“Mallory,” Mr. Nelson, my Pre-Calculus 12 teacher, said, “what’s the first thing you need to do to solve this equation?”
I blinked up at the SMART Board, where Mr. Nelson had written a series of numbers and signs in red computerized ink. It was an easy equation to answer—isolate x, plug the result into the quadratic formula, and boom, question solved. I could only stare at the board in silence.
Beside me, my classmates had grown very still. I kept my eyes fixed on the board as each tick of the clock echoed through the room. I was already seated in the corner, in the least visible portion of the classroom, but I longed to discover my latent powers of invisibility and shield myself from their eyes. Nowhere could be far enough away.
What had he said, again? My gaze wandered over the equation, but no words were coming to my lips. I could feel them buzzing at me, a string of taunts circling around me like wasps.
What did he say, Mallory? What did he say?
Answer the question, dumb-ass.
Why aren’t you answering the question?
You know the answer. Just say it!
You’re taking too long. They’re all going to think you’ve lost it.
Answer him. Answer him, now!
What’s wrong with you?
And then, loudest:
Why can’t I speak?
My face burned. It burned, and it burned, and it burned, my shame broadcast across my features like a neon sign. My heart pounded in my chest.
I couldn’t tell him the first step, but maybe if I solved the whole equation I could manage to say that one number, that one small word. I focused on the question, trying to block out the rest of the world.
But I wasn’t a genius, and my teacher had run out of patience. “Connor?” he said. “What’s the answer?”
“Multiply x by both sides,” Connor said simply, easily, and the class moved on as normal. I stayed frozen in my seat, my cheeks burning so much they stung as I tried, unsuccessfully, to calm down.
Why? Why, why, why couldn’t I speak?
I was in Grade 12 and full of grief for the loss of my grandfather, who’d died two weeks before I was set to finish eleventh grade. Twelfth grade was supposed to be one of the best years of my life, the year I prepared to take my first steps in the real world. But as the school year progressed, I’d grown quieter and quieter, until, by February, I was speaking fewer than ten words a day. I sat by myself at lunch, a book in my hands, and I stopped making eye contact. I still spoke at home, but I stopped making jokes. Even conversations with relatives, whom I’d for years had an easy rapport with, felt stressful.
The worst thing was, I wasn’t even sure anyone had noticed. I’d always been shy and introverted. But something was different about my silence this time. I can’t say that shyness ever felt like a choice, but it had always felt like it was within my control to speak up if I needed to. This, whatever it was, was different.
Mr. Nelson was one of the only teachers who consistently tried to make me speak—he’d written in my report card that I should work on my shyness by speaking up in class sometimes because he was sure I had “a lot to offer”— and he seemed to be the only teacher who’d noticed my decline. When he asked me a question one day in late February, I sat there, trying to articulate the answer to an easy question, but I couldn’t remember the name of the square root sign symbol. Finally, I managed to blurt out a reply. “The root sign thing,” I said.
Mr. Nelson smirked. “Mallory is an ESL student. Could someone please tell her what this sign is called?” As the class laughed, he added, “What country is ‘Marrs’ from, anyway? Or perhaps I should say, ‘what planet?’”
I laughed along with everyone else, because I preferred it to the awkward fade into silence that occurred after some of my attempts at speech. But inside my brain was whirring. He had a point. Somewhere in the last few months, language had stopped making sense. When people spoke, their words jumbled together, and it sometimes took me more than 10 seconds to decode what they’d said. For example, the words “made in Germany,” to me sounded like, “Name’s Jimminy.” This kind of word confusion is, from what I understand, fairly normal. But not when it happens multiple times a day.
I told myself I was losing my hearing. Hearing loss was in my family, after all. My grandfather and my cousin both had hearing aids, and my father desperately needed one. Didn’t it make sense that I was suffering from the same problem?
My “hearing loss” only occurred during moments of stress—which, to be fair, was often. But the idea that I could be losing my grip on my own language was so terrifying that I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. My diary from that time is full of upbeat entries, desperate to convey a false idealized reality. I hadn’t been abandoned by my friends—I needed to learn independence. I wasn’t unable to speak—I liked the peace and quiet. Even as I wrote those entries, I knew they were bullshit. And yet I operated under the false belief that if you stay positive, you can cure yourself of anything.
My friends had stopped hanging out with me completely by mid-November. I can’t say whether it’s my silence that drove them away, or if one of the reasons I stopped speaking was because I was hurt they’d abandoned me after six years of friendship. But even as I felt our friendship unravelling, I did little to stop it.
It felt beyond my control. We’d hit a bump in our friendship, possibly a minor one, and instead of trying to work things out I assumed there was no possible way to fix things. Maybe that was true—and maybe it wasn’t. They’d abandoned me for boyfriends and other friend groups, and although they still acted like we were friends whenever I spoke to them alone, they ignored me when their new friends were around. Not maliciously, I don’t think. It just felt like they didn’t care whether I was with them or not. Or at least that’s how it felt to me at the time.
I’d feared being alone for a long time. After my friends stopped hanging out with me, I spent every lunch hour by myself, in a room that doubled as a classroom and a hang out spot. My friends sat just across the same room, and yet there was an invisible barrier blocking me from joining them. I told myself the independence was good for me.
After months of being on my own, I felt so different from the other students—I truly felt like an alien. But one day, as I was reading a book while eating my lunch, one of my classmates sat down across from me. She was a relatively new student, a girl named Charlotte who I used to talk to when she first moved to our school the previous year.
“Hey,” she said, nodding at me.
I nodded back, attempting a smile. Would I have to talk?
But Charlotte pulled a book out of her bag and began reading it without saying another word. I breathed a sigh of relief.
A few days later, Sophie joined us. She’d spent a year in the VIU hairdressing program and had just returned to high school. She, too, took out her book and read.
Lena, a popular girl who seemed to be having difficulties with her friends, joined us a short time later. The four of us sat together every lunch hour for the rest of the school year, in companionable silence. Although we never spoke of anything more in-depth than homework, they were some of the kindest people I’ve ever known.
I feel like they saved me, in a way. They prevented me from sinking even lower, and they made me feel as if I was still worth being around. But even though I liked and trusted them, I could not speak to them.
The school year ended, and with it ended my silence. Away from the pressure of high school, my mind recovered enough to function. Social situations still stressed me out, but I was no longer constantly surrounded by people. Something within me seemed to heal.
I spent the first year of university living at home, attending the small VIU Cowichan campus in Duncan. I had a few online courses, so between my job (working at my dad’s automotive repair shop as a janitor) and class, I spent a maximum of 15 hours a week in the company of others—a drastic reduction from the 35-plus hours I had spent with my classmates while in high school.
I made a few in-class friends, managed some awkward conversations, and felt lighter and freer than I had in a long time. I thought I was cured.
I’m sure, outwardly, I appeared as shy as ever. But the panic that sprang up in my brain every time I opened my mouth was reduced. I could manage complete sentences instead of my typical one-word answers and nods. I pretended twelfth grade had never happened and tried to push it out of my brain. But, history tends to repeat itself. Especially if it’s never properly resolved.
My second year of university, I left home to live in the dorms at the VIU Nanaimo campus. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Everyone (and by everyone, I mean older relatives) told me that living on campus would finally break me out of my shell.
Within a week—no, within the first day—my silence returned. My resident advisor, or RA, handed me a “Bathroom-mate Agreement Form” and told me to look it over with the girl I shared my washroom with.
I agonized over how to approach her. How could I possibly manage a conversation with her? In the end, I filled it out and stuck it in the bathroom with a note saying to look it over. It was signed by the next morning.
But then came a further complication—I had to return it to my RA. I debated sliding it under his door, but ultimately decided it would be too awkward if he then proceeded to open the door before I had a chance to get away. So instead I texted him and told him it was ready. I hoped he’d tell me that he was out, that I could leave it for him for later, and all would be well.
He texted back, telling me to bring it over. Oh, shit, I thought. But there was no getting out of it. Taking a deep breath, I walked down the hallway to his door.
He answered on my first knock.
“Hey! That was quick!”
That was quick? Jesus, I thought. You mean I had more time?
“Can you believe most of the residents haven’t even met their bathroom-mate yet?”
“Uh, no?” Never mind that I couldn’t even pick my bathroom-mate out of a police lineup.
“Do you have class today? What class?”
“Do you consider yourself a poetic person? No, don’t answer that. No one considers themselves poetic.”
I would have been mildly insulted, had I not begun shaking. My legs trembled so much I thought they might collapse. My worst nightmare was occurring—he was making me talk.
“Do you have any days off?”
“No.” Ask him something! My brain prodded me. “Er, do you?” My head felt empty of blood. If you faint, I told my body, I’ll never forgive you.
“Two. Wednesdays and Fridays.”
He continued, asking me the occasional question that I managed to turn into a one-word answer every time. When the conversation was at last over, I practically ran to my room.
My heart was pounding and my whole body was shaking. It should have been an easy conversation—why did I feel like this?
More physical symptoms began occurring soon after. In class, every time I turned my head, my neck felt tight and my movements became jerky and uneven. My lips felt numb and swollen until all I could think about in class was that something must look off about me, that people must have noticed how weird my mouth looked. During conversations, I would feel blood climb to my head, filling my skull with an intense pressure that made me feel like I was about to faint. My cheeks would turn red, my legs would shake, and my heart would pound. I also briefly gained the ability to remember conversations in much greater detail than I had previously been capable of—or am capable of now, thank God. Do I really want to remember every awkward thing I say? No. No, I do not.
I could manage a few words. More than I had in twelfth grade, but every time I was expected to speak panic surged up inside me and all I could think about was getting away. Every time someone spoke to me, two thoughts would well up inside of me: I don’t know what to say! and, How do I make this conversation end? My brain felt so empty sometimes, it was like a black hole.
My family had told me living on campus would help me get out of my shell. But instead my shell had grown, expanding and thickening until I couldn’t remember who I was beneath it. An inevitable part of our identity is the way we communicate with others—when the ability to communicate is removed, it changes how we view ourselves. It’s like the saying, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If no one heard me speak, did I really exist? Did I have a personality? It seemed to me that the old me had died, that all that existed now was the shell of who I once was.
Instead of gaining the freshman 15, I lost the same amount because I was too scared to use the communal kitchens. I subsisted on a diet that included ramen noodles warmed up with hot tap water. I was surrounded by friendly, welcoming people, and yet I felt as if I had been stuck in the depths of hell.
Throughout this, I’d tried my best to be positive, but I began to despise myself. My social skills were pathetic, so I felt that I was too. My confidence began plummeting in other areas as well. Every time I received a good grade on an assignment, I assumed my professor was giving me the mark out of pity. For a long time, it seemed like nothing would ever change.
I wish now that I’d had the courage to seek help, because the months I spent in silence were agony. But mostly it didn’t occur to me to ask for help, and when it did, I pushed the thought out of my mind because I feared the thought of having to speak. I was in a constant state of despair, and yet I thought my problems weren’t important enough to warrant a therapist. I constantly invalidated my own feelings, telling myself that I just needed to stay positive and it would all go away.
But staying positive didn’t work. It couldn’t, because my version of staying positive was just me trying to deny reality. Is there any way to be positive about the fact that I could barely talk? Telling myself that it could be worse was unfair to me, because I still deserved validation.
After the school year came to a close, I returned home. I was so sick of my inability to speak, so sick of the blushing and the pounding heart and the shaking legs. I was so sick of everything. When my mother told me to clean the kitchen floor, I cranked up the music, relishing in the opportunity to be loud, and set to work.
But when a stain on the floor refused to erase, I found myself growing angry. It was a yellowish stain, about the size and shape of a toonie. I scrubbed and scrubbed at it but it would not budge. I poured more soap on it, but still it would not disappear. I used every scrub brush in the house, but to no avail. The stain would not go away, no matter how much I scrubbed at it, no matter how angry I got.
My mother found me some time later, tears streaming from my eyes as I scoured the floor.
“What’s wrong?” She asked me, and even though I thought it was stupid, that I was too old to be sobbing in my mother’s arms, I let her hold me while I cried myself out.
I’ve never been good at matching my emotions up with what’s happening in my life. I was a relatively emotionless teenager, but when I did feel something, it seemed to come at me out of nowhere. I could burst into tears at an ant crawling across my bedroom floor, for example, and not properly understand that I was crying because my grandfather was dying. But in this moment, I realized why I was sad, and angry, and scared. I understood that I hated myself for not being able to talk and that I was scared because I didn’t know how to fix it. But I also realized another truth: this wasn’t who I was. I may have developed a kind of social phobia, but since when do we identify ourselves by our fears? I still existed, no matter how thick my shell was, no matter how silent I was. My inability to speak did not define me.
I won’t pretend that this revelation changed me immediately, or that I hadn’t had thoughts along these lines before. I had, but somehow this moment was different, because it was the moment I began to truly accept that my problem could not be fixed with a band-aid. It couldn’t be fixed by just removing myself from social stress because it wasn’t the stress that was the problem—it was my coping mechanisms. I had always dealt with my problems by drawing inward. Even as a small child, I used the silent treatment whenever I was mad at my parents. Not talking felt easier than expressing my emotions.
If my life was a work of fiction, I’d be able to point to a single problem in my past and say, “That’s it! That’s why I am the way I am!” I want so badly to be able to do that, to make sense of a time in my life when I felt so out of control. But real life is so messy, and it doesn’t always make sense. Maybe there’s one definitive reason I became the way I did. Maybe there are many. Maybe there are none. Maybe I’m just complex, like every other person on this earth. Maybe that’s okay.
But I do think my silence was connected to the death of my grandfather. He always seemed to be the exceptional one, the genius inventor who’d always believed in me, and without him I felt like our family was dim and empty. I’ve always been afraid of strong, negative emotions, and perhaps I used silence to stop feeling. Perhaps the loss of my friends and the increased social stress in my second year of university had also driven me towards silence. Who can say for sure?
But after that moment on the kitchen floor, I took my first step on the path towards what I hope has been true healing—the development of better coping mechanisms, a higher respect for what I can socially manage at a given time, and an understanding that it’s okay to have bad days.
The full story of my recovery is a story for another day, because it is something I am still working on every day. But I can say that things kept improving from there. In class, I didn’t exactly join in on conversations, but I sat near other people and laughed at things they said. I found they didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t say much, and included me in their conversations. Eventually, I began to say a few words, and they didn’t seem to care that I had long pauses in my sentences, or that I sometimes stammered over those words. The panic that rose up within me every time I tried to think of something to say quietened.
I worked on not taking myself so seriously. I tried to find the humour in my bad social skills, and I mostly succeeded. I wrote up lame conversations I’d had and laughed at them with my friends and family. I took the power away from my fears.
Now, in my fifth and final year of university, I am still shy. But I am shy in a way that doesn’t scare me. I can speak when I need to. I still want to improve, but I am thankful for where I am today.
That stain on the kitchen floor is still there. I just checked. But it’s not the size of toonie—it’s the size of a dime and faded, almost invisible. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t even know it was there.
Some names have been changed.