Sometimes I’m… Quiet
I had nothing to say. NOTHING.
I could sit for an entire visit to my cousins’ in silence. Hours. Saying nothing unless someone dragged mostly monosyllabic responses out of me.
One day, my grandmother cajoled me into relating a recent babysitting experience. As I got to the part about using ice to get the gum out of my charge’s hair – fortunately for her mother who was out of town, because the dad said he would have just cut it out…
I looked up at my cousins, aunt, uncle, all listening with faces wearing masks of interest.
I felt ridiculous. I clammed up.
They made comments and asked questions to show they were listening. Like my grandfather, they all obviously wanted to encourage me to keep talking. Even if it was only my grandmother who found the story interesting in the first place.
I fell further into myself.
I’ve always hated feeling patronized.
I’m Just… Different
I knew my gregarious family thought my behavior was abnormal, but, as a child, I lacked experience of normal social interactions, and the cognitive ability, to understand how far out of the ordinary my behavior was.
As a young teen, I blamed being adopted for my quietness; I was just different from my mom’s talkative family. I also believed I had nothing worth saying as everyone else related funny on interesting experiences and accomplishments. I accepted the label, “shy.” In my mid-teens, I felt humiliated when I was told my family considered me “socially retarded,” but understood how they came to describe me with the term.
As an adult, I learned about social anxiety and recognized it in myself. I now know the uncomfortable, self-conscious silence of my childhood has a name: selective mutism.
One reason it has been difficult to identify my anxiety as anxiety is that it so often isn’t agitated.
It’s like someone who is in danger of drowning. You can lose a child, or adult, if you think someone in trouble in the water will be flailing and yelling. It’s called the Instinctive Drowning Response. Speaking is secondary to breathing when it comes to our respiratory systems. When the body is focused on getting enough oxygen to stay alive, breathing is where all the effort goes. Arms, legs, not moving, just hanging in the water.
I looked calm. In a way, I felt calm. My brain was so overwhelmed, it partly shut down. Breath to breath, I got from one moment to the next.
Children who suffer from anxiety need help recognizing symptoms of anxiety for what they are. They also need help to understand that what they are feeling, and likely the way their feelings make them behave, is extreme.
How is Childhood Anxiety Different from Adult Anxiety? What Parents Need to Know
If you suffer from anxiety, you know the overwhelm that can strike at random. You may have certain places or situations you recognize as potential triggers. You may be one of the significant number of adults who end up in the ER thinking they are having a heart attack only to find out they are suffering a panic attack.
In whatever forms anxiety has found and exploited you, it is likely you recognize that your symptoms, your reactions and feelings, when you experience anxiety, are extreme.
A child lacks a frame of reference to understand his reactions and feelings are extreme. They younger the onset of symptoms, the more normal a child will believe what he is feeling and experiencing are normal. He has less experience with what are considered normal responses; he just knows how he feels, not how to evaluate his feelings for reasonableness. He feels his responses are normal, because they are what he knows. They are less likely to recognize that their worry is excessive, or that their fear is irrational.
For more information on selective mutism, check out the following resources:
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): Selective Mutism
PsychCentral: Selective Mutism Symptoms
National Health Service UK (NHS): Selective Mutism
National Institutes of Health, United States National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): Selective Mutism: A Review of Etiology, Comorbidities, and Treatment
Are you afraid your struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental illness makes you unfit to serve in the church? Don’t be distracted from your call: Health, Wholeness, and Being a Nose Hair in the Body of Christ.
If you’d like to learn more about the various types of mental illness or if you’re wondering if a “good” Christian can struggle with mental illness, read Faith and Mental Illness.
Looking for physically and spiritually healthy ways to deal with mental illness?