Anyone being consumed by their pain and suffering will understand the need to be heard, the need to have their feelings acknowledged and validated, to know that they are not alone in the swirling chaos of their rage, grief and fears, which we mask behind our smile as we make our way through the world.
Yet, paradoxically, it seems the hardest thing to do at times; to give voice to our struggles, our feelings, our fleeting moments of madness for fear of being judged, ashamed and embarrassed by our imperfections. And so, we remain trapped in those silent screams, continually feeding our deepest fears about ourselves; that we are not worthy, berating ourselves and internalising our trauma.
But when we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story begins to tell us. We develop symptoms, habits- addictions even, behaviours that we don’t understand, the truth of our pain working its way to the surface through any means possible, giving expression to the silent scream inside. I know. I’ve been there. I masked the shame of my own childhood sexual abuse, communicating my trauma through self -destructive behaviours, living in fear of judgement, my self- worth non-existent.
Anorexia and self- harm became a physical demonstration of the trauma I could not vocalise, and I spent much of my youth in and out of psychiatric treatment. The years passed by and I lived safely within my anorexia blanket, away from my abuser. Until one day, just after sitting my GCSE exams, I found myself uncontrollably gorging on food, driven by an overpowering compulsion over which I felt I had no control. I was confused. I panicked. I quickly took myself off to the bathroom to do the only thing I could to gain back some of that control and safety. I purged. Repeatedly and violently until I felt empty again. Relieved, I went to bed and hoped to put the whole episode behind me. And I did. At least for a while.
But those uncontrollable urges to eat came back. Stronger than ever. I know now that it is common for anorexia sufferers to develop bulimia; the brains survival instinct driving us to seek out large amounts of food to end the famine it has been in for so long. I didn't understand that back then. I was scared and mortified by my complete lack of control. As my weight went up, my security disappeared. To the outside world I was healed; I didn't look fragile anymore. But my mind certainly was. I was wrapped in shame, unable to give voice to my truth; that I was painfully and uncontrollably bingeing multiple times a day and despite my best efforts to purge, my weight had increased. Once again, I felt myself trapped by my silent screams, my voice taken hostage by my fear of judgement, unable to seek the help and support of others, attached to my pride and manipulated by my ego.
My life became ruled by bulimia. Food dominated every moment of my life. An ‘A’ grade student, my school attendance began to drop off. My self-worth deteriorated further. I longed for someone to notice me, that by some sense of telepathic communication, somebody somewhere would reach in and lift me out of my darkness. It was a familiar feeling; I’d longed for someone to notice my abuse, waiting for someone to reach in and save me. But they didn’t. I questioned- why? Why was I so unnoticeable? Why did no one care enough about me to notice the subtle signals that I was self-destructing? Parents, teachers… no one questioned my sudden ‘recovery’ from anorexia or the fact I was skipping classes during my final year of A levels. My self-worth plummeted to a new low.
I began to have flashbacks of my abuse, triggering dormant feelings of anger. An inferno of rage grew inside of me; I was angry at my abuser, my family for just 'not knowing' and angry at myself for being disgusting, worthless and messy- all the things the perfectionist in me despised. I screamed and raged inside, unable to carry this on my own anymore but not able to offload the weight of my burden either. My mind turned to thoughts of self-punishment- I didn’t deserve to live. And I didn’t want to either. Not like this. I couldn’t starve myself out of existence anymore- that vehicle had long failed me. I wanted to make the cut deep but I only managed superficial scratches. It was enough though, to give me some temporary relief and comfort.
I managed to finish my A levels, gained a degree and PGCE in secondary English, all the while secretly pursuing these types of self- destructive behaviours as my coping mechanism. I spent many hours reading, researching and exploring different types of treatment; counselling, hypnotherapy, reiki… Over time I took some control over my bulimia and stopped the self-harming altogether. I got my first teaching job in London and quickly realised from that the kids we label as ‘naughty’- you know, the disruptive ones, the ones that refuse to conform and obey- were not really naughty at all; they were wounded children, crying out for love and attention, in desperate need to be noticed and having their needs met. It concerned me that not enough was being done to reach out to these kids and address the source of this issue. Although I was able to support the kids coming through my classroom, I felt powerless to address the wider issue at large, squashed by the system, my voice once again unheard and unnoticed.
When I got married and had my first child, I stopped teaching and decided to be a stay-at-home Mum, to give my children the time and attention I felt they deserved. I had four children in four years, with miscarriages in between, so life was busy and scattered with many highs and lows. My relationship with my husband became strained- he worked many hours and I was raising four young children by myself. My old narrative returned; he doesn’t come home because he doesn’t love you- you are un-loveable and unworthy after all. We clashed over his lack of support at home and the time he spent away. I told him his behaviour was damaging me, driving me to feel inadequate and triggering all those old feelings and desires to self-destruct. I knew that if I was to ever really help him to understand my behaviours, I would have to remove the plaster behind which I still hid my pain and reveal the wound for him to see, so that I could step out of my fear of judgement once and for all, and really and truly begin to heal.
I wrote a short autobiographical excerpt, detailing the rawness of my experiences to him. And it changed the dynamics of our relationship; I was no longer the inferior one, hiding in a secret. He was then able to explore the reasons behind his own behaviours and with both our cards laid on the table, we were now equal. For the first time, in a long time, I felt my self-worth really begin to grow. My thoughts began to wonder how many people there must be out there like me, screaming away inside but not talking about it because of fear of what people might think, so I decided to send my excerpt to my family and friends, knowing that if I wanted to find out who I really was, behind the masks and the shame, I had to expose the truth. To everyone. I felt incredibly vulnerable. Fearful. But most of all, I felt liberated. And in my vulnerability, I found others were willing to do the same. People came forward to speak to me about their own silent screams and quite quickly I found myself amidst a community of courageous people exposing their wounds, not just for their own healing, but for that of others. And so, The Silent Scream was born.
My constricted shame-based sense of who I was kept me trapped in a cycle of self- sabotaging behaviours for many years, which impacted both my physical and emotional wellbeing, until the point of suicidal ideation. My world became so small and restricted, with so many sets of rules I had to follow just to try and make it through the day. I thought those rules kept me safe but now I see they only served to imprison me and keep me detached from my authentic self.
My emotions were controlling me; fear underpinning everything I did in life. I realised that if I wanted to ever truly be free, I would have to change the very foundations on which I had built my concept of self. Becoming conscious of the reasons that drive our behaviours is never easy. It means going inwards, to explore our wounds. It is uncomfortable, chaotic and messy. But it is necessary for our healing to unravel the layers of our suffering and delve into our life experiences and the parental and social conditioning keeping us trapped in our fear. We need to learn to move beyond socially accepted norms. My journey of self- discovery started only when I learned to reconnect with myself and stop rejecting those parts of me that I deemed not worthy because of my acclimatisation to the external rather than the internal.
So, let’s reconnect with ourselves and each other; we’ve all journeyed at some point to that dark place. We all share in the vulnerability of the human condition. We just don’t talk about it, but we need to talk about it, so that we can navigate our way out of the shadows and step into ALL of who we are meant to be. Let’s give voice to our silent screams; the screams that consume us when not channelled and released; let’s release them into the world as part of our healing, so that we can grow, and others can know that they are not alone in their fears. Let’s learn to hear the cries of others and meet them with understanding and compassion instead of judgement.
If together we feel, together we heal.
To tell your story get in touch.
Maria Alfieri - October 2018