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Making a difference Navigating Social Anxiety Fighting Through Fear

Everyone is afraid of something. We all have fears: a fear of the dark, a fear of heights, or even a fear of the unknown can make leading an otherwise normal life difficult.

But what if you were afraid of other people? What if you were overcome with paralyzing terror and even pushed to the brink of sickness each time you talked with another person—even though you wanted more than anything to be with, and enjoy, the company of that person?

Meet Jonathan Kohlmeier. The words above describe his personal story. In his memoir, Learning to Play the Game: My Journey through Silence, Kohlmeier shares his experiences with selective mutism—an extreme form of social anxiety. Hi recalls being so afraid that he could barely speak outside of the home. His story of struggle turns to triumph as he is eventually able to join the debate team in high school and later attend Babson College.

Kohlmeier tells LaTEEN readers more about his journey, his book, and life today.

Tell us about your childhood—where you grew up and what you were like as a kid/teen?
JK I grew up about an hour north of New York City. Before I started to school I was a pretty normal kid; just a little shy sometimes. In Kindergarten, my family noticed an issue. I would go into the building and couldn’t speak to anyone. It was like my lips were glued shut. I would go into my classroom and stand right next to the door by the light switch. I wouldn’t eat, speak,
drink, participate, or use the bathroom at school. I was so anxious that I was basically paralyzed from fear.

What made you decide to write a book about social anxiety—and what exactly IS social anxiety?
JK Social anxiety is basically an extreme fear of being judged by other people which leads to an avoidance of some social interactions. I wanted the book to help spread the word about the importance of mental health and show it from a teenager’s perspective. When I was going through tough times, it helped to know that other people were going through similar things and have felt the same way.

What advice do you have for a teen who is hesitant to see a therapist?
JK If you thought you broke your leg you probably wouldn’t think twice about going to see a doctor.
Just go, what’s there to lose? And if you don’t like the first therapist you go to, look for another one until you find someone you make a connection with.

What has college been like for you, and how did you balance schoolwork with writing your book?
JK It was difficult to manage writing and schoolwork, but it was something that I was set on finishing. Since I was so passionate about it, the frustration wasn’t really a big deal. I thought college would be very tough for me emotionally, but I was able to find a small group of friends who I became close with and it made it easier to stick through everything.

How did your personal experiences make you emotionally stronger?
JK I think my experiences when I was younger and still today make me more empathetic towards other people. It was a difficult journey but I’m glad I went through it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I hope that someone will be able to get something from my story whether its kids, teens, parents, teachers, or doctors. If I can help one person, it’ll be enough. I’m working on spreading the word about my book and trying to help as many people as I can.

What message do you want young readers to take away from your personal story?
JK I think my number one message to readers is persistence. Don’t let anyone make decisions for you. Don’t take the first answer you get as set in stone. Keep going. Keep asking questions. Keep trying.

Who, or what, inspires and motivates you on a daily basis?
JK Music helps to inspire and motivate me. It helps to calm me down and allows me to center myself. It’s not even about a specific kind of music. It’s whatever you think sounds right and makes you feel good. I also have a collection of quotes that I keep to help motivate me. They’re just sayings or facts about life that help me make sense of everything.

You can find Jonathan Kohlmeier’s book on
For more info, visit:


For general info about mental health:
1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or
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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Call 800-273-TALK (8255)

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