Letter #89

Content Warning: social anxiety, anxiety disorder, mutism

Dear Reader, 

Since my daycare days, I’ve been mute in front of other people, even those not considered strangers. It was normal for a kid my age. My silence was appreciated, aww-ed at, and even welcomed. Teachers would praise me for being well-behaved. Parents cooed at me. I used to get prizes from my parents – stuffed animals and toys – for making any effort to speak to kids in my class.

As I grew older, the social expectation for me to use my voice also grew, but I simply could not catch up. I was always ten steps behind. By the time I figured out how to make eye contact with people, everyone else had figured out how to make conversation. By the time I figured out how to say any word at all, everyone else had figured out how to make friends.

The transition from elementary to middle school amplified all these problems. I was paralyzed every day. Whenever I would see someone, my mind would go blank. Even the most basic responses made my face flush, my voice scratchy and stiff, and my chest feel like a balloon about to pop. Everyday I’d drown in a sea of can you repeat that and I can’t hear you and please speak up. I felt like I had to go through so much just to get a single word to be heard. On top of that, most people’s attention spans did not last long enough for my stiff and tiny words, and they would move quickly to the next topic. I began to think it was no longer worth the effort to talk. I’d go for days at a time without saying a word. My mouth went dry, my cheeks and jaw numb, from how still I kept my face. I felt like a walking statue, or maybe a ghost.

Still, it wasn’t that anyone tried to ignore me on purpose; a few people even approached me. They’d ask me a friendly question, but I would freeze, giving a delayed one-word answer and never asking anything back. I wanted badly to connect with them — I just didn’t know what to say. Most quickly gave up when they realized my unresponsiveness, so I was often alone. What made it worse was that I felt like it was completely my fault that I didn’t have friends. I was just not quick enough, not loud enough, not interesting enough, not socially fluent enough, to reciprocate people’s efforts to be my friend. I quickly became the last choice for group projects, the one whose name was always forgotten. I was ready to disappear, and I was convinced that no one would notice if I did. Mute girl, invisible girl.

I don’t remember which came first – my social awkwardness or my physical awkwardness, or if one led to the other – but it felt like all my limbs had become too large for me and all my joints had filled with concrete. Lunch especially was a pain. I always ate with a napkin over my face because my hands would shake in front of other people and I would drop food. I considered eating in the locker room instead of the cafeteria because of how much I hated eating in front of everyone. I forgot how to eat sandwiches cleanly, how to find a path for my spoon into my mouth.

I fell into a draining cycle. My physical anxiety would worsen my social anxiety, and my social anxiety would worsen my physical anxiety.

It took time, a lot of time, but I did eventually find people who liked to listen to me despite my croaky, quiet voice. I made friends. As I spent more time with them, I realized my thoughts could still be valuable despite their volume. This discovery helped me gain the confidence to grow my voice. 

It wasn’t a linear process at all. I wish I could say all my awkwardness is finally gone, but it isn’t. I have good days and bad days. My voice still gives away when I become suddenly conscious of the articulation of every word. My physical awkwardness still haunts me sometimes. I become robotic while trying to put my papers into my folder, putting on my backpack, or getting onto a seat on the bus. But my face no longer becomes numb—I find myself laughing and smiling a lot with the friends I have made. Because I can still be heard.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *