A Teenager’s Experience of Selective Mutism: looking back as an adult

I am always looking to learn more about Selective Mutism and I recently joined twitter and I met this lovely young woman, called “wonder woman”, who has agreed to talk to me about her journey and to be part of my BLOG HOP to raise awareness for Selective Mutism. I wrote about where does anxiety come from and here are the other blogs:

Wonder woman is now 27 and her social anxiety became most debilitating when she was in High School. She was a fairly confident child with healthy self-esteem and although introverted, she didn’t have trouble speaking.  This is the first part of her journey and how her selective mutism began to take hold which all could have contributed. Her selective mutism goes hand in hand with social anxiety disorder.

Personal experience

When I was a teenager (when my selective mutism and social anxiety first began to impact negatively on my life), I didn’t have a label for what it was I was experiencing. Up until this point, a quiet student could camouflage into the background without drawing much attention.

However, when classes became smaller, more serious, and GCSE’s were forthcoming, more was expected of me in terms of verbal participation in classes. In particular, my English class, my favourite subject, was the class that SM impacted on me most severely.

English was always the subject I enjoyed most, and as a child I loved reading and creative writing. I was confident I could achieve a good grade, but suffering from SM made me lose that confidence and I began to struggle academically and socially.

How I knew something was wrong

We all have fears; some common fears people have may include spiders, lightning, dogs and heights. My fear was speaking, and specifically, whenever there was an expectation for me to speak in public.

In a school environment the expectation to speak would happen frequently throughout the day. For me, this fear would become apparent at the slightest opportunity. Some days, even replying ‘yes’ or ‘here’ in the register would cause my heart to race, and it would take a couple of minutes for my heart rate to get back to normal.

Whenever I was called on in class (which could vary depending on the teacher) I’d go through a fight-or-flight response to a situation my brain would deem a threat, which was speaking out loud in the classroom.

Adrenaline would flood through my body in an instant; a feeling of pure dread would come at the prospect of having to speak. My heart would race ten times its normal speed, and my cheeks would burn crimson. If I was called upon unprepared, I wouldn’t be able to think of the question being asked of me, I’d freeze on the spot and my mind would go completely blank. I’d end up say the minimum I could possible say and internally pray that my teacher would move on to the next student. I’d be kicking myself afterwards, thinking of what I should have said, and how impossible it was for me to articulate my thoughts. My speech wouldn’t form under the level of anxiety I was under.

In every opportunity I had to speak I would either mumble, quietly say a one word answer, or in the worst case scenario, I couldn’t speak at all. I’d try my best to rehearse over and over again the shortest possible answer I could give. I would remember each and every time I had to speak, and I’d dwell on what I perceived as ‘failures.’ Each time a social interaction went wrong I’d internalise feelings of being inept, a failure, and incapable of functioning like a ‘normal’ teenager. These constant thoughts and feelings had a detrimental effect on my self-esteem.

I felt isolated by my condition because I never opened up to anyone and therefore no one could understand how I was feeling inside.

I didn’t have a name for what I was experiencing back then; I just knew this condition was affecting me negatively in many important aspects of life.

I became very insecure, defensive and paranoid in lessons. As the ‘quietest one’ of the class, I felt like a spotlight was on me for all the wrong reasons. I felt members of the class were hanging off the few words I’d say, to see what the ‘person who never spoke’ would say, or not say, this time. I felt like my social abnormality was on show for everyone to see and no one was on my side because they didn’t understand why.

I was teased a little by other, slightly insensitive classmates.

An extroverted boy joked that if we had to do a presentation in groups that I should be the one to do all the speaking.

Instead of giving the answer I wanted to give in lessons (which would be too long) I’d sometimes say as a default answer, ‘I don’t know’ in a meek, quiet voice. One time, after giving my typical ‘I don’t know’ response to a question (even though I knew the answer) the girl next to me mimicked my quiet voice, saying ‘I don’t know,’ as if that was the only answer I could give, and it probably was.

English was the class where I struggled with SM the most, as my teacher expected every student to participate at least once a lesson. Her method of teaching was very verbally active; she’d expect us to work in groups, report back to the class, do presentations, etc. She had our names written down on a register and would randomly pick on a student to answer a question. Subsequently, this created an environment I found highly stressful, and took away my ability to learn.

Since the teacher picked on students rather than let them raise their hand voluntarily, I was under constant stress from the moment the lesson began. I had this teacher more than any other because she taught multiple subjects.

When the teacher said we’d be working on a poem or whatever it was we’d be discussing that day, I wouldn’t be able to learn.

Instead, I’d quickly rack my brains, thinking of anything I could say in advance in case I was picked on. As I had spent the majority of the class in a state of panic, dread and fear before, during and after speaking, I wouldn’t have learnt a thing in the hour lesson. As a result, I wouldn’t understand the homework, my confidence deserted me, and my grades began to slip in all subjects. I became an underachiever, but because my grades didn’t drop to a worrying level teachers weren’t concerned.

I believed at the time that because of my minimal contribution in lessons, and seemingly lack of understanding, my teacher and class thought I was stupid. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t true but when you get bad grades, and have given up on learning, you feel stupid. You don’t believe it’s the SM causing it; you take the failure upon yourself.

Not being able to speak affected my life in all sorts of negative ways; it was like having a hidden disability. Socially, it stopped me making friends, it ruined my confidence in school (I went from being a straight A student to scraping passes) I missed A LOT of school which got me into trouble (I was kicked out of my English class at A level because my grades were dragging down everyone else’s), it made me feel disconnected from everyone around me, and outside of school I relied heavily upon alcohol to give me confidence, and so no one would suspect the truth and my ‘secret.’ With my group of friends I appeared normal; it was with strangers, authority figures etc when my condition presented itself.

When you’re unable to speak to others, people project an image of who they think you are (usually a negative one: aloof, arrogant) which isn’t the case.

I found it very embarrassing to have this condition when being able to speak is such a necessity in everyday life; not being able to do something that everyone finds so easy makes you feel really alone, inept, and immature for your age.

Wonder woman worked so hard to fight her SELECTIVE MUTISM and I am honored to host her here, and will add PART 2 here.

Anna Biavati-Smith
Specialist Speech and language Therapist
© Copyright 2017 edinburgh-speech-therapy-wordsteps.co.uk . All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by wonder woman

2 thoughts on “A Teenager’s Experience of Selective Mutism: looking back as an adult”

  1. I can understand. Well, i had a mild variation of selective mutism. I couldn’t chat with my classmates at my schools from elementary to high school. I was a loner at school, being unable to make any friends as i grew up. I knew that i was different from others. I wished that i knew about selective mutism.

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