Like a Ghost

J flinched the second she saw me standing by her desk. I was awaiting more work, something I seemed to always be doing at my on-campus job. I never worked more than three hours a day due to conflicting schedules and yet, I remember constantly watching the clock, begging the three hours to end. I liked this job for the most part, although there were times when it grew incredibly mundane. I was a freshman in college (age 18; 2014) and honestly, all I wanted to do was go back to my dorm and chill out.

“You scared me,” J said, holding her hand to her heart. It was a daily occurrence between us as I often would stand silently by her desk without announcing my presence. I tried to scuff my shoes on the carpet as I walked toward her to make some kind of noise that would alert her of my approach, but it didn’t usually work. She’d spend seconds of her day trying to convince me to say something when I needed her attention instead of standing there silently like a ghost.

I always felt that way, I suppose. Like a ghost, that is. I try not to think about it too much now, but I was obsessed with the idea when I was a young teenager in junior high (ages 13-14; 2009-2010). I liked describing myself that way, but unfortunately, the idea fueled a strong sense of loneliness, and I ended up falling into a bout of depression.

“We need to tie a bell around your neck,” M joked in the seventh grade (2008-09) as we walked with our friends down one of the junior high hallways. She was comparing me to a cat—the ones who had collars with bells on them. It probably seemed like a genius idea to her and our friends, but it took me a few seconds to catch on to what she was saying. My quietness made me unintentionally stealthy. They’d often not hear me coming or forget I was there altogether.

“You’re so quiet, I forgot there was someone back there,” my grandparents said a few times as I sat in the back of their car. I was younger then, but it was always the same. I lived life much like a ghost—silent, partially invisible, and seeming to appear out of nowhere.

For a semester in eighth grade (2010), it became somewhat of a game to me. I tried to master the art of invisibility, taking note of all the things I did or said that would go unnoticed. For weeks, I would walk around in a near-zombified state as my mental list of invisible achievements racked up. I’d say things to friends who were clearly not listening and I’d stop abruptly mid-sentence to test their lack of notice. At first, being ghost-like felt like a superpower. It wasn’t long until it felt more like a heavy burden, loneliness creeping up on me from all angles. By the end of the school year, I’d convinced myself that nobody cared. My presence didn’t seem to be making a difference in anyone’s lives.

There’s an episode of 7th Heaven (1996-2007) that aired a few days before my first birthday in which Simon tries to harness the power of “Ninja Mind Control” to make himself invisible. He’s excited at first when his older brother, Matt, bumps into him, claiming he didn’t see him. However, he’s continually upset throughout the episode when others notice his presence. He even goes as far as to blame the dog for following him around. In a scene that’s almost halfway through the episode, Simon seems to appear out of nowhere, angering his sister Lucy, who hadn’t known he was there to eavesdrop on a conversation. While that’s a handy little trick one discovers when virtually invisible—overhearing all kinds of gossip—that’s not the point I want to make. When Lucy tries out for cheerleading and the entire family attends for support, their family is surprised to discover that Lucy is actually really good at cheering. Simon ends up making the following comment—

Maybe the cheerleading Lucy was invisible because all we could see was the regular Lucy.

Simon Camden (David Gallagher, 7th Heaven, 1996)

I’d become so invisible in my life, my selective mutism often hiding all kinds of personality traits from view. Most people only saw the quiet version of me. I was like a ghost, hovering in and out of realms or planes of existence. Admittedly, I am still that way sometimes. My selective mutism is seen more than I am seen. It was difficult for me to get to know myself as I stayed under the white sheet that was my disorder. It took a long time for me to figure out who I was—to learn that I wasn’t exactly the quiet, invisible girl that I and others often saw. I didn’t have to be a ghost. In fact, I wasn’t a ghost, no matter what my feelings were about it. I wasn’t as invisible as I felt.

Speaking Out of Turn

I was in the safe seat. Ah, yes. The safe seat. I’m unsure why they called it that. It was always a desk set apart from the rest of the class where kids who had caused trouble were temporarily exiled to. Of course, there was only room for one child at a time. If multiple kids started acting up, that was an entirely different issue altogether.

At the safe seat, a cubby was always full of slips of paper that asked about the student in question’s emotional state, why they screwed up, and how they planned to stop screwing up in the future. Those slips of paper also required a parent’s signature. How I managed to be banished to the safe seat during third grade recess was surprising, to say the least.

“Did you hear me?” Mrs. Hershey asked, fuming. The cafeteria went silent, my friends shooting nervous looks at me. They’d been giving me the same look for the last thirty seconds as I rushed to finish my story. “That was strike three. You’ll have to sit in the safe seat now.” My lower lip wobbled. Though I’d heard her give the first and second warning, I hadn’t finished sharing everything yet. I wanted to get the story out before I lost the opportunity and forgot about it. Now I’d lost the opportunity forever. Not only that, but I was actually in trouble. My parents would have to sign a piece of paper and everything. They’d know I’d screwed up.

Mrs. Hershey guided me to my empty third grade classroom and left me at the safe seat alone. I had the entire classroom to myself for a short while, so I lied my head on the desk and cried. I didn’t like Mrs. Hershey. She wasn’t my teacher, so she didn’t really know me. She wasn’t as nice as Mrs. W.

As mentioned in a previous post, Mrs. W, my third grade teacher, was pretty much the only teacher who recognized my social anxiety and tried to do something about it. She tried to be my champion, continuously working with me in the classroom in an attempt to harness my confidence in a way that positively impacted my speech. Mrs. W had loaned me a self-help book near the beginning of the year (one that I didn’t read) that was supposed to help me speak up in class. She was the first to ask if my voice sounded loud to me due to my quiet speech in class. She was patient and caring. I loved Mrs. W. I wish her efforts had helped in the long run.

When Mrs. W entered the classroom and saw me at the safe seat, she was confused. I rarely got into trouble. My anxiety didn’t usually allow it. I tended to follow the rules religiously, always worried about getting into trouble. After answering a few questions for Mrs. W as to why I was there, she promptly told me I wouldn’t need to get my parents’ signature on anything. It was wrong of Mrs. Hershey to punish me.

I didn’t quite understand this at the time, but now that I’m older, I look back on this memory with a new realization. Due to Mrs. W’s attempts at curbing my social anxiety and trying to get me to speak more, she had seen Mrs. Hershey’s punishment as something that undermined her efforts. I’d been punished for doing the exact thing my teacher had been trying to get me to do all year. While it was normal to punish students who spoke out of turn, it wasn’t necessarily an appropriate punishment for someone who had (what would later be figured as) selective mutism. All her punishment did was set me back in my progress—reinforce in me the idea that speaking would inevitably result in negative consequences.

I wish Mrs. W’s efforts had been adapted by the teachers of my later years. I wonder if the constant support (instead of the one school year of support) would have allowed me to grow out of my disorder at a much younger age. Alas, my family moved at the end of that school year, and while we stayed in the district, I was moved to another school with new teachers who were flabbergasted by the inconsistency of my verbal communication. Not a single one of them was trained to support a student like me, let alone recognize my disorder, and I inevitably fell through the cracks of the education system.

“You got in trouble for talking?” M asked four years later, incredulous. I shushed her, trying to convince her to keep her voice down. “I’m going to tell everyone you got in trouble for talking,” she said proudly. I might have threatened her with a stabbing per my plastic spork to no avail. M was enjoying this. Even though it was only my first year of junior high, I already had a reputation for being unusually silent. However, I’d been caught speaking to my friend R, in the middle of science class. Mrs. J had given me a stern look and a verbal warning, but I could see her eyes sparking with a small glimmer of pride as she’d done so. Still, I didn’t like that I’d been called out for it. I abhorred breaking the rules, especially if I was caught. Although my mute reputation wasn’t something I enjoyed keeping, I would have fought to keep the fact that I’d broken a rule a secret. Being known as rebellious or unruly in any way did not sit well with my thirteen year old self. I’m sure the news got out anyway though. M was far too excited.

I think it’s funny now that I’ve grown up and expelled a little bit of healthy rebellion. Seventh grade me overthought everything, worried that something as small as her speaking out of turn would completely degrade her reputation. How ridiculous. I’d somehow gotten it in my head that speaking out of turn had near-dire consequences, even when I wasn’t punished for it. Mrs. J hadn’t threatened me with detention or anything of the sort. I’d simply been called out for it. Yet, the fear that this news would somehow get out to the masses had me in a state of near-panic, resulting in a few ill-advised threats toward my best friend, who gladly took them as a joke. I didn’t want that kind of attention.

These are the only two times I specifically remember getting in trouble for speaking in school. It wasn’t a common experience for me. I rarely spoke out of turn, so it wasn’t typical for me to speak during class or announcements. The first time I’d been more afraid of forgetting my story than of being caught talking. The second time I’d been prompted into a discussion by one of my friends. I find it curious now that some of the only times I got in trouble for anything at school was when I spoke out of turn.

Outlying Teamwork

“Ellisa, please look to the front of the class,” Mrs. H demanded. I couldn’t look away from the spot I was staring at. How would they know? I couldn’t simply disrupt the class with something as off-topic as this. I would have to wait for someone else to notice—to see what I was seeing. Staring was the only way I knew how to casually draw attention to something. I flinched as Mrs. H said my name and I reluctantly turned around. As soon as her eyes left me, though, I moved to keep an eye on the menacing creature.

Mrs. H was deathly allergic to wasps, so it was just her luck that her first classroom of her teaching career had a wasp infestation. “Why aren’t you listening to me?” my sixth grade teacher asked. I quickly glanced back at her, nervous that I’d be in trouble. I never meant to go against orders. I turned back to watch the wasp slowly crawl along the carpet. Maybe she’d understand this time.

“What is she looking at?” a para asked. Yes, I thought, you’re on the right track. (As a side note, I’m unsure why we sometimes had a para in this classroom. I think they were assigned to specific students who needed extra help with math or reading).

T stood up, squinting in the direction my eyes were focused on. “It’s a wasp,” he said, which caused a small stir of commotion. He proceeded to drop a large reading textbook on it, squashing the life from its mischievous body. This wasn’t the first wasp to have graced us with its presence and it certainly wasn’t the last. I turned back to the front of the classroom, ready to listen.

Four years later I sat in the front row of my chemistry class on the first day of tenth grade. Mrs. G wanted all of us to arrange ourselves alphabetically by last name. Most teachers usually did this for us, but Mrs. G thought it would be a fun ice breaker for us to do it ourselves. I froze, trying to remember the others’ last names. I was good with names. Normally, it would be easy for me to figure out my seat since my last name usually set me at the first desk in the front row. However, this class had H in it and H had a last name that trumped mine for first place. Okay, easy enough. I’d probably be next to him. M slid in beside him and I recalibrated, spelling out her last name in my head. M and I shared the first three letters of our last names, but my fourth letter came before hers. Uh oh. M and H had been dating since I don’t know when (their relationship ended up lasting all through high school). I wasn’t about to break the news that they couldn’t be lab partners. I stood there, anxiously running through the scattered nonsense in my brain. The order wasn’t right. How would I fix it? I stood at the front of the classroom in a silent panic as the other students struggled to alphabetize themselves. All the seats were starting to fill up. Mrs. G had made it clear she wasn’t going to aid us in this task. Finally, Mrs. G joined me in the front, asked my name, and became the bad guy as she split the inseparable couple up. I was glad she wasn’t annoyed with me.

It was often a similar experience whenever teachers let us choose our own partners. After a while, I stopped trying to pretend to look for one. By twelfth grade, I would simply stay at my desk and wait until the teacher assigned me to someone. There was no use pretending anymore. To be truthful, I worked better alone, despite what my eighth grade self thought. Fourteen year old me was lonely, insisting she worked better with others to quench that feeling of loneliness. I didn’t really know myself then, though. I didn’t know I learned better without the distractions of other people. Sometimes, teachers would allow me to work by myself like they allowed for some of the more ostentatious students—the ones who usually had paras with them due to an IEP or 504 plan.

In intermediate algebra my freshman year of college, we were expected to work with partners we chose ourselves. Somehow everyone seemed to already be friends with each other on the first day of class, and I had to awkwardly ask to join someone’s group. It didn’t take long for me to stop asking though, as it seemed everyone always said ‘yes’ either out of pity or to be nice. When I retook the class the following semester, I made sure to work primarily on my own.

This became a problem when I tried to enter the workforce the summer between my sophmore and junior year of college (2016). I sat in a booth at a chick-fil-a, the initial in-person interview much longer and grueling than the average fast food interview.

“Do you have experience working with a team?” R asked. I mentioned my work with other student volunteers at a small town church. She didn’t like that response. “What about in school?” I quickly dug through my memories. We sometimes had group projects but nothing major that required us to work outside the classroom. By that time, I knew I worked better alone, but wanted to make a good impression. I think I might have mentioned my work with my high school e-communications classes, which often involved group assignments for video production. She liked that I had an interest in videography. One of her employees did too. We would potentially get along well. I thought I was doing okay in the interview—that I wasn’t letting her see too much of my social awkwardness, but that soon changed as the interview went on. R brought up her daughter in our conversation. “You remind me of her,” she said. “You’re both shy and quiet.” She went on to compare us. Dang it, I thought. She knows. Somehow, the interview turned into R trying to convince me I didn’t want the job—that I wouldn’t be good at it—instead of me convincing her I would. I accepted a job at a sandwich shop nine months later—another restaurant that valued teamwork. I remember silently directing my thoughts back at R as I exhibited what she thought I couldn’t. Haha, look at me now!

“By working independently, Ellisa indirectly helps to accomplish department goals,” my supervisor at my current job wrote in my evaluation last year. “This is Ellisa’s way of contributing to the team.” I liked that perspective. It fit with my intentions. My current job is driven by independent work that ultimately reflects upon the productivity of the team. We indirectly help each other.

It took a kind of teamwork to notice and kill the wasp in my sixth grade classroom. My staring had started it. I wouldn’t have been able to kill it on my own as I’m terribly afraid of stinging insects. I waited for someone to notice my behavior. It was noted, but not assessed. It wasn’t until the para thought to ask the reason behind my behavior. A friend investigated and killed the wasp.

This is how intervention should begin in the classroom. A behavior was observed, but Mrs. H skipped a step when automatically trying to correct it. She forgot to ask why. Why was twelve year old Ellisa not looking to the front of the class? By skipping this step, the behavior was only corrected for a short period of time before it returned. When the para asked why and the question was answered, a solution was drawn that ultimately corrected the behavior.

They say that with selective mutism, early intervention is vital. When a child does not speak, the question of why should be addressed before trying to correct this behavior. When it comes to an anxiety disorder, the answer to the ‘why’ tends to be a lot more complicated than a wasp on the carpet. The broad answer could be, “They have selective mutism.” This doesn’t answer much for people, though. There isn’t a lot of awareness of this disorder. Until educators can understand the key details of selective (or situational) mutism, it can be difficult to find a solution in the classroom.

This is why I leave these little anecdotes on this blog. While every child with SM experiences the disorder differently, my experiences may help others understand and work toward solutions.

Wordless Gatekeepers

“Why are you crying?” Mrs. Peach asked me as I sat on the sidelines of the carpeted gymnasium. I shrugged. I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure how to put it into words. I wasn’t hurt. Nobody was mean to me. However, I was plagued by the recurrent tears of my childhood—tears many teachers urged me to grow out of. This was my last year of elementary school (6th grade; 2007-2008). I was almost a teenager. Random bursts of emotions weren’t “cute” anymore.

I hated this school. Most of the teachers were crabby and impatient. We’d moved to the neighborhood at the end of my third grade year and I was excited for the newness that would come from my changed daily life. I’d been thoroughly disappointed. This school, like my last, was a Title I school, which meant it offered extra help in math and reading to struggling students in lower income neighborhoods. This also meant that any teachers who held Perkins loans from their college years would have those loans forgiven if they taught there for a certain amount of time. My teachers were all new to their jobs, the turnover rate seeming high in comparison. The students weren’t as friendly either. I was glad to be rid of it come graduation.

I communicated a lot by crying—something that was more common in a toddler than a child. I recall one instance in the fourth grade in which we had spent a good portion of the day on a field trip to a ballet. I squirmed in my seat the entire time, nauseous and ill, trying my best not to barf in the middle of the theatre. Communicating that I was sick was something I struggled with because 1) it required me to speak, drawing attention to myself and 2) the feeling that I could be missing out on something only grew my anxiety. I managed to make it through the entire show, but when we returned to school, I could no longer hold it in. Bursting into tears in the middle of the hallway, my behavior inevitably caused concerned heads to turn.

“What’s wrong?” Mrs. N asked. It took me a minute to respond, but I was finding that the tears were curbing my nausea. “My tummy hurts,” I said, knowing this time why I was crying. I was brought to the nurse, who pulled my asymptomatic brother from his kindergarten classroom and sent us both home. Apparently, my sister, who was in the third grade, hadn’t made it through the ballet. My tenth birthday party was supposed to be that night, but it ended up being cancelled due to whatever illness my siblings and I had come down with.

In the sixth grade, however, I sat in my gym class unsure of myself and my tears. I was threatened with a trip to the principal’s office for being unable to use my words. I’d successfully avoided the principal’s office in my seven years of elementary schooling, with the exception of a few standard check-ins that held no punishing tone. This, though, was a threat. I was misbehaving. I was defiant. This misconstrued behavior somehow deserved the trip. This threat reinforced the idea that anxious behaviors were bad. That’s what it was—an anxious reaction or “attack.” I wouldn’t be able to label that feeling as anxiety for several more years.

“I don’t know what to do,” I responded in a mumbling, squeaky voice. I must have come into the class late for one reason or another—the game we were playing was already in motion. I hadn’t had time to prepare myself for the activity. My friend, T, ended up guiding me through the motions of the game, freeing me from a possible trip to the principal’s office.

There was another instance in the fourth grade when we were playing some version of tag. I had randomly burst into tears in the middle of the game, again, not knowing why I was crying. “What’s wrong?” Mrs. Peach asked. I struggled to come up with an answer. Catching sight of my friend J, I found an excuse for the tears. “J pushed me,” I lied. Mrs. Peach had warned us that if anyone used excessive force, they would be disqualified. J raised his hands, a look of betrayal clouding his face. “No, I didn’t,” he defended. I had no other excuse for my confusing emotions. I watched as he was punished for something he didn’t do and am still racked with guilt about it fifteen years later. J was always picked on.

I was often told to “use my words” when it came to moments like these. After a while, the request always seemed redundant and unnecessary—condescending even. Using my words was the problem, not the solution. I was always searching for words to describe how I felt, but when I found them, I wasn’t always able to use them. Selective mutism has rules. Sometimes verbally sharing my feelings didn’t get SM’s stamp of approval. This led to a myriad of misunderstandings. It wasn’t the words I necessarily struggled with. It was the gatekeeper of my voice. Like the Roman god Janus, who presides over the opening and closing of doorways, my SM controls what I do or do not say. I knew using my words would help my teachers understand, I just didn’t know how to get those words through the gate. For me, the solution wasn’t “using my words,” the solution was something else entirely. I didn’t have anyone who worked with me specifically to find a solution. So at that age, crying or staring or pointing was often how I worked around my gatekeeper problem.

Out of Character

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.

Yelling

“I’m not yelling at you. This isn’t me yelling,” Mrs. H says after she’s dragged me into the hallway. I don’t believe her. Not really. Tears are streaming down my face, my nose stuffed up from the sudden onslaught. It isn’t hard to make me cry. I get teary so easily. Especially at this age.

I’m twelve in this memory, sixth grade winding down for the school year. I was stuck at a “tough age,” my mood swings flying into full gear. In fact, I laugh at myself in other memories from this year—ones in which I’ve suddenly blown up at boys. Hormones were such a power trip sometimes. I’d scare people with my quick and sudden outbursts—people who were used to me being the quiet, reserved girl. But enough about those moments. They aren’t important to this story.

Mrs. H continues her irritable explanation, trying to make me look her in the eyes in the process. Eye contact was hard for me at that age. I had developed a habit of looking to the right or left of a person when I spoke to them. I’m sure it probably threw a lot of people off. It takes a moment for me to obey her demand. The task proves especially difficult while my eyes are swimming with tears. “Has a teacher ever yelled at you before?”

I gotta hand it to Mrs. H. She wasn’t one of my favorite teachers. But she was at least TRYING to understand my reaction to her chastises. Had a teacher ever yelled at me? I furrow my brows, mulling over the question, trying to come up with a quick example. I equate a lot of vocal tones to “yelling,” but there was one instance that stood out to me…

“In preschool,” I answer, my voice quiet and shaky. I continue on with the story of the mean substitute we always got when Mrs. P was out. We’d get in trouble for little human things like stretching our legs while we sat in our circle. Apparently some adults think children are immune to numbness in their lower extremities, but when we sat on a hard, carpeted floor for awhile, the feeling was inevitable. I had tried to distract the sub one time as she was growing irritated with another student who refused to cross her legs. I’d quickly kicked my legs out from their criss-cross position before scissoring them back. She’d turned on me quickly.

I doubt that’s why I’m extra sensitive to negative tones, but the story seemed to appease Mrs. H.

I’m sure this sensitivity is related to my Selective Mutism. It surely stems from social anxiety as it pertains to a common fear of being disliked. I didn’t like to be wrong or do wrong—a desire that still holds true to this day. So whenever I was chided or corrected, it always struck a nerve.

Mrs. T is trying to show me the proper way to hold an archer’s bow a year later. Physical education was an easy trigger for my anxiety. There were lots of ways I could screw up when it came to games or sports, and unfortunately, any failure would be in front of a crowd. It was way too easy to set me off. I must be doing something wrong with the bow, because Mrs. T singles me out, trying to correct whatever error I’m making. I can’t help but burst into tears. “I’m doing it wrong!” My brain panics. “I’m always doing it wrong!”

Mrs. T quickly reassesses the situation, stepping back for a second. “Oh, you’re one of those kids…” She doesn’t say it in a mean way, but softly, understanding flashing across her expression. “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re not doing anything wrong, I just think you’d have more success if…” she leads right back into her lesson, letting me sniffle my way out of my panic. In that small moment, I appreciate her.

“This is not the way we do things!” B raises his voice eight years later. I try to ignore him, try not to tear up as he ladles a few spoonfuls of soup in a customer’s cup. He would soon quit rather suddenly, leaving our district manager in a panic while our general manager (GM) is out of town. A week or so later, my coworkers and I tell some minor horror stories about him to our GM and I ended up saying, “He yelled at me.”

“He yelled at you?” My GM asks. I pause for a second. Dang. I forget other people’s definition of “yell” is different from my own. “Well, now I’m extra mad at him. Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” We all laugh at the reference. I think because of my sensitivity, people often felt protective of me. It was incredibly endearing when others would grow angry on my behalf.

I ran into this issue again a few months back. I was on a date, telling a story about a customer or two, when I ended up throwing the word “yell” around.

“They yelled at you?” M asked, incredulous. Oh geez. I’d done it again. I’d forgotten that the word “yell” isn’t interchangeable to everyone. When others hear “yell,” they expect it to be literal. Whoopsie-daisy. Oh well. To me, “yelling” could mean any negative tone including chastising, irritated annoyance, and actual shouting, because no matter what, they all illicit the same automatic response from me. I either cry or shut down. Yelling isn’t always yelling to me.

Trapped

My Selective Mutism visited me in my dreams a month or so ago, reminding me how far I’ve come. I experienced this disorder differently at separate ages, my dreams traveling back to my senior year of high school (2014) to show me the distinction. I never felt more trapped in my own body than I did in high school and early college (2010-2016) and I had forgotten what that felt like. I didn’t know I had Selective Mutism when I was at my worst. I didn’t find out until I was 23 (in 2019).

I remember feeling like I was holding my breath all day, every day. In fact, on multiple occasions, I had to remind myself to breathe. I often found myself out of breath, like I wasn’t just holding words back, but air too. I floated through life like there was a glass wall between me and everybody else, my fists banging against the glass, begging for me to be let out. I was essentially trapped—stuck in a body that challenged my control. “Let me out!” I would scream from somewhere deep inside me. My face remained neutral, my lips sealed shut. There was nowhere to escape.

S glanced over at me, inviting me to his birthday party. We’re sitting in a science classroom, many other students buzzing around us. It’s a dream, but my mind doesn’t know that. My brain can’t seem to remember that I haven’t seen S nor been in high school in six years. “Will you come?” he asks, gazing straight into my eyes.

I’m excited. I’m rarely ever invited to parties that aren’t thrown by my few close friends. But I sit there, unmoving, barely breathing, stuck behind my stone face. I want to nod, to say yes, to do anything to show that I will most definitely attend… but I can’t. I’m frozen. I’m trapped.

I attend the party anyway, despite being unable to verbally RSVP. There’s a mixture of familiar faces I haven’t seen in years—decades, even. My dreams love to mix a bunch of random people that wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with each other in real life. I spy my childhood friend, K, whom I had known as long as I’d known S. Throughout the dream, various people try to talk to me, but I can’t seem to interact. All I can do is listen, a seed of sadness growing inside me, sprouting leaves as time passes. I want to talk back, but it’s like I’ve been put under a spell, my lips permanently sealed shut.

This was what it was like to be a teenager with Selective Mutism. I forget how frustrating it was back then. I wouldn’t say that I don’t have it anymore, but I definitely don’t experience it in the same way that I used to. It’s no longer like someone is holding a hand to my mouth. I can usually answer a question when prompted, although I rarely speak out of turn. I do still grow quiet around groups of people. For example, I was at a cousin’s house a few months ago to play board games with him and his wife and found myself mute for a good chunk of the visit, probably because we had grown apart in the last few years and their roommate was around to overhear anything I said. It’s possible I don’t experience it the same way simply because I am no longer constantly surrounded by groups of people since I’ve been out of in-person school since the spring of 2019. Therefore, I don’t feel the constant anxiety that comes with Selective Mutism’s suppression. Whatever the reason, my experience now is different than it was then.

I lived in a fishbowl—watching others interact and take risks while I swam behind the safety of the glass. I often believed my every move was being watched; however, this is a common feature of social anxiety. It’s called the Spotlight Effect—being so aware of something about ourselves that it compels us to believe that others are aware of it too. Like having a large pimple on your cheek. It’s unlikely no one is as obsessed with that large pimple as you are, but that’s not the tale you’ve concocted in your head. Every miniscule muscle movement in another person’s facial expression as they interact with you throughout the day could set you off into a flurry of flustered thoughts. “Oh no, they noticed my pimple!”

Every physical movement I made was small. Every sound I made was quiet. I’d concocted these unusual social rules to keep myself in check every second of every day, working to make myself invisible. Somehow, invisibility became a daily goal. I needed to be conspicuous. As if any unexpected movement or sound of my own creation would garner a spotlight of attention on me. However, that wasn’t the case at all. Nobody cared if I reached for a pen barely out of my arm’s reach, or bent down to pick up a loose paper, or breathed. These were ordinary human behaviors. Yet, I would hold back my breath, breathing in slow, quiet spurts. I would sit rigid in my seat, my arms folding in close to myself. Sometimes I would find myself leaning away from my neighbor, favoring the empty air of the aisle. All the while, my heart would be pounding in my ears—a loud thumping noise interrupting the quiet within me. I would grow increasingly more uncomfortable by the minute, my mind in a constant state of worry. Was I disrupting anybody? Did anyone notice that quick flinch? I’m not breathing too loud am I? No wonder I struggled to concentrate at school.

My Mouth, My Lips, My Tongue

“A boy is never going to want to kiss you,” a dental assistant chided me sometime around second grade. I hated the dentist’s office. The smell made me nauseous and everything they put in my mouth had a strange taste. The dentist and his assistants would always poke and prod inside my mouth or fight against my closed lips before asking my parents time and time again whether or not I had ever had a bad dental experience. I would refuse to let them do anything to hurt me. I would refuse to let them give me medication to help me lose control of myself. I wanted to stay in control always. I was a fighter. I always had been.

My adult teeth were growing in crooked. Not just regular-crooked. Like… psycho-killer-witch crooked. In the third grade, I was referred to a specialist, who handed me a cup of “apple juice” (I knew full well it was NOT), and then proceeded to pull out four or five of my baby molars. I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish other than perhaps inviting my adult teeth to grow in sooner. All he did was take away the guidelines for those adult molars. They had no idea where to grow. He did the same thing two years later with the rest of my baby teeth. They wanted to fit me for braces, but I refused to sign the waiver that promised I wouldn’t bite anyone. I wasn’t about to promise not to involuntarily respond to stimuli.

My over-bitten crooked teeth caused me to develop a lisp, which is something I never knew I had until last year when two different people pointed it out at a voiceover expo. It is thought that only a small percentage of those with Selective Mutism also have a speech impediment such as a lisp or a stutter. Actor, James Earl Jones, was one of those rare people.

“Did you know I have a lisp?” I asked my brother, my mother, and my sister a couple weeks prior to my 24th birthday.

“You have a lisp?” My ear-trained musician of a brother responded, shocked. My mother and my sister nodded, “Yeah. You didn’t know?” Not even my best friend knew. In fact, my brother and I sat in our living room as I said a long string of random words, trying to figure out just what those people meant when they said I had a lisp. We finally figured out it was with the “s” sounds at the end of relevant words. Then we proceeded to joke around as I continued to over-exaggerate my s’s.

It’s interesting that I was the only one of my siblings who was not referred to a speech therapist in elementary school. My brother and my sister struggled to pronounce certain words correctly and spent some time with a speech-language pathologist (SLP) during the regular school hours. I even had a friend in the third grade who saw an SLP due to an obvious lisp. She always brought back candy from her sessions. However, the school was more concerned with my hearing than they were my speech (as mentioned in my post, False Beginnings). I wonder if this is because my speaking was a rarity. The school SLPs seem to mostly handle speech impediments. SM isn’t an impediment, and since I didn’t speak often, my minor lisp wasn’t noticed.

I chose to correct my teeth at the beginning of this year (2020) in hopes of correcting this lisp. It is a dream of mine to pursue voiceover work—a dream I’ve had to put on hold due to a palate expander taking away my ability to pronounce my ‘ee’ sounds. It’s been a real challenge to have to work with both the metal and my mouth and the many orthodontic assistants. I had originally planned this year to be a year full of moments when I could use my voice to its full potential, but have been greeted instead with many disappointments. I’m not even halfway through treatment yet, so it will be a while before I have full range use of my mouth and tongue again. For now, I will have to be patient.

#MeToo: The Original Theory

The Secret Life of the American Teenager was an ABC Family (now Freeform) television show that aired from 2008-2013, its primary focus centering on a girl who becomes pregnant at fifteen. It was created to help combat the high rates of teenage pregnancies in the United States in the 2000s, a rate that has since dropped and has continued to drop since the late 2010s. It was the beginning of an era as MTV reality shows Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant began airing shortly after. When the first season aired during my seventh grade year, I was intrigued by the storyline.

I grew up in a fairly conservative household. My father was a worship & executive pastor when I was a kid and my maternal grandfather was a preacher, both from the same evangelical denomination. I had a constant fear of getting into trouble and because of this, had a tendency to hide pieces of my life away. It sounds ridiculous now, but I assumed I would not be allowed to watch shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager and thus, I did not watch the show until March 2009 as the first season was wrapping up. I would sit in the corner of my bedroom and stay up late with my laptop, streaming the episodes of the first season from YouTube. There’s an episode (or several) in the middle of the first season that deals with character, Ricky’s, past. He had grown up in a household in which he was sexually abused by his father. It was the first time I recall hearing a story like this.

I was fourteen, my laptop lying on the lower half of my stomach, the heat radiating from the machine, when suddenly something in my brain clicked. I’ve felt this sensation before. The heat on my skin and the weight of the laptop on my body… but where? . . . And then there was Ricky’s story… Grace speaking to Ricky on the screen and then later, Ricky speaking to Dr. Fields. Ricky’s story intrigued me. I wondered where the line was… the line that separated abuse from… not abuse. Because suddenly I remembered where I had felt the sensation. It had been roughly ten years, but it wasn’t exactly a series of memories I had forgotten. The memories were fuzzy but they were there, sitting in the waiting room of my brain. I knew these memories. They weren’t new. They weren’t hiding. They had just always been on the back burner and hadn’t ever really seemed important. I wasn’t abused. I wasn’t hurt. Not that I recall. But that’s what can be so tricky…

I sat up. Wait a minute. What does separate abuse from… not abuse?

I was just around four years old in these memories and after additional decades of information and insight that spanned into my twenties, I could say with unwavering assurance that the memories went far past the line of abuse in much more subtle ways than the obvious. And from roughly 2014 to 2019 (ages 18-23), this became my sole theory for my silence.

Most people would understand that. My friend from eighth grade, N, for example, who asked if my parents hit me (see post, Junior High Assumptions, for full story) would possibly find abuse to be an “acceptable” answer as to why I was silent (please note, I use the term acceptable very loosely). Or my therapist from tenth grade, who tried digging for a story to explain my anxiety. “You know, usually, social anxiety can be explained by childhood trauma.” Or the old, outdated theories of Selective Mutism that stated abuse or trauma as a cause. As I mentioned in a previous post, I could make it make sense. I still can. But after so much time spent analyzing my past, I’ve come to the conclusion that SM was a disorder I had prior to these memories. In fact, it may have been what set me apart to my abuser(s). Travis says it in the final season of Switched at Birth (2011-2017), “It happens to deaf kids a lot.” Well… it happens to mute kids too. . . Because who are we going to tell?

These memories bothered me more in my senior year of high school (2013-2014) going into my freshman year of college (2014-2015) as I began to understand the importance of the matter. It was during those years that the experiences had affected me the most. Following an unexpected trigger in 2013, I became obsessed with recalling as many of the memories as I could. I wanted to know exactly what had occurred. It took a while for me to decide that I had remembered enough, despite discovering another trigger or two following these years. Throughout my earlier college years I spent a lot of time writing, reflecting on how these experiences had altered my life. I stewed for hours, daily, horrified at how much my past had caught up to me. At one point I swore I’d take this information to the grave. Why couldn’t things like this stay buried forever?

Although the #MeToo movement first began in 2006, it didn’t gain traction until closer to 2017 following a Hollywood scandal. Then the scandals kept coming after more survivors began to speak out against their abusers. Right before Halloween in 2016, I spoke my first sermon at a tiny church I helped run with my cousin and a few other college students. I wanted to make sure my younger cousin, J, would hear it, because there was a message in it that I was sure she needed to hear. That was when I shared my story, explaining the original theory for my silence. It turned out, due to undisclosed reasons, I was right about her needing to hear the message. However, I didn’t know this information because of something I was told directly. I just knew.

Sometimes as humans, we revel in our sadness. When I hear Gotye sing, “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness,” in his hit song, Somebody That I Used to Know (2012), I think of moments like these. We find it difficult to move on from our sadness and somehow find comfort in it. I wallowed for years and sometimes slip into relatively short moments of great sadness now and again as I recall unwanted memories from my past.

It can be difficult to separate PTSD from Selective Mutism because the symptoms can often overlap. In fact, while it may be entirely possible that I have both, most of my symptoms I primarily attribute to Selective Mutism. There are only a select few that I could say with certainty are more likely due to traumatic childhood experiences. We often mistake these two disorders as the same. Professionals who come across mute children who have experienced trauma may automatically diagnose them with Selective Mutism instead of PTSD, which damages the reputation of the Selective Mutism community and further perpetuates the lie that SM is primarily caused by trauma. Selective Mutism is NOT caused by trauma. It is an anxiety disorder that is often present from birth or the toddler years.

The Art of Patience

I felt my entire body tense up, my fingers curled around the poster board my teammates and I had worked so hard to decorate. I recall discovering the existence of an intriguing desert creature in our classroom research prior to this, cutting up printed pictures of said creature to paste on the presentation. I loved animals then—loved to discover fascinating facts about the various creatures in our ecosystem. It was fourth grade—my first year at a new school—and we’d all worked hard to piece together our group presentations. The research was the easiest part about the project, but I’m not sure all participants would agree. After all, at the end of the day, we simply had to recite what we learned to the entire fourth grade. How difficult could that be?

I don’t recall this happening often with me, but classroom presentations started to become a common occurrence at around this age. I was nervous, my eyes darting wearily around the room as if they were searching for the slightest hint of a threat. It was my turn in the presentation to speak, but all I remember is opening my mouth, words failing to escape. I might have been holding my breath, but the detail doesn’t come to me. There are no words left in my brain that have anything to do with the assignment, even with the facts glued to the back of the presentation board. My brain had begun to panic—more concerned with the twenty pairs of eyes on me and less with the poster board in my hand. Even now, I don’t remember the name of the desert creature I had learned so much about.

Elementary school teachers tend to be patient. It’s kind of a necessary trait to have when working with children. At nine years old, though—and even today—their patience tortures me. No amount of waiting was going to allow me the ability to finally speak. My brain had already decided it was done. So we all sat in silence for a painstakingly long time. I can wait, though. Growing up with my disorder, patience was everything.

Sometimes these moments felt like a war, both of us—the teacher and I—waiting for the other to give up. It may be why those with Selective Mutism are often pegged as stubborn beings. From the other angle—the teacher’s—they may feel the same, frustrated that we are not speaking. The difference is, they expect us to eventually form a coherent word as if we were giving up our determination to stay silent. However, this idea falsely suggests that Selective Mutism is a choice—that we are choosing not to speak. That’s not the case at all. This isn’t a war in those terms. We want us to speak too.

I’ve been told I am a patient person. I often think before I speak, choosing words and actions carefully. Unless I feel rushed, I often take my time completing tasks. I was usually one of the last students to complete an exam. I can sit and wait out a clock longer than most people I know. However, a lot of this is due to my racing and/or imaginative thoughts occupying my time so much that I often lose track of it. Once, when I was in the emergency room at age fifteen, I laid with an IV in my arm for four hours, not once complaining about the time. My parents, on the other hand, were impatient people, bored with the hours wait. This isn’t always the case though, and I have days where I am begging the clock to move faster.

In high school, if I were ever called on, the teacher’s excursion was often followed by a long awkward silence. I wouldn’t know the answer, but instead of admitting it, I’d wait for them to give up.

“Think about it for a moment and I’ll come back to you,” they’d often say, moving on to the next person. I’d pray they wouldn’t return to me in the end. My brain would be so distracted with the idea of having to speak that there was no way I’d be able to focus on my answer to the question.

“She looks like she’s paying attention, but I can’t always tell if she’s understanding the material,” I’m sure a few teachers told my parents at conferences. I’d mastered the art of looking like I knew what I was doing, mostly to avoid social interaction. I’d wanted desperately for someone to notice I was struggling, but couldn’t manage to look like that’s what I wanted. I often communicated with body language, specifically to ward others away. It was frustrating to me that my disorder controlled who I interacted with, wanting nothing more than to isolate me, when all I wanted was someone to pay attention.

“You’re gonna want to turn three more blocks ahead,” J instructed me in college as I was driving to my cousin’s house. I’d been to this house multiple times over the years, but always seemed to pick the wrong street to turn on when entering the neighborhood. “You looked lost,” he explained. His observation shocked me enough to remember the moment years later. J always managed to notice the subtle shifts in my body language—a rare gift no one in my life had ever displayed to me. I wished more people could have been like J while I was growing up.

When the subject arises, I often tell people that patience and observation are key traits I value in others. Without it, being friends with me has proven difficult in the past. Being quick to frustrate will only add to my own frustration with myself. It’s like adding fuel to an already existing fire. I think sometimes people forget that those with Selective Mutism are just as frustrated with themselves as other people are with them. We have a tendency to want to communicate, but aren’t always able to.

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.

Fury

“You know I was really shy my freshman year of college. I rarely left my dorm room,” my sixth grade teacher, a graduate from Pitt-State, said to me once. She was trying to get through to me, but all twelve-year-old me sensed was an imaginary mocking tone behind her voice. Mrs. H continued on, “Eventually I learned that I had to get out and be social…” she said more words, but my ears had tuned her out, my body tingling with fury.

At every single parent teacher conference, my teachers always said the same thing verbatim, “She needs to speak up more.” I need to speak up more? As if I could simply open my mouth and words would come out. As if it were that easy. As if I chose every second of every day whether or not to speak.

Even in college – in my third attempt at college – a professor strolled up to my desk to tell me that she, too, was an “introvert,” but that didn’t mean I could just skate by without participating in class discussions. I was furious. I wanted to write her a strongly-worded letter, wishing it would turn into one of those howlers from Harry Potter. By my late teens into early adulthood, I had conjured up so much anger, I felt I was practically seeping fury. I was tired of being misunderstood. But because of my Selective Mutism, I was unable to lash out or express my anger. Sometimes I think that was a good thing. There were a lot of life-ruining ideas bouncing around in my brain – ways to express my anger unproductively – ways that would only hurt others, including myself.

Before I learned at 23 that I had Selective Mutism, I blamed a lot of people for my problems. I blamed my parents, my teachers, my classmates, and those who had caused me to experience any sort of trauma. Like most people, I thought childhood trauma had caused my silence. I could make it make sense. It fit in the timeline. But there are stories too old for me to remember – stories that include a warning sign or two of my disorder prior to trauma. Eventually there was no one left to blame. I was born with Selective Mutism. That was a fact.

“Why hasn’t the office told me anything about this?” My twelfth grade English teacher mirrored my frustration. Ms. F wanted to know why I didn’t speak. I had answered her matter-of-fact-ly, as if I was talking about somebody else entirely, “I have a social anxiety disorder.” It wasn’t false. I had been evaluated for social anxiety a couple years prior. In fact, my parents had warned most of my tenth grade teachers. But for some reason at future enrollments, my mom adamantly responded, “No,” to the school psychologist’s inquisitions.

Ms. F had stormed into the counseling offices wondering why I had to be the one to break the news to her. “The office has no record of this,” Ms. F crossed her arms as her eyes bore into mine.

I muttered a comment underneath my breath regarding my mother before deciding to play dumb, “Why would the office-?” I stopped, letting my voice trail off before briefly summarizing the whole tenth grade therapy incident, ending with, “Well, anyway, they think that’s basically what I have.” She bought it, for whatever that was worth.

“You guys don’t understand how hard that was for her,” my tenth grade Latin teacher clapped, beaming with pride following my project presentation – one I had pieced together very last minute. My mom had contacted her via email, having missed her at conferences. Judging by Ms. M’s reaction, I wondered what all my mother had told her. Ms. M continued on, ad libbing an entire speech regarding me. It was only slightly embarrassing. I was mostly glad someone was standing up for me – being my voice. Nobody ever did.

It’s crazy to think that growing up it never felt as if I had much of a support system. I didn’t have people fighting for me. Very few ever thought that something was wrong with me. If they did, they never acted on their suspicions. They left me alone.

That’s why my fury set in.

Mental health professionals focus on children with Selective Mutism. It’s supposed to be noticed first in childhood. It’s supposed to be diagnosed in childhood. It’s supposed to be treated in childhood. But nobody was fighting for me. Nobody was being my champion. Years went by. And more years. It seemed I was the only one fighting for me. But I was fighting without a voice. I thought silence was supposed to be louder than words, but apparently it wasn’t. I wasn’t diagnosed. I wasn’t treated. I became a teen with Selective Mutism… and then an adult. I’ve read the older that a person gets, the harder SM is to treat.

Fury.

It sleeps in the pit of my stomach.

I try not to wake it.

 

Playground Rules

My mom wanted to homeschool me. She wanted to homeschool all three of us (my brother, sister, and I). She had collected flashcards, educational books, and learning games. She was ready to homeschool us in our tiny two-bedroom townhome by the late nineties.

“But I want to go to real school, mommy,” four-year-old me whined. Growing up, I sometimes hated four-year-old me. That comment gifted me with a one-way ticket to fourteen years of public school.

My parents were just poor enough to qualify for the Head Start program, which allowed me to attend pre-school for free. My mom held my hand as she walked me into the classroom…

One of the major warning signs of Selective Mutism usually rears its ugly head at this point in the story, even though the symptom is common with young children in general. I didn’t display this symptom – not the one that involved a huge meltdown when my mom let go of my hand. Perhaps it was because going to school was my idea in the first place.

I remember feeling shy as I was introduced to a room full of strangers. I wouldn’t actually be starting school that day. We were only walking through the motions. A group of kids sat in a circle on the far side of the room, curiously peering over at me. I stared back.

After learning about my disorder in my twenties, I look back at my first public school experience as if it will give me clues. I had always believed my social anxiety hadn’t really begun until the third grade, but now I see the signs as I relive much older memories.

Pre-school is all about learning through play. If a trained professional would have watched me through a one-way mirror, they may have noticed my disorder during these times of play. I played alone – not because the other children didn’t want to play with me, but because I couldn’t relax in their vicinity. Not only did I play alone, but I played quietly. If I used words, they were mouthed or whispered. If an adult or another child came near me, my mouth would refuse to move.

My favorite station was the sensory table, but I didn’t like to share it with others. If someone was at the table with me (whether it was filled with sand or water), I would barely play with the substance, making very small or minimal movements, careful to not disrupt the other student.

I have a very specific memory of Miss P wanting to interact with me while I played with the plastic kitchen set. She would sit at a table and ask me to cook her something. I never spoke during this memory as I shakily placed a lump of plastic spaghetti in front of her. She pretended to eat it, exclaiming how delicious the food was. I felt my lips curl into a smile.

At the dress up station, I would quickly dress in a costume, pose for a split second so Miss P could see, and quickly rip the outfit off before anybody else could see or comment.

Playtime was when my disorder was the most apparent.

A year or so later J is holding a Barbie in her hand, having created an entire backstory for the doll. I look down at the Barbie in my hand, unsure how to do the same. We’re sitting on the pink carpet in J’s room, J and the other girls staring at me in disbelief. I haven’t said anything – I can’t bring myself to. I want to play like the other girls, but I can’t move my lips. All I can do is move my hands- to make my Barbie walk or hop or change her clothes. The other girls think I’m not playing or that I’m bored or that I don’t enjoy playing with Barbies. Playtime has ceased.

Flash forward a few more years. I’m in my cousin’s backyard. He’s dressed in plastic chain mail, a grey-painted wooden sword in his hands. He wants to play, to battle like in medieval times. But this was a role-playing game and I had no idea what to say or how to act. My cousin grew angry with me. I didn’t want to play anymore.

Even playing alone with dolls in front of family members was a quiet affair. I always kept any verbal creativity from being overheard. For a few days as a tween, I stayed with my grandmother. She would watch as I sat in the living room with all my stuffed animals splayed out, having them interact with each other via my own brainwaves. When my mother came to pick me up, my grandmother went on about how good and quiet I was. I didn’t bother anybody and would play silently with my Webkinz, at least one of which she had bought me. She had barely heard a peep out of me the entire stay.

“Play is essential to development,” a 2007 article* by Kenneth Ginsburg, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”

…But what happens with the social development of mute or selectively mute children during play? I wonder…

*Article Citation: Kenneth R. Ginsburg, the Committee on Communications, & the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 1

The Mourning of Friendship

“Ellisa doesn’t date,” my cousin clarified.

J is staring at me, astounded, his eyes practically bugging out of his head. He couldn’t believe I had never dated anyone.

I had received a similar reaction five years prior from my cheerleader friend, D. In both instances I couldn’t figure out why they were surprised. D had told me I was pretty, but I had brushed her compliment away. I wasn’t pretty.

We sat in a Freddy‘s in a neighboring town. It was late, the outside blanketed with darkness. J had ashes on his forehead, embarrassed that he was the only one.

I was offended by my cousin’s comment. It had implied that I never date and never will, as if I intended to be single and alone my entire life. I was single and alone because nobody ever seemed interested in me and they certainly never asked me out. J still couldn’t believe it. Perhaps I should’ve been flattered by his reaction.

J was the kind of person who couldn’t stand being alone. He strove to always feel a sense of community wherever he went. When J joined our volunteer group in the winter of our second year of college (2015), he brought his fear of loneliness with him. He was perfect for our group, really. His fear, hidden underneath his natural charisma, brought us all together. He brought new people into our group and the six or seven of us became friends.

Friends.

It was cool for me – having friends. Even if I wasn’t particularly close to any of them, I was able to experience spontaneous, college shenanigans with them. I hadn’t made any friends in the year and a half I had attended that university. But there was J in December, in January, in February, in March… and there was our group of friends. When most people scattered in May for summer vacation and didn’t return to our group that August, I was devastated. Our numbers dwindled, then were semi-replaced, then dwindled again, until J left that winter (2016).

People leave – that’s a fact. They leave for bigger and better things. They leave to pursue opportunities, to live with the idea that if they don’t take advantage of those opportunities, they’ll be left with regret. They leave when they feel they have nothing left to offer or they want to avoid more disappointment. They leave when they feel useless, like they’re not making a difference. I guess looking back I can understand that. But like how J needed to not be alone, I needed to be needed. So I never left.

Flash back two and a half years (2014). I’m standing in a tiny dorm room one and a half hours away as my best friend tried to hold back her tears. We had been friends for four years – all through high school – and had seen each other at both our best and our worst. The past year had been full of uncertainty. Our friend group would be splitting up in four different directions and M, especially, was terrified. She couldn’t shake the feeling that our separation would tear our friendship apart.

I wasn’t (and still am not) great at comforting others. I attempted to dispel her fears, to wave them away as if they were wisps in the air. She didn’t want her parents or I to leave, because as soon as we drove off the campus, her new life without us would begin.

We stayed in touch for a little while. We talked about college boys, dorm drama, and dropping out. We enthused about the CW television series, Supernatural (at the time, it was in its ninth season), as well as our love for the band, twenty øne piløts. We spoke on the phone for hours one Tuesday night in November, following a short string of suicides from our alma mater that had made national headlines. On weekends when she was home we’d walk around Target or one of our hometown’s man-made lakes. At one point she had dyed the tips of her curly brown hair a bright pink and I allowed her to dye a small portion of my hair blue.

During our second year of college, our communications began to dwindle. They were less friendly and more hostile. We argued about everything, our opinions growing apart. On a Thursday in early May 2016, I drove down to her university to hang out with her and her roommate. My mutism made our conversations dull and I left town feeling as if the effort were wasted.

A few weeks later, we were no longer friends.

I had never really lost a friend like that before. It ended in a heated argument over text and Facebook Messenger when she hadn’t made an effort to attend our friend’s community college graduation. She was tired of giving and never receiving. I was tired of trying to hold the both of us up when I could barely hold myself up. We were both tired, having exhausted ourselves of each other. It had gotten to the point in which we were no longer helpful for each other… we were toxic. It was time for us to let go.

We didn’t run into each other again for three years. I was tired of shopping, my feet dragging on the tile, my eyes barely staying open. I turned down the cat food aisle at Target, my cart full of cleaning supplies. There she was, heading the opposite direction with a friend I didn’t recognize. We both stopped, stared at each other for a second, and exchanged greetings.

Then we moved on.

In life we will make friends. We will also lose friends. But that doesn’t mean we should spend those friendships anxiously counting down to their expiration date. Cherish those friends. Live like your friendship will never cease to exist. Enjoy the little moments, the happy ones. Be thankful for the memories. Never take your friends for granted. Because one day, they may be gone, but they’ll continue to stay within our hearts.

Crushing and Being Crushed

“She’s only guilty by association,” A joked in regards to me. There was a hint of playful laughter in his voice, perpetually amused by my trio of friends. M, N, and J were troublemakers. Not the rebellious, dangerous types, but the facetiously bothersome types. They weren’t all considered outgoing, but they possessed a much larger list of friendly acquaintances than I. M and N were particularly friendly and were excellent at making friends. I think J and I were just along for the ride.

I smiled, my face probably growing red like it always did. I was happy A had acknowledged my existence. Not many people did. Even eight years later, I still remember his accusation. Nothing he said to me was ever mean. In fact, most of my high school classmates were nice to me in that regard. Most.

Tenth grade (2011-2012) was a tough year for me. Part of me wants to correct that sentence with, every year was a tough year for me, but tenth grade was especially difficult.

On multiple occasions that fall, my family would pack up very last minute (sometimes in the dead of night) and drive to the middle-of-nowhere, Missouri, where my grandparents lived. They resided in the tiny town of El Dorado Springs in a small two-bedroom house where my grandmother lay dying from her second battle with Cancer.

I never really considered myself close to many people, including family, but of all the funerals I’ve attended over the years, hers was the hardest to get through. Whenever I’d imagine my wedding or my future children, I didn’t imagine my parents there with me… I imagined her. When she passed away that November, I didn’t just lose my grandmother, I lost my fantasy of the future.

Tenth grade was the only year I saw a therapist. It wasn’t supposed to be for grief counseling. I had a little bit of a breakdown at the beginning of the school year. That August, fifteen-year-old me had sent a long emotional email to my mom in the middle of the night. It was full of anger and sadness and frustration. Why couldn’t I be normal? Why was I such a coward? Why couldn’t I speak – I just wanted to speak! For Christ’s sake, I was writing an email – an email – I couldn’t even have a normal relationship with my mom! The darkness – the one I fought and conquered at fourteen – I could feel it haunting me, taunting me. I wanted it gone! I wanted to wake up the next day, put a smile on my face, and speak to everyone I knew (without anyone thinking it was weird). I wanted to do things that I had been dreaming of doing my whole life! Gosh, why couldn’t I keep the tears from falling from my eyes? My throat hurt from trying to hold them back. 

I worked extra hard to appear happy after that. I didn’t want to be worried about.

My therapist was an older gentleman. We had to drive to another city to meet him. Dr. H was outgoing and personable – a self-proclaimed “people person.” I spoke with him as if I were normal, so much so that he mentioned one day that he couldn’t tell I had any sort of problem with socialization.

I wished that were true.

We created plans and blueprints for managing anxiety. One week, I was supposed to tell a girl in my geometry class that I thought her hair or her outfit looked nice. Instead, I would watch her from the corner of my eye, trying to figure out how to not make that sound weird. Another week, I was supposed to give a presentation in my English class. Instead, I avoided the assignment and told my praying therapist that there wasn’t enough class time for me to present.

I was bad at doing homework. I was always exhausted from trying to survive the school day. I would spend my free time trying to wind down from the day’s events, never having enough focus or stamina to continue my academics past three o’clock. My brain was done having to process for the day. Dr. H tried to work with me on that, but the effort was wasted. Every idea he’d come up with I had already tried. It was frustrating. I had come to therapy only as a last resort because I had exhausted all my ideas for getting myself better. Therapy was just re-hashing those same ideas.

I didn’t tell Dr. H that, though. Our sessions were running out, unbeknownst to me. The truth was, I liked speaking to Dr. H. He was like a friend. I didn’t have to worry too much about being overheard by others. The only problem was that every time he thought there was a breakthrough, he insisted on sharing it with my mother. I guess that’s what it was like to be a minor in therapy. Complete and total privacy was an illusion.

I was quite upset when our sessions ended. I hadn’t felt like anything had been resolved. Half our sessions had turned away from my social anxiety and towards grief counseling. I guess death seemed a more heavier, pressing matter to Dr. H.

By then it was March 2012. I was sixteen. My sophomore year of high school only had a couple months left. My best friend (M) and I would bounce our anxieties off each other, creating a giant rubber-band ball of emotions. We were emotional people; especially back then. We became our own therapists, fighting our own inner demons alongside each other. We kept ourselves alive and breathing and away from sharp objects. We talked about our crushes (Like many girls, I had a huge, undeniable crush on A) and we talked about things that we felt were crushing us. We’re no longer friends anymore, but we survived high school together, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Balancing on Hope

I sat on the tan-colored balance beam, my bare feet dangling several inches off the ground. The gymnasium smelled like feet and dirty socks, the air conditioning circulating the smell. Miss A stood next to me, her feet planted solidly on the ground. If you ever thought balance beams were comfortable to sit on I must inform you that they’re not. They’re worse than bleachers, skinnier too. I balanced my tiny behind on the edge, watching the other girls dare to be adventurous… walking across the other, more taller balance beam. I was probably about four years old.

I learned a lot of things in gymnastics, like how to do a cartwheel or stand on my hands. I practiced these things always in the comfort of my own home. Miss A would sit with me and watch as the other girls learned bigger and better things… things that could break your neck… possibly. I came to gymnastics for one thing, and one thing only: The foam pit. I wasn’t afraid to launch myself from a swinging rope smack-dab in the middle of a pile of foam blocks. We mostly only did this for fun, though, right at the end of the lesson.

I longed to be brave. I knew just by watching the other girls perform flips on the trampoline that I wasn’t. I didn’t like feeling my feet propel into the air, not knowing when and where they’d land. I’d swing on one of those suspended bars, pretending it didn’t bother me. I’d smile my fake smile, hoping one day I’d wake up and know – I’d just know – that I could do everything the other girls could do… and maybe more.

Hope.

A four letter word. 

The kind that makes your heart palpitate with anticipation. 

The kind that leaves you crashing due to lack of fulfillment. 

Hope. 

It stands for Happiness,

               for Optimism, 

                  for Pleasantness,

             for Enthusiasm

All of those emotions wrapped into one. 

There is hope, always within my reach.

Hope that fills my lungs every morning without fail.

Hope, rarely wavering, standing beside me as we soldier on.

Hope is a trooper.

It nestles itself within the ranks of every day life. 

It longs to be seen, to be heard, to be felt, to be… in charge.

Hope knows the right paths to carve.

And yet, fear steals us away.

I’m standing in my junior high cafeteria, waiting for the first bell to ring. I’m smiling, if not on the outside, then on the inside, the feeling of hope overwhelming me. I woke up that morning, a bout of energy coursing through my veins. This would be the day my life turned around. I would suddenly be able to speak more than just a few syllables or unintelligible noises. I would be normal today. Finally.

A few hours later, J smiled his cheesy smile, his mouth full of metal. I wondered how he played trumpet – excuse me, first trumpet – with those braces. He was tall, lanky, and kind of dorky – a regular young, American, Andrew Garfield type. He always had something to say – not in excess – but something… usually a joke.

I felt my hope subsiding, slipping through my fingers as the other irrational side of my brain woke up to smell the proverbial roses. What had I been thinking? I couldn’t even speak to J, one of the most admirably friendly, non-threatening seventh graders in the entire school. He wasn’t in my inner circle and, therefore, he couldn’t be spoken to. It was against the rules of Selective Mutism.

You see, with certain disorders, there are rules that plague their captives. The first rule of Selective Mutism is that we don’t talk about Selective Mutism (It’s like this huge, very obvious secret… like Vegas). The second rule… well, my SM knew J long enough to know that J only knew me as a girl who didn’t speak much. My SM is cunning like that. Once it has decided that a person’s view of me is somebody who is quiet or shy or doesn’t speak… well, that is it. It’s a done deal. J would never get to know me as anybody more than that perception.

In that moment, I was a slave to my disorder. Never mind the hope that had been bubbling inside my chest all morning. Sometimes we let our fears conquer our hopes. How dare those fears come into our homes and destroy our walls of hope.

Distracted, Not Stupid

They wanted me in Title I Reading*. Let me repeat that – they wanted me – the girl who had been placed in the advanced reading group back in Kindergarten, the girl who would write pages upon pages in her first grade journals, the girl who excelled in the morning grammar quizzes in the third grade – me, in Title I Reading. It was the 2005-2006 school year and I was either nine or ten years old in the fourth grade at a new school.

“Ellisa, are you not paying attention?” My aunt asked me that same year. I had never heard so much concern in her voice, at least, not regarding me. “What were the two rivers surrounding the Garden of Eden?” she asked again. (If you’ve never heard of Bible quizzing, I must interrupt my own story to tell you that it is a legit thing. Churches host competitions for their children and youth all over the nation). I hesitated. One of those rivers sounded like a tiger. I imagined the waters painted with black and orange stripes. The rest of the story that we had all read aloud… well, all the words blurred together. Even reading it only minutes ago I remembered nothing. I recall trying to listen carefully, trying to focus on the words of Genesis, but maybe I was focusing too hard. They all swam in circles in my head, disappearing into the deep rivers of my brain. I liked trivia, but not like this. I think I quit Bible quizzing soon after, until the church made me join up again in the sixth grade.

My aunt’s son had ADHD (and would later be evaluated for Asperger’s Syndrome – now Autism Spectrum Disorder). I suspected this influenced her concern. My parents weren’t like her. They weren’t always looking out for any flaws or abnormalities.

I lost a lot of things that year. If you’ve ever moved to a new school, then you probably experienced that feeling of disappointment when your new school didn’t offer everything your old school had (or maybe you experienced the opposite). At my old school, I was one of a select few chosen to be in the Thinking Beyond program, a subset of Quest**. It was exclusively for the really smart kids and I was happy to be a part of it. In 2005, a few months before we moved, they let me go from the program. It was the first time I remember feeling like I wasn’t smart enough, and that feeling only spiraled from there.

My new school had a competitive math program called Math Wings. I joined, having been told I was good at math and wanting only to prove myself. The experience ended when one day after being humiliated by the teacher and my classmates, asking, rather loudly and rudely, “WHY ARE YOU HERE?!” I ran from the school’s basement with tears running down my cheeks, horrified that I, indeed, wasn’t smart enough.

That was the year they placed me in Title I Reading.

“Ellisa, did you pay attention at all to the reading?” The test proctor asked, following a question about penguins. We were in the hallway outside my classroom for a short reading comprehension assessment in which I had to read the story aloud, remember it, and answer a handful of questions. I could hear the confounded frustration in her voice. I had literally just read the story, she had listened to me read it, but there I was again, unable to recall anything other than the word, penguin.

As an adult in my mid-twenties, I look back on that moment with a new lens. Just because the adults of the 2000s couldn’t understand my struggle, doesn’t mean I wasn’t smart. My brain was just too focused on moving my tongue, choosing an appropriate volume, pronouncing the words on the page, interacting with another human being… I was smart, but distracted… hyper-aware of my surroundings.

My perception of school was a giant paradox. I liked going to school. I liked getting out of the house and being around people. When you’re born with Selective Mutism, you’re still born with all the personality traits that make you unique. I was born with the trait that likes to be around people. I liked to show-off, to impress people. I liked performing in talent shows (a story for another post, see Out of Character). I liked to sing. I wanted to act. I wanted to be a dancer. I wanted to perform… But I was also born with Selective Mutism. SM didn’t want me to interact with people. It didn’t want me to act. It didn’t want me to dance. It didn’t want me to… speak, to move, to breathe. And so I liked to go to school… to be around people, to pretend to be a part of the conversations, but I didn’t like school. I didn’t feel as if I belonged there, surrounded by people I couldn’t dare interact with.

*Title I Reading is a program available to student of Title I schools (lower income) in the United States. It caters to students who needed extra help with reading and/or comprehension. 

**Quest is basically our district’s version of a program for the gifted and talented. 

Dizzying Silence

“She must be dizzy,” Mr. Music noted. I was standing outside of the circle, my lips frozen shut. I probably appeared confused, my eyebrows drawn together, my blue eyes wider than usual. I’m staring at Mr. Music, perhaps unsteadily, as if he could help me melt away from the ice that was holding me captive. I willed my brain – my little four-year-old brain – to tell my muscles to soften, to un-fuse my lips, to make a sound – any sound… no wait. Not any sound. I just needed to sing my line. That was all. It was probably only three little words.

We had been spinning in circles throughout the song, but I wasn’t dizzy. In fact, Mr. Music’s accusation had me believing for years that dizzy had two meanings… and one of those meanings was shy. I had always been labeled as shy during these moments in which I couldn’t speak. Everybody always said I was shy. Dizzy, though, that was new. Maybe I wasn’t spinning in circles dizzy, but I was the opposite. I was frozen dizzy.

After a few more attempts in which Mr. Music restarted the verse only to end with the staring contest I had incidentally begun, he moved on to the next student.

In pre-school (2000-2001) we were only taught about the six basic emotions: Anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. But in that moment I experienced defeat. It’s strange… using defeat as an emotion when it is usually attributed as a status – defeat meant you lost. Defeat meant you were one thing… a loser. I had lost, but to who? Who had I fought? How could I feel defeat when I had nobody to fight… but myself? My enemy seemed invisible and at times as I grew older, I, too, seemed invisible.

I’m sure everybody has felt invisible at least a few times in their lives. For me, it was always, and in those fleeting moments in which I did not feel that way, I wanted desperately to disappear… to become invisible once again.

Contradiction is a strange phenomenon. In those moments of invisibility I longed to be noticed, to be valued, to be loved, yet when I experienced those rays of light attempting to pierce through that cloak, I would retreat back into the abyss. It was safe in the abyss… or at least, safer. The only enemy I shared it with was myself.

“There are five conflicts in literature,” Mr. D explained as he paced the front of the classroom. It was the 2008-2009 school year and I was sitting in my seventh grade language arts class. The lesson he had prepared that day was a lesson in story formation, but it might as well have been a lesson in life… in the real world. Mr. D might as well have been a young Mr. Feeny (from Boy Meets World) when it came down to lessons such as this one. He continued to list off the five conflicts, “Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Fate, and last but not least, Man vs. Self.” It was in this lesson that I learned of the only internal conflict of man, of human beings in general. It is possible to be at war with oneself. Perhaps I really was at war with myself. But then again, if you’re fighting a disorder… are you really ONLY fighting yourself?

Maybe there was a bigger picture I wasn’t seeing.

Intro to Selective Mutism

W pulled out her handy-dandy DSM-IV* that she had found on sale at Half Price Books, “I’ve heard of something like that!” I don’t remember what had spurred the conversation as we sat near the doorway of our AP Psychology class. Somebody must have mentioned abnormal silence and W had her newfound knowledge of Psychology on the brain. She was ecstatic to be taking a Psychology class our senior year of high school. This would be an easy class fueled only by her enthusiasm for the subject.

It was 2013… the DSM-V had just come out, replacing the prior Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), which was probably why she got her copy on sale. Even now, nearing the end of 2019, that is the only version of the manual I own. Old copies are almost always cheaper and as a student, I haven’t found myself in need of the most up-to-date edition… yet.

“I can’t remember what it’s called,” W exclaimed, flipping through the pages of her newly expired copy. When she found the page she was looking for, she nearly shouted, “Selective Mutism!”

Shocked, I bolted upright. I’d heard of that disorder before. In fact, I had probably come across it while on one of my Google searches that had a tendency to lead me down the great rabbit hole of the world wide web. Junior year, I remembered.

“I had that,” I near joked. I had a bad habit of diagnosing myself during my teen years. I had always known I wasn’t normal and was always looking for an excuse… a mental illness to match my symptoms. I came close a couple of times… Social Anxiety DisorderAvoidant Personality Disorder… blah blah blah disorder…

“Really?” W asked, suddenly very curious in my half-truth.

I stammered, “W-well, yeah, I couldn’t speak in my history class last year. I-I just couldn’t.” I briefly locked eyes with Mr. K before glancing back down at the plastic grey desktop in shame. I knew my answer was exactly what it looked like… a random self-diagnosis by an immature teenager.

“That sucks,” W stated before moving on.

The truth was, I had come across that disorder during one of those previously mentioned trips through the internet earlier that year… that last semester of my junior year. The problem was, the information I found didn’t exactly, 100% match up with my experience of the disorder. I remember reading a brief description and thinking, “Yeah, but that’s not really the information I’m looking for.” I also laughed, probably out loud, too, after reading one of the “tricks” the site instructed teachers to do to try to get a student with SM to speak.

“Place an envelope with their name on it up on the whiteboard. Eventually they will ask about it,” I read. My eyes nearly rolled to the back of my head. Yeah, sure, that would bother me… like A LOT. But was it really worth asking about??? I’d probably stare at it every day for months. Eventually, the teacher would give up. EVENTUALLY.

Yet, even after reading that, I never really connected the dots. People with Selective Mutism were KIDS. People with Selective Mutism were only silent for A FEW MONTHS. Maybe even WEEKS. Or DAYS. People with Selective Mutism were silent DUE TO TRAUMA. I would find out years later that these stereotypes about Selective Mutism were incorrect. They weren’t accurate descriptions of Selective Mutism. Not even close.

The truth is, Selective Mutism is tough to explain. One of the best resources I have found on the disorder is a book entitled, Selective Mutism In Our Own Words. This is the book that led my brain back to the path of, “Well, wait a minute. THIS IS ME. This is ALL ME.” This book is written by Carl Sutton & Cheryl Forrester, who both write on their own experiences with the disorder, while adding anecdotes from a multitude of other people who have also been touched by SM. It is, in essence, a compilation of different perspectives and experiences, because, you see, SM isn’t going to show up the same in every single individual who has the disorder, just like how Bipolar Disorder doesn’t appear the exact same in every person with that disorder.

I didn’t think about Selective Mutism again until this past Spring (2019), when I found myself down that rabbit hole that is Google, searching for a book my third grade teacher had checked out for me when I was eight. I never found the book, but I’m sure if I ever see it again, I’d recognize the cover right away. This book lived in my backpack throughout the entirety of third grade (2004-2005), hardly touched. Mrs. W had given it to me sometime in the beginning of the school year when she noticed my unusual bouts of silence. Honestly, she wasn’t the only one who noticed it that year. I noticed it too, but I wasn’t too concerned about it.

Mrs. W was one of those teachers who (I assume) had been teaching a long time. She believed in each and every one of her students and somehow found the time to work on and worry about students like me… which soon became a rarity in my life. Later on, most of my teachers would only complain about me… and soon I began to complain about me.

I never read the book past the first few pages. It was one of those non-fiction books written to kids who needed help speaking up in class. I remember the first chapter… it speculated that maybe I was afraid my answer was wrong. I closed the book. This was stupid. I was a smart kid, but that year, for some unknown reason, a feeling I wouldn’t be able to put into words for another decade had somehow become more than just my norm… it had become my way of life.

Anxiety.

Yes, I thought my answers might be wrong. But it was more than that. Maybe EVERYTHING was wrong… a concept an eight year old wouldn’t be able to consciously comprehend.

*The DSM, which stands for Diagnostic & Statistical Manual, is a book that mental health professionals use to diagnose disorders. It lists criteria for each disorder that a person has to meet before receiving a professional diagnosis. There are currently five versions of this manual that have been published since 1952. The current, most up-to-date version is the DSM-V, which was published in 2013. 

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