“To choke”, used as a metaphor in performance, means to freeze up, to fail to perform, to be overcome with stage fright or other emotions and simply stop moving. To become “choked up” with emotion, a phrase familiar to many of us, means to feel emotion so strongly that it is difficult to speak. It is a feeling of the throat tightening and words stopping.
These are natural, normal phenomena that most people feel once in a while.
I have Selective mutism (link goes to Wikipedia) which I classify as a disability and also believe to be a natural and normal phenomenon, albeit a rare one, affecting an estimated 7 in 1,000 people. I am currently seeking treatment for it which has me thinking about selective mutism more than I usually do, and its impact upon my life.
Selective mutism is mostly seen in children and adolescents, and it is important to understand that it is a failure to speak, not a choice not to speak. It is not a reflection upon the child’s parents; it is a disability. The child would like to speak but cannot, in certain environments, to specific people, or about certain topics, due to extreme anxiety. This disorder can extend into adulthood, which is the case with me. I was never formally diagnosed or treated as a child.
There are specific instances from childhood and adolescence that stand out in my memory, and others that my family still talk about, that are good examples of selective mutism in my life:
I did not speak to my preschool teacher the entire year (but talked freely at home)
I did not talk to store clerks
I went to junior prom and did not talk to anyone due to anxiety
I did not talk much in church/Sunday school and did not make friends there; although I made friends freely in other venues
What I have trouble talking about now: Basically anything that is associated with a lot of emotion. Here are some examples:
Sexuality, being queer
My chronic pain and illness
Conflict with friends or family
I have trouble calling people I don’t know or knocking on doors, although I don’t think this is uncommon for shy people
I am sometimes uncomfortable being asked to keep secrets or not to talk about things because it reinforces this anxiety
One article I read recently said: “You can’t get a kid verbal until you have social comfort” (http://www.selectivemutism.org/news/people-magazine-spotlights-dr-elisa-shipon-blum-director-emeritus). This resonated quite strongly for me, because as a queer person in society, who was closeted (to myself) for a very long time, it is rare that I am socially comfortable. I have certainly learned many coping techniques. But it is hard to speak when you are not comfortable with yourself, and when society makes you feel unsafe. I cannot talk about selective mutism without talking about my experience of being queer, and being closeted. They are tied together. Activist Mia Mingus says, “intersectionality is a big fancy word for our lives.”
What does selective mutism feel like? People talk about a flight or fight response to danger. This is a third response, a “freeze” response. The body senses danger, although the source is unclear, and the body freezes. Talking is impossible. Even thinking becomes different, slowed, unclear. “How can I get myself out of this situation?” is usually what my brain is focusing on, but often that thought is in conflict with some other need or desire like wanting to be at a party or needing to answer a question directed at me. It is a terrible feeling, a deer-in-headlights feeling. I want to escape, but I can’t figure out how, I can’t figure out what is even going on. As I have learned more and more about this I have learned to simply feel the anxiety, feel it in my body and my throat, and not try to think so hard, try not to focus on words, which often do not work well for me in times of high anxiety.
What helps? Getting away from words and looking at images helps. Doing things that root me in my body helps, such as holding my hands under hot water. Writing out whatever is bothering me helps tremendously. And, importantly, I need to notice when it is happening. I have had this all my life; it’s my normal, after all, so I don’t always notice when I’m being anxiously quiet or peacefully quiet. I don’t always notice if there is something important in my life that I am not talking about. I don’t think this is just a selective mute thing: in a repressive culture, there are plenty of important things we just don’t talk about, for all sorts of reasons. This might be because to speak about them makes the thing more real; to speak might make other people uncomfortable or angry or bored; to speak might make myself vulnerable, because someone could use my words against me. Speaking is dangerous, and silence is a naturally protective stance. The body knows this, the throat closes.
Thankfully, the fingers don’t, the fingers can still type. Writing about my life is practice for talking about my life. It is worlds easier.
Speaking is a political and personal act. I want to get better at it, I want to value my own voice and what I have to say. I am taking baby steps in this direction. I am, strangely enough, good at public speaking as long as I don’t have to talk about myself, or something too personally connected to myself. I do better at speaking when my role is defined, such as in academic or club environments. I have read interviews of actors and other performers saying similar things, that the stage or screen is the only place they are comfortable speaking, because they are playing someone else, not themselves.
In all the reading I have done about selective mutism, on blogs, in scientific articles, on awareness websites, all the focus is on diagnosis, treatment, therapy. Don’t get me wrong, I think these things are great. But what I don’t understand is the lack of discussion on how to live well with the disorder. The social justice model of disability has taught me many things, and one of those things is that I don’t necessarily need to be cured. I can seek accommodation for my disabilities and live well with them. Why not teach kids with SM sign language? Why not let them type or write their responses to questions? Why do we privilege speech so highly? Other forms of communication are just as useful, and sometimes better. There are many forms of self expression. Words are just one kind, and speech is just one iteration.