KidSpirit

My Grandmother and I: What Is the Effect of Silence?

SilenceThe Big Question
Artwork by: Keesha Joseph, age 16

My grandmother means well, and I know that; I've always known that.

She has taken care of me and my siblings since we were babies. Before quarantine, she would commute every day from New Jersey to Manhattan to clean our apartment and accompany us. And though she loves me and my siblings equally, she and I have always had a special connection. She tells me everything, from our family drama to her childhood stories, and that's how I've learned all about her. Her stories are fairly consistent, not necessarily in their context, but in their themes, those being her respect, generosity, and kindness for others, but also her guilt, shame for all the things she regrets doing, or how she could have been better. As a little girl hearing these stories, I internalized most of what she told me, which meant being kind to others while not allowing myself any of that kindness.

Growing up, I always felt big. I was the tallest in my class from kindergarten to third grade, and I was overweight until high school. I felt like I took up a lot of space. I was not fond of that feeling at all, so I tried to minimize myself as much as possible using the unsolicited advice I had constantly received from my grandmother. The words that came to mind were, "Don't smile with your teeth," "Never wear any shoes with a platform," "Only wear black and baggy clothes." This may have helped reduce my anxiety around my physical appearance, but I still felt I took up too much space. When there was no longer anything left that I could adjust about my outer self, I started to change my behavior. I was always a quiet kid, but I went even further into my shell, no longer talking in class at all and being less social with my friends. I found comfort in silence; it was safe, no one could judge my contributions because there weren't any to judge, and best of all, I couldn't judge myself for anything I said (I tend to be my harshest critic).

This silence protected me from the shame I felt from speaking, but what I failed to recognize was that it also gave me more time to think and analyze every other thing I thought I was doing wrong. I became even more hyper-focused on what I looked like, my grades, if I was a good enough friend. In the quiet, I lost touch with my reality. I got caught in my judgments, unable to escape them, and it felt like every day I was adding to an ever-growing list of things I disliked about myself.

My self-consciousness reached its height at the beginning of my high school career. My new school was a lot tougher, and I couldn't keep flying under the radar in class because my grades were suffering. It was also up to me to make new friends, so I had to try and be a little outgoing. I did speak up a bit, but I couldn't push myself to change drastically. My grades went up but not as much as I wanted them to, and I made a few friends but wasn't close with them because I didn't make much effort. I felt a bit defeated and overwhelmed in my new educational environment. I turned to my outer appearance, something I had been struggling with my whole life, as a means to control my life.

That year I struggled a lot, and although I spoke up a bit in school, silence took over my life at home. I was no longer interested in talking to my siblings or parents. At a time when I needed to confide in my family the most and reach out for help, I couldn't.

It wasn't until my sophomore year that I finally felt like I needed to talk to someone before completely losing control of my thoughts and emotions. In taking that first step of opening up to my parents, I was able to work with a counselor who has helped me work through my self-esteem issues and get to the root of my belief systems and why I think this way. I've grown a lot in the past few years, but none of that would have happened had I stayed as silent as I had been for most of my life. I spoke up and was able to help my mental health, so I felt encouraged to be more outgoing in all aspects of my life. I became less afraid to take up space and talk in classroom settings and social ones. I'm so happy I took time and put effort into my friendships, because they have also helped my mental health so much and have been the highlights of my days.

When I do have periods when I am at home alone, not talking to anybody and feeling a bit isolated, I sometimes revert to my old habits of over-analyzing my life and myself. I have to remind myself that I am no longer going to use silence as an excuse to degrade myself, and instead have to turn my negative catastrophic thoughts into more neutral ones, ones based in reality.

I love my grandmother a whole lot, but in these years of self-reflection, I've had to come to terms with the fact that one of my favorite people has hurt my relationship with myself. She still tells me to wear black, not ever put on heels, and not smile with my teeth, but I now know it's because she's trying to protect me from other people's judgment, the judgment that she surely received when she was younger. I've become more assertive, less harsh with myself, more outgoing, louder, and I can definitely handle her comments, but they make me sad for her because I can see how poor her own self-image is. I just wish that I could help her forgive herself and respect herself like I have learned to do.

Sofia Mesh is an 12th grader at The Computer School in New York City. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, reading inspirational literature, and international travel.

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