Why I Stopped Speaking English

More than a decade after coming to live in Barcelona, I realize that the motive for my abrupt move from the U.S. in 2004 wasn’t the beauty of this city, nor the pleasant character of its people, nor the lovely climate, nor the exciting professional opportunities that I encountered. Not even the guy I met here, with whom I ended up falling in love.

In that moment, I felt it necessary to make a global change: change of culture, continent, people, and language. Especially the language. At that moment, I didn’t know why. I only knew I needed to do it. Urgently.

I married the Barcelonan. I incorporated myself into his life. I moved in Catalan/Spanish social circles. I made friends from here, friends from other countries, and of course, friends from my country as well. However, I refused to live in the “Yankee bubble” characterized by expats who, for whatever reason, never manage to learn Spanish or Catalan, integrate into the culture, or form meaningful friendships with local people. 

Upon arrival, I began performing immediately in Spanish…and never in English. I wasn’t interested in reaching yankee audiences: neither tourists, nor my English-speaking colleagues who, like me, had made the decision to live here. Though we had significant things in common, I simply didn’t want my audience to be English speakers. And I wan’t sure why.

Yes, I knew that I wanted to integrate as much as possible into this culture. For that reason, I wanted to perform and live my daily life in Spanish. But there was something else beneath the surface. Something that made the idea of speaking English, to English-speaking foreigners just like me, repugnant.

Every opportunity I had, I spoke in Spanish. My then-husband spoke perfect English, but the rule in the house was to speak in Spanish. That’s the way I wanted it. This was my new life, and I was dedicated to doing it right.

Meanwhile, every week, I spoke with my uncle, my father’s brother. We were very close. I no longer spoke to my parents because they were abusive. My last years in the United States I spent “fighting” with my parents over the telephone… or email… trying to fix a situation that had no solution. I already knew that my parents were abusive, but I still didn’t understand that, no matter what I did, they weren’t going to change. I still believed that there was something more I could do, some different way I could be, that I hadn’t thought of.

It still didn’t compute that the only way I could fix things was for myself, by turning away from them.

Once I decided to cut off contact with my parents, they in turn told my Uncle to cut ties with me, as a show of “loyalty” towards them. He flatly refused. He loved me very much, and we always had a strong connection. My uncle never understood why my problems with my parents should contaminate the relationship he had with me. 

Therefore, to punish the both of us, my parents submitted my uncle to four years of bullying: a constant psychological abuse that didn’t cease until he died — I believe from the effects of the resultant stress — in 2009.

This happens often in abusive relationships: the farther away the target of the abuse is able to escape, the more independent, successful and happy they become… the more the abuser feels the need — what’s more, the right — to punish that target.

And my abusers knew that they could punish me by hurting my uncle. That was the only way they could “get” to me. 

Abusers don’t accept your autonomy. They don’t accept it because they don’t respect you. They don’t see you as a person with a right to peace and freedom and happiness; they see you as their property. If the abuser is your parent, they’ll see you as an extension of themselves, to whom you’re eternally indebted simply because they brought you into this world. They see you as an object, like a piece of furniture. And they feel entitled to do to you whatever they please.

Not until 2015 did I realize why the idea of performing in English made me nauseous.

Why I didn’t want to associate with the yankee community in Barcelona. Why I didn’t want to know anything about North American culture. Why, sadly, I stopped listening to comedy in English, including the brilliant standup comedy of the talented friends I’d left behind in L.A., a number of whom went on to become famous and successful in the decade after I left.

It was because all these representations of American culture reminded me of the abuse. It brought me back to those tumultuous years, under the mental control of my tormenters, living with (and making bad decisions from) a twisted perception of love, of good and bad, of who I am, and what I’m worth. (The answers to the last question being: “Not much.”)

Coming to Barcelona from Los Angeles and performing in a new language, learning to make deft references to the culture here, to establish complicity with the people here— people who’ve, by the way, treated me wonderfully — felt like getting into a spaceship and blasting off into another galaxy. How free I felt here! How clean. How healthy. How… happy.

I’ve read some articles about the positive psychological effects of learning — and operating in — new languages. One of them is the formation of new neural pathways in the brain. In other words: by learning a new language, we reprogram our brains.

We reprogram our thoughts and emotions.

Speaking in Spanish and not in English provoked a sense of continuous discovery. Because I didn’t have a complete grasp of Spanish, I felt like a new person, almost like a child. The feeling of being a beginner in something can be powerfully inspiring, for in front of you lies a wide-open field of possibility. You feel unbound by limitations because you don’t know what the limitations are. There’s a Zen saying: “In the mind of the beginner, the possibilities are infinite. In the mind of the expert, they are few.”

It’s no coincidence that this has been the philosophy of Anti-Karaoke as well.

And this is why, living here in Barcelona, conducting my personal and professional affairs in Spanish — and making mistakes constantly, including very publicly while onstage — I felt the joy of an infinity of possibilities. From now on, things could only get bigger and better. I didn’t look back to the past; only ahead, to the future.

And “ahead” implied “in Spanish”. English meant “behind”. Is it starting to make sense now?

But then something else happened.

In the winter of 2014, the after-effects of the abuse, for which I’d never received psychological treatment, were coming to the surface. I felt deeply depressed. My emotions were volatile. I burst into tears all the time. My brain was functioning at half its power: I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t plan things or break projects down into small tasks; therefore, I couldn’t accomplish hardly anything. I’d spend the weekend cleaning my house instead of creating.

I felt trapped in a fog.

I needed psychotherapy, but I wasn’t able to find an adequate therapist in Barcelona. The last time I went to a therapist — a psychiatrist, covered by my medical insurance — I caught her repressing giggles as I told her my story. I didn’t think it was a particularly funny story, since I was crying.

I thought, “Why’s this bitch laughing while I’m sitting here crying and pouring my heart out to her?”

At the end of the visit, she revealed she knew me from Anti-Karaoke. “I saw you twice at the Apolo Club,” she confessed.

Well that was flattering. But I didn’t come to her for that. I went there for help. Where the hell was I going to find it? The encounter made me feel like a cartoon character people watch on television, laugh at, and then forget about.

I felt hopeless.

So I began, as we often do nowadays, searching for answers on the internet. And that’s how I discovered a community of people that have suffered the same exact kind of abuse that I did. (Maybe I’ll describe this abuse in a later post, but I’m not up for it right now.) They’re people, from all over the world who make videos of themselves looking into the camera and telling the truth about what happened. And they analyze their experiences with the aim of freeing themselves from their effects.

The first time I saw these videos, I stayed up all night for 12 hours straight, exploring this community. The similarities between our stories were hair-raising. Over and over again, I’d be watching some person, from the other side of the world, telling my story. It was astonishing.

I spent months watching these people and talking to them, commenting on their videos and sending private messages.

And then one day I decided: I’m going to tell my story too.

I needed to.

And I did: anonymously, in English. On the one hand, because this community that I already felt a part of communicated in English. On the other hand, now that I’d established a solid identity here in Spain, and a career based on the image I projected of a comic/entertainer, I wanted to protect myself from discovery as I went through this delicate process. I needed it to be this way so I could feel comfortable and secure talking about everything, without feeling I was being watched by people who had preconceived notions of who I am and might judge me negatively.

And I wanted to protect my hard-fought life here — my new, clean, healthy life, as well as my professional life — from the contamination of my past. In a way, the online community was a substitute for psychotherapy. Maybe that sounds sad, maybe it sounds crazy, but the internet was the place where I found, for the first time, validation and true understanding of these complex issues… and not just from one, two or three people, but thousands.

A year later, a lot has changed. To begin with, I feel much better. Yes, I have sad days, but I’m not the basket case I was before, crying at the drop of a hat. I no longer live in that deep emotional valley, wrapped in the brain fog that leaves me scatterbrained and woozy. I’ve confronted many of my fears head-on, and I’ve put an end to several unhealthy, crazy-making relationships and situations. I’m learning to pay better attention to my boundaries and defend them better when they’re infringed upon. I’ve adopted practical techniques to get my life in order. I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it with more frequency and less embarrassment.

The result of all this is that I’m accomplishing much more. And I’m happier with myself.

I know that all this is the direct result of confronting my past. Of opening my mouth and letting out all I’ve been hiding. Discussing the story with people who understand it first-hand, who help me understand it for myself, and process all these thoughts and feelings.

And I did it speaking in English. Whereas English was the language of oppression for me, now it’s become the language of liberation.

But these two languages, Spanish and English, represent my double life like never before.

This is why I now think it’s time to start performing in English besides Spanish. I’ll do it this coming weekend, in front of an expat crowd.

It’s been 12 years.  Let’s see what happens.

One more thing:

I want you to know that I originally wrote this entire piece in Spanish, which to this day continues to be my “safe language” when it comes to writing about the abuse. In other words, when I’m writing with the intention of publication of my blog, my thoughts naturally fly from my brain onto the paper in Spanish, not in English. It’s not a conscious decision; it just happens that way.

I now understand why this is so. In the years before I cut off contact with my abusers, they used to peruse my blog, looking for things they didn’t like. These things ranged from political opinions they didn’t agree with such as my opposition to the Iraq war, personal stories describing my own emotional darkness and self-harming behaviors that they didn’t want me telling, or stories about things that had really happened between us.

Then they’d bombard me with phone calls and emails, demanding I take down what they wrote. They’d also recruit friends and other family members to join in. This is a typical tactic of abusers: triangulating friends and family to isolate and “crush” the target, ending in the target’s capitulation. The effect of this collective disapproval was of course highly upsetting to me, and unfortunately succeeded in getting me to delete my own writings — my own thoughts — from my website.

Their communications dripped with rage and contempt. They couldn’t even couch their demands in supposed love or concern for me. Because it was all about them, how it made them look. They didn’t give a damn about me, except in terms of how what I did affected their image. It took me years to figure that out, even though the truth was there, staring me in my face.

It was Orwellian. The first time the blog policing happened, I was living on the other side of the country from them. The subsequent times, I was living in Barcelona. I’d moved to another continent where they could never physically reach me, yet they were still in my head. They’d latched onto my brain like a virus. Eventually, as a result of the attacks, I started to self-censor. Whenever I had a thought that I wanted to express, it first passed through the filter of “What would they think?” or “What will they do to me if they read this?” Not surprisingly, my brain slowly dried up. I blogged less and less. And my blog was never the same.

This is why I started writing in Spanish. If I wrote in Spanish, it would be hidden from them and their flying monkeys. Writing in Spanish allowed me to feel like I was flying under the radar of this Eye in the Sky. In fact, this is the reason why, if you look at my blog, some of my past entries dealing with weighty topics only appear in Spanish.

But today, and from now on, what I write will appear in both languages. Because I’m no longer afraid of what they’ll do when they come across my words. I no longer need permission from my abusers to tell my own story. And I could care less about what people who don’t support me will think. Because I don’t give two shits about the opinions of people who champion suffering in silence over telling the truth. These people have their own agenda, an agenda that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with their own internal struggle.

In closing: I don’t run from anyone anymore.

My question now is:

Are you running from anyone? If so, why?