the reality is much quieter

(trigger warning)

So first of all, go read this Slate article about how drowning doesn’t look like drowning. Then join me back here.

Got it? Okay.

I couldn’t read this article without thinking, “We make the same mistake with sexual violence, and we make it for the same reasons.”

The media teaches us that sexual violence is a noisy event. It happens in a dark and empty street to a woman of culturally sanctioned beauty, by an evil man. The woman screams and fights and runs, but the man overpowers her with physical force.

The reality is much quieter. The reality is that very often a person’s body will go into freeze, not fight or flight. The target of the violence will not scream or kick or fight, they will simply shut down, their body too invested in simply surviving an unsurvivable attack – “the most violent crime you can survive,” as Thomas Tremblay describes it – to allocate any resources to calling for help.

And this metaphor of the reality of deadly distress is true for depression, too. It’s quiet. People won’t necessarily sob and despair in any obviously visible way. I would argue that, like drowning, if a person is in a state where they can sob and wail, they’re doing okay – they don’t feel GOOD, but they’re not about to die. When it gets really dangerous, they get quiet. They’re in freeze, all their resources committed to the impossible task keeping their head above water, taking one more gasping breath.

But the awesome part of the metaphor is true too:

If we learn to recognize what it REALLY looks like, we can do something about it.

Recognizing what it really looks like is about being able to notice what’s quiet. And noticing what’s quiet is difficult when there is a lot of noise happening – and of course I don’t mean plain old SOUND noise. Mostly I mean EMOTIONAL noise.

This summer, I’ve been working with my students to see if this analogy helps to understand the role stress plays in, ya know, life:

Imagine that your brain is like your room. And everything going on in your life puts another person in your room. Those people start to talk to each other. Add more people – school work, friends, family, romantic relationship – and not only are there more people talking, each person has to talk louder to be heard over the rest. Add more people – trauma history, worry about The Future, worry about The State of the World – and pretty soon people are shouting to be heard.

When you try to add something quiet, it just gets ignored.

Meditation folks, spiritual folks, they often talk about listening to the “quiet voice inside.”

We can add to that, listening to the quiet voices outside – which very often are not voices at all.