No words. 

When I was almost three, we left the country of my birth and moved to Ireland. Partly because my mom is Irish, partly for economic reasons but mostly because Turkey in 1979 was not a safe place to be. My father had to stay behind for almost a year, due to work commitments. That was the year I went selectively mute. Though I have no recollection of it, my mother insists I went a whole year without talking*. It’s not like I was non-verbal before that, I could speak Turkish quite well and was even spelling out words before I was two. But in the new environment I found myself, it seems I lost my words.

Not only did we move to Ireland, we moved to an Irish-speaking enclave in the very western edge of the country. Next parish…America. A highly conservative and Catholic area. Where weekly Mass was obligatory and rumours used like currency.

I remember sitting in my bedroom, trying to remember what my dad looked like. I’ve no idea why I didn’t just ask for a photo. Maybe in our haste to leave we hadn’t brought any with us? Or maybe I just didn’t think to ask?

I don’t remember not talking, I’m not even sure if I was aware that I wasn’t talking. The details are not there in my mind. My mother is always very matter-of-fact about that time : ‘oh yeah, there was that whole year where you didn’t say a word’. It was treated as a quirk, just something I did, one of those things. As if there was was nothing that unusual about it. I’ve no idea how I communicated that year, how I had my needs and desires met. I guess it was part mime, part guesswork on my mom’s part. I’ve no idea how my mother felt, having a daughter who didn’t talk.

And then I did. I remember that day quite vividly. My mother had left us with the babysitter, while she went to collect my father. The door opened and there she was, with a man I didn’t recognise. And the babysitter joked ‘your mom brought home the wrong man’ and I believed him. For an instant. And then I realised my dad was there before me and the words came spilling out. A whole year of words. In fluent English and Irish and Turkish. Dad laughed and called me his little machine-gun, I spat out the words so quickly.

So, yeah, in times of immense stress I lose my words. It’s happening again, but more gradually. Instead of one huge shock to my system, there have been many subtle ones. Instead of losing all words, I’m losing a few. And instead of a whole year, I lose a few minutes, a few hours, a day or two. And this time, there is no daddy to give them back to me. I must try to regain them all by myself. Through rest and self-care and determination. Until I can spit them out again, like a machine gun.

* UPDATE: my mom has just clarified that I did say things like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and I’d point at things and say ‘that’. But never more than one really short sentence or phrase.  Which is just like how it gets now, I can get a few words out but not many. 

[black words on a yellow background: That was the year I went mute.]

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2 thoughts on “No words. 

  1. I work with kids who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language, and for them, going through a “silent period” is very normal and quite common. They spend a year or more just listening, and taking things in. It’s not exactly the same, because these kids usually still speak their native language with their family. In any case, a “silent period” may have been part of what was going on with you.

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    1. Yes, I’ve heard of that type of selective mutism amongst immigrants. I’m a bit like that with learning languages. I’ve studied French and German and can read and write them perfectly, but when it goes to speaking them, I freeze. But apparently I didn’t talk to anyone, in any language, during that year.

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