Overcoming selective mutism is quite an incredible journey; a journey that is exhausting, slow and most of all: rewarding. Unfortunately, many life skills and aspects of life itself can be negatively effected, as well of positively (future blog post), when you struggle with SM. However, today, I am just going to focus on the area of social skills and social life.
When I step back, reflect and think about all the years SM controlled and consumed my life, I am not really at all surprised it has left me with a complicated jigsaw to put back together, one which I had once been well on the way to finishing in an acceptable timescale. If you attended the SMIRA conference in March, you might remember me explaining that I have had to go on a journey back in time to pick up these missing jigsaw pieces, in order to try to complete this social puzzle. Hundreds of different labeled pieces have been hiding, lost, or locked away for some time; “ability to use effective communication”, “ability to give eye contact”, “ability to use good body language”, “ability to laugh”, “ability to cry”, “ability to be tactful”, “ability to use appropriate facial expressions”, ” ability to expand personal space”, “understanding of social cues”, “understanding of sarcasm”, “ability to show sympathy”, “ability show empathy”, “ability to use manners”, “ability to wave”, “ability to smile”, “ability to give and receive hugs”, “understanding of, and ability to use, slang”, “ability to use various tones of voice”, “ability to clap/ give a round of applause”, “ability to communicate needs, wants and preferences”, “ability to maintain friendships”, “ability to form friendships”, “ability to understand and use age appropriate words and phrases”, “ability to show understanding”, “ability to show of difficulty”, “ability to whisper”, “ability to talk”, “ability to sing”, “ability to shout”, “ability to attract attention”, “ability to show potential”. For me, these social achievements were lost amongst the foggy memories in the dust between the years of 2009 to 2014. The time of high profile selective mutism, loss of friends, loneliness, difficulty and deep confusion.
Teenage years are crucial, social teenage life, the social expansion during adolescence is a must. If you miss it, in order to fully progress and reach greater happiness you likely have to go backwards and make up the time. Social skills are developed and improved over time, I was doing just fine in my own way with low profile SM until the age of 13, until I began to regress; when at age 13 high profile selective mutism became a part of my life. If you cannot speak, if you cannot sign, if you cannot write, if you cannot use alternative communication, if you cannot use facial expressions, if you cannot laugh or cry, if you cannot give eye contact, if you cannot lift your head from its aching downwards position, if you cannot keep friends, if you cannot make friends, if you cannot express you needs, if you cannot express yourself at all, if you cannot communicate, then how are you supposed to carry on as normal, socially? Of course it came to a halt, of course it did. If you do not have a voice you cannot ask for help, you cannot ask for clarification, you can not ask for feedback, you cannot ask for something to be repeated, you cannot ask what something means, then how are you supposed to carry on like the next person with social progression? How can you be corrected? how can you move forward? How can you be confident with your knowledge? How can you understand the next step if you missed the previous?
If you do not have a voice, or any friends your own age, then how are you supposed to keep up? You hear new words every day, slang, phrases and swear words, how do you know if you’ve heard them correctly? How do you know if you’re interpreting them correctly? How do you know with confidence which context you’re supposed to use these words? How are you supposed to carry on like everyone else if you do not have anyone relevant (friends/peers) to guide you, to reassure you, to teach you, to explain to you the teenage years at that present moment and all it’s confusion? Confusion about trends, crazes, popular music, films, make up, hair styles, shows, fashion and everything else. Sure, there’s the internet and the media, but it wasn’t as accessible and informative in 2009 as it is today. Even with the media, I can stare at a picture of a car, I can watch a TV series showing this same car being driven and explained, I can read about the car, but that doesn’t mean I know how to drive that car. I just know the basics of it, I know it exists and that society believes it’s important. So, if I hear a phrase using swearing and slang on the TV multiple times, all by different people, does that mean I understand? No, I haven’t practiced saying these words, I don’t know if I interpreted them correctly, I don’t know how to properly pronounce them because those using these words on the TV all had different accents. I need to ask people my age, in my local area “what does this mean”, I need their reassurance, I need to know if I’m using these words in the right context, and the longer I leave doing this the less socially acceptable it is to not know. I am lucky, I am thankful, that I was not interested in being like everyone else, or being accepted socially, but lots of us do care. Many find happiness from being accepted, by following popular trends and so on, so if this isn’t possible it can cause many negative emotions.
When you’re a teenager you learn new social skills, you improve old ones and do lots of practicing. We with SM often miss out on this. Moreover, we with SM often lose some of the abilities and skills we once had. If we do not express our sense of humour we forget how to, we lose confidence doing so and we don’t know if it would now be classed as “socially immature”. Stereotypical teenagers become much more expressive, there’s lots of eye rolling, looks of annoyance, boredom, disapproval, eye fluttering and much more. If you cannot look at your peers then how are you supposed to pick these skills up?
If you do not use sarcasm you lose confidence it doing so; if you do not socilaise with others you can lose the ability to maintain the strength of your ability to recognise when sarcasm is being used, especially if you are relying purely on hearing the person’s voice alone. Body language and facial expressions are a huge help. Therefore, if you cannot look in the direction of the speaker you miss out on a lot of social clues.
Sometimes, when/ if you have high profile SM it can mean fear of making any noise at all, to the extent of not being able to blow your nose. Just stop and think a moment, think about the embarrassment, the awkwardness, the discomfort and the sadness caused. Imagine needing to cough or choke, but having to use all of your concentration and energy into finding a alternative technique to ensure no sound is made at all whilst choking. Imagine not being able to walk in the corridors when other people are around through the anxiety caused by the noise of your shoes. The smallest and simplest of things can become absolutely huge.
Generally speaking, when you’re a teenager you progress socially, you mature socially, your tone of voice changes, your mannerisms change, your understanding of what is socially acceptable and what is not becomes clear, your understanding of subtle social cues becomes apparent, you gain the ability to express yourself more obviously, you experiment with your personality, your voice, the words you choose to say, the way in which you say them and who to, you experience a lot of fall outs, you experience relationships and love, you find new interests, you gain a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, you gain a better understanding of who you are. When you have selective mutism, it is common for many of, some of, or all of these skills and stages to not happen, or to not be achieved.
I have had to go back in time to remember who I was, to understand where I can pick up from socially. It’s an ongoing journey, but I’m getting there.
Selective mutism, whether it is partially overcome or fully overcome, low profile, high profile or progressive mutism, it can affect us much deeper, in far more complex ways than the obvious: “this person with SM can speak, has the ability to do so, but cannot in specific situation” if only SM was that simple and straight forward!
Selective mutism has left me, and has left many others, with after effects.