A silent killer — are you paying the high cost of being nice and quiet without even knowing it?

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by Amy Lynne Johnson

I knew something was wrong when my mother set the dining room table in reverse for a Memorial Day party. She reversed the silverware, putting the forks on the right and the knives on the left.

A month later, her doctor would tell her she had a meningioma, a tumor that had likely been growing slowly in her brain for at least a decade or more. She had been having other symptoms for months, but had kept quiet about them.

That my (then) 68 year-old mother had managed to grow a brain tumor the size of a small grapefruit was no surprise to me. Despite devastating challenges in her childhood, mom skipped two grades, graduated high school at age 16, and went straight to work as a secretary. College was not an option for her. She was a wife by age 19, and spent most of the next 18 years pregnant, delivering eight children, seven of whom survived.

Drowning in children and quietly making miracles with the family finances, my mother’s sharp mind and quick wisdom often went unnoticed. In fact, much of her gifts and talents went unnoticed. She never complained, though, and taught all of her children the same protocol: never ask for too much, since you have so much more than most; always be kind, even when it isn’t deserved; and never judge anyone, since you never know what it’s like to be in their shoes.

As a girl, I did my best to obey her commandments, with little success, since on the inside I am more like my father, mouthy and impatient. Each time I failed, she forgave me, just like she did with him. I always wondered how she did it.

My mouth was getting me into a lot of trouble at school, and I knew my mom was worried about me and my “sass.” Over time, though, I did become quieter, more accommodating, more patient. Eventually, I learned to wait my turn so well, I even stopped caring if it came or not.

While there are no definitive causes of meningiomas, they occur twice as often in women as in men. There are a lot of possible reasons for this, but something deep inside me felt like that tumor was the ever-expanding storage unit that housed all the turns my mom waited for, but never allowed herself to take. It was where she put all the tears she never allowed herself to shed. It was where she put all the tough things she wanted to say, but never allowed herself to speak.

Yes, I know. I’m not a medical doctor, and I could be wrong. But what if I’m not?

Mom’s grapefruit removal was a success…a miracle actually. Even her surgeon seemed surprised at how well it went. Recovery from the surgery was another matter. I was with her as much as I could be at the rehab hospital, massaging her hands, brushing what was left of her hair, and reading waiting-room magazine articles aloud to her. She was clearly in a lot of discomfort, and, hallelujah, this time she let people know it.

Six days post-surgery, after reading a dated article entitled “How to Start Something New,” mom seemed agitated and disoriented. I reached out to help her as she struggled to sit up in her chair, but she waived me away like a fruit fly. “Mom, what is it?” I said, feeling a sudden drop in my stomach. She looked up at me, mumbled “nothing,” and looked at the clock on the wall across the room.

Her eyes rolled up in her head and she slumped over.

I shook her, “Mom? Mom!” No response. I ran to the nurse’s station and said, politely, wringing and twisting my fingers, “Excuse me…” The nurses were chatting about lunch break schedules and failed romances. “Excuse me,” I said, politely again but a little louder. “It’s my mother — something’s very wrong.” One of the nurses finally noticed me, and I hurried her to mom’s bedside. The nurse pressed a red alarm button on the beige wall above mom’s bed.

The sound screwed into my jaw. Several people ran into the room and began to try to revive her. I felt a metallic taste well up along the sides of my tongue, like I might vomit drill bits.

I walked slowly backward, out of the room and into the empty hallway, and waited. I was trying not to ask for too much, to be kind, and to not judge or complain. Seconds later, the medical team quickly wheeled my mother away from me. I stood there quietly, with perfect posture, while waves of terror, rage, guilt, shame, and yearning crashed up and down my spine. The nurse came to tell me which emergency room my mom was going to, and I began to fish through my purse for my car keys.

“You sure know how to handle an emergency– it’s amazing how calm you are! They’re gonna do everything they can for her, honey.”

“Thank you, you’ve been so helpful.” I said, robotically, politely, nicely.

I walked toward the exit, praying to God to save my mom, horrified that it might be my fault if she didn’t make it.

God answered my prayers. I remained disturbed and uneasy about what I’d done. I reviewed my behavior that day. I was shocked at myself and how I wasted precious seconds that might have cost my mother her very life because I was too afraid to freak out and be impolite and impatient and mouthy and loud and not nice.

I wondered whether I had started growing a small grapefruit inside my brain, too.

Why was I so damned polite while my mother might be on the brink of death? Why was I afraid to “bother” the nurses? Why was I afraid to speak up?
Why did I blame myself so quickly?

Like so many people, women especially, I had learned to shut down my voice in service to being nice, polite, and accommodating. The erosion happened slowly over time, like water on a rock. So slowly I didn’t even notice.

It took my mother nearly dying right in front of my eyes to see just how meek I had become, and the potential damage that could result from it. I remembered how outspoken and sassy I had been as a child and a teen. I liked that girl. I started to get back in touch with her. I let her come and play a lot more.

As I examined my life, I saw how my problems actually increased as my sass decreased. I put up with things I shouldn’t have. I minimized my needs. I suffered silently like all us good girls do.

To make the pain more palatable, I ate too much. I drank too much. I did lots of stupid things too much and lots of important things too little. Worst of all, I turned on myself at times. Depression. Anxiety. Dumb choices. Loser men. Missed opportunities.

Sound familiar? This is the price I paid for turning my own voice’s volume way down, some of the time to completely mute. What price have you had to pay? What price are you still paying? It can get pretty expensive. Frighteningly expensive.

I have spent the last thirteen years getting more and more comfortable with speaking up and speaking out, even when it might make me uncomfortable, even when it might make others uncomfortable. Words are powerful. Spoken words can change lives, not just our own but those around us who listen, and even those who aren’t willing to listen. It all starts with a sense that our voice matters.

When you really think about it, believing that what we have to say is important, and then actually saying it right out loud, is the key to freedom, within and without.

No wonder corrupt people, organizations, and politicians work so hard to get us to shut up. One word spoken aloud can start a revolution that can, and has, toppled even the most powerful of them all.

And here’s some great news. Since they took that grapefruit out of my mom’s head, she’s only gotten mouthier, more opinionated, and feistier every year. You never have to wonder where she stands on an issue. She’ll tell you, whether you like it or not. I love her.

Neither one of us is so damned quiet, polite, and nice anymore. 
It’s much better this way.

How do you shut down your voice? Do you shut down others? How has this cost you? Resolve to speak up and speak out, especially when you are afraid to do so. Let me know about it.

Most importantly, speak to yourself with kindness and compassion. Your words matter. Your voice is beautiful. Use it.