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.