For the month of February I will be exploring Selective Mutism – yesterday I introduced the condition – and spoke a little bit about how it manifested in my life. Today I’m going to explore the way it feels to be selective mute – what it is like to find yourself in a situation where you simply cannot say a word.
We live in a talkative world
When I have mentioned selective mutism to people in the past, they have often been shocked, surprised, and also incredibly intrigued about what it feels like to be completely unable to speak. We live in a world where speech is considered the method of communication. If you do not talk, how can you make your-self heard? How can you communicate your needs? And, perhaps more importantly … who will listen?
I believe that everybody has an in-built need to be seen and heard. When we are young, it is important to build healthy pathways that teach us our own importance in this World – to show us that we are each capable of communicating our needs and having them met.
I think of the young child in the playground, shouting “Mummy, look at me!!!” Children everywhere are screaming out to be seen, heard and acknowledged for the new things they are learning to do – and also for the people they are.
From my experience, I did not enjoy attention being showered upon me – but I did still long for recognition of who I was. I also didn’t understand why people often couldn’t see that. My attempts at communication were subtle – and so they often went unnoticed in this world where people are more accustomed to listening to the more noisy, obvious chatter.
When speaking is just too difficult
I speak here from my own experience. Other people may have similar – or different – stories to share. There are a couple of memories that stand out to me, and that I would like to share. The feelings of inadequacy and complete helplessness that went through my mind as I struggled through were overwhelming.
In the first memory, I would have been seven or eight. I remember being in a shop with my parents – planning to spend my pocket money.
The shop was small, and I was all too aware of the shop assistant at the desk. There were also other people in the shop. I was terrified that I might be overheard by someone in the shop if I spoke to my parents – but they kept asking what I wanted to buy.
My answer came in a barely-audible whisper. It was an extreme effort for me to get this out, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the sheer effort that it had taken to choke out those small sounds.
My parents had hardly heard me. They gently urged me to speak a little louder. It felt like the tears were running through the insides of my body. The pressure and pain were insurmountable – and it seemed absolutely impossible to try again.
This is where the memory fades. I’m not sure what I bought that day – or even if I did manage to say something else. I do, however, have many other happy memories of leaving that little shop with something special in my hands.
When no words will come …
When we feel fear, we are hard-wired with the fight or flight reaction. The third reaction is freeze. Freeze appears to be my default.
As a child, an anxious moment would result in what felt exactly like a frozen voice-box. I sometimes describe it as having a wall in my throat – a wall which no words could get past. The biggest lump in your throat you can imagine. One which prevents you from making a single sound.
Over time, the experience morphed and changed. There were times when I found that I was able to speak. Sometimes it would only be a whisper. Sometimes I would feel comfortable enough to be myself. Other times, when I felt uncomfortable – I found that I was able to ease that discomfort by meeting people’s expectations. I couldn’t give more than I was asked for. I very rarely gave myself. But I could meet people’s expectations – and I could give them an answer.
Emotionally, I found it incredibly difficult to express myself. Emotions rarely meet expectations. They are illogical and unpredictable. If a question brought up an emotional response inside of me, I would return to my default ‘freeze’ reaction …
There was a particular question that seemed to stop time. Each time I heard it, all the other times I’d been asked would roll back upon me, like a thunder cloud. This time was no different. It just felt bigger – and more significant. I couldn’t believe I was now thirteen years old and the question still haunted me,
“Why are you so quiet?”
My teacher had no idea that she had just stabbed me through my heart. I could tell, because she was looking at me with compassion. She had a deep desire to help me – and to understand. I could see it in her eyes – searching, hopeful, desperate to make a difference. I wished I could give her what she wanted. I longed to speak my answer.
I longed to know my answer.
I felt like a deer caught in headlights. My eyes wide; my mouth opening and closing, fruitlessly. I felt trapped in a never-ending moment of impossible pressure. It was as though everything I had ever felt was swirling inside me – desperate for its release. I was terrified. I had had no idea how much I was hurting inside – and all I wanted was for the moment to end. I wanted to push that pain away.
The importance of letting our emotions flow
I had no idea back then that years of feeling misunderstood and unheard had built up inside of me. I had become very good at keeping my emotions hidden – and without even thinking I would push them down to a place where even I didn’t know they existed. I was terrified of the vulnerability that would be required to let everything go -holding on to the pain seemed like the easier option at the time.
It wasn’t that anything in particular had happened to me – it was simply that my default method of dealing with emotions was to not express them. I didn’t not-express everything. But I did not-express a lot. If you watch a toddler who can freely express their emotions, you will see how much pain, frustration, annoyance and joy there can be to express in a normal, healthy life.
Today my emotional default is very different to my childhood technique of stuffing it all inside. Later on this month, I will share my experience of letting go of my heavy emotional baggage – alongside many other experiences through my time being selective mute (and beyond).
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