t let them silence you. Keep your head up and remain strong in your faith.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
James 1:2-4 NIV