Why I'm Talking About the Anxiety Disorder That Took My Voice Away
We rely on our voices every day to communicate with those around us. To most, speaking comes as naturally as breathing; air from our lungs moves through our voice box and vocal chords likely thousands of times each day, effortlessly translating thoughts into syllables, syllables into sounds and sounds into words. To be honest, I never really thought about these processes until four years ago when I developed a severe anxiety disorder called selective mutism (SM) – a paralyzing fear of speaking.
While people with SM are perfectly capable of speech, something in our brains perceives speaking as a threat. The process gets shut down as a protective mechanism. In my case, my brain will only let me speak in certain places and to certain people. Leaving the comfort and safety of my home usually results in an epic battle between my body and brain; my brain is almost always the victor. Though I desperately want to speak, my throat closes, my body freezes and my brain just will not let me.
In the early days, people would at least try to talk to me. But as the days went on, it was easier for people to pretend I didn’t exist. I can understand how it happened, and I don’t blame them. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must be to have a conversation with someone who can’t look you in the eye, has no facial expression and appears to be in misery. For me, what was even more devastating was watching them walk away, knowing next time they wouldn’t even try to engage with me at all.
What’s it really like being a selective mute? How would I describe what it’s like to live my life? Having selective mutism is like being constantly followed by a long, slimy boa constrictor. Slithering in my shadows, I know he could attack at any given moment, suffocating my voice until it completely disappears.
Desperate for some relief, my parents and I made a difficult but worthwhile decision to transfer me to a boarding school 87 miles from my home. Having never been away from my parents for more than a couple nights, the thought of going to a boarding school was absolutely terrifying. But I knew it was a step I needed to take in order to regain my life. As it turns out, this was the best decision we could have made. This new atmosphere brought out a person within me I hadn’t seen in years, a person I almost forgot existed. Through an extremely supportive and welcoming school community, I slowly began to speak in a school environment again — something I hadn’t done in over a year and a half.
In late October, only six weeks after changing schools, I stood at a podium in front of my entire school and told them about selective mutism. I told them my story and ways they could help someone like me. I told them about how I’m one of the lucky ones, as many people with selective mutism never get to experience such a supporting environment. They continue living in a world of silence, fear and isolation.
In our hearts, we’re just like everyone around us. We crave interaction and friendship. We have similar interests as others. We want to be accepted and “normal.” We dream of the day speaking will become something we don’t even have to think about. But we can’t do this alone.
I know this is a lot to ask, but if you know someone like me, here are some things you can do to help:
Don’t give up on them. A kind text and a smile make my heart dance because, sometimes, it’s the best thing that’s happened to me that day.
Know it’s OK to be silent sometimes. I know it’s awkward, but just having someone around with no expectation to speak can make all the difference. Selective mutism is isolating.
Please, keep including them in your plans. Some days I won’t be able to go, but don’t give up.
Give me an option to communicate with you in other ways. Texting, writing, nodding and pointing are all great ways to communication when my voice fails me.
Thank you from all of us who don’t have a voice.
Watch Lauren speaking to her school about selective mutism in the video below: