This is a piece of memoir that I wrote about 7 or 8 years ago that I find very relevant to post in this space. It is a part of my history from which I have learned and grown.
This was before knew what Social Anxiety Disorder was…
“Megan, please stay behind to speak with me,” Jeannine requested. Only, to me, it sounded more like a command. It wasn’t. I just couldn’t stand the thought of being in trouble. College students aren’t supposed to fear getting in trouble.
“What the heck is wrong with me? I can’t even do that right?!” I thought, bemused; annoyed; angry
I had mistakenly thought that I was free for the day, that I didn’t have to sit scared anymore in a room of twelve people, searching for a new way to nod my head or make an affirming sound, avoiding eye contact with anyone, for fear they would expect me to say something or ask me to talk, running out of things to look at in a room that was chock full of interesting things to look at. Books. Shelves and shelves of books that took up an entire wall on one side of what doubled as Jeannine’s office and classroom. Another wall made up almost entirely of windows that looked out on to green grass and plants and blue sky. Knick-knacks and bobbles were everywhere, eclectic pieces from trips to Germany, hiking trips, and flea markets, gifts from students and photographs. Nothing seemed to match, yet everything seemed to belong together perfectly, the entirety of the room personifying Jeannine.
There was a degree from UC Berkeley, 1972, hanging on the wall. It said, “Jeannine Thompson, Masters in German Language and Literature,” which made me think back five years to Frau Weaver, my 7th grade German teacher. I went to a hippie school for a couple of years, and in those couple of years, I was taught German, Spanish, and Japanese. I remember virtually nothing from any of those three languages. What I do remember from German class is hausafgaben, or homework, and orange hest, or orange notebook. Two things I’m sure are of no interest to Jeannine, my current seminar teacher for my twelve-unit college course, The Human Enigma, otherwise known as Libs 101.
“So, Megan,” came Jeannine’s soothing voice, shaking me from my visions of Frau Weaver in all of her burly, uni-brow, silver-haried glory. “I need to talk to you about your status as student of the Hutchins Program. It was only October, and I was enrolled in what most students on campus referred to as the “hippie program” where getting your general ed out of the way meant way more than sitting in a lecture class of 80-100 eighteen year olds. It meant you only had one class of 10 or 11 other students to worry about, and it was pass/fail. There were no grades! For this, we were the envy of all of our undergrad peers, the ones who were in those lecture hall classes striving for “A;’s”.
What no one seemed to mention was that the one class was 12 units and that you were required to read twenty plus books, an equal number of articles, studies, short stories, and research bound together in a catalogue, and that you spent three hours a day, three days a week discussing these works in addition to the paper you wrote every week.
“My status as a student?” I managed to croak out.
“Yes,” she beamed down at me, kind blue eyes from behind rimless spectacles, her always lipsticked mouth parted in an easy smile. “Megan, if your silence continues, I will have no choice but to dismiss you from the program.” My eyes filled with tears, I refused to look up, not wanting Jeannine to know I was crying. I felt a tell-tale drop fall on one of the hands resting in my lap. “A huge part of a seminar-based program is the conversations we have with each other in class. Now, I know you’re doing the reading, because your papers are some of the best in the class. Why aren’t you participating?”
My already quick pulse sped up. My palms were sweating. There was a ringing in my ears. I felt the pressure of needing to give a response, of not knowing what to say, of feeling broken, like I was wrong and couldn’t do anything right. I looked up at her, and tears began to flow freely. “I don’t know,” I heard myself say. “I just can’t. As I was talking, I looked up at the ceiling and then out the window and after that just beyond Jeannine’s left shoulder. My eyes darted around as I spoke simply so I wouldn’t have to make eye contact. I was too embarrassed. It was too much connection. “It’s like the words get stuck on their way out. I often want to say something, to contribute, to pose a question, even, but I can’t…” I trailed off, still crying silently, tears streaming down my face.
I took a coy glance at Jeannine, risking the eye contact. She looked at me with a glint of compassion in her eyes. I looked away, down to my hands in my lap. After only a beat, she said, “Megan, what happens in those moments that the words get stuck? What are you feeling? What are you thinking?”
I thought for a moment. “I feel scared. I start to think about what people will think about what I’m going to contribute, and then I talk myself out of it and then back into it and then back out of it again. When I do make up my mind to say something, by the time I’ve gathered my courage to say it, either someone has said it already, or the moment has passed and it would be stupid or inappropriate or out of context to say it.”
What struck me is that Jeannine never asked me why I had chosen this program. She just accepted that I wanted to be there. Why did I choose this program? I knew when my mom told me about it that it would be terrifying and that it would be supremely difficult for me. I hated the spotlight. I hated to be the center of attention. I struggled when teachers called on me in class. If I felt there was a pressure situation to speak or that there was an authority in the room or that there was a situation that was very formal or structured, you would be hard pressed to get me to speak. So why did I decide to join this seminar based program where I would have to face all of these situations? I ignored my fears; I told myself that I would be different in college, that I would feel different, that it would be okay. I pretended like it wouldn’t be a problem, and here I was, only a few months into the semester, and I was facing being kicked out. I never dreamed this would happen.
Jeannine interrupted my thoughts, “If you want to stay, I will consider passing you on probation with a few caveats.”
All I could do was nod my head. It felt heavy, like I hadn’t slept in days, weighed down by grief, stung by the realization that it wasn’t different in college. I was still the same person I had always been. I was still that little blonde girl on the kindergarten playground, the one the kids pointed at saying loudly, “That’s Megan; she doesn’t talk.”
“The first thing I need you to do is prepare for seminar.” Jeannine was talking to me again. I fell out of my thoughts to listen. “I know you’ve been doing the reading, but I need you to prepare notes with the specific intent of sharing them with the group. I think if you prepare that way, you might be able to share more readily.” I nodded in affirmation. “The second thing I need you to do is go to the counseling center here on campus and make an appointment. I want you to talk to one of the therapists there and see if they might not be able to help you with whatever it is you’re going through.” I nodded as a few more tears came out. Another adult was telling me there was something wrong with me. Why could I not escape this? I wanted Jeannine to comfort me and tell me that everything was going to be okay. That’s all I ever wanted, it seemed, yet I never got it. Instead, she said, “Okay, please meet me back here on Monday before class so we can look over the preparation notes you make for our next seminar.” I thanked her and left the room, heading off to my weekend, relieved that I hadn’t been kicked out but reeling in the unfairness of it all, hit with the reality that there was a lot at stake if I couldn’t get my words un-stuck.
I went straight from that meeting with Jeannine to the school counseling center. I found out that all available counselors there were students obtaining hours towards their licenses. I was promptly assured that they were closely supervised by seasoned, licensed therapists. That made me feel a little bit better, but then, it didn’t really matter how I felt about it. This was just a condition of my position in the Hutchins program. So, I made the appointment.
“I’m not really going to get anything out of this,” I reasoned. Why would I? I’ve been to therapists before. I’ve been totally open and honest with them, and they couldn’t make me better. Why would this be any different? At least I would have someone to talk to, a captive audience to listen to me for 45 minutes or so each week.
The very first thing my nameless, faceless therapist in training asked me was if she could tape-record my session so that she could share it with her supervising therapist. I agreed, wondering if my tape would ever actually be listened to. Knowing what I know now, I sincerely hope it never was. That would ease my mind quite a bit considering how things played out.
The very next thing she asked me was, “What brought you to therapy?”
This is what I said: “I’m here because I’m on the verge of being kicked out of my undergrad program because I can’t talk in class. It is a 12-unit class, which is a seminar of only 12 people and our professor. I am too afraid to say anything. My professor promised to pass me on probation if I took some steps to try to fix the problem. One of those steps is for me to come here.”
What I unknowingly handed her was the diagnostic criteria for Selective Mutism, an anxiety disorder most often found in children, that is very much related to Social Anxiety Disorder. What follows is the diagnostic criteria taken directly from the DSM IV, a tool used by therapists to diagnose their patients:
Diagnostic criteria for 313.23 Selective Mutism
- Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations (in which there is an expectation for speaking, e.g., at school) despite speaking in other situations.
- The disturbance interferes with educational or occupational achievement or with social communication.
- C. The duration of the disturbance is at least 1 month (not limited to the first month of school).
- D. The failure to speak is not due to a lack of knowledge of, or comfort with, the spoken language is required in the social situation.
- E. The disturbance is not better accounted for by a Communication
Disorder (e.g., Stuttering) and does not occur exclusively during the
course of a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Schizophrenia, or other
Neither she, nor her supervising therapist ever diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder, which is why I sincerely hope that her supervising therapist never listened to the tape of our first session. How I wish I had researched my symptoms, Googled them, or something. I just thought there was something wrong with me. I never thought it was a disorder. I just thought it was me; it was my fault. I needed to put on my big girl panties and get over it. Only I was trying. And I couldn’t.
The therapist at the school counseling center did little for me, although I did keep up my end of the bargain so that Jeannine would pass me on probation, as she promised, which she did.
I improved in little ways throughout the next three and a half years of seminars, but most professors came to know that I was better on paper than I was in person. Some would prompt me to speak, asking what I thought about this or that, which, while terrifying, was sometimes helpful. Others were content to know me through my papers, allowing me to listen and nod and make affirming noises.
I would not finally get diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder until four and a half years later. One of the things that saddens me about that is that I never got to go back to Jeannine and explain what was happening to me in that first seminar of my freshman year. I never got to share with her that what I was facing has a name and that I was learning to overcome little pieces of it step by step.