Selective mutism: I wanted to speak, but couldn’t

One day in kindergarten, I chose to pee in my seat because the prospect of asking to use the bathroom was too terrifying for me to handle. Another time, I simply sprinted to the toilet and back in hopes my teacher wouldn’t notice.

When my dad brought me to my classroom in first grade, a teacher crouched down and asked for my name. I only stared back in mortification, unable to utter a thing. Yet when Dad dragged me back to the car to yell at me, I immediately voiced an apology.

I thought I was just excruciatingly shy. And until a few days ago, I believed that’s all there was to it. But apparently, what I had was selective mutism, and it’s an actual anxiety disorder. I came across the term by accident, then did some internet research to find the symptoms matched my circumstances perfectly.

I’m not one to self-diagnose based off what I read from medical sources online, but I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. I’ll never “officially” know, because I haven’t been mute for years. Simply realizing the barrier I faced for much of my childhood could be due to a real psychiatric condition — so, not solely my own social ineptitude — was enough to make me cry.

Or at least, my social ineptitude was the result of a mental condition I couldn’t control. I’m not sure if that’s more accurate. I’m honestly just pouring out some reflections about a disorder I have no medical expertise on, but intense personal experience with. I’m 100-percent certain I would have been diagnosed had I ever visited an expert.

Children with selective mutism tend to fall at the “extreme end of the spectrum for timidity and shyness,” according to the Selective Mutism, Anxiety, and Related Disorders Treatment Center.

Reading that helped me realize that yes, as a child, I had hellish social anxiety. This is the first time I’ve ever used that label. Again, I’m not comfortable claiming “anxiety” without a medical diagnosis, but my parents would have never realized such diagnoses existed, so does the absence of opportunity for identification invalidate the realness of what I suffered?

I can vividly recall that day in the elementary school cafeteria when my peers and even the adult proctors were ridiculing me for not eating my lunch, each of them taunting me in varied ways to see who could get me to take a bite. I ended up licking my sandwich under the pressure.

“We said eat, not lick!”

Yeah, I knew what they wanted. Contrary to what people seemed to think, I understood English just fine. But I was never able to complete their command, especially with everybody staring at me like that.

Much like when it came to speaking, the more I was pressured to participate in a social setting, the more I just couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I think, somehow, that was my subconscious way of taking some control over the situation.

I couldn’t bear the feeling of being constantly patronized, so maybe I just didn’t want to grant people the satisfaction of meeting their demands. If I ever spoke up, it only happened in a space where I felt comfortable and accepted. School was never that space. There, others treated me like my lack of expression equated to a lack of thought or emotion.

As I progressed through my school years, I forced myself to start speaking to people outside of my immediate family (and the small circle of close friends who’d somehow climbed over my wall of silence). I hated the person I was, and I didn’t want to live this way forever.

That’s why I was the kind of kid who actually loved moving. Each arrival in a new school district meant another chance to start fresh. Maybe this time, I wouldn’t be the quiet girl whose name nobody could remember. Maybe this time, I would find the confidence to walk in there and start expressing who I was. All it would take was a burst of courage.

Logically, it should have been easy: Just speak your mind, whenever and wherever you want to, because nobody will judge you for it except yourself. You’re overthinking to a ridiculous degree.

But for somebody with such a severe phobia of social interaction, fear overpowers rational thought. I felt paralyzed by my muteness. Imagine sleep paralysis, except the demon on your chest only takes your voice.

It wasn’t until high school that I truly felt I succeeded. After having again moved to a new district the summer before freshman year, I shoved myself out of my comfort zone repeatedly once school started. And gradually, I grew comfortable doing so.

I discovered I could be really social. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy meeting people and learning about them. (That’s part of why I’m so passionate about journalism.) But it does take energy.

I can still be shy, yet I’m also extremely outgoing. It’s super weird to explain. I feel I’ve been on both ends of the confidence spectrum, and sometimes I inevitably fluctuate. But as I burgeon further into young adulthood, I really hope my love for people will conquer any residual fear of them.

I don’t know if my selective mutism was genetic, or if some external factor induced it. But, especially considering how lucky I was to have broken out of it without treatment, I’m grateful for what it taught me.

During all those years I didn’t speak, I was observing instead:

I learned to fluidly read facial expressions and body language. I learned when people wanted feedback, as opposed to when they’d rather just be heard. I learned the fellow “quiet kids” often had extraordinarily loud minds, and that not voicing their ideas didn’t mean they had any dearth of them.

The skills I developed while watching and listening to the world around me have undoubtedly helped me become a better journalist, a better empathizer to strangers and a better friend to those who take a chance on me.

More importantly, my condition pushed me to extract myself from a mindset that made life miserable. I’d like to think that’s a testament to my own mental tenacity. Five-year-old Angela wouldn’t have dared imagine the confidence with which I lead life now.

Today, I can truthfully say I’m proud of whom I’ve become. I trust myself to take the reins in any challenge, and I can’t wait to see where my transformation takes me next.

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