Here’s something most people don’t know about me: I had selective mutism from elementary school until graduate school. What’s selective mutism? It’s an anxiety disorder in which a child or adolescent who is capable of speech doesn’t speak in certain situations. I’ll get back to my own experience in a minute, but first let me tell you how selective mutism comes into play in Breaking the Silence.
Five-year-old Emma is home with her stepfather when he kills himself, and from that day forward, she stops speaking. Her Mom, Laura, takes her to a therapist, who recommends that Laura get in touch with Emma’s biological father to see if he can play a helpful role in the little girl’s life. The problem: Emma’s conception was the result of a one-night-stand, and her father, Dylan, doesn’t know of her existence. This is only one of many, many problems in this complicated storyline.
Now back to me. (That’s me with Santa, by the way). The term “selective mutism” didn’t exist when I was a little kid. I was merely considered very shy. In my memory, I was always a shy, anxious child but the mutism began around the first grade. I have no idea why, nor do I believe it matters. All I know is that I stopped speaking in school and certain other situations. I spoke at home and to my friends–I was actually quite outgoing with my friends, even in a school setting. In the classroom, though, I was anxious to the point of being phobic. If called on, I would struggle to speak in class, but raise my hand? No way. I longed to be able to speak up the way my classmates did, but I felt paralyzed. Thank God I could write, and that skill helped me keep up my grades.
Here’s one of my funniest memories from my high school days as a “selective mute.”
I was with my boyfriend at a diner one night after a movie. We were laughing and loud and having a good time. At the next table was a guy who sat next to me in homeroom. He lit up a cigarette. I was a smoker in those days and asked him for a cigarette, which he gave me. Then he asked me if I had a sister who went to Plainfield High School. “There’s a girl in my homeroom who looks a lot like you,” he said. I was so shocked. He had no idea I was the same girl who sat next to him every day. It really hit home for me how totally different I was in the classroom and out.
I made it through four years of college with excellent grades, a 4.0 in my social work major, still never voluntarily uttering a word. So how did it change? When I was waiting for my first class in graduate school, I made a decision: I was going to be a high participator. I sat in the front row and kept my hand in the air and turned into a different person overnight. It was amazing! When I became a therapist myself (yes, it’s rare to find a therapist who was never a little kooky sometime in his or her own life), I discovered this behavioral approach works in many circumstances, but that’s for another blog.
Even though I had personal experience with mutism, I needed to dig into the current research to write about Emma, because her situation is very different from mine. Her mutism clearly stemmed from an event. I loved getting to explore Emma’s problem and discover how her therapist would work with her. It was rewarding for me personally to “help” Emma become a healthy little girl again. I’m glad it didn’t take her as long as it took me!