Growing up with Selective Mutism12 min read

black and white black and white depressed depression

The drive from Wellington, Florida to Chicago takes nine­teen hours for a family of average luck.  Two days between the promise of a new adven­ture and the real­iza­tion that I was seeing my house for the last time.  Four hours waiting for the mechanic to fix the U‑Haul, which chose the middle of nowhere to break down. Five hours obsessing over the for­gotten yellow book left in the closet.

This was before cell phones and Google, and the num­bers in the book were my last link to the life I had always known. Amidst the chaos of packing, I hadn’t told anyone other than my neigh­bors that my dad landed a job in Chicago, and I was moving halfway across the country. I had no num­bers mem­o­rized. I could barely remember the layout of the room where I wrote my first story, let alone someone else’s phone number.  Four houses. At that point, I had said goodbye to the fourth house I remem­bered living in. There were more before that, but this was the fifth move my family made while I was old enough to remember.

The pencil shook in my hands as I eagerly painted the paper with graphite. I had told Kayla I would write her when I set­tled into our new place. I missed her, and I missed my neigh­bor­hood. Chicago in August isn’t all that dif­ferent from Florida. I hadn’t yet met December or the annual yearning that came each time white hell fell from the sky. But I missed days spent at the country club, and I missed the smell of the beach even though I pre­ferred the pool. But more than any­thing, I missed having a friend. 

I had one friend through most of the early part of my youth, Chris. We met in Kindergarten at a small Catholic school near Royal Palm Beach.  His abuela always had home­made Mexican food, and he liked Power Rangers almost as much as me. I changed schools the fol­lowing year, coin­ciding with move number three. The land­lord of the house we were renting needed some­where for his grand­mother to stay, and my par­ents stray away from con­flict.

We ended up in a dirt road town close to the orange groves, in a small, dilap­i­dated house that iron­i­cally became the source of great con­flict, as my mom vowed never again to let my dad choose the house.  A year later, we moved to Wellington. My mom got the house she wanted, and I still had one friend.  Then I met Kayla.  My neighbor.  I finally had a friend that didn’t live thirty min­utes away, which is three hours in seven-year-old time. 

So I wrote. I wrote about my new house. I wrote about the road trip to Chicago.  But I mostly asked how she was doing. I wanted to feel con­nected to my old life, and this was all I had left.  I only knew her address because it was one number off from ours.  Connections come as unnat­ural to me as the syn­thetic stuffed ani­mals that lined my bed and kept me com­pany when I had no one else to talk to.

My sister had the luxury of talking to her Florida friends on the phone. But it wasn’t her address book and my lack of a phone­book that made the dif­fer­ence.  I didn’t do phones.  The sound of a ringing phone sent pan­icky waves coursing through my body.  I’d try to talk, but the best I could manage was passing the phone off to someone else.

Days passed, and my mom handed me a red enve­lope. I ripped open the seal and retrieved a letter addressed to me. The purple ink told me that I was missed, but life con­tinued in my absence. I read it again and again. Then I found a sheet of paper and com­posed my next letter.

Since I last wrote, summer had ended, so I wrote about the start of the fourth grade.  I was used to not having friends among my class­mates. I hadn’t had any since kinder­garten. Kayla went to the public school. I went to the Christian academy. But at the academy, my sister attended the same school and my mom worked as an assis­tant.

Here, I was com­pletely alone. I signed my name, metic­u­lously drawing the seven let­ters in cur­sive, a habit that came from the inter­sec­tion of the unsat­is­fac­tory in hand­writing that my second-grade teacher gave me and the per­fec­tionism passed down to me from my dad.  I slid the letter into an enve­lope, licked the seal, then closed and placed the letter in my dresser drawer for safe keeping.

In the months that fol­lowed, I would stumble across the letter every time I lost a book, needed spare change, or by the will of God decided to clean my room, and I would set it aside with a mental reminder to send it. I never did.  Years later it was still in the drawer. Three more moves and hun­dreds of mis­placed books later, the letter is gone.

Having an adven­turous spirit and a decorator’s heart, the idea of moving to a new house always excited me ini­tially.  Thirteen bed­rooms in twenty-five years made the moving process familiar. It meant more space and the oppor­tu­nity to mix-up the design. And maybe we would be in one spot long enough for me to have a room I could remember ten years down the line as more than just five dif­ferent bed­rooms jum­bled into one makeshift room in my mind.

But that excite­ment never lasts. It can’t last. Every autistic synapse in my brain tells me to fear change, to dread the dis­rup­tion of my rou­tine. Excitement turns to stress, which turns to anx­iety, which turns to deep-rooted fear. Move number six came two years later. This time, we moved forty min­utes away.  I had two friends at my second-to-last ele­men­tary school—Louis and Lauren.

Louis befriended me early on.  I was the new kid, and he made an effort to make me feel wel­comed.  The second friend­ship grew more grad­u­ally. When I moved, we exchanged num­bers and addresses. We were going to keep in touch. I saw Louis once the summer after I moved. That was the last time. Lauren, I never saw again.

But a few months into the new school year, a letter came in the mail, and I was excited to hear that Lauren had a good start to middle school. She joined the cheer-leading squad.  She liked her new teacher.  It was close to Halloween, and she told me about her cos­tume and wanted to hear what my plans were.

With residual excite­ment, I answered all her ques­tions. I put those answers into a letter, which went into an enve­lope, which went into a drawer where it died a slow death, wanting nothing more than to have its words read.

Ten years.  Ten years of selec­tive mutism. Ten years of pointing at items on menus instead of speaking the words aloud. Ten years of aban­doning the world of the spoken for the land of the written. Ten years of being the kid who used to pace back and forth around the neigh­bor­hood streets afraid to ring the door­bell, hoping someone would see me through a window and play with me as if that was the worst it could get. Ten years of sit­ting in the front of the class­room in com­plete silence, for­get­ting that I used to be the know-it-all who always had his hand raised. Ten years of having my abil­i­ties ques­tioned by my teachers and stu­dents alike. Ten years of qui­etly waiting for them to eat their words.

Words have always been an enor­mous part of my iden­tity, but it wasn’t until I was twenty when I real­ized how much this was true. It was the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and I had spent the week in the hos­pital recov­ering from a spon­ta­neous lung col­lapse, the second I had expe­ri­enced that month.  The day before I left the hos­pital and dis­cov­ered a class­mate in my first col­lege fiction-writing class had died the day before Thanksgiving of a drug over­dose.

Our Tuesday, class only met for a few min­utes, then we went to the campus café for an impromptu memo­rial hangout. I felt slightly relieved because it was my day to have my short story work-shopped, and I had been dreading it all semester. I didn’t like being the center of atten­tion because I always found some way to make it awk­ward. The whole sit­u­a­tion was made more awk­ward by the fact that my lead peer-reviewer was dead.

Sitting around the circle, a dark cloud hung in the air, but the inti­macy was equally apparent. Seven hopeful writers sud­denly bonded by someone who left too soon, one of us. We’d spent almost an entire semester together. A few had known each other longer. With such a small class size, inti­macy was easy, espe­cially since we spent the semester reading each other’s sto­ries.

For me, I knew only what I had read in their fic­tion. Our teacher sug­gested we go around in a circle and say why we write. I envied the cocoa and coffee everyone had in hand, too anx­ious to stand in line and talk to the stranger behind the counter, but I focused on the ques­tion. Fifteen years of writing, and I never even thought about what com­pelled me to right as com­pul­sively as I did.  My biggest pas­sion. And I barely under­stood it.

“I like cre­ating worlds,” Dani said.

Dane told an anec­dote about all the first-edition books he’d col­lected in his four-decade lifespan, our mutual envy-induced snark that cut through the grief, and for a moment we forgot why we were there.

Eyes turned to me. I stut­tered my way to an answer. “I write because it’s my voice. Talking has always been a struggle for me, so writing has been my main form of com­mu­ni­cating over the years.”

Dr. Lively hap­pily hummed her con­sent, “That must be why your voice is so strong.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, the answer only told a single layer of a much more com­pli­cated story.  I never thought of myself as having a strong voice. Half the time it felt like I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I didn’t have a strong voice all the times I waited in classes for stu­dents to guess answers I whis­pered min­utes before­hand. And I cer­tainly didn’t have a strong voice when I couldn’t find the words to tell my grandma I loved her after her stroke.

Sixteen years of mostly unsuc­cessful speech therapy had made me hate the sound of my own voice. I never thought much of my writing voice either.  I knew those years of prac­tice had made me a decent writer, but I wrote soap operas, nothing that would make you happy-hum.

I let myself find com­fort in dis­tance. Writing was safe if no one but me read it. An aca­d­emic essay I could easily share, or maybe even a fic­tional story if it didn’t have much of any­thing to do with what was real about my life.  But the more per­sonal the writing was, the harder sharing it became.  A class blog shielded by humor.   A stack of poems with no heart.  Two let­ters that held my hap­pi­ness stuffed in a drawer. 

Thinking back, maybe the resent­ment I have har­bored towards Illinois for six­teen years was a shield, too. Illinois gave me oppor­tu­ni­ties I would have never gotten in Florida. My par­ents both grew up in the sub­urbs of Chicago. My dad’s two brothers both live here, and half of my mom’s eight sib­lings do, too. I had the oppor­tu­nity to form bonds with my extended family that I wouldn’t have gotten from occa­sional summer vaca­tions to my grandma’s house in my birth town of Hilton Head. And when my grandma returned to Chicago after her stroke, I was there.

No. The resent­ment is real. I wouldn’t still lie in bed awake for hours on hours dreaming of returning to Palm Beach six­teen years after last laying eyes on the Florida coast. I wouldn’t explode inside at the mere thought of my sister par­tying in Miami. I don’t even party. Although my rela­tion­ship with my family is closer than it would be had I never moved to Illinois, it reads like a lost oppor­tu­nity– my cousin, Molly, crying from behind a laptop in China. My sister sob­bing into a com­puter screen unable to talk because she hasn’t seen her cousin in six months. A would-be silent under­standing that the last time they saw each other they were grieving Grandma’s death, and without each other to lean on, they didn’t know how to process their pain.  It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m the only one thankful. Or it seemed that way.  We hadn’t had a Thanksgiving without Grams in four­teen years, and all I can think about is how I’m sur­rounded by family, and I’ve never felt more alone.

But I’m thankful. I don’t miss Thanksgiving for any­thing. With one lung down, I broke the record for fastest meal, took my last bite, and then screamed bloody mercy and ruined everyone else’s dinner. But there was no way I was having dinner in a hos­pital bed. This year, my hol­iday curse had ended. It was a legit­i­mate, Hallmark-recognized hol­iday, and I didn’t have a headache or a stomach ache. Hell! The food was good, and I could breathe. 

Still, I felt alone.  My voice failed me. I wanted to be a part of the close-knit family, but I had had better con­ver­sa­tions with the ceiling above my bed than I had with my family. But I didn’t resent myself for growing sud­denly quiet every time I was around them or ignoring my uncle when he asked me how school was for the umpteenth time. I resented them for not trying harder to reach out to me.

I resented them for a con­cept I barely under­stand myself. Reaching out? I’d burn my own words before sharing them with the world.  I gave up two of the best friends I ever had for forty-nine cents and a walk to the mailbox. I let myself sink into silence. Ten years with only myself to keep me com­pany.

Sami brought me out of it. I decided to go to a small, local school. I thought it would be easier to make friends. The small class sizes would make the tran­si­tion easier. I would have an easier time con­necting with the fac­ulty.

By senior year, I’d barely said more than three sen­tences to any of the teachers or stu­dents on campus and was left won­dering if I would have been better off at a bigger, more-credentialed school if the end result would be the same. On the first day of my senior year, my habit of showing up to class an hour early paid off. 

Sami, a transfer stu­dent, walked into the music building in search of her first class, and I was the only one there. She latched on to me because she didn’t know anyone, and she had an interest in spe­cial edu­ca­tion and had a pretty good under­standing of autism.

After a while, I came out of my shell, as much as hermit crab could, anyway.  Ten years of silence and the girl who helped me find my voice again is out of my life. She for­ever changed me, and I let our friend­ship die out of incon­ve­nience.  My last two links to real human con­nec­tion sur­vive on a ten­uous bond of mutual hatred of beards, seman­ti­cists, and ugly shoes, bond built on the love of soap operas, and a shared moment in time where Dani and I immor­tal­ized a person who could have been the next Hemingway on the six-day anniver­sary of his death.


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