Silent Voices: Jeanne’s Selective Mutism Story

I’m honored to share another voice of Selective Mutism. This is the third story in the (hopefully ongoing) series of personal stories of Selective Mutism.  You can read Meagan’s story here and Leanne’s story here.

Before I share her childhood experience, I wanted to share her current experience and how she came to discover she was grappling with selective mutism as a child:

I only found out the clinical term for this condition when I was close to 50 yrs. of age, so I find this topic very interesting.  What is interesting is that at about age 45 or so, I thought back on my childhood one evening using a mental “check list” of experiences I had from year to year, how my intense shyness affected me at school, with peers, etc., and my mind was flooded, and I mean flooded, with detailed memories of painful experiences at elementary school.  I realized I felt helpless and quite hopeless in my isolation.  An extreme sadness filled me and I haven’t been able to let it go for the past 7 years or so.  I am not on any medications of any kind, work full-time, and have raised four children.  I don’t want to carry this with me forever, but my strength is that I know I am not alone in this.  Research is the key, I’m sure, and finding out about this condition hopefully will provide me (and others like me with selective mutism) with some answers.

***

Memories of Childhood

Earliest memory of frozen feeling in a Catholic kindergarten.  Up on stage, I was told to recite aloud my lines.  I could not.  I was scolded and asked several times to read my lines, but I couldn’t do it.  She treated me at that time as if I was being willful, but she knew that I was a very quiet child in my every day life.  I could not do it, so the nun asked me to leave the stage.  I don’t remember how I reacted to this at all.

First grade, I was lost in a large sea of kids during recess time.  Overcrowded, cement area between the elementary school, the high school, and the convent.  I stood against the walls watching the frenzied interaction.  When the bell rang for everyone to fall in line, I wasn’t sure where to go so I stayed there in the school yard.  A very tall nun towered over me asking me my name and I just looked at her and then looked at the ground.  She kept asking me my name, and who my teacher was.  A time later, a cousin of mine told her who I was, and I was dismissed and told to go inside to the classroom.

At a cousin’s birthday party I remember the kids running around in all directions–happy and LOUD–and, I, at some point, decided that hiding under the table I could tune out the noise and the frenzy until my parents picked me up.  To this day, my cousin never lets me forget it!

Similar to many stories I’ve read about SM.  Afraid I couldn’t be heard after raising my hand to use the restroom…and besides…we were required to approach the blackboard and write our names on the board each time we left to use the restroom–I ended up urinating in my chair to relieve the horrible pressure.  I don’t know if anyone saw, but they must have.  My voice was so faint, I knew she’d never hear me, and I couldn’t imagine having to ask permission when I had reached that point.  This never happened after third grade, and to my knowledge that was the only time.

In fourth grade, I realized if I waited the 15 second or so after being asked a question the nun would eventually go on to the next child, so I would never answer the question even if I knew the answer.  I was afraid of hearing my voice in answer to a question.  I did not want to be laughed at if I hesitated.  I could read at a very young age, so it was not a matter of language skills or comprehension.

Thankfully, taken out of Catholic school after a nun, who subsequently was let go from her position, pinched me on a regular basis in class (along with several others, I assure you!).  I was grateful to go to public school as I had some neighborhood friends there.  More diversity in the student body and a relaxed dress code.

In sixth grade, I had begged my parents to let me take lessons in school to play the flute.  I was looking forward to it for a whole year.  I was told that students who play woodwind instruments have it on these two days a week, etc., and that I would have to know when to get up from the regular classroom and head down to the auditorium to take lessons.  The first day of lessons came, and I watched the minute hand on the clock.  As the minutes went by, my anxiety built up, and then I was afraid if I went to my cubby to get my flute and my book I might realize that I had the wrong time or day (even though I had it written down on the inside of my binder).  I didn’t ask for help and felt depressed after I realized that I was afraid to get up from my desk and walk across the classroom.  What if other kids asked me what I was doing and I couldn’t answer them?   So, I let the instrument stay where it was and I never did go to my lessons.  I don’t know what I told my parents.  My 6th grade teacher was a kind person and actually had one of the college girls (teacher assistants) work with me during class in my regular classroom.  She seemed to understand quiet children and didn’t dismiss us or make us feel inadequate.

The only parties I attended were those of my relatives–I was too quiet to get chosen for anything on a social basis in school.  It hurt, but I couldn’t understand that the expression on my face that others could see, but I could not, was probably one of indifference–even though I wasn’t indifferent!  I just looked too timid or cautious.

I was still using the non answer as a way to make teachers pass me over as far as classroom participation was concerned.  I thought my voice sounded too wispy or weak, and I couldn’t imagine answering.  My school work sufferered for it, and I couldn’t make the connection between my fears and classroom participation.  I was mocked by a couple of students who made my life miserable for a couple of years.  High school was not much better.  Although my grades were not bad for someone who did not actively participate, students did not see me as someone who was involved.  I did not each lunch in the cafeteria but in the quadrangle or off site at my grandmother’s.  I did not develop a “voice” until I was close to age 18.

Needless to say, I have many memories like these.  Looking back at my photos, I looked like a normal girl with a slender build, long dark hair, but a serious expression.  I could relax at home and be silly but never anywhere else.  I was formal in my speech and still am (in the workplace) somewhat.

What made me very interested in finding out about SM is that I fit every single trait.  I had never heard “Oh, she’s a bit shy, isn’t she?”   I always heard people say, “I’ve never seen such a shy kid in my life!”

****

For more information about selective mutism please check out these links –

http://www.selectivemutism.org/

http://www.selectivemutismfoundation.org/

http://www.selectivemutismcenter.org/

If anyone would care to submit a guest post regarding their selective mutism story or their child’s selective mutism story, please drop me (Casey) an email at:  raisingsmartgirls@yahoo.com.

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This entry was posted in anxiety, guest post, selective mutism, social anxiety. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Silent Voices: Jeanne’s Selective Mutism Story

  1. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Jeanne-

    Thank you so much for coming forward and sharing your story with us. I went to Catholic school for one year (first grade), and I remember those nuns being so harsh back then. I remember them humiliating one of my little friends and made him cry. It was such a terrible environment to learn in and I can see how your experiences and harsh treatment only served to worsen your SM.

    I just recently came across a preschool photograph of my formerly SM child. She was so uncomfortable looking, and you could tell she was holding herself stiffly and could not bring herself to smile for the camera. You can just see the fear in her.

    Her more recent photographs are full of smiles and you can see a sparkle in her eyes. What a difference compassionate intervention has made.

    Many, many blessings to you and yours,

    Casey

  2. Joshua says:

    Interesting read! I would go crazy not knowing about selective mutism until reaching an old age, because I grew up with selective mutism, and it still influences me in positive and negative ways. I found out about selective mutism after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.

    • raisingsmartgirls says:

      Thanks, Joshua.

      Yeah, I read about that too. I think they might have tried to ‘blame’ the massacre on SM, but that wasn’t the cause. There were other issues going on in the young man’s life. Actually, if you ever get the chance to, watch a documentary called I AM by Tom Shadyac (it’s nothing to do with SM, but about bringing about some drastic change through awareness). We are living in a world that’s focused on the wrong priorities. When we consume so much, focus on material things, not people, this is where we go so wrong.

      There is so much pressure on young people these days, even more so when I was in school. I struggled a great deal with awareness of what was wrong with valuing things over people. It’s not that I didn’t have worries (the cold war was going on when I was in school, the threat of WWIII was a distinct possibility back then), but we didn’t have to worry about children/young adults cracking under the pressures that are mounted upon them now and bringing guns to school.

      I was bullied a lot…not for being shy, but for being a too smart. I had a lot of anguish turned inward. I thought about suicide quite a bit since 8th grade onward. I think these days, the pressure is even greater and the world is more complex than ever because for all the myriad ways we can ‘reach out and touch someone’, we are even more isolated than ever.

      It sucks. I have to raise daughters in this world and I’m struggling with how to protect them, but not OVER-protect them.

      That’s why it was so important for me to help my daughter. I didn’t want to enable her, but empower her by getting as much information as I could. I got very lucky that the school didn’t overlook the importance of the issue.

      I want to do what I can to help other parents help their kids. I want other individuals struggling with selective mutism know they aren’t alone.

      Anyway,

      I’ll be taking a peek at your blog soon.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Best wishes to you

      Casey

  3. Jeanne says:

    Hi Casey,

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m so glad that your daughter is making such good strides in dealing with and finding her her way through her SM–that’s wonderful!

    You know, I always wondered if this kind of extreme shyness/anxiety was related in any way to autism–but, apparently, it’s not. I am sure your blog will help many people, Casey, and to hear from other who have experienced this is helpful.

    Thanks, and best wishes to you.

    Jeanne

  4. Jeanne says:

    Ooops! I meant to hear from others…

    ; )

  5. lola says:

    after learning what sm is i can actuallly relate to it but yet am still undiagnosed
    whenevver someone hears a word come out of my mouth they get shocked.people always try making me shout scream but it wont happen
    but my question is if you have sm can you nott even respond to people..even if it is in the slightest whisper.

  6. Jeanne says:

    Iola, it’s the saddest thing because children with this disorder don’t know themselves why they cannot answer. We don’t understand it ourselves, so how can we offer an explanation to others? I’m not trying to feel self pity; I’m trying to understand what this is. It’s like a form of paralysis. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

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