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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