I mainly experience mutism when in a group conversation or when overwhelmed in a foreign language speaking environment. There’s also a third, less predictable way that I become mute and that is to do with certain people. From the first moment when I encounter one of these people, I’m either completely mute or can only say basic words such as ‘hi,’ ‘goodbye’, and ‘thanks.’ Even saying simple words such as these requires a lot of forcing of myself. Maybe it doesn’t sound like such a bit deal, but it also comes with a physical feeling of being closed down and being unable to break through it.

My mutism doesn’t happen only with strangers. It can also be people I’ve known a long time. With these people, I’m no longer 100 percent mute as I was when I was a child. Now, if I need to say something to them I can force the words (in an English-speaking environment, though much harder in a second language). What I say will not be conversational but can include things such as passing on a message or responding to a question. However, I prefer not to speak to or around these people at all.

I had some realisations regarding my mutism which I will now share. What I have to say goes against what I always hoped for regarding my mutism, which was to overcome it eventually and to be able to express myself to everybody. What I realised instead was that when I go mute, my mutism is telling me not to express myself fully in that situation or with that person. It’s a physiological response that shuts down my speech so that I can’t talk openly. This is useful because speaking openly is something I can later regret, for example, if I speak openly with a person who is not to be trusted. My mutism doesn’t catch all the people who are not to be trusted, but at least it points out some of them to me.

What I realised was that my mutism keeps me safe. It’s often not safe to express oneself openly around particular people or when in a group, and mutism shows me when this is the case because I can’t talk. There are many reasons a situation might not be safe to express oneself, such as the people you are with are intolerant (in terms of religion, lifestyle or politics) or think very differently to you in other some way. Often it’s not worth arguing or disagreeing with these kinds of people. Silence is golden.

Sometimes the act of speaking isn’t dangerous so you could theoretically talk, but it’s still not worth it. Not expressing oneself in this circumstance is a case of not casting your pearls before swine. Some people have no interest in knowing who you really are or what you really think; they can only accept you or like you if you act and think exactly as they do. I realised that with these people, being myself and expressing myself as I am is wasted on them; it generally only leads to conflict and them trying to change me. I don’t need to express myself around these people.

At the same time, I know that the mutism is something going on inside me, that it’s my responsibility, and that nobody is forcing it to happen to me no matter how severe of an asshole another person might be. When I used to get panic attacks from experiencing mutism, I behaved very badly and rudely. I don’t think that’s acceptable and in the future that is something I will change. All it takes is to realise that I don’t need to express myself openly in any situation where my mutism is triggered; this takes much of the stress away. Secondly, I can say the one word replies or as much as I can manage, and I should try as hard as I can to do this for people as it is more polite than saying nothing at all. And lastly, to be aware that this is my life and I can shape it in ways so that I can be around people I can express myself openly with. This doesn’t mean that I have to avoid everyone that I experience mutism with, but I think that contact with these kinds of people should be limited, otherwise for me there’s nothing ‘social’ about it, it’s more like punishment.