My voice has not been my own for way too long. I’m changing that.
When I was an evangelical Christian, I was taught that my tongue was meant to be an instrument of praise. As a social justice activist, my voice was supposed to be an instrument of power.
But situational mutism made both those expectations complicated. See, I have SM, a complex social anxiety disorder that begins in early childhood and makes me physically unable to speak in some social situations. As a result, my voice hasn’t matched up with expectations. In this post, I’ll go over just what I was taught about my voice, ways that SM made matters worse, and how I’m reclaiming my voice from all the shoulds.
Growing up, it quickly became crystal clear that meeting evangelical expectations was gonna be… tricky. See, when you have situational mutism, your voice does not belong to you. It belongs to your anxiety. Doesn’t matter what you want or what you need. Doesn’t matter how angry, frustrated, or crazy-making it gets. You physically cannot speak, and you don’t get to choose who, when, or where.
I can’t count how much mutism has taken from me. Class discussions I couldn’t join, even when it hurt my grade. Questions I couldn’t ask, even if it meant I failed the test. “See me” notes on that test I couldn’t answer, even though I’d get in trouble. Jokes I couldn’t crack, help I couldn’t get, smiles I couldn’t offer, friends I couldn’t make. On. And on. And on.
That wasn’t really gonna work for the Evangelical Christianity I grew up in. There, I was supposed to use my voice for “glorification” (aka kissing God’s ass – prayer and worship), “witnessing” (aka piling into vans to proselytize unsuspecting randos on beachfronts and in malls), and “edification” (aka encouraging my brethren to keep believing in God.) Gossip, cursing (like dang it), taking God’s name in vain (yep, including oh my gosh) were no-nos. My tongue could be as dangerous as a forest fire, and it wasn’t mine to use.
A little kid who couldn’t speak wasn’t gonna cut it.
Growing up, my SM was interpreted as selfish, standoffish, and sinful. Can’t really blame people for the second one, but the others took their toll – to this day, I still can’t shake the belief that being introverted or even just quiet is a personal crime. (Mix in the fact that I’m an extrovert who grew up sporadically mute and personality tests make for one hell of a party!)
I’ve been called a lot of things for going mute. Not to be dramatic or anything, but when people realize that you can’t speak, they lowkey stop treating you like you’re human. I’ve been called furniture, piece of furniture, dead piece of furniture, dead, timid, etc. I’ve had people do the mime or the robot and scoff when I didn’t smile at their ~original~ joke. I’ve had people scoff to each other about me right in front of me for minutes and minutes.
Not having a voice has cost me. I wish I could say it got me out of trouble because, not being able to speak, I couldn’t say the things I wasn’t supposed to say anyway. As if. Wasn’t supposed to curse – too irreverent for that. Wasn’t supposed to gossip – too much of a drama queen for that. Contrary to what my SM wanted – to shut me up – as years went on, I found ways to start talking. I’m an I/ENFP at heart, and my ass was advocating before I even knew what advocating was.
I told my church I had depression in my baptism speech because I wanted people to know they weren’t alone, that God was bettering me. I shared my testimony when I could get up the courage. I even managed to witness to one or two people at most, out of all the times we went out. As a social justice activist, that advocacy only grew. I went to protests, even spoke at one. I shared (and overshared) on social media. I was bolstered by the SJ idea that as an oppressed person, my voice would be heard and valued, and not gonna lie, after years of silence, I adored that newfound attention.
But evangelism and social justice activism have boxed me in too. As an evangelical, I grew up feeling incredibly guilty and fake for not being able to speak to my brethren or witness to my loved ones. As an activist, I saw fellow activists making social media posts that translated to “I see that [unspecified you] aren’t sharing my posts. You’re not a good ally and I’m watching you.”
After a lifetime of being fundamentally misunderstood and sometimes blatantly mocked by people who can speak… after a lifetime of being told what to say… after a lifetime of being muzzled by SM…
I am done letting other people define my voice for me.
This voice does not belong to Christians. It doesn’t belong to activists. It doesn’t even belong to me. But I’ll be damned if I don’t own as much of it as I can get.
I have fought HARD for this voice. I don’t always like the sound of it. Sometimes it says dumb shit, cracks corny jokes, makes great puns. Every time I use this voice, I have wrestled and won it on loan from my anxiety. That precious time is mine to use. And I will use it.
I’ll use this voice to be joyful. Authentic. Snarky. Rude. Kind. Irreverent. I’ll use it to help, heal, share, and sing badly along to Disney soundtracks on Spotify. I’ll use it to advocate for and support adults with selective mutism. I’ll chatter too fast when I get excited (which is like, once a day) and whisper too loud during meetings. I’ll use it for whatever the hell I want, thank you very much. I got this.
This was mostly a cathartic post… obviously, I have a LOT to say after all this time 😉 but I wanna hear from you too. Do you relate to anything I wrote here, from evangelical expectations to wonky witnessing experiences to activism to SM? Let me know! Let’s make it a conversation. God knows I’ve got a lot to make up for!