Why We Stay Silent

Why do we stay silent about so many facets of our lives?

We are a society cloaked in shame, fearing stigma and judgment that we don’t always recognize as false, wary of voicing concerns over what might be considered taboo.

We can say it isn’t really our fault, I guess. Years of fear of the unknown, misinformation, and silence have led us to this point. But even if it is not our fault, still it is our responsibility to pull ourselves out from beneath the proverbial rug under which we’ve been swept — if not for a person’s own sake, then for the sake of all those hiding nearby. We may not know these others are there, but I assure you, they are there. It’s a pretty big rug. And chances are, they are the people living right next door to you.

To frame the topic using another metaphor: the elephant in the room. Whichever elephant of your choosing.

In an earlier column, I had dubbed Carrie Fisher a mental health warrior — a title to which I still stick, despite a drug overdose ending a lifelong battle with mental illness and substance abuse. In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair, she hit the nail on the head when she said:

“If you claim something, you can own it. But if you have it as a shameful secret, you’re [screwed]; you’re sitting in a room populated by elephants. I have a lot of elephants to kill. But I also have a lot to be grateful for.”

So, let’s talk about elephants. And let’s talk about why they’re in the room in the first place. They are in the room because of four words stated above: taboo, shame, judgment, and stigma.

In the interest of time and allotted word count, I’ll boil down the multiple definitions and synonyms of these words to the following connotations: banned, forbidden, dishonorable, improper, blame, social disgrace, infamy, blemish, tarnish, scar.

With words like that, why would anyone talk about anything at all? But I think we should talk, because the only way to progress is through communication. It has been this way since the Stone Age. But 10,000 years later, communication shouldn’t be as difficult as chiseling stone. That’s why I used a much quicker mode of communication.

“What topics do people not talk about due to stigma/taboo/shame?”

I posted this on Facebook and waited for someone to bite. Within the first two hours, 30+ topics were brought up either on my post or in private messages. Here’s the bulk of it:

Listed under the mental illness/wellness category were eating disorders, substance abuse, seeing a mental health professional, taking psychiatric medication, family history of mental illness, and suicide. Disordered eating was singled out as a problem within the Jewish community, specifically in how excess focus on food at the center of our culture combines with extreme pressure to look a certain way.

Postpartum depression was a crossover topic, under both the mental health and women’s health umbrellas. Other women’s topics included miscarriage, infant pregnancy loss, infertility, single women deciding to get pregnant on their own, and — quite relevant to the Jewish community in light of the positive commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply” — deciding not to have children.

Physical/chronic illness was listed as something people don’t talk about for fear of looking weak or incapable, or for fear of judgment about how a person is taking care of his or her illness. One comment took it a step further — that parents tend to consider mental and physical illness when their children are dating, out of concern for how illness might affect future offspring.

Other topics: Learning disabilities in kids. Failure to “do it all.” Relationship dysfunction and divorce. Issues of violence, including domestic violence, spousal abuse, child abuse, incest, rape, and bullying.

A multitude of sexual topics were listed as taboo, especially within the Jewish community, including sexual dysfunction, sexual orientation and homosexuality, internalized homophobia, sexual misconduct in the dating world, and anything related to either premarital or marital sex. One person noted that since the general Orthodox and modern Orthodox communities are more insular and self-contained, many parents choose not to expose their children to issues of sexuality that are outside the community norm.

Issues of halachic observance also were mentioned. People’s public observance versus private lack thereof. Converts who don’t feel fully accepted. When one partner wants to take on more and the other less. Kids going “off the derech.” Intermarriage within the family.

One person had a valid argument, saying that among all these topics there is a difference between avoiding it as taboo and just not wanting to bring up an emotional experience in a casual environment. Another person noted that many of these topics are talked about, but none of them enough, and that often we speak about them with such judgment, not looking to learn, grow, or help.

One comment towards the end of the thread was particularly insightful:

“In certain respects, I see the closeness of our community as a bit of our undoing. People feel such pressure to exude perfection. Whether it’s their children’s academics or extracurriculars, or their finances, or their marriages, or their religious observance, or their community involvement — that pain, stress, pressure, and other aspects of ‘real life’ are kept quiet or suppressed. To me, the solution starts with those brave few who get up and are open about their imperfections, and slowly, over time, we as a community realize that we are more alike in our imperfections than we may have initially thought.”

And there it is again, one simple word: communication.

Among all the topics, there was one answer that struck a chord: “loneliness”

Maybe the comment was meant as an expression of the state or feeling of loneliness in and of itself. That’s something with which I, too, can identify. But the answer took on another meaning for me, as well, one that, in a way, was the joining factor of every single other comment posted.

When we truly believe we are alone in our struggles, it seems as though there is no one to whom we can reach out. But the truth is, in reality, we are very far from being alone. Thirty plus separate topics listed on my Facebook wall within two hours of posing my question say something different. They say that there are many elephants in the room. They say that a countless number of people feel trapped under a rug so wide that I’m not sure where it actually ends.

It’s a serious question, because it’s muffling us. Where does the rug end?

And so I wonder if there is some way to lift up this huge rug that cloaks us with taboo, shame, stigma, and judgment. I wonder if we can find a safe space to communicate about these topics in a format that lies somewhere between chiseled stone and bits of ether. Maybe that safe space can one day be face to face. I sure hope so.

About the Author
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck, New Jersey, whose work has focused primarily on psychiatry, mental health, and the book publishing industry. She is the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. More information about the organization and its support groups can be found at www.refaenu.org. You also can email dena@refaenu.org with any questions or comments.
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