Stunned into Silence

My selective mutism completely overtook me yesterday. I went several hours without the ability to speak. The little voice I was eventually able to conjure up was so feeble and small, it was like a hushed mother trying not to wake the baby in her arms. This time, it wasn’t directly tied to a medical appointment, although I did have one later in the day that I seemed nervous about. For this reason, I’m not sure that it was entirely separate and more likely, my tension and anxiety in anticipation of the appointment played a role. Still, it typically hasn’t been the case that I lose my voice prior to an appointment. Instead, I’m usually quite chatty until I enter the waiting room, and effectively smothered like a fire extinguished by a woolen blanket. 

The precipitating event yesterday seemed to be an emotional explosion in the morning. After trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to reach Ben via his phone, I panicked that something was wrong with him and adrenaline coursed through every last millimeter of vasculature in my body. This call was already one fueled by stress because I was having debilitating dizzy spells and so I was contacting him for support. When he didn’t answer after many, many attempts, my irrational brain immediately jumped to worst case scenario stuff (car accident, bad fall, etc.) and skipped all of the more likely and less dire potential causes for his lack of reachability. (He just inadvertently fell asleep.) In fact, these sorts of realistic possibilities were not even considered for a fleeting moment; my trauma brain took over and immediately assumed the worst and only the worst.

It wasn’t until early this morning that I was able to connect the dots and make sense of that. I remember exchanging a couple of really helpful emails with one of my sisters last year about PTSD and emotional fallout from traumatic events. I had reached out to her for advice about my problems with PTSD after the attack because she had survived a bike accident years earlier, and while quite different in nature, still certainly a traumatic event to overcome. I correctly figured that she might have some tips or at least solidarity with some of the emotional demons I was facing. She told me that she had very little PTSD and was pretty much over it now but that she still would get incredibly mad at her own husband when he was unreachable, even though she couldn’t draw any connections between not being able to communicate with him and her accident. As I lay on the rug this morning thinking about things like I do every morning, trying to meditate and relax, my sister’s words suddenly helped me understand what went on with much more clarity.

Not only do I hate not being able to reach Ben if I feel like I need him, but it instantly transports me back to the first moments after I getting up from my attack because after I attended to my immediate physical problems, I sought out my phone, which had been tried from my hands and flung behind the couch, to call Ben. I called. No answer. I called. No answer. Then he texted to remind me that he was out to lunch with friends and he would contact me when he got back to the office. Instead of asserting the urgency and severity of my needs, I just felt rejected and alone. Of course, had I told him that I just got brutally attacked and raped, he would’ve been home or at the nearest hospital to meet me, as soon as the first available cab could wiz him there. I blame the complete shock I was in, the searing pain, the greatest depths of fear and disgust I had ever experienced on my inability to voice my needs. My therapist has since told me that this is a fairly normal post-traumatic response. I simply wrote back “fine,” and by the time he did call me back, I was completely consumed by silence. I just texted back that I no longer want to talk, which was technically a lie because I did want to talk but I was entirely unable to. It’s fair to say I went into a hibernation of sorts after that. I completely disconnected in all sorts of ways from him and everyone else in my life at that time for several days. Needless to say, I have more than just anxiety at face value when I can’t reach Ben when I don’t feel well; it’s inseparable from the horrific memories surrounding that dreadful day. 

Anyway, after I was finally able to wake him with call after call, I exploded at him in a tirade of tears and shouts about how he terrified me and I thought something happened to him; although unfair and irrational, I spoke the truth and my feelings were deeply seeded and real. 

The entire outburst lasted all but a couple of minutes, but it relegated me to that of a meek nonverbal mouse for six hours. I felt like an outline of a human form, one that could be blown into scattered fragments like a summer dandelion puff. Even when I walked the dog, my thoughts were just mouthed in inaudible configurations of the words I intended to say and my muscles felt melted along my bones like the feeling that only comes after being physically spent at the end of a hard race. 

By mid afternoon, I was able coax out a small voice, which was a relief because I rarely feel unable to speak for so long. I think it’s an emotional issue more so than a physical one, my autism therapist says these sorts of “shutdowns” can happen.

Even though I’m often upset and juggling a lot of demanding issues, I rarely lose my cool. I’m one of the least confrontational people I know and almost always internalize fear, anger, hurt, or overwhelm instead of letting it surge out. This unfamiliarity adds to my discomfort and shock when it does escape in a demonstrable way. I thrive on stability and predictability, and any sort of fitful anger or hysteria uproots my feeling of control, even if it is a farce in reality and unhealthy to bottle up. 

The most difficult part of the experience was explaining myself to Ben. Although I don’t concede that my exaggerated response to not reaching him was justified, I do now acknowledge why I have this post-traumatic reaction. My sister is one of the most even-keeled and logical people I know, so if even she has had similar irrational behavior, it further provides me understanding of my own panic.

The mutism must be the way my mind recoils in an attempt to restore equanimity after an emotional torrent like the echoes of deafening silence after a massive explosion. It’s an uncomfortable place because I’m the silence, I cannot express my thoughts or needs. In the silence, my brain runs discounted showings of the memories of the attack, flooding “TV screens” in my mind with simultaneous screenings of lived trauma. The verbal silence seemingly opens a permissive and inviting gate for the memories I try to suppress to air on full blast enshrouding me in the disgusting fearful garb that cloaked my entire conscious and unconscious mind post-attack. Why can’t I burn these memories and watch them rise in lofts of ash far up into the sky? Why can’t I always operate with self-control, logic, patience, and calm? When will my resilience become foolproof and my strength no longer be an act? I can’t answer these questions and I’m guessing that the answer may not be what I hope it to be, that’s why it’s more productive to focus on what I can change and the progress I have made. Yesterday’s outburst was not progress but unpacking its roots was a substantial step forward. Before today, I had no concrete grasp on what was precipitating such unduly magnified reactions. I speak frequently of wanting all of this PTSD stuff to vanish, and I do, but I’m sure there are invaluable lessons and some purpose that I am deriving from this place of pain and this space in my life. I will do my best to trust in the process of my healing, the outward expansion and inward growth that I will glean, and hope that each experience and tribulation is like a crucial piece of the foundation or scaffold from which my “building” as a human becomes better, stronger, and more useful to those around me. 

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