Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Holly: A Blessing and a Curse

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.


  1. Holly,
    Thank you for this honest post. Even if you weren't/aren't saying your words out loud, you sure are communicating them beautifully in writing. I can hear your voice. I hear you.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your personal story with us - I could definitely relate to parts of it. *hugs* Wishing you and The Snowball Effect all the best :-)

  3. Very nice post. I suffer from panic/anxiety disorder, and I can totally relate to the blessing and curse thing. It keeps me indoors so much that I end up spending much of my day writing. It's nice to see others like you who are open about it Holly, thank you for that and best of luck :)

  4. Hi Heidi! What a good post. I would never have known this about you. Thank you for writing about this. xoxo

  5. Thanks for sharing your story. It must have been horrible when everyone else thought you could control whether you spoke or not. The first I heard of this was in the middle grade book, Alvin Ho.

  6. What a beautifully written blog- thank you for sharing your story. You do express yourself wonderful in writing and your voice comes through. My daughter has SM and hearing from your perspective really helps me to better understand what she is going through in her head. I have a blog dedicated to our journey with SM : jesshoyvoice.blogspot.com. I am also writing a book on SM and would be very interested in talking with you more- my email is jesshoylo@yahoo.com if you might be interested in learning more about the project. I would love to have your perspective included in the book.
    Thanks again for sharing yourself,

  7. Holly--Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us. It's hard to put yourself out there for judgement by others. You did a wonderful job explaining who you are. People tend to keep important things to themselves. I discovered when I was teaching that about half our staff was on anti-depressants. I found out because I admitted I was struggling and had started taking them. It allowed people to relate to me better...I was and am a perfectionist...It allowed me to see that they weren't perfect either.

  8. I too suffered (and still do at times) deeply with mutism as a child and teenager.

    It's something I fight almost every day. It's easier as an adult to fight it because we 'know things' children simply don't know.

    Most (99%) of the people (aside from relatives) who know me now simply would not believe this about me. But - it is quite true. And I understand and am sympathetic when I read about it in others or see it in person.

    Compassion builder, that's for sure.

  9. Wow, thank you for sharing this. I think I might actually know a child that might have this. It gives me a whole new insight and sympathy for him now.

  10. My daughter, who is 5, has selective mutism... I have a hard time seeing the 'blessing' part, at least at this point in her life. It's not just the fact that she's not speaking (she doesn't speak at all at preschool, and has just started to speak to people outside of our immediate family again after about 8 months) - it's that when she is frustrated with something, she has such difficulty expressing it and bottles it all up inside until I pick her up at the end of the day - and then she is angry, or at least irritable, until after supper. It breaks my heart that she is dealing with such an obstacle, being so little. I am going to do everything I can to help her fight this.