True Story: Selective Mutism has my Daughter’s Face

by Allyson Wuerth

 

painting by Coral Staley

Sawyer by Coral Staley

 

She came into this world silently, too. We held our breaths and waited for the sharp cry that came only after doctors intervened. Her lungs pulling in air and screaming only when her life absolutely depended on it. Such a birth was meant to foreshadow the way we came to know this girl.

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Newborn day

As she grew, we noticed that she wouldn’t speak outside our home. At all. She’d freeze, attach herself to our legs and whimper. Coupled with, what people came to call, her “shyness” were articulation problems that went beyond that of an average 2.5 year old. She had a language of her own, and my family and I became translators of a stony language. “Mem” she would say, when she meant “friend.” Her brother Tristan she would call “Chichin.” “B”s and “D”s, “M”s and “F”s, “K”s and “T”s, “L”s and “W”s all whirled around inside her head and settled into the wrong words. Family and friends convinced us this was the problem. She had the voice but not the language, the desire but not the words. The pediatrician said she was literally tongue-tied, so we scheduled the procedure to have her frenulum clipped. When the words still did not come, the doctor suggested that we get her ears checked. But when she would not acknowledge the sounds provoked by the audiologist, he pronounced her “too young.” “Come back in another year,” he said.

Her silence was under my skin, in my blood. Hadn’t our hearts beat together for nine months? Hadn’t she grown inside me, shifting her weight against my ribs? Hadn’t her heartbeat been enough to assure me of the room she would need in this world? The space she would fill? I felt her silence as a betrayal. But by whom? Of whom?

Photo credit: Kelly Kirkland

Sawyer and her brother

Our pediatrician was hesitant to recommend therapy—firmly stating that Sawyer was too young to be expected to communicate with strange adults. I wanted badly to agree, to believe that with time my tiny girl would smile at people and tell them her name when she was asked it. That she would volunteer stories or hold hands with little girls on the playground. But she’d never even spoken to my grandmother. My grandmother’s declaration still hangs over me, “She just don’t like me, doll.” There was no arguing. For my grandmother, this was just the way it was with Sawyer.

Then, after nearly a full year of pre-school, the words of Miss Mandy, Sawyer’s pre-school teacher, urged me to push harder, “We’ve never even heard her speak.” I was imploding. Really? No words? Never? As in not EVER? Miss Mandy added, as if we were two ladies gabbing over tea, “Yeah, we keep saying we wish some of these other kids were as quiet! Think of the self-restraint a 3 ½ year old must have to not speak all day!”

I called the pediatrician that evening, “I think my daughter has selective mutism.”   I spit the words out and let them sizzle between us. And her own silence told me that she–like so many doctors, teachers, therapists, I’ve spoken to since—had no clue what I was talking about.

Stages of Sawyer. . .

This photo burst–emblematic of Sawyer’s ongoing journey to find her voice…

Selective mutism. I first heard those words, all hushed and breathy sounding at a holiday cookie swap in 2011. The conversation caught my attention—some silent girl–a girl whose mother also affirmed, “She’s a chatterbox at home, I swear!”  This one a little older than my two and a half year old. Somebody mentioned a child psychologist. Another the diagnosis. I listened closer. This girl sounded so much like mine. Mine too looked through strangers and family as if they were ghosts. Mine too chatted happily in our house only to go out into the world pale and blank. I kept those two words–selective mutism– within me for another year before I unpacked them, left them at the ear of the pediatrician. Like the girl’s mother from the conversation I overheard, I too knew the difference between shyness and the eeriness of a silence that ran much deeper.

To make myself understand my girl, I had to go back to 1984 where I am walking up Davis Rd. with some neighborhood boy. He has an idea: let’s throw acorns at cars. Even though his face is too blurry to name him, his words are clear as if they were spoken only yesterday. Let’s. Throw. Acorns. At. Cars. The first two cars don’t stop. The third does. A man gets out. He has shoulder length feathered brown hair. His eyes are invisible. The neighborhood boy yells for me to run. He himself disappears into the fir trees between two raised ranches. But I am frozen. I try to scream, but no words come out. No part of me is willing to move. The man chases the neighbor boy through the trees, walks back to his car, and drives off. And there I am. Still.

Thirty years later, this moment is etched into my heart and it has the ability to change my heart’s rhythm and stumble into its beats. Why didn’t I run? Scream? Even at six, I wondered if I would ever be able to defend myself. Why had my own body betrayed me when I needed it most? As the car drove off, slowly my limbs unfettered themselves. The first few steps I took were numb, heavy, and frustrating. I wore black patent leather Mary Janes, but the feet inside them didn’t seem my own. It was the first time I remember being conscious of my own consciousness. And from that day I decided three things would always be true:

  1. Somewhere in the world there was a better version of me.
  2. Somewhere in the world there was an evil version of me.
  3. One of us wasn’t real.
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Not sure which version of me this is…

When you imagine a body wired this way, silence becomes palpable—and your body is a whisper that almost no one can hear.

For the next two years we spent our Thursday afternoons in Dr. Schiller’s small New Haven office filled with Playmobil toys from the 70s, baby dolls, play-doh, and an old wooden doll house. At first it was the three of us—me, the collector of her whispers. Later, I sat in the waiting area and Dr. Schiller and Sawyer negotiated this tricky path of communication together.

 

Later, in my bedroom we sit like old ladies folding laundry on my bed. I ask her if it’s okay for me to ask her a few questions. “About what?” She asks.

“Your talking,” I say. She looks at me uncomfortably and says okay.

And it is uncomfortable, this interview between my daughter and me. She is shifty and covers her face with a pillow. She tells me that talking to her teacher is scary, that sometimes she knows the answer but it’s too scary to say it. “What’s so scary?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Just talking.”

“Is it scary to talk to mommy?”

“No.”

“Daddy?”

“No.”

“Tristan?”

Again her answer is, “no.” I ask her about friends and classmates. She tells me sometimes it is scary to talk to them, but not mostly. I ask about Alexa, her close friend from class.

“No. It’s not scary to talk to her.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because she’s quiet…like me.”
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And so, we will navigate this silence as one, she and I.

Six years after my daughter’s birth, I sit with her after kindergarten graduation. Her classmates are busy about the room, carrying small plates of grapes and brownies. They squeal, the girls in their frill. But mine sits in her chair, mute. Stone-faced. She pulls me down beside her and whispers in my ear, “snack.”

“Let’s go together,” I say back. She shakes her head. So I collect brownies, grapes, a cup of juice. I hand them to her and she tells me she is tired. She wants to go home from this party she’s been looking forward to for the last few weeks. And so, we gather her things: the papery blue graduation cap, the brightly painted art, her backpack—these final bits of a school year. I say goodbye for her: “Sawyer hopes you have a great summer!” “Sawyer really liked the grapes you brought.” I’d be lying if I said this didn’t unhinge me, this speaking up for a girl perfectly capable of speaking for herself. What must that be like—hearing your own voice filtered through your mother’s body?

But none of it matters. Every day I learn new strategies to help her communicate, to mitigate her social anxiety.

Along with this truth, she’s left kindergarten forever.

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About the Author:

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The author and her daughter

Allyson Wuerth is a co-editor of Tell Us a Story. She is a mom, a wife, a high school English teacher, and a writer. She has published poetry in several literary magazines, and has poetry forthcoming in the anthology, Verse Envisioned: Poems from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Works of Art They Have Inspired. You can read her other two blog posts, The True Story of Why I Hate Math , Two Years and 20 Miles from Sandy Hook, and What we Miss Most by clicking these links.

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The True Story of why I Hate Math*

The author's troll necklace, the cracked neck invisible.

The author’s troll necklace, the cracked neck invisible.

by Allyson Wuerth

*Some of the names and places in this true story have been changed.

Binomial distribution, I still don’t understand it. What I do know is this: as with any problem, one of two outcomes is possible, success or failure. I say this like it’s that simple. Success or failure. Black or white, like so much from our early years.

I was always a failure at math. Numbers never made any sense to me. Oftentimes in grammar school, well-meaning teachers would send me off to Mrs. Cole, the math tutor whose fingers were spindly wands of smoke. Later she became my middle school language arts teacher and my high school western civilization teacher (I can still hear her raspy voice pronouncing “Ne-buch-ad-nezzar”). We’d count lima beans over and over again, as if this would somehow force logic into my head. 9 beans + 1 bean = 10 beans. Her yellowed fingers sliding them across the desk, bean by bean. Her mouth dryly and slowly managing the numbers, “Nine beans. Plus one bean. Equals. Ten. Beans.” Her voice would rise an octave as she stated the answer, like it was so simple, a you’re-making-this-unnecessarily-complicated tone that I couldn’t quite shake.

She had frosted hair and a tight perm. But in those days I’d walk the hallway back to my classroom remembering nothing but Mrs. Cole’s chalky hands and the smooth feel of so many beans, the icy sound of numbers being dumped back into their glass jar.

But let’s go back to the beginning or look ahead to high school, depending on how you see things. Binomial distribution. My 10th grade algebra class with Mr. Kilo, or “Billy K.,” or “Blob Jello” as my friend Casey and I called him in our frequent note passing. It was one class. One year. But even now, twenty years later, I say this class changed my life.

. . .through the eyes of teenagers. . .

. . .through the eyes of teenagers. . .

First, let me explain how each and every one of Billy K.’s classes ran. Even so many years later, this routine, inculcated to memory. We’d all file into his classroom where he would be sitting quietly at his desk drinking his coffee and reading the Evening Sentinel or drinking his coffee and working on the blueprints to a house he was building.

Whichever way Billy K. chose to occupy himself, he stuck to it. He rarely looked up, not to greet us and never to teach us. The blackboard was full of numbers, notes, and lessons. With his head hidden behind blueprints /Sentinel, he’d call out, “Copy the board into your notes. Then do 1-45 odd in your book.” He said the word “odd” like he hated it, as if he’d stuffed his mouth full of a horrible paste. “Odd.” The caw of an unexpected crow. If he did speak, “Dat’ll be a point off yer final average.” Any offense could warrant it. “No book cover on dat algerbra book? Point off yer final average.” Wrong answer? “Point off yer final average.”

Okay, so maybe things would have turned out differently if I had only been taking math notes!

Okay, so maybe things would have turned out differently if I had only been taking math notes!

We sat dead silent, a mixture of the riff-raff of the school, smarter freshmen, and jocks who were sent to Coach Billy K. for the sake of the Bobcats. Sometimes he’d stand up, adjust the elastic waist on his cargo pants and spend fifteen minutes checking to see that we all had book covers on our school-issued math books. Casey claimed his pants were called “EZ Stride Big Boys,” and every time he ran his stubby thumbs under the elastic I had to force down a laugh. He’d move through the room, only pausing to clear his throat and ask, “’Comin’ to practice today, Todd?” or “How’s dat arm, Brand?” or “No book cover, Brian? Not surprising. Dat’ll be a point of yer final average.”

Me, I was the riff-raff. I sat against the far wall, second seat in with only Casey  in front of me. We passed notes all of class, every class, amusing ourselves by drawing pictures of Mr. Kilo or making fun of his very obvious weight problem. We were fifteen and willing to risk almost anything. I kept my book covered and my mouth shut; I thought I was okay. The room had two windows, one by Mr. Kilo’s desk and one in the back of the classroom. Later, this became very important to me.

And then, those binomials. I opened my book to do the classwork/ homework, but it didn’t make sense to me. To this day, I don’t know what made me get up from my desk and ask Mr. Kilo for help. But I did. “I’m not sure I understand this. Can you help?” I must have said something like that. His face went tomato red. “Look at yer notes.” He didn’t even look up from his paper.

“I did. I don’t get—‘’

“LOOK at yer notes. Bring me yer notes. Go get ‘em.”

Everyone was looking at me. I went to my desk and gave him my notes. He looked through them, carefully licking his index finger in order to turn each page. I panicked that he would see how at the top of every page I’d written “Algerbra notes.” That’s how Billy K. pronounced it. It was another joke between Casey and me. But he didn’t notice. He handed me my notebook back. It was pink. The cover said, “Algerbra” in cursive with the final “a” transitioning into a blackened heart.

“Go si’down an’ do yer work,” he mumbled. I went and sat down, thought I’d have another silent 15 minutes to collect myself from the embarrassment that just ensued. But, no. Today was different. Mr. Kilo decided we would go over the odd problems in class, without being able to look at the answers in the back of our books. Aloud. Together.

No one in class struggled with these binomials the way I did. Answer after answer: correct, correct, correct. Until he got to me. It was like watching the fire trail on a stick of dynamite, and waiting for the explosion. “I didn’t get this far,” was all I could muster when my turn came, my voice sore and dry.

“Yer answer.”

“I don’t know.”

“Go back to yer notes!” As Billy K. yelled at me, his eyes bulged like such tiny, sweaty blueberries.

I flipped the pages, but the numbers had blurred into nothing but grey lumps. Page after page of foggy grey mountains. Still, I struggled to form those pages into some sort of sense, something more palpable than grey mist. But, I had no answers. I started to cry and quickly covered my face with my long hair. “Look, she’s crying,” he laughed. “Look. She thinks she can hide behind her hair.” Again, laughing. This time the class roared with him. A basketball player looked over at me and glared.

Funny, but not funny.

Funny, but not funny.

I’ve never even come close to being buried alive, but this is how I imagine it feels: thrown in a hole, you scratch and fill your fingernails with dirt, you claw and climb but you keep slipping further and further down into an abyss that swallows you up and hates you for your taste.

Panic Disorder,” is what the therapist said. But, you know, I thought I was dying in the darkness of those days. Panic attacks. I began having them in each of Mr. Kilo’s classes. A dark tunnel would envelop me, breathlessness soaking down inside me. I wanted so badly to “move on,” “get over it,” like the school administrators told my parents time and time again — but my brain forbade it, kept me locked up, caught up in that horrible haze of panic.

Leaving was the only way to break the trance. So, I left. Time and time again. Sometimes I raised my hand; sometimes I just walked out of algebra. Eventually, I began to associate my clothing with panic attacks, foods with panic attacks; days of the week even would lead to panic attacks. I would drink long swigs of Benedryl before math just to disorient the panic, trick it into submission. But those panic attacks were smarter than any elixir I could concoct from my parents’ medicine closet. It always found a way out of my daze. Another trick was to look out the window, imagine myself unlocked in the outdoors. But the truth is, I looked outside and saw nothing but an expanse of weedy land and beyond those sad sights, a new sub-division being built.

Once, at some lame new-age store in the Post Mall, I bought a necklace that was supposed to bring good luck. I actually told myself “Nothing bad can happen if I wear this.” It was a clay troll holding a fake diamond. Who knows what it really meant? Once, in my best friend Zach’s driveway, it cracked. I glued it together meticulously — the crack imperceptible. I wore it every day until the day I graduated high school. To this day, I keep that necklace in my night stand, as if the life I’ve built will disintegrate, disappear into the ether if it’s ever lost.

That's me in the front with a Tori Amos shirt on (I only wore Tori Amos shirts or shirts with Smurfs sewn onto them.) I'm wearing my troll necklace! Also, this is the only club I ever joined, Creations, the literary magazine.

That’s me in the front with a Tori Amos shirt on (I only wore Tori Amos shirts or shirts with Smurfs sewn onto them.) I’m wearing my troll necklace! Also, this is the only club I ever joined, Creations, the literary magazine.

But even with my potions and charms, the panic overwhelmed me. When I could no longer keep it inside me, my body erupted in bright islands of eczema. My toes, legs, arms, breasts consumed by such a shape shifter, this panic. Even my heart became an uncontrollable thing, always mixing up its beats and rhythms. “Phobic anxiety,” Teri, my therapist explained. “Your ability to decipher fight or flight is confused.” She gave me a pamphlet that detailed it all with stick figures and thought bubbles, misguided arrows that exposed the true nature of my chemical imbalance. If anything, I found this insulting. We went on this way for months.

Before long I’d missed much of my sophomore and junior years of high school. It was my father who brought me to see that therapist, and later the psychiatrist, Dr. Klugman, who worked with her. My mother was hesitant, embarrassed. But with the promise that I wouldn’t broadcast the news, she let me go. And, eventually, I learned how to cope. A combination of Klonopin, Prozac, breathing exercises, focal points (animal stickers with inspirational sayings), preferential seating (always near a door or window), and a permanent hall pass (golden ticket) allowed me to finish my junior year with mostly passing grades.

Where was this bitch when I needed her? Playing Winnie Cooper, that's where!

Where was this bitch when I needed her? Playing Winnie Cooper, that’s where!

In addition to all these accommodations, my father insisted on having a meeting with school officials and guidance counselors. Mr. Kilo opted not to come, but sent another math teacher in his place. He got married, turned those coffee-stained blueprints into a real home (I’m assuming) while I sat in my closet practicing breathing out the black and breathing in the blue. Out black. In blue. Deep breaths of the blue. Huge exhales of black. For a long time, things were this way. Just this tenuous. My future, ephemeral, bundled tightly in those sad black breaths.

Years after high school ended, I found many drafts of a letter my father had written to the accommodation committee. He had been dissatisfied with our meeting, although I didn’t know it then. One draft had been left out for my mother to read. At the top, he wrote: “Comments?” and then, “Don’t let Allyson see this yet.” I’m not sure what he meant by “yet.” The letter is dated February 14, 1994. I found it in a folder labeled “X High” in his garbage after my parents divorced in 2006.

My father wrote, “I wish to say that I failed to see this developing situation and in doing so I let my daughter down when she really needed my support. I think it is realistic to suggest that you as administrators have not visualized this from Allyson’s perspective. Remember, that is the perspective of a girl during a time in her life when she should be having fun, making friends, and finding herself. Not having an out of control teacher strip her of her self- confidence, self-worth, and esteem.” In his revision, he changed the word “visualized” to “grasped.” I love that he revised his letter again and again. Each draft saved for so many years. In his final copy, he added into his conclusion: “Even with this traumatic experience Allyson is still doing better than most X High School students.”

The author's dad's letter

The author’s dad’s letter

I don’t know if my father ever mailed his letter, but I will always love him for writing it. Where my high school labeled me “emotionally weak,” my father had pointed out that they too had failed. Thanks to his persistence, I finished algebra my junior year with a new teacher, and geometry my senior year with a tutor. Trust me, there were no miracles. I passed algebra with a D. My senior year tutor, frustrated with my mathematical incompetence, eventually decided the first half of each of our hour long sessions would be “lunch time.” For the second half hour she’d pile bright sheets of construction paper before me and I’d construct geometrical shapes.

Somehow, this seemed a fitting conclusion to my tenure as a math student, a way for my hands to construct what my mind could not. My rhombus always misshapen, conjuring only nostalgia for Mrs. Cole’s pile of beans. I held them tightly, despite their grimy husks, despite the fact that they were really never mine to hold. All these years, I kept them, then let them go, only to watch them take root here in this story.

Allyson Wuerth received her MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and teaches literature at a private school in Connecticut. She still hates math.