As a child, there were two sides to me: the laughing, playful side, and the quiet, shy non-talkative side. It wasn’t as if I had a plan to be that way, it just happened. I can’t quite remember when it all started. Perhaps I had been that way from the word go. All I know is that my voice, for the most part, seemed to do a disappearing act any time I went outside, mainly to school.
Had you seen me as a child, nothing would have stood out to you. All you would have seen is a child; an everyday child just like all other children. At school, it wasn’t any different. I was one of many children attending every day only, for anyone that 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 of the ways in which it was obvious was at the beginning of the school day in class. There, I dreaded the register being called. It was back when the teachers had a physical book that they had to bring 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. On the odd occasion, I would manage to push a little sound out and if I were 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 any sound. The times when I said nothing – which were often – were the times another child would pipe up.
“She’s here miss”.
It was always a relief when someone broke the uncomfortable silence that 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 that I was unable to 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 did talk. My anxiety disorder ceased to exist around them. The three of us were best friends at school and I would forget all about my challenges with speaking aloud. It was effortless communication and I was completely relaxed around them. It was only when another child came along that my mouth would all of a sudden close and my voice disappeared once again.
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 did manage to say anything. I even found it so hard to speak that at one time, my thumb got shut in a car door and I said nothing – I just stood there waiting for someone to notice. Of course, 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 as to 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 that I needed to check it out so I clicked on the link and landed on the 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 finally 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 went unresolved which then escalated, but if I had selective mutism prior to that, I don’t have an answer as to what could have triggered it.
At first, I wondered if it were in fact just shyness as opposed to anxiety but reading a few parents stories and reading what the experts say about shyness vs selective mutism and then comparing that with my behaviour, it certainly seemed to lean more towards the latter.
I initially thought it must have been a term that was relatively new but discovered that the condition was first identified in 1877 by someone called Kussmaul who, at the time, called it aphasia voluntaria. I think the consensus amongst the teachers in my school back then was that I was choosing to not speak, which wasn’t the case at all. The fact that they didn’t ever question 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 started speaking to more people, although I still have that quieter side to me up until today. I don’t even know how I reached the point where I was able to talk normally although in my mid-teens, I did manage to force 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 as it stands right now, I can speak normally (most of the time 😉 ) but most of what I say comes out even more powerfully via the written word. The most important thing in all of this is that this new awareness has made me want to create a community of not just shy and quiet women in business but women who are or who have been affected by anxiety in some way, not as a professional though, because I’m not a trained therapist.
I’m simply someone who gets what it’s like to be gripped by anxiety and feel helpless. I may not have the problem anymore but I’m coming from a ‘I get it’ perspective ‘but let’s not allow that side of things to hold us down or back’.
As a teenager, like I said, I managed to make myself say a few things here and there in school and as someone pointed out just the other day, I effectively did my own Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and moved on from there, that’s why I previously said that I overcame my anxiety disorder. As I already mentioned though, I’m not a trained therapist so I’m not offering any kind of therapy, more like a supportive environment for us all to keep moving forward.
So let’s do what we can with what we have and not feel pressured into doing things everyone else’s way, unless you want to, of course! But other than that, let’s keep going and let’s stay strong together.
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