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.

 

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