Most people think I’m just shy. They’re not wrong; not really. It’s just that there’s more to it than simply being shy. At age 4, I was diagnosed with Selective Mutism. I didn’t really know what it meant back then, only that it was difficult for me to make friends every time I moved to a new environment.
Selective Mutism (SM) is a little known mental disorder similar to autism. Children affected by SM have an extreme fear of speaking in public places, reaching the point where it becomes physically impossible for them to utter a simple string of words. Many parents of children with SM aren’t even aware of their child’s condition. There isn’t much information on the subject, so most people just dismiss their behavior as shyness. Often, children with SM are thought to be stubborn, misbehaving kids who refuse to speak on purpose. It’s not that we choose to remain quiet, however. Children diagnosed with SM are actually physically unable to speak. The success rate for SM is low, and many of the affected never really grow out of their fear.
Selective Mutism is, in a way, my aberration. Throughout my whole life, I’ve struggled with communicating with others and making new friends. Signs of my SM started showing up when I first started preschool. While the other kids liked to play on the monkey bars during recess, I would sit on a bench in the corner and draw lions. I was fascinated with their silky coats, dagger-like fangs, and majestic manes; no other animal was quite the same.
I remained the typical, sugar-fueled preschooler at home, however. My mother didn’t notice a thing until our school’s Parent-Teacher Conferences came around.
“All the child does is sit in the corner and draw. She doesn’t talk to the other children,” Ms. Wahn said, sniffing as she shuffled her papers around and crossed her legs. “We have a guidance counselor. I’m sure you two can swing by anytime you’d like,” she added, pushing the bridge of her glasses up her nose.
To be honest, I don’t remember my sessions with Cathy very well. I’d get pulled out of class every week on the same day, at the same time and we’d play a game of Monopoly Junior or UNO. She also had this little dollhouse stacked under a box of memory cards of Winnie the Pooh characters and a chessboard in her closet of games. She may have asked me a few questions about school or what I was doing on the weekend. I felt comfortable around Cathy. She was quiet, like me, and when she smiled her eyes would sparkle and the creases around her eyes would show.
In third grade, I stopped going to see my psychiatrist. People were asking why I kept leaving during class, and for some reason, I felt embarrassed to tell them. Deciding that I no longer needed therapy, I told Cathy and my mother that I was better and that I didn’t want to go anymore. They accepted my decision and I didn’t see her again. I vaguely remember feeling both sad and relieved, knowing that I wouldn’t ever see Cathy’s tiny, lavender-colored room again as I walked down the hallway back to my classroom.
Luckily, third grade was the year that Myra came to our class. Myra and I were complete opposites. Bubbly and energetic, Myra approached me in her color-coordinated outfit on that first day during lunch: green T-shirt, green sweater, green skirt, green headband, green socks.
“Hi. What’s your name?” I looked up from Harry Potter. “Hi, I’m Myra. Whatcha reading?” Slightly annoyed, I looked up, yet again, and closed the book. “Harry Potter.” “Oh. Cool.” I could tell she didn’t know what I was talking about. “I like Nancy Drew.” My eyes brightened. “Me, too!” I liked all books back then. “Mysteries are fun.” “Yeah. Harry Potter’s kind of a mystery.” “Really?” “Sorta.” She examined the school’s copy, slightly worn with years of use. “It’s kinda thick.” I took it back from her. “It’s not that bad.” “Oh. Okay.” We sat in silence for a while, not knowing what to say. I smiled awkwardly and eyed the book, wishing I could get back to it. “You can keep reading and stuff if you want,” she finally said. “Okay,” I said, relieved. “See you later.” I picked up the book, flipped back to the page I had dog-eared, and waved. Smiling politely, she left the table and headed to the next one, her wispy, platinum blond ponytail swinging behind her as she sat down and introduced herself to another of my classmates.
We ended up becoming best friends. That year, I had my first sleepover at her house, where we gossiped about our teachers and classmates. She liked to lie, probably for the attention. I could always tell whenever she was making something up, but I listened to her anyway and went along with her stories. Gradually, I pushed myself away from Myra. Finally, in fifth grade, I heard that she’d started to talk behind my back. I was too timid to approach her about it, but our friendship was never quite the same after that. I still haven’t seen her in two years.
Although SM has been tough on me, both Cathy and Myra helped me greatly. Cathy was my confidante. She was probably 50, maybe even 60, but she was my friend. As for Myra, I was definitely hurt to hear that she would say anything bad about me, but eventually, I realized that she couldn’t change her personality and that it would’ve happened sooner or later. Besides, she helped me learn how to make many of the friends I have today. I don’t know if I’ve completely gotten over what happened with Myra, but I think, overall, I’ve gained more than I’ve lost.
I used to think of my SM as a burden. Of course, I’m not always glad to have SM, but it’s taught me to value friendship and family even more than I normally would. And that’s what keeps me going.