I grew up listening to gossip. I heard the dirty, dark secrets of my family. Secrets a child should not know and judgments that tarnished the favorable views I had of those I loved. I can recall sitting in my mother’s lap as she talked on the phone with my aunt. Playing with the curly blue phone cord and pretending I wasn’t listening, I curiously gobbled up my mother’s words as if they were forbidden chocolates. In those conversations, I first learned about the resentment my mother felt toward my father because she was chained to the house with six kids. I heard about the alcoholism that gripped my uncle, and the difficulty of talking someone into rehab.
I listened to the struggles of my cousins. From detention to first periods, there wasn’t much I didn’t know, and I often found it difficult to face them after hearing their secrets in detail. I felt a sense of shame about what I knew, and my view of my mother began to morph into something dark and deceptive. Carefully listening to every word of gossip, I was always surprised at how different her conversations sounded when she repeated them to someone else. The tone became judgmental, and specifics were twisted or completely changed. Quickly, I understood the term “two-faced.” I started to think no one could be trusted, and I felt a hesitancy about confiding anything in my mother.
Over time, I began hiding things from my mother, fearful she would tell others. I remembered waking one night to wet sheets, and I tiptoed to my mom’s room only to pause with my hand on the doorknob. The thought of her telling the story on the phone the next morning made my heart sink. I could almost hear her lamenting about me waking her up in the middle of the night to scrub urine out of my mattress. I slinked back to my room, where I stripped my sheets and threw them in the kitchen garbage. Doing my best to clean up my mattress, I finished by spraying Aqua Net on the stain to try to cover up the smell. I laid down bathroom towels and put a new sheet on my bed before climbing back in, hoping my mother wouldn’t find out.
I began to fear that she would gossip about me when I wasn’t within earshot and discussed every awkward, embarrassing thing I had confided in her. The idea that people were untrustworthy infected my thoughts. She was the one person I thought would love me without judgement, but she spent most of the day discussing other people and their deepest secrets. Why wouldn’t she do the same to me? My inner thoughts became painfully private, and at the same time I developed an obsession with being a part of the gossip floating around my house, mainly to ensure it wasn’t about me. Any time I heard a whisper, I would hover on the edge of the conversation listening carefully, painfully. These notions created a distorted lens through which I viewed people. I was always on the prowl for a weakness or a shortcoming that I could pounce on and devour to quiet my own insecurities. I became a very lonely person, trapped with my inner thoughts, unable to tell anyone out of fear that I would be the butt of a joke or exposed in my most shameful moments.
To protect myself, I learned to insulate my world with the gossip of others. It became almost a compulsion to talk about people and nitpick their choices, tearing apart everything from looks to words. I walked in my mother’s footsteps, and following suit gave me a strange guilty pleasure, a sweet and sour deliciousness that made me sick and delighted at the same time. There was power in knowing the weaknesses of others.
The constant gossip in our house created strained relations among my siblings and extended to our relationships outside the home. Every conversation centered on nasty, hateful words, usually about the absent party, and the game of telephone almost always started with my mother. “Don’t tell Mom” became a mantra but not for the regular childhood reasons. We didn’t want to be the hot topic of the week. If something was found out that was particularly embarrassing or delicate, as siblings we would beg each other not to tell our mother. No one wanted to feel the eyes of the family upon them and hear the whispers around every corner. These snippets of information were used like bargaining chips, and we were constantly bartering, only to stab each other in the back when it was convenient.
A part of me has always known that my family’s rampant gossip has negatively affected me, but I thought I had learned from it. The older I got, the harder I worked to stop the cycle. I thought I had my own compulsion under control. With a lot of effort, I kept the mean words and gossip to a minimum and only shared with a select few in the moments I needed to vent. Then, I caught myself spewing words about my sister one afternoon when my son came up and repeated the nickname he uses for her. I stood there shocked as I looked at his sweet, innocent face. At 17 months old, he is absorbing so much, and I was suddenly fearful about what I was doing to him. Was I infecting him with my own rotten words? The fact that I kept my awful habit to a minimum wasn’t any kind of accomplishment. I was still expelling vicious words, but acting as if their infrequency made them less offensive or less hurtful. I was still guilty. Deep down, I knew I was beginning to teach my son a terrible, ugly habit. It made me shudder with disgust, and I remembered the sick, sinking feeling from childhood when I would listen to my own mother gossip. It changed me, and I lost a sense of innocence in the words that filled my home.
My skewed view of the world kept me from truly being open with others. I exhausted myself with peer comparisons, and when I fell short, I clawed at their weakness. I was constantly weary, lonely, and frustrated. I thought that as an adult, I was better than that. I thought I had overcome the illness, but I was wrong. Seeing my son’s curious little face as he hung on my words made my heart ache. It hurts me to my core to think of him one day talking so foully about his own family. I cannot bear the thought of him becoming so vicious and coldhearted or so unhappy with himself he feels he must verbally abuse others. He cannot grow up believing it is normal to belittle and berate people behind their backs. I cannot let him think that I am so unable to keep my mouth shut that he shouldn’t confide in me. My words are an extension of myself and my thoughts. If I continually dispense negativity, I create an aura of hurtful and untrustworthy ugliness visible to all. I will not let my son see me that way. I will no longer project this image upon the world.
Family is a support network. It is supposed to be about love and kindness and trust not backstabbing. I will show my son he must offer benevolence and honesty to others if he expects them in return. People mirror our actions and behavior, and we receive what we give. I have to teach my son this through my own actions which means changing how I think and act. I will not infect my son with a spiteful vocabulary. I will show him the only relationships worth having are those built on love and trust. My son will be surrounded with words of honesty, kindness, and encouragement, not gossip.
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