I first heard the term when watching the 2004 teen comedy “Mean Girls.” In this cult classic, Cady Heron, a transfer high-school student who moved from South Africa, befriends two outcasts who convince her to infiltrate the popular girls clique (aka The Plastics) in an attempt to sabotage the leader, Regina George.
Cady has these moments where she is so overwhelmed by balancing the truth that she knows while playing a role that is not authentic to who she is that words spew out of her mouth like spilled hot coffee. She labels these instances as cases of word vomit. For example, there is a scene where Cady reveals to Regina’s boyfriend, Aaron Samuels, that Regina is cheating on him. It was not a part of the plan, but the words slipped out of her mouth in a drunken state like marbles on a ceramic floor.
Urban dictionary has nine possible definitions for word vomit. I will provide you with the top three most pertinent to this discussion.
1) a point in a conversation where you say something that you really didn’t mean to
2) the uncontrollable act of stating valid facts at an often inopportune time in conversation. Usually also in the wrong “tone.”
3) the words that come out of your mouth without any thought, often when you are drunk, embarrassed, angry, or given criticism in a social environment.
I’ve adopted this phrase and also self-diagnosed myself as someone who lives with chronic word vomit. My outbursts are usually induced in high-stress, high-emotion situations with occasional, less-damaging outbreaks brought on by awkward conversations.
My love for books has never been a secret.
I used to love family road trips to Florida because I would spend all my time in the second row of the metallic blue mini-van losing myself in a world of fiction.
In the seventh grade, I got in trouble for reading a book under the table while the teacher was talking. It seemed like an odd thing to get in trouble for – reading in school. My face turned its own brown shade of red when the teacher yelled my name.
My father used to have a coworker who would buy me sets of Nancy Drew books every few months for no apparent reason. You would have thought someone bought me backstage tickets to see the Backstreet Boys the way that I ripped the clear plastic wrapping off of the set of six bright-yellow hardcover books. Maybe she enjoyed hearing the delight in my young voice when I called to say thank-you before indulging in a new mystery.
When reading, there is a moment that every bookworm has encountered – a moment that I have come to fall in love with. Sometimes I read a phrase, sentence or paragraph that captures a human emotion I’ve often experienced but never found the words to articulate. Those moments give me the freedom to feel. Those moments help ease the loneliness that is the human condition. I write in hopes of creating that kind of moment for someone who reads my work.
My love for books, for both reading and writing, is rooted in my love for words.
In his book, “Love as a Way of Life”, Gary Chapman uses the vivid metaphor of words being either ‘bullets or seeds.’ He describes how we can use our words as bullets and damage our relationships when we speak with condemnation or we can use them as seeds to restore relationships in positive, life-affirming ways. He presents the matter as black and white. Bullets or seeds – good or bad.
I don’t think words are that simple. I can say the wrong thing with the right intention or say the right thing in the wrong way and it all becomes a very gray matter. Perception is subjective.
And what if I sow seeds of doubt or fear with my words? Not all seeds are good seeds. Some seeds grow toxic plants and weeds that will destroy a flourishing garden. Or what if I need to shoot down the dangerous thought or stance of a loved one and I’m able to use my words as bullets by saying what I have to say in a loving way. Bullets are used in warfare for a reason. There are times when bullets are effective and necessary.
I love words because they are complex and malleable, much like the human brain. Words have the power to heal, to grow, to nurture and to empower. Words also have the power to break, tear down and destroy.
When I was in middle school, one of my older cousins gifted me her personal collection of cheesy young adult novels. These hardcover (often romance) books filled with beige-tinted pages of cliche after cliche were like Lifetime movies for teenagers. As a pre-teen, I felt like someone had let me in through the backdoor of rated R movie. Looking back it was more like PG-13. Still, I was in paradise.
Out of the dozens of books and storylines and characters, there is only a single scene that remains permanently etched into my memory like writing in concrete after it has already dried..
A mother and daughter are standing in the bathroom as the young girl gets ready for school. The daughter is preoccupied with thoughts of her current crush and how she will get her dream date to ask her to prom.
The mother, in an attempt to teach her daughter an important life lesson, empties an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink. Then she directs her daughter to put the toothpaste back into its original packaging. The daughter is baffled and tells her mom it is impossible.
The mother’s final response is something like this. “Remember this moment. Words are like toothpaste. Once they’ve left your mouth, you can never take them back.”
My mother too tried to teach me this lesson by warning me of the power of words. The problem is that children learn more from watching than they do from listening to lectures. I was no exception. My mother is all heart, all love and also all emotion. She displayed signs of word vomit before I even recognized it as a diagnosis.
My research has come to reveal that word vomit is likely a hereditary disorder and I am my mother’s daughter.
There are a lot of annoying components to being a writer.
There is always the question of what have you written and where have you been published.
There is the pressure that you place on yourself to produce and the anxiety of knowing you wasted away time that could have been spent writing.
There is living with imposter syndrome and fighting the urge to compare your writing to everything you read because self-doubt is alive and living in the tips of your fingers.
But the most infuriating of them all – the one that makes the hair on my arms stand at attention in resentment – is when people reference my writing in response to cases of word vomit.
I usually know I said something I shouldn’t have as soon as the words echo in the air. I immediately retract my statement and ask for forgiveness. I am a professional apologizer, most women are. My go to has been the classic, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
To which some people have responded, “No, but you’re a writer.” There is usually sarcasm dripping from these words like toxic waste, black and putrid. Then they continue, “I think you said exactly what you meant.”
More often, the reference that irritates me is less volatile. It’s something lighthearted like, “You’re a writer! You should be able to describe this better.”
PSA Announcement: Writers don’t have a magic supply of words that float from their mouths and instantly resolve conflict like a puff of smoke that is left behind by the wave of a wand. There is no abracadabra spell that gives them the perfect way to describe any one moment, person or place in vivid detail.
I’m willing to consider that the process may be that easy for some writers. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the facts remain that 1) those magic unicorn writers are hard to find and 2) I am not one of those writers.
I am not quick on my feet. I need time to process, both what I’m hearing and what I’m feeling in order to respond responsibly. I’m the kind of person that won’t be mad about something someone said until hours later when I’ve replayed it enough times in my head to deem it offensive.
Word vomit has served me well as a writer. I projectile vomit words into my journal or onto my keyboard and then go back to clean up the mess later. Word vomit gives me plenty of material and then I go into editing and revising mode to make sense of the disaster. It is a slow and painful progress, like surgical tattoo removal.
It is no wonder then that week after week this #52essays2017 challenge has me feeling like Regina George in “Mean Girls” after she was hit by a speeding school bus.
Word vomit has not served me well as a friend, daughter or lover. I am aware that words can be seeds or bullets and too often I have unintentionally and irresponsibly planted seeds of doubt and insecurity or shot through the hearts of loved ones with my carelessness. I am learning how to slow down. How to think through my emotions and insert some logic. How not to allow my knee-jerk reactions to charge the words that I allow to escape from my lips.
I have more control than I realize. That is what I am learning and practicing.
Every once in awhile I have a lapse and I feel like I just messed up my progress in the twelve step program of AA and I have to start all over again. When I fall victim to my word vomit, it leaves behind the bitter taste of guilt on my tongue like raw, unsweetened cocoa.
::insert a deep sigh and shrug of shoulders::
I guess what matters is that I’m getting better and even though my personal research shows that word vomit is hereditary, maybe my kids will learn by watching me. Maybe I can win the whole nature vs. nurture argument by teaching my future children that there is power in the words that one wields and that it is important to hone that power with intention and discipline.
At least these are the things I tell myself because I want to believe there is life after the diagnosis of word vomit and that recovery is possible.