I have always had a tendency to say too much at inappropriate times, though I am also keenly, painfully sensitive when I feel that my words have offended or made someone uncomfortable. Shaped to be a people-pleaser I’m torn by this tension of telling my truth, saying what I think, and the contrasting need never to disrupt or ruffle others.
This habit of mine drove my college boyfriend to stony silence—his only defense, I guess, against my insistence on talking about things he found offensive (which fra ranged from pregnancy to where you bought your furniture).
The other day at an exercise class outdoors, several of us were surprised to find flattened cigarette butts on the ground at the local community center, right next to the preschool. Two women I only know in face but not name, took up a discussion of smoking, now that there are no longer any secrets about the health risks. “How is anyone still smoking? With e-cigarettes, they make it easy to quit,” offered the brunette woman.
“Yeah, you’d think they’d be crazy to smoke,” offered the blonde.
I thought for a moment; a member of my extended family has smoked for years and tried quitting over and over again. The struggle is not simple. He hates what it does to his body but it offers such instant relief from a stressful job.
“Well,” I said, butting in as I have a tendency to do, “It’s supposed to be one of the hardest drugs to quit. Harder than heroin.”
Both women frowned at me. “Heroin?” said the brunette. The word itself hung like a cloud of black smoke in the air.
“No really. My mom, many years ago, got off a very brief stint smoking heroin—and she’s a rare statistic because for most people all it takes is one time and they’re hooked for a very long time, if they ever break free. She never went back. But my other family member still struggles to quit cigarettes.”
There it was, the beat, the hitch in their eyes between us. It’s one thing to mention heroin, another to put it in the same sentence as “my mom” or to discuss it with such nonchalance. (And you must understand, my mom was not passed out in gutters with a needle in her arm—she always kept a functional job and she smoked it, didn’t shoot up).
And there it was: my big mouth at work again, saying things to make a point. Not for the shock value, believe me; I cringe when I catch a fellow big-mouth dropping verbal bombs just to get a reaction. Instead, I think this blurting tendency is borne of a lifetime of secrecy. In families where you’re forced to keep secrets that can get a person in legal trouble if you tell, or that might cause the parents of other children to stop having you come around, you learn to say as little as possible most of the time. Except for small moments, pockets of time where you drop your guard and the truth slides out.
I walk this razor’s edge all the time, of telling the truth about my own experiences and keeping them locked tight. Not because they’re so full of charge anymore either; but they indelibly shaped who I am. More and more I’ve been writing about these experiences because I finally have enough distance and compassion to do so without blame.
And I don’t know if I’ll ever learn to keep my big mouth shut.