This one time, at band camp …

I really did go to band camp. Twice, actually. This first time was in the summer of 1992 when I was 14. It wasn’t my idea and I really did not want to go. Spending several days with total strangers was not (and still isn’t) my idea of a good time, even if music is involved.

I spent two weeks living in a dorm at the University of Kansas where I didn’t know a soul. All I remember about my roommate was that she was from Falls City, Nebraska, and was in training for cross country. We didn’t exactly hit it off.

Fortunately, there were two girls in the room next door who befriended me and took me under their wing. Claire and Kate were best friends and both played double-reed instruments. I learned about Claire’s love for Billy Joel and the Carpenters, and Kate’s sister who had the exact same first, middle, and last name as my cousin. They showed me how they made their own reeds and let me tag along with them for the week. The following summer I went to a different band camp that my new friends invited me to attend with them.

Me at age 14 with my dog, Dixie

The friends-by-adoption strategy is how I’ve operated socially my entire life, whether it was with a neighbor child, someone I sat next to at circle time in kindergarten, or people in the room next door at band camp. Although I have had friends over the years, I never make the first move at developing a relationship with someone else, and I hardly ever invite anyone to do anything with me unless I know for sure that they will say yes.

Let’s fast forward a few decades. In 2014 I attended my first national convention as a piano technician. I was new to the profession and didn’t know anyone outside of a few people from my local chapter who I’d briefly met at a few monthly meetings. On one hand, it felt really good to be around other people who spoke the lingo and had an understanding of what I do. But on the other hand, it was like trying to join a club when I hadn’t been invited. No one was rude or anything, but many of the people there had known each other for decades and attend conventions just to hang out with their old friends and socialize, unlike me who didn’t know anyone and was there solely to learn.

Although I did learn a lot, I felt like an intruder the entire time I was at the convention. I skipped the formal dinner on the last day, even though the meal ticket was included with registration. I didn’t want to spend an entire evening trapped at a table seated between strangers making small talk. “So where are you from? How long have you been a piano technician? What made you decide to want to do this for a living?” No, thank you.

I’m sure most people have some anxiety about being in an unfamiliar surrounding where they don’t know anyone. From what I’ve observed, people who are good at socializing seem to overcome any anxiety they might have fairly quickly as they become comfortable in their surroundings. But for people like me, it’s not just anxiety, it’s paralyzing fear and it doesn’t usually go away very quickly, if ever.

I have never been able to approach someone I didn’t know and strike up a conversation, unless I had a specific purpose for doing so. For example, I attended a regional political training session a few weeks ago and one of the speakers offered to come train local groups individually. After the session was over, I approached him and asked him to come speak to the people in my county. I knew he was going to say yes because he had just offered to do exactly what I was going to ask of him. That I can do, but if there’s no certainty of a topic of conversation and I don’t have a specific reason to talk to someone, I cannot do that. And by that I don’t mean that I just can’t bring myself to do it psychologically, I mean I can’t do it physically.

The best way I can describe it is that it feels like the thoughts inside my head get tangled up with each other and I can’t formulate the necessary words. Any words I do come up with get stuck somewhere in my throat and I can’t force them out. All the while my tongue feels like a heavy, immobile object.

This inability to speak at certain times is called selective mutism, which occurs when someone is fully capable of speaking and understanding language, but is physically unable to speak in certain situations. For example, a person with selective mutism might be able to speak comfortably and freely at home or with people they know well, but is unable to do so in an unfamiliar or pressured social situation. Although not universal, selective mutism is common for people on the autism spectrum.

If you don’t understand what selective mutism is and why it occurs, it’s easy to assume that someone who doesn’t converse in a normal way is shy, socially awkward, rude, or maybe even a pretentious snob. In reality, while he or she might in fact be any or all of those things, the person having trouble getting the words out might also be fighting an inner turmoil that you know nothing about.

She understands that there’s no way you would know this unless she told you, but, of course, she can’t. All she asks is that you be slow to judge and quick to understand.