• Melanie Renken

My Voice

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Staying silent is no longer an option.


It's been almost 5 years since I've had a drink. Four years, 7 months, and 1 day since I took my last Vicodin. 1,674 days free of mood-altering substances.


Not that I'm counting.


For the most part, it's been fairly smooth sailing. Brief fantasies of a good buzz haven't escaped me by any means, but all in all, the blessings of sobriety have far outweighed the bummers. I'm free from my counting-pills obsession. I don't agonize over whether my doctor will make my latest refill my last. No more nightmares of what could happen the next time I drive drunk.


And knowing I've suffered my last hangover...bliss.


But damn if the past few months haven't had me wishing for peace from a bottle. Or a caplet. More than booze or Vicodin, though--I'd give a pinky toe for a bowl full of Xanax. (Okay, maybe not the whole toe because I like to wear flip-flops. Maybe just the nail. I can always paint my toe to look like there's a nail on there. Not that I've ever done that.)


I digress.


The twisted thing is, most of the time, I bring this crap on myself. If I would just keep my mouth shut, I wouldn't have so many heart-in-my-throat, lead-rock-in-my-stomach moments. Because I wouldn't be pissing so many people off. Or, at the very least, exasperating them.

I wouldn't have to worry I've alienated a friend. No more fretting about people rolling their eyes behind my back, a former boss trash-talking me, or becoming the church and school-mom pariah.


Sounds so simple. Just shut the hell up.


But staying silent is a double-edged sword. My silence is what led to me to tranquility in a tablet in the first place. So keeping my mouth shut would, without a doubt, lead me to my grave.


I stayed silent when the person who was supposed to protect me from the bad guys walked away from being my dad.


I stayed silent when a man I looked up to in my late teens told me he fantasized about making love to me.


I stayed silent after the 32-year-old boyfriend convinced the naïve 20-year-old me that I had to do certain things with--and for--him if I really loved him.


I stayed silent after the guy I trusted to be truly different forced himself into me without my consent.


The boss who joked about my breasts and made me hug him, a boyfriend who called me a whore for showing affection in public, and countless preachers who taught me that sex was my husband's entitlement? They never heard a peep out of me.


For 35 years, I kept my lips sealed through hurt, betrayal, and disrespect. Because I didn't want to hurt people's feelings. Because I hate the thought of embarrassing someone. And I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be loved.


But silence to the world didn't mean silence within me.


With every dismissal, my heart cried, "What's wrong with me?"


With every indignity, my head chided, "I don't deserve their respect."


And with every injustice, my soul sighed, "Just accept life's not fair."


Until I realized that those internal voices were full of shit.


Several years ago, I started to find my out-loud voice. It was a whisper at first--tentatively thinking that maybe--just maybe--those pastors were wrong. That maybe I don't have to (and shouldn't) be intimate when I don't want to. That maybe being a sexual martyr isn't the only thing of value I bring to a marriage.


And then, after some practice, the whisper got louder and I started using it outside our home. For myself and other women. Women who may not have found their voices. Yet.

I called on my employers to have more female leadership. I started asking for the money I believed I deserved. When I felt ignored, I just kept talking.


Suffice to say, my voice hasn't always been welcomed.


When a study showed my salary was 25% below market, I said that wasn't acceptable. And when the response was, "You should've done your research before you accepted the offer two years ago," I didn't let up.


I was met with sighs and indignation every time I raised the subject.


When a church worship leader used his social media page to insult people who don't look or think like him--including using #MeToo as a punchline and shaming women who have had abortions--I made him look me in the eye after I told him his posts hurt people and alienated them from the Christian faith.


In return, I was accused of forcing my views on people (while he continues to post uneducated, divisive rhetoric and, at the same time, sing songs of love, forgiveness, and grace in front of the church).


When an executive yelled that I disgust him and insinuated I couldn't be unbiased in my job because I'm a woman, I walked away and found a better place. But I didn't walk away quietly, even though friends warned it wouldn't be worth the retaliation and would be career sabotage.


I became toxic to some of my former colleagues.


When I was devastated by a candidate's boasting of sexual assault, I did everything I could to make my friends and family understand why it wasn't a matter of politics for me, and why having a woman in the White House meant so much.


It was the loneliest year and a half of my life.


When that candidate won the election, I marched with thousands of other women to say, "We will not stand to be second-rate citizens, sexual assault is not okay, and your hateful words have no place in my home."


I was ridiculed and demonized by some of the very women I was marching for.


Once I started speaking up for myself as a woman, my eyes opened to how many others couldn't use their voices--or were using them, but weren't being heard. So I started trying to speak for them, even though I could never claim to suffer the same prejudice. (And I mean, hell--I'd already annoyed most of my friends and family--why stop talking now?)


I spoke up because white words reverberate louder than black ones, and no one is trying to shut the mouths of Christians in the name of national security. I learned this: a lot of people can stomach a tall, blonde girl sticking up for herself and trying to make inroads for other white women, but once that voice is used to defend refugees and call out racism, shit starts to get real.


When that same woman opposes bigotry or homophobia, folks aren't so scared to disagree.

Or be disgusted. Or claim their God is offended.


They dismiss her as a liberal. Or a bleeding heart. Or a snowflake. Or just a plain ol' Democrat who's upset her candidate lost the election.


So when a neighbor implied that she had certain expectations about the racial make-up of our community when she moved here, I suggested she be more cognizant of her audience before making such asinine comments.


I was accused of being oversensitive.


When I learned that a man moving in up the street made news a couple of elections ago by referring to our country as "n****r lovers," I warned the neighbors about the hate moving in and suggested we keep from exposing our kids to it.


My husband worried our friends would stop wanting to be around me and, to be honest, I'm pretty sure some did.


And when I dare to defend protesters after another unjust killing, I'm accused of hating the police and failing to "back the blue." As if I can't love both black people who march to be heard, and the police who perform their jobs with integrity.


And God forbid I ever mention having white privilege.


In other words, I'm not winning popularity awards any time soon.

But I didn't start speaking up because I wanted to be liked. I didn't think it would make people respect me. And I certainly didn't do it as a career advancement technique.


I started speaking up because it made me healthier. Because I realized I was worthy of being defended and I wasn't going to be anyone's victim. And because if I didn't start speaking up, I would be popping pills until my whole body went silent.


I keep speaking up because I'm no longer okay with people hurting me, other women, or anyone else and not being called to account. Even if holding them accountable just means telling others what they've done. Because it's a helluva lot easier to be a bully when you know it's going to stay behind closed doors.


I keep speaking up for black, brown, Muslim, homeless, and name-your-minority groups because it's simply the right thing to do--especially when someone doesn't have a voice as loud as yours.


I keep speaking up because I want my son to see that standing up to bullies and bigots is more important than making everyone around you happy and comfortable.


I keep speaking up because I don't want to have to tell my grandkids I was on the wrong side of history when they ask, "Why didn't anyone do anything?"


I keep speaking up because I really do want to follow Jesus's example, even though I fail miserably at it every day.


I keep speaking up because I don't care if people say at my funeral, "She really clawed her way to the top of that career ladder--just look at that enormous house and those fancy cars. And that TITLE--she must have been super important."


I don't enjoy the panic, sweaty palms, racing heart, and self-doubt that come with using my voice. And you better believe it makes me crave a quick-fix for peace and calm. But the despondence that comes from not using my voice is immensely more crushing and devastating.


So please don't ask me to stop. Please don't tell me no one cares. Because someone does care: me.


And nowadays, that's finally enough.

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