My heart thrummed wildly as I took to the small stage. My hands shook at my sides, begging to have something to keep them busy. The second my brother’s fingers began dancing along the piano keys, I felt a sheepish grin spread across my face. This was a dream of mine manifesting itself into reality. I was twenty-one years old, a junior in college, longing for a moment like this to occur—a moment that I’d daydreamed for so long.
I loved singing. Growing up in the church as the daughter of a worship pastor, I spent my childhood daydreaming of a life on stage, a microphone in hand… a life that seemed strongly incompatible with my social anxiety (which I later found out was selective mutism). I would sit in the sanctuary each Sunday imagining myself leading the service as my dad was, using my voice as an instrument to praise God. Each time I did so, I could feel my chest fill with hope and joy until I was faced with the reality of my silence and “shyness.” No. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be on that stage.
My parents both worked for my childhood church—my dad as the worship and executive pastor, my mom as the office manager. I quite literally grew up in that church in suburban Kansas City, spending my summer days playing with my siblings in the empty Sunday school classrooms. We were always at the church for one reason or another. Practically every parishioner knew my family.
There was a week in every summer when the church would host Vacation Bible School (VBS) for all the children. By the following Sunday, we were all expected to stand on the steps of the stage and sing a few of the songs we had learned. I remember one year my sister and I refused to get up on the stage with everybody and my mom was absolutely furious with us. She spent a ridiculous amount of effort trying to convince us to be like the other kids. While I don’t know this for sure, it’s possible she wanted to feel pride as all the other parents had as they watched their kids accomplish this feat. Unfortunately for her, we seemed to be the only ones who had strong resignations about being on that stage. Actually, now that I think about it, it must have been strange to see that the worship pastor’s daughters were experiencing cases of stage fright.
“All you have to do is mouth ‘watermelon’ over and over if you don’t know the words,” my mom told us, believing this was the problem behind our stubbornness. I think my sister might have taken her advice, if not that year, then the following year. I, however, remained obstinate. This fear wasn’t about words. I definitely didn’t want to look ridiculous trying to lip sync using the name of my favorite fruit. My mom threatened us with grounding and other punishments. She may have even broken her ‘no bribing’ rule. None of it worked for me. I was not singing on that stage.
I don’t remember how old I was then, or if it occurred before or after my next anecdote.
In the second grade (age 8; 2004), I was determined to make it in the school talent show. I was laying in bed one night, singing quietly to myself, when I realized that I had most of the lyrics to “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid (1989) memorized. I was so excited that I hopped out of bed and told my parents, who happened to own a book of sheet music from many of the older Disney films. My mom would play the piano and practice with me until tryouts. I ended up making it in the talent show and Mrs. J, my music teacher, ended up playing the piano piece for me. As I lined up behind a few of my classmates in the hall leading up to the stage, I remember feeling very jittery. I had the lyrics printed out on a piece of paper in case I forgot the words, and one of my friends—I don’t remember which one—tried to make me feel better as they were coming off the stage, insisting that they had to use a cheat sheet of lyrics too. However, I was determined not to use them. I had this song memorized for weeks and I didn’t want to look like I needed them if I were to perform in front of the entire school. When it was my turn to go up on stage, I suddenly felt very nervous, but I’m proud to say that my eight year old self still stood at the mic in front of all those children and parents despite those feelings. Mrs. J began plucking away at the keys and I started to sing.
“Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?”Part of Your World (Jodi Benson), The Little Mermaid (1989)
My little voice sang shyly into the mic, semi-confident at first. I knew the words. Somewhere in the middle of song, I stuttered and stumbled over them, the lyrics disappearing from my memory. Everyone was staring. I glanced at Mrs. J, who nodded to me encouragingly, and I decided it would be more embarrassing to run off. So I stayed and I stuttered and I fumbled, refusing to look at my lyrics sheet that I was holding tightly in my left hand. I was standing too still to move my arm enough to be able to peak at the words. Honestly, I’m amazed at the brave little girl in my memory who stayed on stage through a botched performance, who held back the tears as she left, and who kept up a strong smile throughout the remainder of the day. Through all that, the experience left her with a persisting feeling of failure. The only thing that kept her together were her classmates’ constant encouragements.
“Even though you messed up, I still think you were the best,” one of them said to me, patting me on the back. They crowded around me, almost as keyed up as I was from the performance. The perfectionist in me wallowed over the mistakes and I didn’t sing solo in a school talent show ever again.
Looking back on this now, I’m extremely proud of eight year old me. Mostly because I know that many children with SM can’t fathom having the courage to try out for a talent show, let alone be in one. I was still naïve then. In fact, this story seems more like a common human experience than one having to do with my disorder. To be fair, my selective mutism at the time wasn’t as strong as it was the following school year (see post False Beginnings for that story).
“I’m thinking about putting on a musical this year,” my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. B, said to my sister and I a few years later. “Would you girls be interested?” A musical? That was weird. We’d never done one at church before. I shrugged nonchalantly, returning to my coloring.
Mrs. B went along with her musical, casting every child in a part. I was surprised to see my name listed as Mary’s understudy. One day, the girl playing Mary was missing from practice, so Mrs. B had me sing her solo. I knew this song. I’d heard my dad sing it on stage many times. I had decided it would be more embarrassing if I didn’t sing my solo with confidence, so I belted out my lines to the best of my ability, leading to a very shocked Mrs. B proclaiming, “I didn’t know you could sing!” I smiled sheepishly. I loved to sing. I just didn’t do it in public so much. Mrs. B ended up wishing she’d casted me as Mary instead of her understudy. She spoke with my dad about how she thought I held no interest in the musical.
The next year, she cast me in a narrator spot with my only church friend, D. We shared a duet, but at one point, D insisted I wasn’t a very great singer, so I lost a bit of my confidence. The year after that, I had aged out of the elementary group, but Mrs. B wanted to keep me on for a solo. I worked with her independently for a few weeks until I quit after growing too frustrated with myself for not hitting the notes the way Mrs. B wanted me to. When the day of the musical came, I listened as someone’s mother sang the solo instead, and I remember wishing so much that it was me. I ended up not singing in front of a crowd for almost nine years.
I spoke in front of crowds first. Small crowds, but still crowds. I had taken a public speaking class my freshman year of college and, although I was nervous at first, I quickly gained confidence in my abilities. The only speech I had issues with was the “elevator speech” because it was more like a conversation instead of a planned presentation. By the time junior year rolled around, I had decided it was time for me to preach my first sermon at the tiny church my cousin and I volunteered at.
“That was awesome. I’m convinced you’re like a secret ninja assassin or something,” J mentioned to me as he was dropping off a fellow student volunteer. It was common of me to shock people whenever I did something that seemed out of character in front of them. My “shyness” (or selective mutism) often set the bar for my abilities fairly low in people’s minds, so when I accomplished something—especially if it involved social interaction or performance—it was greeted with expressions of astonishment. Due to this, J had decided from that point on that I was a “secret ninja assassin,” because I had become unpredictable, my “extraneous” abilities seeming to come out of nowhere.
A few months later, I sang on that small church stage for the first time. Leading worship became my reason for being. For that next year-or-so, my confidence level had never been greater. I lived my life fulfilled for the first time doing something that I had always longed to do. While it was short lived, I had never felt more purpose than I had while I was a worship leader. My experience with that church is what ultimately left me knowing what I would love to do with the rest of my life…
Use. My. Voice.
Whether that be in audio narration, podcasting, speeches, whatever… I know that when I am able to pursue those opportunities again, I will be pursuing a good portion of my life’s purpose. It may seem “out of character” for someone with selective mutism, but I assure you, my life is so much more than my disorder.