Selective Mutism

21 10 2013

Selective mutism is a social anxiety disorder that presents itself in children mostly by an inability to speak in normal social situations. I wanted to talk about this subject because it was something I dealt with as a child. I was never diagnosed with it and had no idea that the disorder had a name until a couple of months ago when I stumbled along the term while web surfing. Reading about the disorder was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea that anyone else had had similar experiences as I had growing up.

People who I’ve told about this usually have a hard time understanding what the issue is and how it really works. This is especially true because they know me now and there are no obvious visible (or auditory) traces of selective mutism in the adult me. I decided that I wanted to take you through the journey I took to overcome this setback of my early life.

At home and around my neighborhood, I was a normal kid. I had no problem interacting with my siblings and neighbor children. I did normal kid things, traded jokes and stories with my friends, played, yelled, goofed around, I was myself. I was in my sphere of comfort. But when I went to school, church, even gatherings with extended families, it was different. I was different.

The shy kid. That was the label I was pasted with. Sure, I was shy with people I did not know well, but there was more to it than that. I tried to tell myself that I just had nothing to say, but the truth was I was terrified. Whenever someone spoke to me outside of my comfort sphere, my anxiety would shoot through the roof. People would talk to me and I had no idea how to respond, I couldn’t respond, I felt like a deer in the headlights, my tongue frozen with fear.

At first, I wanted to speak. I would try to force words to come out. When they did, the words were barely audible. My teachers would tell my mother that they wished they had a volume knob on me so they could turn me up so they could hear me. This inability to speak caused embarrassment and served as a focal point for teasing that only ramped up the anxiety. It became self-sustaining.

I developed defense mechanism for dealing with the anxiety. I became withdrawn from other kids hoping that if I kept my distance, they wouldn’t notice me. I strived to be invisible. If the other children didn’t see me or notice me, I convinced myself, then I wouldn’t need to feel anxious around them. On the few occasions when I was able to break through and speak, the feedback and attention I received spiked my anxiety like a kick in the stomach. It was negative reinforcement.

I desperately wanted to be like the other kids and there were a few times when I was able to do it. I remember being in a classroom where the teacher had us each take turns reading a paragraph from the textbook. I found that I had no trouble reading aloud in class. I could even read at normal volume. In that setting, I was on even footing with the other students and received no feedback. I grew to look forward to times when I could take my turn to read and be normal like every other kid. It was a small victory.

My first major breakthroughs happened in junior high. There was an influx of students into the junior high that I didn’t know. They had come from another elementary school in the area. For the most part, the selective mutism persisted, but its hold on me was cracking. Along with the infusion of new kids to the school came an infusion of new kids into band. One of the kids that played the same instrument as me came in and started talking to me like we had been friends for years. Without thinking about it, I responded to him in the same manner he had approached me in. I had never seen the kid before in my life, but I was talking to him like it was the most natural thing in the world. The conversation ended and I was reeling. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. For his part, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. It never turned into a friendship, just an acquaintance, but I had never had an “acquaintance” before and it felt great. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, I realized that I didn’t need to be trapped behind a wall of anxiety.

I wish I could say that I was able to immediately build off of that realization, but my condition remained for the most part. I was able to make friends that I could talk to at school, when the few of us were alone, but my ability to speak would stop as soon as someone else entered the equation.

Near the end of my ninth grade year, I learned we would be moving to a new town and a new school. I was very anxious about this new move and hated the thought of having to make new friends in a place where I knew absolutely nobody. But my mother pointed out to me that it could be a good thing. Nobody knew me there, it could be a fresh start. I pondered that advise and remembered being able to make an acquaintance with someone. I resolved to do it. Never mind the anxiety, I would put all that behind me.

It was harder than I thought it would be. The old habits of becoming invisible were strong and I never really got close to anyone at the new school. But I was determined to change. I resolved that I would answer people when they spoke to me. And it worked. Being a new kid coming to school the last month of the school year invited a lot of questions. My answers were short, but I was able to give them. Small success!

When news came again that we were moving in the middle of my tenth grade year, I welcomed the news. It was time for phase two. Not only did we move to a new town and a new school, it was in a different region of the country. I was determined to build upon the small success I had achieved at the previous school. I still felt anxious in social situations (especially around girls), but I pushed through the anxiety. It was no longer presenting itself as an inability to speak. I was reluctant to speak in many situations, but my voice was no longer mentally blocked.

My quest for overcoming social anxiety continued. I was helped along by the bishop at my church at this time. He understood the struggle I was having and issued a challenge. He promised me that if I would make sure to shake hands with five members of our congregation each Sunday that I would be able to overcome my shyness. I took him up on the challenge and pushed through my anxiety. It was hard at first, but it became easier as I went along.

I decided to ratchet up the effort. I was seeing results and wanted more. I was becoming more comfortable at church and so I decided to participate in class discussions at church, relying on my humor to ease the anxiety. The self-confidence carried over into school. The “shy” label was being replaced by a “reserved” label. One of the things that helped was recognizing that being myself around people I didn’t know well was easier when I was with people I did know well.

I finished high school and moved to a different state. I planned to go to college for a year and then to serve as a missionary for my church. I knew that would involve talking to hundreds of strangers a day, most of whom would be not excited to speak to me. I felt like I still had a long way to go to get to a point where that would be possible for me. I had the opportunity to attend church with my aunts and uncles and cousins, but I chose to go to the single adult congregation in my town in order to push the limits of my comfort zone. I also made it a goal to attend all of the young single adult activities. There were many times that I was physically shaking with fear driving to those activities, but I persevered.

I served that mission and spent two years talking to people I didn’t know about things that were very personal to me and I survived. The moral of the story is that sometimes things are hard, sometimes there are stumbling blocks in your way, but it is possible to overcome them sometimes. I put a lot of work into improving myself, pushing through the obstacles, setting goals and achieving them. I’ve reached my goal. If I’ve learned anything from the journey, it’s that I can succeed if I put my mind to something. I was helped and guided along the way, but it was up to me to heed advice, accept challenges and throw myself into uncomfortable situations.

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