I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, especially when it comes to mental or personality disorders. After I took an abnormal psychology course in college, I diagnosed myself with half of the disorders in the DSM-IV and then immediately signed up for counseling. But there's one disorder I definitely had, without a doubt, even though no one actually diagnosed it when I was a child: Selective mutism.
To sum it up, children with selective mutism are unable to speak in certain social situations. At first glance, it doesn't sound serious enough to be a REAL disorder. Aren't these kids just choosing not to speak?
But it's not simple shyness that goes away once you become comfortable with new people. It's paralyzing anxiety. It’s persistent and confusing and painful. For me, it began as soon as I started kindergarten. Until then I'd been a rambunctious loud mouth kid (and I have the home videos to prove it). But something happened when I was suddenly plunked into a room full of people and expected to spend hours at a time with them five days a week. I became a completely different person at school. I couldn't speak to them, and I had no idea why. I would respond to questions with a nod, shake of the head, or a shrug, but I couldn't open my mouth. People assumed I acted this way willfully, that I just didn't WANT to talk. But more than anything, I wanted to talk at school and make friends with my classmates and be normal. At home, around my family, I was still a fairly normal kid. It's like I lived in two separate worlds. No one understood me. I didn't even understand myself.
My silence persisted throughout elementary school, and honestly, sometimes it was a pretty miserable way to spend my childhood. Group projects and oral reports were torture. I would skip them if possible and let my grades suffer. I was smart, but my fifth grade teacher kicked me out of the gifted and talented program because I wouldn't contribute to discussions. I tried my best to remain invisible and go with the flow. I avoided expressing my own opinions or standing out in any way. If a teacher praised me in front of the class for doing something well, I wanted to sink into the floor. I had tragically low self esteem, though I didn't even realize it until years later. Things did gradually get easier, although I never passed for normal. By high school, I could hold simple conversations with my classmates if they initiated them, but I still didn’t know how to make friends, and I never completely let go of the anxiety. I still haven't.
Because I didn't talk for the seven or eight hours I spent at school every day, I lived inside my head. I had an extremely vivid fantasy life where I created alter egos for myself who had friends and did crazy things that I would never actually do. At home, I mostly played alone. I loved my Barbies, the paper dolls my mother would draw for me, and my doll house. I spent years writing stories in my head before I even realized that's what I was doing. As soon as I understood that people could get paid to make up stories and write them down, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I never had any other ambition.
Because of my childhood mutism, I've always been more of an observer than a participant. Even now, I'd rather watch someone else's conversation than have one of my own. I found other people endlessly fascinating, mostly because I lacked the ability to form relationships and get to know them. Sometimes they would let me overhear their juicy gossip because they knew I wouldn't repeat it to anyone. But most of the time, I just had to wonder and make up my own stories. My imagination worked overtime. The observing, the wondering, the hours spent in silence--it was all great training for the short stories and novels I would eventually write.
The eponymous detective from the TV series Monk suffers from extreme OCD after his wife is murdered. He describes his disorder as both a blessing and a curse. The myriad of quirks that prevent him from living a normal life are the same traits that make him a brilliant detective. And that's the same way I feel about my silent childhood. It wasn't fun a lot of the time, and I'm still dealing with the lingering negative effects, but it made me a writer and I can't think of anything I'd rather be.