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I Wasn’t A Shy Kid, I Had Selective Mutism. This Is What It Was Like.

I’m 27 years old and I work as an art director in New York City. I’ve freelanced, worked a variety of jobs and have a rather healthy social life (for an introvert). I graduated college in four years and participated on campus activities including student government. I’ve been told that I give off the impression of having a lot of friends and being generally well-connected. But the interesting thing about making friends as an adult is that new people come into your life without any knowledge or connection to who you were growing up. Most people I’ve met since attending college don’t know that socializing wasn’t always this easy for me.

I grew up with selective mutism, a rare anxiety disorder that makes people who are otherwise capable of speaking stay quiet in particular social situations. These days, I occasionally forget that I have social anxiety because it’s not as severe as it used to be, but it still makes some things difficult. Being around other people for extended periods of time wears me out, taking initiative and being my full self around new people remains challenging, and when I try to do that, I get caught up in my head worrying about if something I said was “wrong” and what other people think of me. Perhaps it’s not as obvious an impairment to people on the outside, but my existence often feels exhausting.

My mom says I was “born anxious.” Of course I don’t remember that far back, but I do remember being young and afraid for reasons I could never, and still can’t, explain. I didn’t have many friends or participate in class activities. Even if I knew the answers, I was never the student raising their hand. It always felt like there was an inexplicable, looming sense of fear, ready to consume me if I were to open my mouth.

Perhaps it’s not as obvious an impairment to people on the outside, but my existence often feels exhausting.

Despite my quiet nature, I managed to have a few friends as a child. My camp counselors thought it was funny that the most talkative girl in our group was the one always hanging out with me. I was a very good listener even if it may not have seemed like it. My one school friend was a girl from Japan who couldn’t speak English well. We didn’t need to talk to understand each other, so it worked out perfectly.

At home I felt okay to talk to my family, but outside, everyone knew me to be quiet. Although, sometimes I slipped, and when I did, that powerful feeling of fear would take hold of me and my stomach would drop. It felt like I did something terribly wrong, even if I never knew what it was. At a certain point, everyone at camp and school knew me to be quiet, so I felt like I had an image to uphold and that everyone was waiting on the edge of their seat for me to screw it up.

My parents grew frustrated because of my social difficulties. Not only did they worry about my future academic performance, but they got tired of my classmates treating me like a baby because I wouldn’t talk. In an effort to fix me, they tirelessly hauled me around to therapists and psychiatrists. I didn’t understand why I was there. I think I spent a lot of the time during those sessions drawing or coloring pictures and none of the time talking, of course. Instead, I was mostly talked at. I was even made to see a speech therapist at school, which I didn’t understand either because I could talk — I just didn’t want to. 

I didn’t have a speech disorder or difficulties with language; I was diagnosed with selective mutism in first grade. Selective mutism isn’t just a fancy term for being shy. While shyness is a socially adaptable personality trait, selective mutism is a rare anxiety disorder. According to the Selective Mutism Association, “To meet diagnostic criteria, the child or adolescent with SM shows significant impairment in daily functioning, typically in educational or occupational settings, and by refraining from social participation at school and other settings due to a pronounced fear of speaking.”

I didn’t have a speech disorder or difficulties with language; I was diagnosed with selective mutism in kindergarten. I could talk — I just didn’t want to.

I remember one car ride home from a psychiatrist vividly. I didn’t understand how taking medication could make me talk. I think my parents tried to explain anxiety to me, but as a child, it was a pretty difficult concept to grasp. I didn’t see a problem with my behavior. I didn’t want to talk and there was no way a pill could make me do something I didn’t want to do.

Emptying the capsules into my chocolate milk or apple sauce became a part of my daily routine. Prozac in chocolate milk can’t be untasted. I had no say in this. I never really had a say in anything, though, which is how I got Prozac in my milk in the first place.

Talking got easier over time and through medication and consistent use of sticker reward charts by my teachers. In fifth grade, I moved to a new school. I remember people from my old school contacting me on instant messenger or social media asking me rudely if I learned to speak yet. My family didn’t move for the purpose of me starting anew in a school just as I began feeling comfortable communicating, but the timing was convenient for me. I could forget about everyone else and start over without the same feelings of fear.

I won’t lie and say that I don’t face difficulties with anxiety since then; it’s just a bit different. I had minimal difficulty with presentations in college. If you told my parents when I was young that I would move to Japan for a year after graduation and teach English at four different public schools, or that I would even be able to do the job of getting up in front of a room full of people every day and teach, they would have never believed it. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. These days I sometimes feel like I should talk less, but for what it’s worth, my talkative camp friend is still friends with me all these years later, even though I’m not nearly as quiet.

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