Life When Your Brain Randomly Won't Allow You To Talk
As disabilities go, muteness seems like one that'd be pretty easy for people to wrap their heads around. You can't talk, big deal. Pop culture is full of mutes, and they're usually cool and mysterious (or, you know, Jason Vorhees). But try explaining to people that you can talk, but sometimes ... don't. Even if remaining silent means your own safety is at risk, the gears between your brain and mouth simply don't turn. It's a condition called selective mutism, and it is very real, even though people really struggle with believing it is. We spoke with Andy, a selective mute from Brisbane, about this deeply weird and often infuriating condition.
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The first misconception that'll pop into your mind is that surely Andy can talk if he really wants to -- you know, like, if there's an emergency or something. But actually, that's when his voice is most likely to abandon him.
"There's like a block there," he explained. "You brain just tells you not to do it." And yes, emergencies have occurred, and trying to work through selective mutism in the middle of a panic sounds like a goddamned nightmare. "When I was younger, I'd flail about. Like when my dog had seizures and my parents were inside, I'd wave my arms about and get them to follow me, but if it was someone else, like a family friend, I'd need to build up and say 'Dah ... dah ... dog!' and then they'd know."
It's kind of like a stutter in that regard, in that there's circuitry in the brain that's affected by circumstances and emotional state. Still, it'd be ignorant to dismiss it as being all in his head.
"Like at work, if I need to tell someone that, for example, someone burned themselves on tea, I'd go to someone and continuously whip my hand out in a motion to build up to speak. Then I'd go, 'Paul ... Pauls ... Paul's ... Paul's burnt' with each wave. It can sound almost like a stutter, but if I'm not in close company, I'll do that to start speaking. It's like a kick-start to talk."
The neuroscience behind it has shown that it's partially auditory, as well overloading the emotional response part of your brain (the amygdala). Selective mutes generally listen, can't process how to deal with what they heard, and shut down the vocal reaction because the brain hits the panic switch. "The brakes suddenly go on everywhere, and then the gas pedal doesn't work."
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Growing Up, Adults Don't Always Sympathize
Selective mutism can develop from trauma (this is what caused Maya Angelou to be mute for years) or from social anxiety disorder (like with Andy). And again, when you hear that, you might wrongly translate it into "So he gets nervous when he talks. Big deal!" His life would be a hell of a lot easier if it were that simple.
"I learned how to speak, but ever since I can remember, I didn't speak outside of times at school I absolutely had to, and to only a few of my family members. I had a deep voice and slurred almost every sentence, and together in my head this sounded terrible." Everyone thought he was just a shy kid until he was six, at which point the grown-ups decided it was time to "fix" him.
"I had a teacher that year who made it her life's mission to get me to talk. Not in a nice way. In a way that humiliated me. She was big on everyone giving a speech. One week we studied the solar system, and we each had to write a few sentences on something in it. I had asteroids, and she purposely chose me as the last one before dismissal."
Andy shook his head, and she refused to dismiss the class until he talked. Kids were pleading with him to be released from kid jail, and this only caused him to cry. It actually took both his dad and the principal coming in to get the teacher to knock it off. Unsurprisingly, his selective mutism only got worse after that. He wound up with the world's most un-creative nickname ("Mute Andy"), though other teachers were more understanding (he speculates that they may have just liked having one kid who could keep quiet).
While Andy's is a severe case, this is a surprisingly common disorder. 1 in about 150 children develop selective muteness in some form. Many adults grow out of it or come up with strategies to adapt, but even then, they can be struck with panic attacks that render them mute.
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Pop Culture Has Given People Weird Expectations
Getting by without talking is doable. Andy carries around a notepad to scribble notes, and his phone has a text-to-speech app. "I need to do everything in person. I also have a letter from a doctor on me at all times. I've only ever had to use it a few times, but it's come in handy when I needed it. Once a policeman pulled me over for speeding, and my friend next to me said, 'He's mute,' but the policeman didn't believe him until I pulled it out."
As you can see, the biggest obstacle is usually ignorance. Even after having it explained, lots of people just don't believe selective muteness is a thing, as if it's a bit he's been doing for years for attention. Others who don't know his situation just get frustrated. When he was a teenager, Andy almost had the cops called on him when security at a swimming pool accused him of sneaking in without a pass and couldn't understand why, instead of explaining his pass was in his locker, this kid just kept doing "I can't talk" charades with his hands.
The reality is that, like any condition that's even a little bit outside the norm, people have to go by what they've seen in movies. For better or worse. "The harmless assumption people have is the 'Vow of Silence' type, in that you're being silent for a reason."
Still, Hollywood knows that nothing unnerves people like silence, so the mute villain has always been a thing. "Oddjob in Goldfinger was , and so was that henchwoman from the third Die Hard. Many more are silently evil, and that doesn't help ... In therapy, my speech teacher gave me an explanation. A Bible verse had Jesus curing a man of being mute by casting a demon out of him (Luke 11:14), and ever since then, people have seen it as menacing."
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Employers Don't Get It Either
"Nearly every job I tried to get, I hit a brick wall during the interview." And this even occurs when he specifically selects jobs that don't require human interaction. "I applied through email and did well until they asked for a phone interview. These weren't jobs where I had to talk. These were data input jobs ... My selective muteness caused me to go silent on a few interviews, and those were bad. I resorted to writing my responses, and by the third time I wrote a response, one of the interviewers would say, 'We're done here.'"
He did eventually get one of those data entry jobs, but co-workers weren't shy about hiding their frustration with the guy who seems like he can talk, but just doesn't for some presumably ridiculous reason.
"... Despite telling them I had selective muteness, was to verbally tell one of the groups which document we did instead of emailing it. My solution was to write what document I completed on a sticky note and putting it on the group's shared desk ... After a week, the group's head came to my desk and dropped a large stack of my sticky notes on it. 'You need to tell us from now on. This is a waste of sticky notes.'"
You can ask anyone with a disability; it's one thing for other people to know you have a condition, but it's another for them to actually put in minor effort to accommodate it. Sticky notes don't just grow on trees, dammit!
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It Can Have (Positive) Effects On Your Personality
Delivering your end of a conversation via a notepad has one huge effect on everyday communication: It eliminates rash responses. "A lot of people see me as wise or knowing what I'm talking about. But even with my notepad, I take time to write a response. I've caught myself many times writing something as soon as I thought it, but scribbling it out because I realized how wrong it was."
We're not saying this makes all of the other inconveniences worth it, but think of how many times in your life this would have saved you grief.
"I've written down mean-spirited jokes as responses, the ones most people would regret saying, but after writing it, I would have second thoughts, flip to a new sheet ... you get a 20-second delay. People think I'm really thinking about their question." So it's kind of like if Twitter held your tweet there for a bit with a prompt reading "Jesus Christ. Do you really want to send THAT?!" We'd have a world that's a little more thoughtful and little less covfefe.
And that's not the only plus; it also makes him an expert listener. "I can't interrupt or start talking when I think they're done. Even if I'm comfortable enough with you to talk with my soft voice, I remain quiet longer between whoever is talking with me. My brothers call this my 'brain delay,' but what is really going on in my head is me visualizing whether what I'm going to say is going to sound stupid in my voice."
Yeah, it seems like there are many, many divorces -- and probably wars -- that could have been prevented this way.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, journalist and interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience for a Personal Experience? Hit us up here today!
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