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Finding Your Voice; Speaking Your Truth

by Pamela Woll

July 1996

This is an article about writing, and how important it is to write what's in your heart and mind, especially if you have a challenge like HIV. I can't write about how it feels to be HIV-positive, because I've been spared that diagnosis so far. But I can write about how it feels to be silent when I should be speaking my truth -- and the shame and fear that sometimes bring on that silence. And I can write about the peace and dignity that I get when I finally break through the silence and say what needs to be said.

"What needs to be said" might be a troublesome truth no one wants to hear. It might be the words, "I love you," to someone whose heart and mind are closed. It might be a word or two about a flower or a tree that's so beautiful right now that it hurts. It might be a hope or a fear I can no longer carry alone. What I say might make people admire me or make them look at me like I'm crazy. It might get no reaction at all, but that's not the point. What matters most is that I said what I needed to say. I can move on.

Finding Your Voice

What does a voice do? It tells your story. It talks to friends, asks the questions that need to be asked, and speaks up in your support group. Your voice can write letters, editorials, and articles for Body Positive. It can keep a journal, ask your negative friend to stop criticizing you, and scrawl graffiti on the bathroom walls. Your voice can jump on the Internet, tell jokes, and write that novel you've been putting off all your life. It can scribble poetry on paper napkins, in restaurants or put personal ads in the newspaper.

Your voice underlines your experience. It makes sense out of your life. Your voice shows you your own thoughts, so you can decide whether or not they're true. It shows you your own feelings, so you can face them with courage. Your voice defends your honor and brings back your dignity.

More than anything else, your voice makes the difference between being all alone and being one with others. It speaks of your joy and sadness, your humor and fear, your love and anger. Your voice can tell someone else what you've been through and what you're going through right now. It can honor your experience. It can honor your truth.

Your voice can help other people face some of the challenges you've faced and help them avoid some of the pain you've experienced. When you help others by telling your truth, it helps you. When you share in the healing of another life, your own life is healed, just that little bit. It won't take away your HIV, but it can bring you closer to the source of your spiritual strength. It can bring you more joy, more peace, and more courage.

What Stops the Voice?

Many people take their voices for granted. Of course they can say or write what they really feel or think. Can't everybody? But for the rest of us, it's not that easy. We were taught early in life that there were some things we just shouldn't talk about -- anger, fear, other emotions. Some people were taught not to talk about problems, but to say that everything is fine even when it isn't. Many were taught that asking for help is a sign of weakness. I grew up feeling ashamed of who I was. I guess it was my way of making sense of other people's reactions to me and all the ways I felt different from them. I thought I was a mistake. Actually, it was the shame itself that was a mistake, but it was the best I could do at the time. It gave me a lot of fear and made me doubt even my strongest beliefs. Many people grow up feeling ashamed -- ashamed of their sensitivity, their emotions, their sexuality, their race, their homes, their families -- ashamed of you-name-it. If you're HIV-positive, you probably get lots of little messages of shame and fear from people who don't even know they're sending them. If you grew up knowing you were good and worthwhile, you can probably handle those little messages with the help of your true friends. But if you grew up with shame and fear, those little messages might wake up the old negative feelings and keep you from saying what you need to say.

Shame and fear silence your voice. They block your truth. They cut off your song at the throat, so no one can hear it. When the truth is silenced, it's much easier for pain to spread. The Holocaust would never have happened if the world knew all about it from the start. Someone who's in the habit of lying can't get away with the lies for long, if people start talking to one another. There's an old saying about the "conspiracy of silence." But silence doesn't need a conspiracy. All it needs is a little shame and fear, and we silence ourselves.

Maybe you learned to quiet your voice because your voice isn't perfect. Maybe you make mistakes in grammar or spelling, or your words don't sound graceful and poetic compared to somebody else's. When you were young, your parents and teachers might have told you that you couldn't write. So you don't. But inside your heart and mind is a whole world that can't find a voice. There are hopes, fears, sorrows, joys, problems, solutions, ideas, and fantasies no one else hears. Is it right to keep them locked up in there? If your words wouldn't do harm to anyone, and wouldn't harm you, it would be better to set them free. You can always find people to clean up your grammar for you. But no one else can speak your heart, and someone else might need to hear what only you can say.

If something is keeping you from speaking or writing your truth, the first step is to find out what the obstacle is -- what's blocking you. "Writer's block" can be one of many different things. It might just be that you haven't thought your idea through; you need to do some more thinking and organize your thoughts into an outline. You might be blocked by a fear of not being good enough or a fear of letting people know who you really are. Often the only way to break through that kind of fear is to "walk through it" -- to go ahead and do it even though you're afraid. The fear will pass, but only after you've taken the risk for a while. You can start by finding one or two people you trust and talking to them about it. Once you've broken the isolation, it will get easier.

Don't get me wrong. There are times when it's better to be silent. Sometimes words aren't necessary, like when you're sharing silence with a friend who already knows your heart. There are times when words are pointless, like when you've already spoken your truth to people who aren't capable of hearing it, and it's time to find other ears. And sometimes a silent sign of love is the best way to respect the depth of someone's grief. But silence in these cases is a choice you're making. It's not being forced on you by fear or shame.

The Gift of the Voice

I don't know why I was put on this earth, but I do know one thing I'm supposed to do here. I'm supposed to change. I'm supposed to learn from my mistakes, grow through my pain, and be transformed. What will I be transformed into? Maybe I'll transform into someone more honest, more courageous, more gentle, more peaceful, more dignified, more loving. For some reason, speaking my heart and telling my truth is an important part of that transformation process.

My times of pain -- of sadness, loss, conflict, and depression -- have been the times that have brought me closest to transformation. I've heard that pain is one of the few things that really gets our attention, and that the rest of the time we just coast along. Maybe that's why we tend to grow fastest during the hard times, even though it seems to take all our energy just to get through them. When I was visiting a friend with AIDS at Illinois Masonic Hospital in Chicago, I saw a tapestry that read:

The Chinese word for "crisis" has two characters. One stands for danger; the other, for opportunity.

Our hardest times are often our best opportunities to become the people we were born to become. This doesn't mean that painful circumstances -- like HIV and AIDS -- are good things, or that they are "all for the best" -- or even that they make sense. It just means that something good can come out of something bad.

Transformation doesn't happen in isolation, though. We need other people. To become the person you were born to be, you first need to accept who you are. To transform your life, you first need to tell the truth about it. There will always be some people who can't be trusted with the truth, and some who won't understand it no matter what you say. But there will be others who will hear you, and understand, and care. And you can hear, and understand, and care. No words are perfect. But if your words come from the heart, then they're a gift to be treasured and shared. Please take a chance and set them free.

Pamela Woll is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago, Illinois. Last year, Pam co-authored a book titled, Worth Protecting: Women, Men, and Freedom From Sexual Aggression. She has also written a number of manuals for the alcohol, tobacco, and other drug prevention system in Illinois, including: The Writing Life, and Increase the Peace: A Primer on Fear, Violence and Transformation.

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