Words that Heal

“Words that Heal”

Here is a slightly embarrassing story about me that my mother likes to tell: when I was two years old, she took me in to see our family doctor. While doing his routine checkup, he asked her if I was putting together two word phrases, like “Milk please.” Before she could answer, apparently, I asked the doctor, “Can I see your stethoscope?”

Words have always mattered a great deal to me, which is why, in some respects, it seems natural, possibly inevitable, that I majored in English and later became an English professor. Words get stuck in my head, sometimes just because I like their sound. It’s like having a popcorn kernel stuck in your teeth. My mind plays that word over and over and over again, tracing all of its little bumps and ridges. Stethoscope. STETH o scope.

Here is another slightly embarrassing fact—related to the first—about me: some of my earliest memories are of worrying incessantly.

I come from a great family of worriers. My mother worries, my grandmother worries. We’re good worrying stock. As a young child, I thought it was normal to lay awake for hours at night, gripped with fear about things that were far beyond one’s control. I recall, for instance, learning about an invasive species of snake somewhere in the Pacific—let’s say Guam. What were they going to do about all those snakes? They were killing all the birds! This fear wasn’t the idle sort, the kind that is really more akin to curiosity than true fear. What I felt about those snakes in Guam is the gut-twisting, bowel-punching fear that, evolutionarily speaking, is supposed to make you jump back from the rattlesnake hissing at your feet.

My natural aptitude for worrying went through something like boot camp in my early adolescence, when a string of bullies made me begin to hate—to hate my body, to hate my ethnicity, to hate most of all my weakness, my inability to stand up for myself. By then, I knew it wasn’t normal to curl up into a ball in the back of the school bus and spend the entire trip praying no one would speak to me; even worse, I had allowed myself to believe that somehow I deserved it, that it was my fault. The words that got stuck in my head then were not good words. Not chocolate words to roll around on your tongue, but acrid, astringent words that choked my throat as I swallowed them down.

If you’ve never had the particular pleasure of anxiety—which is the term a string of therapists I eventually turned to insisted on using, no matter how hard I argued against them—it’s like having Donald Trump’s Twitter feed running on repeat in your brain, spewing poisonous, terrifying words—way worse than “crooked Hilary.” Like a Trumpian tirade, anxiety is also based on some set of “alternative facts” that have only the most tenuous grasp on reality. The worst thing is that you believe it.

Words were a symptom of my illness, and they were equally a sign of my cure. First through poetry, where I rekindled my love of language, spending hours obsessively writing and rewriting each poem—no joke, 30, 40 drafts easy—before it was right. I eventually worked up the courage to read my poetry in front of people, and late night coffee houses became my first church, my first glimmer of psychic salvation. People said they liked my poems, and I secretly started to believe it might be possible for me to like myself. Later, in college, a beautiful girl said she loved me—she used those words!—and I loved her, and I told her, too, and years later we said two other short, powerful words to each other—“I do”—and those words healed me, too, more than any poem.

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