When Words Fail
I walked out of my bedroom and halfway down the staircase late at night. My bare feet stopped on a midway step, preteen hands grasping the wooden rail. I started talking to my mom who stood in the kitchen. About a minute into our back-and-forth, I woke up and realized that I had been sleepwalking and sleeptalking.
I tried to convince both my mom and myself that I’d been awake the whole time. The alternative—that I’d wandered into conversation while unconscious—felt profoundly vulnerable and embarrassing. If I didn’t have the safety net of thinking before I spoke, what words might pour out of me that I could never have back?
This past Friday, I found myself in the emergency room for the second time in nearly as many weeks. I dictated my litany of symptoms to a nurse and watched her eyes for a reaction. When the doctor entered the room and asked me to describe everything again, I scanned his face for signs of disbelief.
Did they take my words at face value when I said that eight different migraine medications had at most taken the edge off of my headache, and that one of them made me feel markedly worse? Did they understand why I struggled to choose a number on a pain scale, why the sum total of ache and throb and pins-and-needles seemed impossible to calculate? Did they trust me when I told them that I’ve been saying the wrong words, typing the wrong words, in a way that isn’t like normal misspeaks or typos—in a way that isn’t like me?
And did I want them to believe me, or did I want them to tell me it was all in my head?
I consider my thoughts and the words that comprise them to be my most valuable currency. I trust my strings of logical sentences. I have never been able to lie. And I have sat on a therapist’s couch more than once to discuss the panic that rises in me when my words prove insufficient to solve a problem or mend a heart.
The past few weeks have left me feeling separated from my own mind and my own words, which really means they have left me feeling separated from myself. Over the course of the past twenty-one days, I have struggled to read more than three paragraphs at a time, a harsh whiplash from the book stack I consumed the week before. I thought it was Tuesday on Thursday. I hosted a fundraiser on social media and had to open my calculator app for the kind of math I regularly do in my head.
And I’ve thought of my ten-year-old self asleep yet speaking from the staircase. The fear I know right now, as my mind drifts beyond my grasp, feels remarkably similar to the horror of realizing I’d been talking in a trance.
Medication number nine flowed into my veins through an IV yesterday afternoon, suddenly overwhelming me with exhaustion halfway through a story I had been telling my husband. I persisted in finishing my thought, pushing past internal annoyance at my imprecise vocabulary and inability to phrase things as I normally would. When the drowsiness hit, I paused the story and said, “I just need you to know that I know I sound loopy.”
Words are my currency and thoughts my line of credit. The thought of dropping them in the gutter, of not spending them well, fills me with the dread of a drained savings account. I make my way through the world with my words. I feel poor without them. I feel robbed, bankrupt, vulnerable, and unsure on the staircase.
This has taken me hours longer to write than normal. I keep discovering that I’ve repeated the same word several times in just a few sentences, or left a thought incomplete, or misspelled elementary vocabulary. I’m speaking half-asleep from the banister, and I don’t really know what I’ve said. I’m unsure if I’m offering you treasure or Monopoly money.
Maybe my mind will come back to me in the way I’ve always known it, welcoming my deposits and withdrawals of words. Maybe it won’t, and I’ll drop gold into the gutter while I’m scraping pennies off the pavement. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll wake up one day and believe that there’s a me worth hearing from even when my prose falls short and my mind refuses to let me hold it tight. I believe that about others already, of course. We’ll see if my heart can take over for a bit while my mind roams and help me believe it for myself too.