TW: mention of domestic abuse, mental health issues
I have always had trouble with talking.
The first time I remember it was before I was in school. I was in the driveway of my aunt’s house, which I loved to play in because it was wide enough for two cars and had gravel. My cousin (ten years older than me) was watching me, I guess. I didn’t know her that well, because she was in high school and I wasn’t even in kindy. The next door neighbour, a good friend of my grandmother’s and a second parent to my mother, came out to say hello and give us food. (This was totally okay in the 80s, by the way.) She was talking to us. It was still at the point where everyone was introduced every time, in the “look how you’ve grown, I haven’t seen you since a month ago! do you remember me!” way that people treat kids, and I couldn’t say hello back to her.
“She’s shy,” my cousin said.
The next time I clearly remember was in third grade. We were all allowed to play on the upper school playground as long as we didn’t go on the flying fox until the teacher came back. Everyone had lined up for the flying fox anyway, and I got caught up in the crowd because of the number of people. I didn’t want to go on, and the person in line behind me pushed me. I landed on my arm, burst into tears from shock, and of course everyone ran for the teacher. Rather than everyone else being in trouble for playing on the flying fox without supervision, I got carried away, even though I kept trying to say no, don’t touch me. No, I’m fine. No, please don’t call my dad away from work. I don’t want to go near the oak tree because we pretend that it is a moon base where the monsters come from.
They called my dad, he grabbed the van from work and took me to the doctors, who said I was fine but don’t bother going back to school anyway. (Funnily enough, my dad ended up losing that job very soon after, thanks school!)
My parents both trained as teachers and swear if they had noticed anything they would have raised hell to get me help.
I became very good at hiding it. I did all the debating and public speaking contests, I was great at oral presentations, until they told us we weren’t allowed to have all the words on our notecards.
The next time it became a thing I didn’t have under control was when I was nineteen, and stuck in an abusive relationship. He used to push me to the point where I couldn’t talk or move and then take photos, moving me around, and I’m sure you can imagine the rest. He liked it because he said he thought I was smarter when I “came back”. He also “encouraged” me to take various medications. (Basically, the only way I managed to get out of this was ending up in hospital and then he was angry I didn’t answer his texts while I was having my appendix cut out.)
I was in hospital for it once. I tripped on the stairs and sat down to make sure I hadn’t dropped anything and that my ankle was okay, because I felt it twitch. The next thing that happened was a crowd of people around me, someone took my bear away, and another person was shoving his hand in my mouth. I went with the ambulance to get away, and when I got to the hospital I said I was fine and I had to go to work. Against my wishes and without my knowledge, they found out where I worked, called them, and even when I got out because “it’s not a seizure, we don’t know, but she doesn’t want to be here so”, I wasn’t allowed to go to work that day. As a casual at the time, that meant I lost money, basically because people wouldn’t leave me alone.
When it started happening at work and I tried to get help, I wasn’t believed because my coping strategies were that good they didn’t have any evidence until I was forced into a return to work meeting and couldn’t make sound. I was shoved out of the room and they conducted the entire meeting without me, and my lawyer agreed to a bunch of things I literally had no idea about. (Naturally, when I complained, they dragged it out so long he got away with acting without advice – because he said he was doing it for free as a favour, despite his absolute insistence on attending. Lawyers. I know. I quit, remember?) Even then, with people actually witnessing it and a medical certificate clearly stating ‘cannot talk’, WorkCover flat out refused to believe it.
And now it’s my normal.
I am the only person who is okay with this. I have a name for it – functional conversion disorder (mutism). It’s the same reason I’m more often than not uncoordinated, and it takes me a while to learn things. It has a name. It’s a part of me. I’ve had all this time to get used to it. Sure, going from sometimes-and-under-stress to all-the-time is a massive adjustment. People don’t accept this, a lot.
Yesterday I picked up a box of Christmas cakes, so I could have a strawberry vanilla cheesecake for Christmas which I didn’t have to make. There was a note on the list, coloured in orange, to say ‘speech disorder’. I had taken a note, I signed to the lady, it was fine. My credit card had two days where the bank wouldn’t accept new transactions, and in that time a direct debit was rejected, so I received a letter to ring them to arrange alternate payment. I wrote back and said ‘look, I can’t talk, is it okay if you just run it again for now?’. They put a note on my account and it’s now gone through.
That means a lot, but it’s not enough. Yesterday I went to a shop in Rundle Mall that sells organic fair trade makeup and soap and so on, with the hand picked beans from random South American countries so rich people can feel good about supporting underprivileged people they don’t have to see. I had a mental list – thing for cousin, thing for mum, thing for me. (They have this body butter whip which is amazing for dry and/or scaly skin and it’s the only reason I go there. It’s also $20 for a 200ml bottle that goes hard and stops pumping when about 2/3 is left. Obviously, I can’t afford to use it all the time, but once a week, the itching stops.) I had thing for cousin and thing for mum in my arms. A lady came up behind me. “Do you like strawberry?” I think she said.
She was very clear and loud when she said “Fine, if you’re not going to talk to me I won’t help you.” Never mind that she was behind me, hadn’t actually offered help, and I was clearly able to get what I wanted since my arms were full. I also had my mp3 player on, because Rundle Mall turns into a Gladiator-style crowd scene in December, meaning she should have been able to see headphones in and infer a lack of willingness to be engaged. At the counter, because at the same time as I can’t use the butter whip all the time, I can’t never use it, I was able to complete the transaction through signing.
That’s just how it is.
The thing is, a lot of people think if the anxiety goes away, this will also magically go away. (Often there’s physio involved, because physio cures everything, apparently.) I usually don’t get to the point where I consider myself anxious. It’s for all effects and purposes, controlled. This also predates every identified PTSD root.
It is a part of me. It is a thing I have always dealt with. I still feel like I’m the only one who actually gets that it’s not going away, not with physio or speech therapy or singing or targeted PTSD therapy or proper pain relief. And that is okay.