As a child, I had two sides: the laughing, playful side, and the shy, non-talkative side. I didn’t plan to be that way, it just happened. I can’t even remember when it all started. Perhaps I had been that way from the word go. All I know is that my voice did a disappearing act whenever I went outside, mainly to school.
Had you seen me as a child, nothing would have stood out. All you would have seen is a child; an everyday child like all other children, and at school it wasn’t any different. But for anyone who didn’t know me or speak to me, they didn’t realise I struggled to talk — there was no way to tell. As long as no-one interacted with me, everything remained fine.
One way it was obvious was at the beginning of the school day in class. I dreaded the register being called. It was back when the teachers had a book they brought to class every day. Every morning, before they launched into the first lesson, they would sit down and call each of the pupil’s names and add a tick or cross. After calling each name, they would hear “yes miss/sir” if the child was present until they reached my name.
I wanted to answer, but the words wouldn’t come out. It felt awful. The more the words refused to come out, the more anxious I felt. The more anxious I felt, the more I wanted to hide away. Occasionally, I would push out a little sound, and if I was lucky, the teacher would just about hear me. It was even better when they looked in my direction as they called my name because then I didn’t have to worry about making a sound. The times when I said nothing — which were often — were the times another child would pipe up.
“She’s here miss.”
It was a relief when someone broke the uncomfortable silence I often felt powerless to fill. Sometimes it didn’t bother the teacher, and other times it did.
“Why didn’t you say something?” She would ask impatiently. A question I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know why. All I knew is that everyone saw me as ‘the quiet one’ and for good reason.
Thankfully, there were two people to whom I talked. My anxiety disorder ceased to exist around them. The three of us were best friends, and I would forget about my challenges with speaking aloud. It was effortless communication, and I was relaxed around them. It was only when another child came along that my mouth would suddenly close and my voice once again disappeared.
There didn’t seem to be a way out of this behaviour. I felt trapped.
I shared my ‘speaking side’ only with my two friends and immediate family. Everyone else, including aunts, cousins and uncles, got the silent treatment or a very quiet voice if I said anything. I even found it so hard to speak that one day my thumb got shut in a car door and I said nothing; I just stood there waiting for someone to notice. Again, I was asked the same question:
“why didn’t you say something?”
As an adult, there was always a small part of me that was curious about why I had been that way as a child, and then one day I got the answer. I was online searching for something, and I can’t remember why or how, but the words ‘selective mutism’ caught my eye. Even though I had never heard this term before, something told me I needed to check it out, so I clicked on the link and landed on the National Health Service (NHS) website in the UK. This is what I read:
“Selective mutism is a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as with classmates at school or to relatives they don’t see very often. It usually starts during childhood”.
While I hadn’t been desperate to know why I spoke with only a select few people during my childhood, it certainly felt like a relief to have an answer. It was an anxiety disorder. Where it came from, I don’t know. I can only guess that upon starting school, certain fears I had were left unresolved which then escalated, but if I had selective mutism before that, I don’t know what could have triggered it.
At first, I wondered if it was just shyness as opposed to anxiety. But reading a few parents’ stories and reading what experts say about shyness vs selective mutism (and comparing that with my behaviour), it seemed to lean more towards the latter.
I initially thought it was a relatively new term, but I discovered that the condition was first identified in 1877 by someone called Kussmaul who called it aphasia voluntaria. I believe the consensus among the teachers in my school was that I chose not to speak, which wasn’t the case at all. The fact that they never questioned my behaviour suggests that they weren’t aware that it could have been anything more than shyness.
It took a few years, but I eventually spoke to more people although I still have that quieter side up until today. I’m not sure how I reached the point where I could talk normally. In my mid-teens, I forced myself to say a few things here and there so maybe that helped. I guess I could be looked upon as lucky. Lucky because I seemingly grew out of it, although overcoming the disorder is probably a more appropriate term.
All I know is that nowadays, I speak normally (most of the time 😉 ) but most of what I say comes out more powerfully via the written word. The most important thing in all of this is that this new awareness has made me empathetic towards people who are or who have been affected by anxiety.
I get what it’s like to be gripped by it and feel helpless. I may not have the problem anymore, but I will never forget what it was like.
Someone pointed out the other day that by forcing myself to talk, I more or less did my own Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and moved on from there, that’s why I previously said I overcame my anxiety disorder. I’m not, however, a therapist.
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