By Jania Williams
At school they knew me as ‘the girl who doesn’t talk’. At home I talked fine. I was ‘normal’. In fact, as number four of the six of us, I was probably the most animated and adventurous. But at school my voice just seemed to shut down. My silence was dismissed as severe shyness. But I studied other shy kids. They weren’t like me. They inevitably emerged from their ‘shells’, made friends, and started talking.
At school, I talked to my one friend, Mari, but only ‘one on one’. As soon as another kid approached, I became silent and withdrawn. I couldn’t share my morning news. I couldn’t call for the ball in PE. I couldn’t take part in drama or music or any of the other fun activities I wanted to do. School was often a desperately lonely and anxious time from the time class started until it finished every day.
A couple of things made my silent prison a shameful place. The first was other kids asking me why I didn’t talk. I physically couldn’t answer, but even mentally I struggled to answer the question of why I was so different: so defective. The second was from the teachers who regularly reported on my abnormal silence. All I wanted was to be normal like everyone else, but I wasn’t, and it made me miserable.
I entertained fantasies to escape. I imagined a silent school – an alternate reality, where the golden rule would be ‘no talking’. Every kid would enjoy great learning and engage in fun activities free from fear of having to speak. Best of all, every kid would feel a sense of belonging.
Then, at thirteen I discovered a new escape – alcohol. As I became intoxicated, my anxiety faded, and I could talk to people. For the first time, I actually felt ‘normal’. It was a revelation! Finally, a solution to my problem! The missing piece to the puzzle! I had discovered my talk elixir!
I was sold. From that moment on, alcohol became my close companion and remained by my side into adulthood. The association of alcohol and socializing became deeply ingrained in my psyche and my dependence upon it grew. I simply couldn’t socialize without it. I avoided gatherings where alcohol would not be available because I knew I could not talk to people, so the whole idea of attending was pointless. By my early twenties, I realized the downside. The solution to my problem had consequences. The solution was becoming a problem itself.
Aside from the horrendous hangovers, I was placing myself in vulnerable situations and ruining relationships with many people whom I loved. The sense of shame and remorse following my escapades was torturous. My futile quest for love via one-night stands and the continual rejection that followed chipped away at my already fragile self-esteem. I saw how drinking was impacting my life, and yet I felt there was no alternative. In order to engage with other human beings, alcohol seemed to be my only option. I continued digging myself into the alcoholic’s pit until my early forties.
At forty five I stumbled upon the term ‘selective mutism’ whilst casually scrolling through a social media site. Phrases like ‘inability to talk’ and ‘often mistaken for shyness’ stopped me mid-scroll. I backed up and learned that selective mutism is an acute anxiety response in which the vocal cords become paralysed and that it occurs in select situations (typically at school). I couldn’t believe it. This was me. I was reading about my ‘problem’. Here it was, in black and white! It was ‘a thing’ – and other people had it!
From that moment, I knew I didn’t need alcohol to cure me. I just needed self-kindness and insight. Armed with this knowledge, I set about ending my alcohol dependence once and for all and got professional help for my selective mutism. Socializing is still a struggle, but I am making progress. I no longer view myself as defective. When I reflect on my childhood now, I see a kid who had a relatively rare condition that unfortunately went undiagnosed and untreated. I’m taking care of that kid now. It’s not too late and there is hope!
This piece was shortlisted in the 2021 mindshare Awards, presented by mindshare, Writers SA, Access2Arts, and the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia. More info here.