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.