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  • Stefan Morrocco @morroccomedia

Trying to find my voice: my battle with selective mutism

All my life I have had a niggling inclination that how I dealt with social situations wasn't how 99.9% of people dealt with them. I always thought I was just REALLY, REALLY, REALLY shy. The thing is, people who are shy, even REALLY, REALLY, REALLY shy, can actually tell other people that they are shy. I couldn't even do that. Therefore, at the age of 41, it came as a massive relief, and a bit of a surprise, to find out I've suffered with Selective Mutism (SM) for most of my life. This sums it up better than I can - Selective Mutism​

A couple of years of counselling didn't uncover the problem and I left counselling feeling utterly frustrated that it was helping, but not getting to the root cause of my depression and anxiety. Therefore, armed with fact and knowledge, the relief comes from being able to do something about it now.

SM is a fear of talking, which results in depression (tick), social anxiety (tick), low self confidence (tick) and self sabotage (tick). It's not like a fear of public speaking, it's a lot worse than that, it's a fear of talking in any situation, which leaves you paralysed and unable to speak. It's a fear of talking to almost everyone except your closest relatives (parents, siblings, wife and children). It's even hard to talk to your wider family, such as aunties, uncles and cousins. I did wonder if I was schizophrenic, because there were definitely two of me - the person my close family knew and the one who struggled to talk to anyone else. Normally, SM is picked up in childhood and the child gets support to help them deal with the condition, but for some, like me, if it's not recognised, can continue on into adulthood.

It's like a fear of spiders, or a fear of heights, it induces that same level of anxiety. Generally, if you have a fear of heights, you don't go up high things, so as someone with a fear of talking, I avoided any situation where I would have to talk - not easy in modern society. However, it always felt like I had an internal voice that was gagged by some external force. What was being said in my head just would not come out. It was like I was living in a one-way sound-proof room. The sounds could come in, but not go out. I knew I liked sitting listening to people, but I hated if I had to contribute to a discussion (so it wasn't a hatred of people, which I did actually think it was for a long time).

There are many and varied causes for why the condition develops. I cannot pinpoint any one major reason for why I developed SM, there are so many small contributing factors, but I do know that I became increasingly aware of it early on in High School. Here are a few of the less extreme ways in which it manifested itself with me (there are a lot of very extreme manifestations, but I'll keep them to myself):

  • I hated when in English class we had to read out extracts from a book. I read mine so quietly that no one could hear and the teacher called me a mouse (not helpful teacher!).

  • In a university tutorial with one lecturer and six other students, when asked my opinion on the topic, I got so anxious I couldn't think properly and just said word for word what the person before me thought - how to look stupid.

  • I always sat at the back of a class or lecture, so I wasn't asked questions and could get away quickly and not have to talk to the other students.

  • If one of my wife's friends is coming around, I'll make the excuse that I have work to do and go and hide away in my office and not come out to say hello. My wife thought it was that I disliked people, but I actually do want (really want) to join in the discussion and chat with people, but I'm just too scared to.

  • At university a PhD colleague once said I had to let people in and open up ... if only she knew how much I wanted to, but really struggled to because of the crippling anxiety. So, here, I'm finally letting people in.

  • I lived the modern life of a hermit. I would seek out isolation. All the sports I do are individual sports and I prefer to do them on my own. I don't like going biking with other people because I have to talk to someone (even good friends - amazingly I have some friends!).

  • Fear has taken over all aspects of my life and I've felt massive bouts of helplessness.

  • I'll always shrink into the background if others step up to do something - because I have no confidence in myself.

  • I had a lot of anger inside, because I wasn't being the real me and felt completely helpless.

  • I even struggle to pick up the phone and talk to people, in fact the telephone is the worst because with SM I've become really good at reading body language, because I spend more time looking for the signals of how people are reacting to me than listening to what they are saying, and you can't read body language on a phone.

  • And so the list goes on!

Despite all of this, I've found a way to be with an amazing women (my wife), have two great kids, be building a successful career (self employed with no desire to have any employees - see a pattern here?!) and have my health, so it's not completely debilitating. It shows how resourceful and resilient we can be to work around things that are holding us back from being who we really are.

Now that I'm aware of the issue I can start to do something about it and I'm taking the first steps to dealing with fear. My personality is not going to change overnight and I'm still going to get really scared of talking to people, but I'm going to take steps to not isolate myself so much and try and get out into society (he says writing this while isolated in his office!!).

So, sincerest apologies to all those who thought I was rude or arrogant for not talking to them, but I was a giant ball of anxiety and nerves, so couldn't!

I'm writing this because putting it down on paper is helping me distil all the thoughts since I first found out it was the missing link and cause for all of my depression, anxieties and behaviours. I'm also writing it in case it helps someone else who may have or knows someone with Selective Mutism. It turns out there's masses of resources for Selective Mutism online, so if you want to find out more, just search for it.

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