Outside of my immediate family, I didn’t speak a word to other humans until I was twelve. I had selective mutism. I didn’t have a name for this condition until I was in my late-twenties, dating my now-wife. When I met her, she worked with people with cognitive disabilities, and would go on to become a child therapist and social worker. “Oh, selective mutism,” she said casually over dinner, suggesting we should order the nachos as an appetizer.
I waited for gates of Hell to open and for the apocalypse to pour out, but instead, nothing happened, and I agreed, yeah, nachos. I’ve always braced myself for foghorn-mouth, gaping disbelief. Maybe the eyes go black, too. That’s why I didn’t speak for all of elementary school, so terrified I would elicit that reaction if I dared to utter a single syllable.
A rare and complex childhood anxiety disorder with little information found in pediatric literature, my mother called it shyness. My dad said I was like Tommy in The Who rock opera. It was the 1980s. We didn’t do therapy. We did self-help. We did I’m OK, You’re OK. I looked well-fed, good color in my face, not a danger to self or small animals with sharp objects. I was OK.
Like a blind person, I communicated through touch, tracing the bark on the oak tree, alone at recess. I wish I could say I spent my time creating rich, vast worlds in my head. I might have become the world’s greatest novelist. Instead I practiced communicating, continuing every conversation I overheard, coming up with perfect replies. Still, they were not perfect enough. I would whittle and shave them down until they were sharp enough to be weaponized.
I can write a fucking sentence that means exactly what I want it to. I think this is how I became an essayist.
By middle school, I slowly began to realize that speaking out loud did not summon the apocalypse. It did not summon much of anything. People ignored me as much as always. My anxiety re-funneled itself into other things — like people coughing, or dying in a fiery plane crash, plummeting out of the sky in a tube with re-circulating air, also where people were coughing.
I’m OK. I’ve always been so completely OK, I tend to gloss over my complete lack of normal childhood socialization. Instead I look for other commonalities. Our shared interests in dead breakfast cereals and Saturday Morning Cartoons connect us. I connect. I was, and am just like you.
I think we connect in other ways, too. I think most people did not have the childhood they present as having. Childhood was not a perfect symmetrical budding cocoon. It was as messy and broken as any human experience. Our very nostalgia is part of our need for commonality as adults. It’s our need to feel less alone, because we often felt so alone as children.
As an adult, I have four close friends. There are the three people I feel I could tell anything to, unfiltered, raw, naked, fucked-up. The fourth person is a gruesome conglomeration of all my Facebook friends, social media followers, and readers, whom I feel I could also tell anything to, although carefully constructed, whittled down, and sharpened. I talk now, but it’s still the same. I have always spoken in silences like this, through this illusion of interacting, a circling of the old oak tree.