Following a car accident when Nicholas was 2 years old, his family noticed that he was exceptionally shy and reserved. Nicholas would avoid eye contact, turn away, or physically hide from social interactions.
“I would shut down in basically all social settings when I was younger,” Nicholas remembers. “Even in situations where I was more comfortable, I always felt a lump in my throat that kept me from verbalizing. It was frustrating and confusing, to live my life feeling trapped in my own body.”
Nicholas only spoke to his immediate family, some extended family, and a handful of friends from the neighborhood and school. He also was able to speak in front of some people, but not directly to them. Nicholas tried several therapies when he was in elementary school, but none seemed to correct his mutism.
All throughout his school years, Nicholas used nonverbal crutches to avoid talking in the classroom. It was never a major problem, but Nicholas struggled internally in finding his identity.
“I felt like I was handicapped by my SM, always needing a friend to talk for me. I wanted to just scream and let it all out. Countless times, I had thoughts of ‘Why me?’ I had so much to offer the world. So why did I, a good, funny, smart kid, have to be burdened with this fear of talking? What did I do to deserve any of this?”
At the age of 16 in 2021, Nicholas and his parents traveled from North Carolina to attend the SMart Center’s October session of CommuniCamp. Nicholas found the camp extremely engaging and helpful in giving him tools and resources to combat social anxiety. He is especially grateful for his two camp leaders, Maria and David, as well as Jenna Blum, who saw the potential Nicholas had to overcome SM and pushed him to expand outside his comfort zone. CommuniCamp laid the foundation for the immeasurable progress Nicholas has made since!
At age 17, Nicholas now comfortably talks to strangers, such as store employees, waiters and waitresses, and new people he meets in public. His family went on a vacation to San Francisco in the Summer of 2022, and Nicholas was confidently fully verbal during the entire trip! Nicholas also has a job at a local small business, where he speaks to all of his coworkers. He continues to work on adding more of his friends from church, school, and the neighborhood into the circle of people he is verbal with. “My advice to anyone who is struggling with SM is to know that you are NOT alone,” Nicholas affirms.
“So many other people are going through similar challenges as you right now; personally, that realization dramatically helped me escape the thought process that I was the only one who couldn’t speak. And, believe it or not, there are countless individuals who used to have Selective Mutism but have overcome it! Although the exact process looks different for everyone living with SM, I encourage you to find peace in knowing that there is hope. You may not see it now, but there are brighter days ahead.”
Applying for colleges, Nicholas decided to write his application essay on his journey with SM. Below is an excerpt from his essay:
“I can handle it. A sticky note with these words sits front and center in my study room to remind me daily that I am capable of more than I know. For almost 15 years, I have lived with an anxiety disorder known as Selective Mutism (SM), which causes me not to speak in most social situations. Some people may consider SM to be part of who I am; however, I see it as merely another roadblock to finding my identity. Since the start of my junior year of high school, I have overcome much of my SM by intentionally seeking out opportunities where I am uncomfortable communicating and pushing through the discomfort. …
Living with SM has been an immense struggle for as long as I can remember because I only verbalize with a handful of people, including my immediate family, some extended family, and a few friends. At school and elsewhere, I have used nonverbal methods to communicate with my classmates, teachers, and strangers. While it has not been troublesome to use a whiteboard or the “Notes” app on my phone to share my thoughts, I have long felt somewhat left out or judged in social settings. I have wondered countless times how others perceive me—do they think I’m weird or unintelligent?—or how my life might be different if I did not have SM—would I be more popular? Would my family have more money? Would I be a completely different person? …
In October 2021, I attended a 3-day event in Philadelphia called CommuniCamp, hosted by the Selective Mutism (SMart) Center, where I received intensive SM-focused therapy and was able to experience being around other teens like me. I had never been to such a camp, and it truly opened my eyes to the fact that there are people who have been in my position before and overcome SM. I was further motivated to work towards overcoming SM when the founder and director of the SMart Center [Dr. E] personally congratulated me and called me a “rockstar” following the camp’s closing ceremony. Her positive comments to my family and me were instrumental in the next steps I took to share my voice. From that moment on, I understood that overcoming SM would not be for anybody else but me. All that mattered was how I would tune out any outside noise to fight this battle.
Shortly after CommuniCamp, I began working with a local therapist who specializes in treating SM. Since meeting with her, I have progressed significantly in speaking to others. I used to be held back by intrusive, anxious thoughts, but for the past year, I have focused on flipping those thoughts to positively build myself up. Now, my anxiety in social scenarios is a fraction of what it used to be. I am more prepared to face the unknown through my communication skills.”