Imagine sitting at the dinner table hoping your brothers would ask about the family holiday because you were too afraid to. Imagine dropping grades in your high school exams because your pen ran out of ink and you couldn’t ask for a replacement. Imagine hiding from friends you saw in the street because you were too afraid to say hello, or freezing when a stranger asked you for directions. Such is life with selective mutism: an anxiety disorder that renders sufferers virtually unable to speak.
Beth Moran is author of Making Marion, a novel about an excessively shy girl on a quest to discover her past. There’s truth behind the fiction: for most of her life Beth has struggled with selective mutism. But you wouldn’t know it from this interview.
I recorded this conversation with Beth in front of a live audience at the Spring Harvest festival. In it we discuss Beth’s life, writing, and how she’s begun speaking publically. Beth has told her story briefly below too.
I think you’ll find it inspirational in helping you overcome the fears that hold you back from finding your own voice.
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I suffered from selective mutism right back in my earliest memories – being afraid to speak, watching the world as if through a pane of glass, not knowing how to connect with other children. I don`t think any one factor caused it – possibly a combination of an introverted, very independent personality, and being a middle child. I had a great-uncle who remained voluntarily mute throughout his adult life, so perhaps some genetics were involved too. I grew up in a wonderful, loving family, and suffered no identifiable trauma.
During my first few years at school I very rarely spoke, and subsequently had no friends. I found it virtually impossible to express my feelings, although could usually answer a direct question if asked. I remember sitting at the dinner table desperately wanting to know what day we were going on holiday, hoping one of my brothers would ask my parents, as I couldn`t get the words out. I tried to avoid drawing any attention to myself, and spent a lot of time wanting to be invisible. I found social situations incredibly difficult.
When I started junior school a new girl moved onto my street, and becoming best friends with her transformed my childhood. With my friend, I was confident, sometimes loud and often mischievous (though even as a teenager she commented that I sometimes came round to her house, hung out for a while and left again without saying a single word).
But throughout my school life, basic things like answering my name in the register left me nauseous and anxious. I would leave a shop rather than have to address the shopkeeper. I did, through my friend, develop a small group of other friends with whom I could mostly be myself. However, I never wore clothing with a label or wording on it, I never listened to music without headphones, and I tried to keep any aspect of my life that could be open to judgement as hidden as possible. I struggled with facial expressions and body language – like smiling, putting up my hand, or waving goodbye. My family say it was nearly impossible to know what I was feeling or thinking most of the time. I also found noise and crowds distressing, a common symptom as selective mutism is often linked to sensory processing disorder.
I dropped a grade in two of my GCSEs because in the exams my pen ran out, and I couldn’t put my hand up and ask for another one!
In the year I graduated from university I moved to a new city, started work as a research scientist, married and had a baby. This was my toughest time. I loved my job, and my new family, but felt extremely lonely. At that point I still didn`t know what it was that prevented me from connecting with people, or why I had times when I simply couldn`t speak.
After moving nearer to my home town things improved, although the fears were still there. Health professionals and new friends thought I suffered from depression as I seemed so quiet and rarely smiled. I often came across as standoffish, weird, grumpy or uninterested until people got to know me.
Basic tasks like getting the attention of a waiter or phoning a plumber were major challenges for me, causing a lot of stress. I know my children missed out when they were younger as I couldn`t approach other parents at the school gates, so they had a very limited number of friends invited round to play. If a stranger spoke to me in the street, I would freeze, unable to answer. Going to the hairdresser was a nightmare. If I saw someone I knew out and about – even someone I would class as a good friend – I would hide, unable to cope with saying hello.
The road out of selective mutism was a long slog – and one I haven`t finished yet. The central factor in overcoming my fear of being noticed and judged is my Christian faith. I can remember a lightbulb moment as I walked to my local shops, one of my children in a pushchair, hoping not to see anyone I knew. Suddenly I had a revelation – I believe God loves me, he knows me better than anyone and made me “me” on purpose – so if other people, who don`t know me as well, don`t like me or think I`m any good, they must be wrong.
I would repeat this to myself over and over as I faced social situations – I don`t have to be ashamed of who I am or what I say. I also worked on not calling myself a “freak” or saying “I hate being me!” when I failed to talk – or when I did and then worried about what I`d said. I replaced it with positive words instead: “I said something stupid, but that’s ok. I don`t have to be perfect”. I also had some fantastic counselling in my mid-twenties after my problems began to affect my voice physically – it became so weak I struggled to use the phone, causing problems in my job as an antenatal teacher. The counselling helped me consider how much our words- and the way we say them – are part of our identity, and to address some self-esteem issues.
I began to set myself daily challenges – the fact that fear controlled huge parts of my life grew increasingly frustrating and upsetting. Every day I did something that scared me – made a phone call, drove on a busy roundabout, said hello to a mum in the school playground. And gradually, put together, these things began to work. I even dealt with a chronic spider phobia to the amazement of my family. Eventually I made a decision never to say no to anything simply because I felt afraid.
I started public speaking in my early thirties, and to my surprise found not only did I enjoy it, I was actually quite good! It was chatting to people afterwards that I initially found difficult. I now speak in a wide variety of situations – at conferences, on local radio and even on a stage at our town carnival.
Around four years ago, I had a real break-through moment, when for the first time I initiated a conversation with a stranger. Up until that point, I had only addressed someone I didn`t know if I really needed to (like a receptionist at the doctors). I had never started small talk or made a passing remark. On this occasion, I spoke to a cleaner in a campsite toilet – a nothing, everyday occurrence to her, but a huge deal to me! I walked out of that toilet ten feet tall..! It still surprises me when I find myself chatting with people I don`t know.
I am still facing challenges – one of the biggest of which is my facial expressions. When I taught myself to smile a few years ago, I was amazed at the positive reactions I got. I have received a lot of hurtful comments over the years about this issue, and nowadays I probably find remembering to smile more tiring than talking. I have some catching up to do because I missed out on learning the normal rules and social nuances that others develop as children and I still find crowds can make me very anxious.
But my life is unrecognisable from how it used to be. The biggest message of my story is that change is possible, and it thrills me to be able to stand up in front of other people and share that truth with them.
What do you think of what Beth has shared? Leave a comment below now or call me using the ‘Send Voicemail’ button on the right. Please also rate and share this podcast on iTunes to help others discover it!