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). 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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