Back when I was in year 10 and everything felt like too much, I would grab a couple of friends and we would head over to the cliffs surrounding Coogee beach and scream. We would face the ocean, open our mouths and shriek at the waves, which thundered in response before crashing on the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to do the screaming. Likely it was not my friend who worked at the bakery in the heart of Coogee – she was behind the counter of the family shop from the moment she could do basic maths. Nor was it my other friend who is now living as a monk in a monastery in Taiwan, having got rid of her earthly possessions many years ago and leaving our shores to fulfil her calling. Most likely the person instigating the screaming was me. Angst-ridden and feeling the heaviness of being 15 to my very core. I had arrived in Australia only a few years earlier and still hadn’t made sense of my new home.
The three of us were working-class immigrant kids living in the eastern suburbs, though at the time we didn’t see ourselves as anything of the sort. We likely came across as confused and awkward teenagers, despite trying so hard to appear “normal” in a country that at times didn’t feel like home, even though it was meant to be just that. Screaming probably seemed like a great option to my teenaged brain. “Let’s just scream our guts out,” I probably said to my friends. “And we’ll feel so much better.”
I don’t know if we did feel better but the thrill of doing something that went against expectations – we were strait-laced to a fault – changed something within us. We screamed into the ocean, and it roared back with an instruction that didn’t need words.
I think of the screaming often, even though we only did it a few times. Afterwards, once we began to realise it was now a thing, and people – other kids mostly – may judge us on it, we stopped. Turning 16 was around the corner and, for reasons I’m unsure of, this brought with it some much-needed lightness.
But the screaming was stuck in my brain like a last-ditch option. Something I felt I could turn to when things got too much. However, after I became an adult I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let go of all the expectations and societal norms that held me back, preventing me from opening my mouth and hollering till I could shout no more.
Now in lockdown, I think of the screaming again, because much like my childhood I’m in a situation I can’t control. Screaming seems like a logical response when you can’t change the way things are. It was why last year thousands of people in Melbourne collectively screamed from their front porches and balconies and earlier this year a group of people in Israel did it too.
Screaming is a human response. It’s an unleashing of frustration, a primeval urge. A sign that you’ve run out of words. I screamed when I was younger because for much of my life till that point I had remained quiet, and the screaming was an indication that this silence was crumbling.
As an adult, I no longer scream – well, unless you count occasionally shouting at my kids. And I’m yet to let out a primal scream over lockdown. It took many years for me to discover that I didn’t have to scream to express how I felt. I could use my writing to do that instead.
The turbulent immigrant teen still lives inside my chest however. The screaming was necessary then. It helped in some ways. So scream if you want to. You may not have to do it facing the waves. You could just scream into your pillow (if you haven’t done so already). Scream to let the emotion out. At a time when not much makes sense, it may be the only thing that does.