Starving

I was starving.

There wasn’t any food left in the dorm. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have the physical ability to walk a mile to the nearest grocery store and back. Even if I did, I didn’t have any money. And I certainly didn’t have the social strength to hand my ID card to the lady in the dining hall so she could swipe for proof of my wasted food plan only to sit alone at a random table. I lied on the hard, carpeted floor and closed my eyes, imagining a room full of food like in A Little Princess. It was almost finals week and I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive.

I thought back to high school. Senior year. I’m sitting at a table in the middle of the school cafeteria, my best friend sitting across from me. M is staring at my tray of half-eaten food, pushing me to finish eating. The school district had a policy that stated that we had to have a certain amount of food on our trays before we checked out (unless we ordered a-la-carte), so I always had a few extra pieces of food on my tray at the end of lunch time.

“You need to eat,” M ordered, pushing my tray towards me. She added a comment about how I was too skinny. I had always been skinny, not as skinny as I had been when I was a child, but “skinny.” And it wasn’t due to my eating habits.

I pushed the tray back towards her, infuriated. I knew what she was implying, “I’m not anorexic!” Oops. I knew immediately I had responded too loudly. A few random pairs of eyes landed on us. I caught sight of S peering curiously at the scene from another table and lowered my voice, nearly growling, “I’m not built like you.” I tried to explain without sounding too mean, “My stomach can’t fit as much food as yours.” I knew it still sounded mean anyway. There was no good way to put it. My friends weren’t built like me. They weren’t fat, but they weren’t exactly… as small as me.

I guess I wasn’t making too much sense, because M grew a little angry as well, “You don’t eat enough.”

My mind returned to the dorm room. “I’m not anorexic,” I muttered to myself. I’d eaten nothing but popcorn for a week… but I wasn’t anorexic. It wasn’t like I was purposefully not eating.

This time my mind takes me to my junior high cafeteria. I’m sitting with a bunch of the other eighth grade band kids, my friends among them. I was self-conscious about people watching me eat. Every bite was small, minuscule… careful not to leave any sort of mess or make any sort of unappreciative noise. I lift my napkin to my lips for the thousandth time over the course of a minute, dabbing at nothing.

Then my brain takes me back even further… to one of my elementary school’s cafeterias. I’m being laughed at, but it doesn’t bother me too much. The school had served my favorite meal: Soft pretzels. I always ripped those into a million pieces as if that’s all I planned to do with them until I would dip the tiny portions in cheese prior to consumption. It was the only way to minimize the potential mess… or the potential sounds of loud, unflattering gulping or chewing. I did the same with bread rolls.

“I’m not anorexic,” I whispered, my brain returning to December 2014. The university dining hall had closed by then… it was past seven. I’d missed my window. I closed my eyes, listening to the far away sounds of the other girls who lived on the same hall. They were murmuring to each other, laughing, telling jokes, sharing secrets… they had all made friends. It was the end of my first semester of college… and I had made zero friends hiding out in my dorm room or at my parents’ house.

This particular university was clique-y, so it was difficult to maneuver one’s way into a crowd following the first week of school. At one point in the middle of the semester I had been invited to a chicken nugget party in the dormitory’s lobby and, although I love chicken nuggets, instead I turned out the lights, locked the door, and hid underneath my bed. I’m sure I thought about that night as I lied on the floor of my dorm nearing the end of the semester. My stomach sure could have used those chicken nuggets.

Later that week, I’m sitting in my intermediate algebra class, the final test sitting on the table in front of me. My head hurt. I was dizzy. I hadn’t eaten in at least three days. In fact, I was very worried I would make some sort of scene as I inevitably passed out. But I didn’t. I finished the test, a test I most definitely failed, and walked out of the classroom.

I moved out of the dorms that day. My dad helped me haul my stuff back to my parents’ house. Maybe then I’d eat more. Maybe then I’d feel better.

Projecting Hate

“I hate you,” I said at the end of a downward laugh, trying to slip it in as casually as I could. It wasn’t the first time I’d said it. I knew my friend, L, was slipping away from me. I could feel it. She didn’t seem to like me much anymore. I was no longer the shiny new kid.

L spent an increasingly long amount of time with A, who would later become one of my friends in junior high (2008-2010). I used to be invited to hang out at L’s house all the time, but suddenly it seemed her and A were best friends. I’m not sure what caused the shift in fifth grade (2006-2007). Maybe it was because I was friends with the new girl, M, at the beginning of the year. L never believed a word M said. Or maybe it was because of my crush on T, the troublemaker with ADHD. L most definitely hated him. Or maybe it had little to do with me or them at all.

I begged her to invite me over again like she used to. She was an only child (sort of) which means she had a karaoke machine and an endless supply of Polly Pockets. I always had fun at her house and it was that type of friendship that I prayed to find in high school (2010). Except, that friendship was suddenly dwindling. And I didn’t know why.

I convinced her to invite me over once more, but I don’t recall if that was before or after she confronted me in a very grown-up fashion, “I don’t like it when you…” It sounded like a phrase you learn in either kindergarten, health class, or therapy, but she handled it with a sense of maturity. It shocked me, really. They say not to poke the bear because he’ll do more than poke back. Even though her voice was semi-calm, my repetitive, “I hate you,” mantra had finally evoked a reaction. It was a reaction I hadn’t realized I didn’t want until halfway through her lecture, “It makes me feel…”

My body shook. It didn’t matter if someone was literally yelling at me or not. All they had to do was chastise or scold me with a certain level of seriousness in order to provoke the onslaught of tears getting ready to steal the show. It was my fault, really. I brought this upon myself.

When I visited her house for the last time her mother was surprised, “Why don’t I see you around anymore?” I glanced at L and suddenly felt guilty as if I had conned or stolen something from her. I guess I no longer belonged. So I never asked to come back again.

There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon or defense tactic called, “Projecting.” It’s probably the most commonly recognized defense mechanism next to sarcasm and denial. On the surface, I hated L for her rejection. I do that. When people start to leave my life I start to hate them. How dare they not like me anymore? My logic? Hate them back as soon as possible, as if it is some travesty to suddenly not want to be friends with me. Oh, I’m not likable anymore? To the dungeon!

I suspect it wasn’t really L whom I hated. After all, projection is a level of defense. Her foreseeable rejection was a threat to me… it spoke ill of my nature. It suggested I was “bad” in some way, shape, or form and it had led me to wonder if that truly was a depiction of my existence. That idea was what I truly hated. I am “bad” and “unlikable.” But surely, that cannot be. So to avoid these thoughts, I turned them back around on L… “I hate you.” Instead of L pushing me away, it was suddenly the other way around. I was pushing her away.

Out of Many, One

We tell our own truths. Our truths are never representative of the whole. In no instance can we guarantee one hundred percent. Which is why I write this with the intention of open-ended clarity.

My experience with Selective Mutism does not equal everyone else’s experience. We were all born with traits that make us unique. We were all born or adopted or under the care of families who held different ideals. Some of us blend into society better than others. Some of us have certain childhood or life traumas that others do not have. Some of us have speech impediments. Some of us speak more than others. Some of us can handle crowds. Some of us can’t leave the house. Some of us drink or do drugs. Some of us are adults, others are children. Some of us don’t appear to have a chronic case and will get better over time. Some of us get worse (perhaps before we get better). Some of us aren’t officially diagnosed. Some of us have multiple diagnoses. Some of us survive and unfortunately, some of us don’t. But I hope one day all of us will survive.

If you’re a mental health professional, you may not see us in your office. You might either for other reasons and/or when we have reached a certain level of desperation. You might see children more than adults due to concerned parents and teachers. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you see us all the time.

I’ve almost returned to therapy several times. My parents sent me the first time and never thought I needed to go back. Now I’m an adult who has no one to force me to go and who certainly can’t afford it anyway. I’m one of the few who now lives on my own and holds down a full-time job. I’m one of the few who thrives on a stage or on a mic, but who has rarely, if ever, successfully performed in front of a crowd of over thirty people. I am one of the many who are over-sensitive to rejection or criticism. I am one of the many who writes so much more eloquently than I speak.

I am reminded of a quote from the Rescue Heroes (2003) animated movie, “Out of many, one.” While the quote was referring to a single case of lightning strikes, I want to make one thing clear. Whatever makes us unique as individuals, makes us the one out of many. We all possess an exception to a seemingly uptight rule. And that exception (or exceptions) makes us different – a good different. It makes us who we are.

“My disorder ‘shouldn’t’ allow me to (fill in the blank), but here I am (filling in the blank).” Even if that blank is a small thing, maybe one day that small thing will turn into a big thing. Sometimes we just have to be patient. Out of many tries… one will prevail.

I live for those moments.

And for the possibility of more moments.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t want to be defined by that I cannot do, only by what I can.

Sharing Knives in the Dark

“I’m a hypocrite, but it’s not my fault,” I half-joked on multiple occasions in high school (2010-2014). I said this only because my best friend, M, and I had spurred an interest in advocacy and I was angry at others for not contributing to positive change even though I was acting just like they were. I “couldn’t” do what I was asking others to do. It’s probably why I got into advocacy in the first place. Because that was all that I felt I could do. I wasn’t social and was terrible communicating with strangers. But man, I reveled in the daydreams of one day speaking in front of crowds – speaking words of importance. But they were just words. I didn’t have any actions to go with them.

“Why don’t more people care?” I would complain. Their apathy felt almost personal. If they didn’t care about those who were struggling, then they didn’t care about me. This had me feeling more angry than sad.

Our advocacy plans focused more on suicide awareness than anything else. Our school hadn’t lost anyone to suicide. In fact, I don’t think either of us knew anyone who had succeeded in taking the ultimate plunge. But we had both stared at knives in the dark. Other area schools lost people during our final year or so (2013-2014), all boys, but girls across the nation and Canada had been making headlines since the 2000s. However, most of their cases stemmed from bullying; specifically, cyber-bullying. This trend was probably why movies like Odd Girl Out (2005) and Cyberbully (2011) came out.

I never really considered myself bullied. My sister was bullied far more than I ever was. Most people only whispered about me. To this day I’m still a little paranoid when I hear lowered voices.

I liked those movies, but I didn’t necessarily relate to them. Not until The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) came out. I had read the book in the fall of 2012 during my junior year of high school and bought the DVD with the money my dad gave me to spend over Spring Break. I remember only getting through the first five or ten minutes of the movie before bursting into tears. The movie hadn’t even reached the emotional parts yet, but I knew what was coming. Looking back, I’m not really sure how my story really connected with Charlie’s. He was quiet and awkward and intuitive. He saw things in his friends they didn’t expect. He was an excellent gift-giver. People whispered about him behind his back (he was bullied more to his face). He didn’t raise his hand in class when he knew the answer. He had a fear of “getting bad again.” There were other details affiliated solely with either the movie or the book… but everything else about Charlie’s story was different from my own. It displayed another life mine fearfully but also jealously had the potential to live if only my past had been slightly different. But still, somehow, it felt he shared my story. And I was angry that many others around me felt the same way.

I had a problem with sharing. And I don’t mean the obvious kind of sharing – verbal sharing of secrets and information. Or the kind of sharing that little kids learn to do with their toys. I mean, sharing as in having things in common with people. I liked to feel special and unique and usually didn’t like it when others imposed on that feeling. Perhaps this was simply another tactic I had developed (and carried around since childhood) to further isolate myself. Whatever the reason, I hated meeting people (especially those I wasn’t friends with but knew) who shared interests or habits or crushes. I would suddenly feel like we were in some sort of competition and I didn’t want them to win… to be better than me. In the fifth grade (2006-2007) it was as simple as having the same sparkly pens as somebody else, but in high school it grew into someone also describing themselves as “awkward” or “socially anxious.” I hated it. No one was supposed to be like me. We weren’t the same. How was I supposed to stand out if it turned out I was just like everybody else?

“We put together a band last night,” J eagerly mentioned three years later (2016), “We call ourselves ‘Social Anxiety.'” I rolled my eyes. We all knew nobody was more socially anxious than I. I had made that very clear. This was prior to any suggestion that I may have Selective Mutism, so it seemed unfathomable to me that all these people could share the same diagnosis when we were nowhere near the same level of anxiety and associated behavior. I had only played the “who’s worse” game once and it hadn’t exactly ended well. It was against my friend, M, over Facebook Messenger, in our earlier years of college (2015). We spat our overly-dramatized experiences at each other until we eventually gave up. I wasn’t about to start another round with anybody else any time soon.

I quit doing advocacy work around that time. I’m sure M continued. She had the heart to stay in it and the empathy levels to actually be helpful to others. She wanted to be an art therapist. I hope she continued to follow that dream.

I did one speech on suicide awareness my freshman year of college (2014). I mentioned earlier that our high school hadn’t had any suicides, but six months after our graduation, two girls ended their lives and a boy ended his two year later (2017). It was our brothers’ high school at that point, but these were losses felt by the masses. Our school was bleeding…

Suicide awareness spiked in the mid-2010s and only grew after the release of the television series, 13 Reasons Why (2017).

And I think it killed us.

U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (Click this link to chat online or for Spanish or Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Assistance)

Crisis Services Canada (Click this link to learn more about Canada’s Suicide Prevention Services and connect with responders now)

To Be A Captive

This post is a continuation of “Talking to Volleyballs

I always figured a mental illness wasn’t severe enough until it landed its captive in the hospital. At least, that’s what it seemed like. You had to be hospitalized to receive a diagnosis… like those with Bipolar I Disorder or Schizophrenia. You know, the more “obvious” disorders. In fact, my friend, T, had been sent to the hospital on multiple occasions due to suicide attempts. Later my cousins, G and J, would also seemingly have an on-and-off relationship with hospitals and inpatient care centers in their teenage years. But I wasn’t “bad enough.” My disorder was built on isolation and fear… suffering in silence. How could I communicate my suffering without adding to the fear? Besides, I would hate the attention it brought me… all the worry that would seep into the air and choke me. I hated doctors and needles and pills and who know what else. I could fight this. I mean, it was only a dark cloud spewing dangerous lies that I was fighting. How hard could it be?

In January 2011 (9th grade) my mom had taken me to urgent care because, as it turned out, an abscess was growing underneath my tonsils, threatening to close my airways. It was difficult and painful to swallow or open my mouth more than a few centimeters. I only bring this up because the doctor or nurse or whoever she was seemed to be heavily concerned with my behavior… behavior that wasn’t strange to my mother. At fifteen I was adamant that I not be poked or prodded, leading to a very dramatic scene in which five healthcare professionals had to pin me down so they could swab my throat.

“Are you sure?” the lady asked my mother for the millionth time, trying to be sure she wasn’t missing that something else may be wrong with me. When she had first asked the question, I had opened my mouth, but glanced over at my mother and shut it, shaking my head vigorously. It would have appeared we were hiding something, despite that not necessarily being the case.

I don’t know if it was my age or if the late 2000s into the 2010s brought on a sudden wave of mental health awareness, but whatever the case, medical professionals suddenly tried to screen me for more dangerous mental health symptoms – Depression and suicidal thoughts. Okay, so that failure was on me. I had lied on some paperwork eight months prior to this in an ill-attempt at self-preservation. And honestly, by 2011, the voice had left me, so my only fear was that it would find its way back.

I almost died that week, probably on my brother’s eleventh birthday. Not by choice, no no. The doctor was kind of mad when we walked into the ER (emergency room) the day after the walk-in clinic. Apparently I was only a day away from death and he wasn’t happy with whatever medication the clinic had prescribed to me. I didn’t feel like I was dying though. In fact, I knew I wasn’t going to die. It just didn’t seem plausible that a peritonsillar abscess would lead me to my demise. My mother, apparently, was not as easily convinced. “I thought you were going to die,” she told me later, chills running down her spine. She wasn’t the only one. When I returned to my church’s youth group three days later one of the older girls practically cried with relief when she saw me, “You’re alive!”

It was strange for me. All these people were suddenly very fearful of my life’s end, but for once I had not been. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. In fact, I was out of the hospital in time to celebrate my brother and cousin J’s birthdays that night. I gulped down a whole plate of mac-a-roo ‘n cheese from Outback Steakhouse, my communication very animated. In fact, in the hospital, doped up on medication, that was how I acted – talkative and content. But it also made my Selective Mutism very obvious in hindsight. My parents laughed because I would be talking and joking one minute and then suddenly stop when a nurse or doctor stepped into the room. It was funny to them. Even then I knew better than they did. Hear my silence, I’d think, what does it tell you?

My battle with the darkness had reached its climax in May 2010, almost exactly eight months before the whole “almost dying” fiasco. By that point, I was fearful of the kitchen. One of my chores, a chore I would be yelled at for neglecting, was to wash the dishes. It seems simple enough, but for fourteen-year-old me, the task was as dangerous as the dark alleys in Kansas City’s high-crime neighborhoods. Both experiences had the potential to end with a knife through the gut. It would have been an impulsive decision… anything to shut up the darkness.

The last day of eighth grade was the day the darkness seemed to slam into me full-force. I could almost see it, it was so thick and dense, the voice nearly booming like thunder. Here was the storm, coming for me, no longer lurking in the corners of my thoughts. I sat at a table in the junior high commons (cafeteria), having been separated alphabetically from my friends. The voice laughed evilly, knowing it had captured my full attention, “Nobody cares about you. They’ve left you all alone. You don’t have any real friends.”

“You’re lying,” I argued back in my head, but he continued to shout the lies and soon tears began to stain my face.

“It’s rude to stare,” a girl, H, chastised her friend. And then I continued my battle.

Mrs. H pronounced my name correctly during roll call not too long afterwards, “See! I told you I would get it right on the last day!”

I didn’t react and a boy, L, nudged me, but I couldn’t break my concentration.

I wouldn’t see these people again, whether I won against the darkness or not. I was transferring to a different high school.

I had several signatures in my yearbook that were signed that day and when I read them years later, I was amazed at how blind the darkness had made me.

And then there was N. Somehow the news of my transfer hadn’t reached him until the last minute and so he was adamant in staying near me in the afternoon. I’m not sure I remember how many times he hugged me goodbye, but honestly, it was the highlight of my day. Even for just a second, I forgot about the darkness.

The darkness stayed with me a week longer and then left rather abruptly. It was only a dream, but I had died after saving a church daycare center whilst escaping from a serial killer. I had run out into the backyard of my parents’ house, only a few yards away from the lake I had considered drowning in, and found myself amidst a makeshift street-fighting ring, full of my brother’s friends. I took on the first opponent and the second… until I couldn’t take much more. Then I died. A vigil at the end of the street brought my soul back and when I awoke from the dream, the darkness was gone. Only light remained. It was like there was a battle for my soul and the good guys had won.

U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (Click this link to chat online or for Spanish or Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Assistance)

Crisis Services Canada (Click this link to learn more about Canada’s Suicide Prevention Services and connect with responders now)

 

Talking to Volleyballs

In eighth grade I talked to volleyballs.

I realize what a strange sentence that is, but hear me out.

Eighth grade (2009-2010) was a weird time. Actually, keeping with the theme of my last blog post, junior high (2008-2010) in its entirety was a weird time. In fact I had spent the final quarter of seventh grade (spring 2009) growing increasingly paranoid. I had always been a little strange, but this tipped it over the iceberg into possible insanity. I had developed an irrational fear of mind readers, granted, this was the year Twilight (2008) had come out in theaters, increasing the saga’s popularity. One of the main characters, Edward, was a mind reader, which is possibly what sent me spiraling. I desperately desired to be like the character, Bella, whose mind was closed off to mind readers. It was like I wanted some guarantee that not only could people not hear me speak, but they also couldn’t hear me think. Nope. No personal sharing for me, thank you.

At one point I had convinced myself that a boy named E, whom I never interacted with nor did he with me, could read my mind. I could practically hear his laughter in my head. An introductory poem I wrote for the acting class I shared with him heavily involved this fear and one day after a dramatic reading of a children’s book, my friend, N, teased, “What are you thinking?”

Perhaps this should have concerned people. But then again, maybe I didn’t make this obvious enough.

A few months later (June 2009), a few of my friends witnessed another example of my paranoia. It was embarrassing really, but I was worried about the existence of tiny, minuscule, impossible-to-see hidden cameras. I actually scared a few of my friends when I slammed a yard stick against the corner of my closet door, where I was convinced one was embedded. I knew I sounded crazy, but I was the kind of person to believe in the impossible.

I’m not an expert, but I wonder if my anxiety at the time had experienced growing pains, manifesting itself into these bouts of paranoia. After all, junior high is a time and age when all kinds of new anxieties appear. Whatever its intention, it didn’t last longer than a few months – the paranoia, I mean. However, it was a pre-cursor for what was to come.

In eighth grade I talked to volleyballs. I think I mostly just whispered or moved my mouth, but for me that was talking. I patted them on their little volleyball heads as if they were kittens, gently scooping them from the floor and placing them in the basket. I was the volleyball manager, something both my mother and gym teacher thought would help me get involved and socialize. A couple of my friends were on the team, so the job basically allowed me to watch them play at every game. But that’s basically what the job was – watching. I was an observer as always and I mostly enjoyed that role. I didn’t have to speak too much. Talking to volleyballs quenched my boredom throughout that fall (2009) season.

It wasn’t until Christmas 2009 that I noticed a shift in perspective. The world suddenly felt heavier, darker. In the literal sense it was darker. Christmas season in the Midwest allows darkness to fall earlier and longer. But this darkness was different, more metaphorical than anything. It was like I was underwater, staring up at the ice that had formed on the surface. Every emotion relating to happiness and joy was more difficult to pass through the ice. I remember opening Christmas gifts and, although I was excited to receive my first cell phone, I sat in my sister’s green saucer chair feeling empty.

I had just turned fourteen.

I guess I’ve always been fascinated with the morbid. I liked sad stories and sad songs and sad movies… drawn to the darkness. Ironic, considering I was afraid of the dark. My dad jokingly blames himself for this fact. When I was young he let me stay up to watch My Dog Skip (2000), not knowing that the dog dies (of natural causes) at the end. He thinks he scarred me for life. When I was a little older I watched Old Yeller (1957) on repeat. I’m not sure these instances are related, but worth a mention.

I started 2010, the new decade, haunted by this darkness, but it wasn’t until the spring when it decided to attempt to seriously altar my life.

The thing about Selective Mutism is that the isolation it creates breeds a myriad of mental health issues. Sure, I had friends in junior high whom I spoke to on a semi-regular basis – M, A, O, N… sometimes R. In fact I think I spoke more in my two years of junior high than in my four years of high school. But my relationship with them felt distant, like there was always a Plexiglas wall between us. It was this feeling that the darkness fed on and soon most of these friendships felt as if they had been pretend all along.

“They don’t care about you,” the darkness whispered. Everything he said seemed so true in the moment, his words became increasingly difficult to argue with. One night I collapsed on the living room floor in tears, staring up at the ceiling in my semi-lit surroundings. My parents walked on by as if nothing about my behavior were strange or out of the ordinary. Wow. The voice must have been right. My family didn’t care about me either.

I tried to scream out for attention in the only ways I knew how. I would arrive home after school feeling defensive from holding in my thoughts and emotions for eight hours. My mom needed to recognize I was crazy, so I jumped in a large cardboard box and screamed about imaginative adventures on a sailboat. When that didn’t work, I pranced up and down the hallway with my arms waving in the air, “La la la la la la la!”

“Are you on drugs?!” my mother screeched. But even that thought seemed ridiculous and was quickly dismissed. It was no use. The voice was right. I was alone. And what was the point of living if I was alone?

To be Continued in “To Be A Captive” 

U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (Click this link to chat online or for Spanish or Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Assistance)

Crisis Services Canada (Click this link to learn more about Canada’s Suicide Prevention Services and connect with responders now)

Junior High Assumptions

“You’ll never be able to do anything on your own,” S sneered. We were standing in the girls locker room of our junior high, some of us in swimsuits, others in jeans and t-shirts. It was halfway through our seventh grade year (2008-2009) and if anybody knows anything about junior high girls… well, they can be vicious. S was particularly snarky. She was independent and slightly hot-headed, seething with stories of abandonment and other illegalities. These stories were supposed to make her seem cool and adult and maybe they worked for a little while, but if I were to choose just one of the girls from my junior high to describe as mean… it would be her.

Most girls had changed into their street clothes by now, the bell having just rung to dismiss gym class. I’m standing by the sinks, a towel in my hand, tears flying down my cheeks. All the other girls had held up towels for each other as they changed, but for some reason that morning, nobody did the same for me. And that was why S was sneering at me as if I could have held a towel up for myself the entire time… or as if I should have somehow been more comfortable stripping naked than everybody else.  “I’ll hold the towel for you,” M said as she tied her shoes. But I would never forget S’s snide remark.

Lots of girls talked about me in junior high. For some reason my existence was a common piece of gossip. It was weird. Like, I wasn’t the pregnant girl or the girl with pink hair or the girl who slept around or the girl with the weird boyfriend or the girl whose parents just got divorced or the girl whose mom was flirting with a teacher or the girl who always sang off-key in choir or the girl who always made up some wild story about her family or the girl who had a crazy hyper-active ADHD episode in the middle of class. I was just… I don’t know what I was. The quiet girl? I can’t imagine there’d be much to say about a girl who doesn’t speak much.

I didn’t hear most of the gossip. I was mainly just told of its existence.

G abruptly stopped and turned around. We were standing at our local mall near the Hot Topic, but she had spotted a few girls from my junior high. I’m not sure how she knew them considering she went to school two and a half hours away, but perhaps she had met them through our friend, O. The girls, B & C, laughed as they left the store and G muttered underneath her breath, “Those girls talk about you.” It wasn’t the only time a friend had warned me about the conversations of the other girls and honestly, I didn’t find it all too shocking.

B.J. stared at me. We’re sitting in geography class and I know he’s going to ask me for a pencil because he’s done it a thousand times. In fact, more often than not, he would neglect to return the pencil, so I kept up an endless supply of them. It wasn’t long after I had handed him a new pencil when I realized he was still staring at me. Squinting his brown eyes, he finally spoke, “Hey,” he struggled to keep a straight face, knowing he had gained my attention, “go kill yourself.” He cracked a smile and I stared at him, dumbfounded. What had he just said to me? He might have said it a few more times just to make sure I had heard him, but I continued to stare back, my head cocked to the side, unable to formulate a good comeback. What I was really trying to do was figure out his motives for saying such a thing. It was completely out of the blue. Random, even. Like… what just happened???

I was asked a lot that year why I was quiet. In fact, I was asked so much that in the eighth grade (2009-2010) I thought I would start a running tally. Except only one person asked me in the eighth grade and I think it might’ve been my science teacher. It was disappointing actually. One year I seemed to be the talk of the town, the next I was suddenly ignored. RUDE.

I never had an answer for them. Over the years I formulated many theories. I wondered if anybody else thought of any…

There was one instance in eighth grade in which I remember my friend, N, pulling me aside before language arts class. He was suddenly very serious which was unlike him. N was a fun-loving guy and would only grow serious when he felt the necessity to make a point of things. I recognized this tone from many short conversations, one in particular in which he had warned me to stay away from B.J. But this was even more serious than that. “Hey, you can tell me,” he half-whispered in the hallway, studying my face, “Do your parents hit you?”

First, a little background information. In junior high there was such a thing as “poke wars.” It was kind of like a food fight, except everybody was always poking each other, no food involved. Anyway, N had been the first to notice that I jumped or flinched whenever I was touched. Classic sign of child abuse, right? So I suspect this was what led him to ask the question.

I was surprised at first. “No,” I answered incredulously. Believe it or not, I was actually a little disappointed this was my answer. No, my parent’s didn’t hit me, but man, would that explain a lot if they did. I was also a little disappointed because N seemed to really care about me and his worry was endearing. Except… he had nothing to worry about. At least, nothing regarding that type of abuse.

It was weird because in the eighth grade all the classic signs were there. I was socially withdrawn, jumpy, and depressed. What else could it have been…?

False Beginnings

“Which teacher did you get?” L practically shouted down the hall at me. It was “Meet the Teacher” day back in August 2004 (3rd Grade). I had attended the same school since Kindergarten and had known most of my classmates (including L) since then. We were sort of friends… but then again, everybody was friends back then. If he had asked me this question a year prior, I probably would have smiled, shouted, “Mrs. S!” back at him, and we would have cheered upon realizing we were in the same class.

But this was third grade. This was 2004.

I don’t know what changed, but I remember, very clearly, stopping in my tracks and staring at him, trying to move my mouth. All I had to tell him was that Mrs. W was my teacher. The phrase was all prepared, ready to be proclaimed… but I just stood there next to my parents, begging my mouth to move. I was ushered away – my parents had places to be – and I remember L’s head as he tilted it to the side, a look of hurt and confusion clouding his face.

I would dwell on this memory for over a decade.

This was the first time in three years of memories that I remember something like this happening to me. For a long time, I thought this was when my silence began. 2004. The year the Summer Olympics were held in Greece. Or the year Facebook first launched. Or the year my favorite quarterback, Peyton Manning, was signed to the Indianapolis Colts. Or the year Friends aired its final season. Or the year the third Harry Potter and the second Spider-Man movies came out. Or the year former president, Ronald Reagan, died. Or the year the base of the Statue of Liberty re-opened for the first time since 9/11. Or the year George W. Bush was re-elected president. Or the year an earthquake-tsunami killed 230,000 people. 2004 was a big year.

I was pulled out of class a lot that school year (2004-2005). I kept failing the school’s hearing tests and since my speaking tapered off during that time, the school nurse, Mrs. Shef, was especially worried. Looking back, I think I was failing those tests on purpose because it was the only way I could think of to cry for help… for attention… for somebody to notice that something was definitely wrong with me. I remember keeping my hand rested on the table as I listened to a few of the high-pitched tones. I had convinced myself that maybe I was just hallucinating the sounds… that the pitchiness was causing my ears to ring. But in reality, eight-year-old-me just wanted somebody to care.

I remember that I stopped doing my homework that year. Not all the time, but at least one fourth of the time. I remember one instance in particular in which I was speaking to my friend, J, before class, knowing that both of us had accomplished nothing over the weekend. I smiled at him, preparing to put on the act of a lifetime, “Watch this.” Mrs. W called my name as she took roll and checked for homework. I burst into tears, sobbing. It wasn’t difficult to make myself cry for real. I was an emotional kid. My friend, K, guided me to the bathroom to dry my tears, “You know it’s not healthy to cry all the time,” she said, “My mom is always crying…”

K’s mom was a single mother. L’s parents were deaf. J lived with his dad and step-mom, who were suspected of abuse. I wasn’t exactly raised in a family like theirs. My parents were together, healthy, and communicative. The five of us lived in a three-bedroom duplex. We went to church across town every Sunday where my dad led worship and my mom worked. My baby brother liked to ram himself into walls and I liked to chase neighborhood adventures. There were no warning signs… nothing that suggested that I would suddenly be “shy” or unusually silent in 2004. But that was the year my silence reminded me of its existence and never left.

According to my mother, my teachers always remarked on my silence before this age, but I hold no memories of severe “shyness” at school between (and including) Kindergarten and 2nd Grade. Perhaps I was quiet all this time but was too young to notice… especially since I seemed to be friends with everybody. Or maybe it’s because my memories of those grades are dominated by memories of rebellion… rebellion from my silence. Whatever the case, it was eight-year-old-me who was shocked into the reality of my condition. It was eight-year-old-me who was given a self-help book by my third grade teacher. It was eight-year-old-me who garnered the most attention from her silence, her failed hearing tests, and her waning giftedness. Eight-year-old-me who was stuck with the burden of knowledge that something just wasn’t right. Something was very wrong.

Against the Grain

“Speak!”

Wow. I didn’t realize I was a dog. Even in the heat of the moment, my brain had come up with that little thought. She was speaking to me as if I were a dog she were attempting to train. By “she” I mean the district manager at the sandwich shop chain I had been working at for months (in 2017).

I call this job “my first real job” because it was the first one I had gotten on my own. The only other job I had prior to the sandwich shop was a minimum-wage work-study job at a university. I rarely count that as a job, considering I never worked more than three hours a day and made next to nothing.

Anyway, I was rather proud of myself for securing a job all on my own. I had recently dropped out of college (after attending for two-and-a-half years). It was the beginning of a long-term game I like to call “Prove It!” in which I proved to myself that I could do things I would only dream of. Dropping out of college was one. Getting a “real” job was another.

The initial interview hadn’t gone too well. The general manager only let me come in for a second interview because, “the other guy didn’t show.” That was fine by me. I was bad at interviews. Especially sandwich shop interviews. What was I supposed to say? That I looked forward to making a living putting together sandwiches? That I will devote the rest of my life to eating sandwiches? That making sandwiches was the most desirable thing I could possibly be doing with my time? YAY! SANDWICHES!

I actually ended up enjoying the job. The general manager (who was the assistant manager when I first began) mostly had me working the register. It was the same task every day and, although repetitive, I appreciated the fact that I was rarely moved to a different station or pulled out of my comfort zone. All I had to do was greet each customer, push a few buttons, swipe a card or take some cash, and wave them goodbye. Simple. Practically scripted.

I enjoyed how fast-paced the lunch rush was. It was such an adrenaline high to be working the register, gathering soups, and creating milkshakes while the line was long enough to reach the parking lot. It was like a game of diner dash except in real life. I ended up working there for a year-and-a-half.

The only problem was that the sandwich shop’s system, or culture, involved the guy at the beginning of the line shouting soup and milkshake orders that the person at the cashier’s side of the line was supposed to shout back. I always almost nodded instead or, when we were really busy, I pulled a piece of receipt paper and wrote the orders down. This was why the district manager was standing next to me one day, ordering me to speak. Even if I could do just that, part of me didn’t want to satisfy her. I remember thinking, “You know what, lady? If you’re going to fire me, then fire me. I don’t care.” But she didn’t. She just watched me stare at the soups.

“Fine,” she huffed before moving on.

I felt proud of myself then. By this age (21) I was done trying to make other people happy. I was used to my disorder and I didn’t see or care how much it affected my life. I had moved past the “Why can’t I be normal?” phase and moved right on into acceptance. This was my life. I wasn’t even going to try to be normal. THIS was my normal.

The general manager seemed to accept this idea – this version of me. He never really tried to change me. It was only in the few times when we had corporate inspections that I would get some begging and pleading from him or one of the shift leaders. For the most part, my coworkers liked me. It did seem like some of the newer girls were a little jealous because they couldn’t understand why I was never asked to do certain things. Honestly, I was a little jealous of myself (if that’s at all possible). Like, how dare I get special treatment?

My time at the sandwich shop was one of the few times in my life in which I felt I were being treated appropriately when it came to my disorder. I didn’t grow up with a diagnosis and nobody ever felt my silence constituted a different plan or approach. I was treated like all the other kids, pushed like all the other kids. Part of me is glad I grew up that way. I was told, like all the other kids, that I could do anything I wanted, and that pushed me to play games like, “Prove It!” with myself. I don’t always sit around feeling inferior, as if I could never do things because of my disorder. It’s not true. I could do whatever I want, I just had to figure out how to push my fear aside in order for me to do it (which is harder for me to do than for most “normal” people).

I still play that game – “Prove It!” That game led me to an interview with a science group that performed experiments at birthday parties. I didn’t get the job (no surprise there), but I was able to prove to myself that I could put together a performance like that. That game led me to my current job – my first full time job. It was the first time an interview went extremely well for me. The game led me to preach a sermon at my cousin’s very tiny church. The game led me to be a worship leader at that same church. The game landed me in my first apartment. Most recently, the game led me to sign up for a voice acting class. At 23, I’m learning to take the risks I’ve been afraid to take for years and I’m excited about where it will lead me.

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