By Tanya Slavin
I’m watching Martin’s weekly private swimming lesson from the viewing area of the local pool. A girl of about the same age as him is swimming widths nearby, accompanied by her teacher. There is nothing unusual about the girl, but her presence suddenly disrupts the sense of normal that I’ve gotten used to. Every time she answers her teacher out loud, her voice rings like a bell standing out from the background noises of the pool, and I stare at the source of the sound in sheer amazement. I’m so used to Martin’s silent ways that I forgot what is “normal,” and this girl seems to me nothing short of a miracle. Will I ever hear Martin’s voice like this too?
My six-year-old son Martin has Selective Mutism (SM), a rare childhood anxiety disorder that makes a child who is perfectly capable of speaking unable to speak in certain situations. At this time, Martin only speaks to family members and a few family friends.
At home, with us, he is relaxed, chatty and loud. New situations make him freeze like a deer caught in the headlights. In the now familiar school environment, he interacts and plays with kids, has friends, but communicates with them only in gestures. He may even laugh and cry, but all without emitting a sound.
We are not sure how and why it started, but three years ago, things were different. Back then, Martin was an average three-year-old—a video of his 3rd birthday party at his daycare where he is chatting and singing happily confirms that. Then, suddenly something changed, shifted, he became more self-conscious, gradually narrowing his talking circle to just family members. The onset of his SM coincided with him beginning a new daycare, so, at the beginning, it looked like nothing more than normal shyness in a new situation. But when after a few months he still didn’t talk, we were certain that something was not right.
Then we moved, and moved again. And now, several moves and three schools later, he still doesn’t talk.
Martin is lying on the couch, his long hair almost sweeping the floor, his bare feet in his hands, dreamily looking at the ceiling and smiling shyly at something, his thoughts. “Mama, remember how I forgot to give my present to Ded Moroz this year?” (Ded Moroz is the Russian version of Santa who comes towards New Years. Every year his Dad dresses up as one and pretends to arrive towards midnight on the 31st to give out presents. This year Martin drew a picture for him before his arrival and wanted to give it to him but forgot). “Yes, but you’ll have a chance to give it to him next year,” I say. Martin, even more dreamily, half-whispering “Next year I want to try to talk to Ded Moroz out loud…” (Of course, this would really mean talking to his Dad in disguise). “That’s a good idea,” I say, matching his whisper.
“We can practice in advance if you’d like to.” He had never explicitly expressed his hope of being able to speak out loud to someone, not to his friends, not to his teachers, not to the train driver… But he wants to try and speak out loud to Ded Moroz. Maybe he can practice with Dad pretending to be Ded Moroz, before his Dad in disguise comes again at New Year’s eve to give out presents so Martin won’t recognize him…
“What helps a lot is having a chatty, confident mom,” I read on one of the forums on the topic, and my heart sinks because I’m about the last person in the world to fit this description. To be honest, most of the time, I myself wouldn’t mind having a chatty and confident person beside me to help me ease into new interactions. So I feel ill-equipped to help him. I’m trying hard to help him in other ways, drawing on the strengths of my imperfect and unconfident self. I can offer understanding and empathy. I can offer warmth and protection. I can offer unconditional love and acceptance.
Martin had a bad dream, about a scary old lady who laughs and tickles him and maybe wants to eat him. He tells me he has met her before in his dreams. I ask questions, and he breaks into tears, crying that he is scared to go to bed because of her.
I spend the next few hours trying to think of ways to keep the scary old lady away from Martin’s dreams. What if he tries to think about nice things before he goes to bed? Can he do that? No, he says he can’t, he’ll think about her anyway.. OK, then, if he is bound to meet her, we should make sure he is prepared for this next meeting.
I tell him, “When you see her next time, you can try and drive her away. Remember, she is not real, she exists only in your dream, but YOU are real. And if you tell her that, she might get scared herself and even run away. Can you do that?”
He cries again: “But you know that I can’t talk to strangers!” Oh, Martin, Martin, what should we do? I can’t allow SM to terrorize you even in your dreams. I have another idea: “Look, Martin, she is not real, she lives only in your head, and you do talk in your head, don’t you?”
He does of course.
“Well, then, don’t tell her out loud, tell her in your head, in your dream, tell her to go away, tell her she’s not real… Can you do that?” He’s not sure, maybe… I tell him to practice now saying it in his head, and then again, before going to bed. “If she comes into your head while you’re awake, tell her “Go away! You’re not real! I’m real!”
He falls silent for a few moments, thinking, looking past me for some time … then frowns his eyebrows… then says sternly and quietly to somebody who is not in the room, “Go away! You’re not real! I am real!” I applaud: “Yes! You did it! And you said it out loud too! What did she say?” He replies hesitantly: “I think she got smaller and then ran away…”
“See? It worked! Yay! Do that again, tell her that every time she comes during the day. And then at night, if she dares to show up, you’ll be used to driving her away, even if you won’t say it out loud but only in your head.”
And then for the rest of the evening I see him lifting his head from whatever he’s doing and yelling bravely into the empty room, “Go away! You’re not real! I’m real! I’m not scared of you!” Preparing for the night… And so we go on like this, day after day, night after night. He is learning to fight monsters in his head. I’m learning that I don’t need to become someone else in order to help him. That maybe it’s more important to get invited into his inner world and help facilitate his internal dialogue. Hopefully, the external one will follow.
Author’s note: This essay was written a year and a half ago, in the midst of our struggles against Selective Mutism. Now, at seven years old, thanks to the amazing support from his school, Martin is gradually getting through his anxiety, slowly expanding his talking circle to more and more people.
Tanya Slavin is a freelance writer and a recovering academic who was born in Russia, grew up in Israel and spent most of her adult life moving around North America and documenting a Native American language. She now lives in the UK with her husband and two kids. Her essays appeared on Brain, Child, Washington Post, and Manifest-Station. Find her on her blog Invisible to the Eye and follow her on Twitter or Facebook.