Selective Mutism (SM) is a type of anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain situations or to certain people that they are not familiar or comfortable with.
You might be thinking, how is this different from just being shy? Feeling shy is a common experience that most can understand. However, for people with SM, this feeling stops them from doing what they want to do in life. SM is a disorder that significantly hinders performance in areas of someone’s life, such as academically and socially.
SM is not as rare as you would think, but most people and professionals have never even heard of it until recently. Being able to communicate and connect with others is a huge part of being human, and people with SM struggle in silence every day.
I was diagnosed when I was three years old after teachers noticed me keeping to myself at school and not socializing with anyone. I was described as mute, hence the name Selective Mutism. SM is known to affect more females than males and is usually seen in children, although adults can have it as well.
The only people I would talk to were my parents, some family members, and a couple of close friends. I only was able to talk to those certain people who I was comfortable with. There were many more people who I would not talk to, including family members, until my teenage years. If I said a word to an outsider, it was an anomaly. Someone quiet and nonsocial may be considered cold or rude when that is not the case.
SM is a different case for everyone who has it. Growing up, it affected me in many ways, including my self-esteem. I often felt like I did not have a voice when I wished I could.
Asking for help in school, communicating with teachers, using the phone, going to places with a lot of people such as stores and restaurants, making friends, and socializing were some of the many tasks I struggled with.
I remember the first friend I had who gave me a chance and got to know me. I knew her for about a month and would not say a word. I remember how it amazed me that she stuck around, because most people, especially children, are not that nice and patient.
I began to talk to her one day in the comfort of my own home. It started with giggles while playing a game where we imitated animal sounds. I believe my first actual word I ever spoke to her was “meow.”
Although this was a big deal to those around me, she did not make a big deal about it, which was different, and greatly appreciated. It made me comfortable to continue that trust in her, making baby steps to open up and say more words.
Unlike my childhood friend, others tried to make it a big moment when I spoke, which made me more uncomfortable and prevented me from talking more. I was repeatedly asked, “why are you so quiet?” I would just smile, not knowing what to say. Being asked this all the time made me wonder if there was something wrong with me, creating a foundation of mistrust and doubt within myself.
A slew of embarrassing and demeaning experiences came from living with my condition. I have had teachers bribe me with gifts if I spoke a word. You would think to a little kid this would make them do anything, but it did not work for me.
People would do things to mock me without even realizing it. I have had doctors make bets with each other to buy each other lunch, debating if I would talk by the end of my appointment.
In high school, I asked a classmate for clarification on a homework assignment. I will never forget his reaction as he looked up at me with his eyes wide and asked, “you can talk?” He ignored my question. At this point I wanted to punch him in the face and yell, “yeah, I can talk!” Instead, I waited for the awkward silence to be over and continued my classwork.
My struggle with SM continues to this day. Has a teacher ever asked your class a question and no one is participating, and they wait? In my mind, I process the information and have an answer in my head. As much as I want to raise my hand and answer the question, my body refuses. It is like I lose all muscle and strength to raise my hand like some gravitational force is holding my arm down.
A popular saying for people with SM is “the words are stuck and they will not come out.” They are on the tip of the tongue waiting for a push that never comes. I once read an article in the newspaper about another person who had SM and she described it as a “silent prison.” It immediately caught my attention because it is the perfect way to describe the way it feels.
A silent prison; locked away in your own thoughts. Wanting to express yourself, but you cannot because your thoughts are stuck and feel like they cannot escape.
Even though I grew out of most of my symptoms, I still get told I am quiet by people and still get asked why. I do not say this out loud, but all I think in response is, “you have no idea how quiet I used to be compared to the way I am now.”
At times it still affects me, and I have my moments. It is not like it used to be, but anxiety can affect my ability to do, or not do, certain things.
I am still much better at talking face to face than talking on the phone. Something about seeing facial expressions makes me feel at ease. I still struggle going to crowded places, such as stores. I find a time to go when I know there will not be a lot of people. I am better with talking one on one than in a group.
When I am with the right friends who understand me and bring the best out of me, it is a different story. I focus all my attention on them. The right people make me forget about my anxiety.
I still struggle with expressing my thoughts. I get frustrated when they do not come out the way I want. I feel awkward when they come out the wrong way.
During these struggles, I still tend to be hard on myself. I am still on the path to learning how to not beat myself up over it. I constantly remind myself that these struggles shaped the person I am today. When I look back to how I used to be to the way I am now, I see how much I have improved and take it as a sign of strength. My experience with SM has helped me realize how strong I am, and will continue to become.
I share my story, not for attention or sympathy. I share to pass on knowledge and to let it be another reminder that everyone struggles with something behind closed doors, and there is no need to be too ashamed to share.