I am 23 and I was diagnosed with selective mutism (SM) 20 years ago.
If I’m somewhere new or unfamiliar with a large group of people, I may go hours, or even days at a time without saying a word. I sometimes require help with tasks such as making phone calls or attending appointments. Going out by myself in general is very anxiety-inducing, largely due to the worry that someone may talk to me unexpectedly.
When I was three, my mum worked on techniques with me at home to encourage me to speak, with support from professionals. Although there was underlying anxiety that remained constant throughout my early school life, this professional intervention was generally successful. I excelled in a number of subjects, I even took part in school plays. I mostly enjoyed life. Childhood social interactions are generally based on external things, such as games and toys, so SM wasn’t too much of an issue then and I made friends easily.
As adolescence approached, change in dynamics caused socialising to be near enough impossible. I became increasingly isolated and mainly only spoke to people online. I cracked and the anxiety took a grasp of me that I could not control. The new social pressures of entering adolescence were overpowering me. My childhood was fading and so was my voice and my SM was most severe at this time.
From this point, my school attendance became increasingly sporadic. I was hardly able to communicate with my peers and teachers. Most lunch and break times I hid myself away in the toilets in tears. Due to a build-up of the isolation, I developed severe depression in conjunction with my SM. This escalated after a terrible incident of humiliation and personal remarks from a teacher, caused by my inability to speak in lessons. I could not return to the school.
The next few months were a blur of counterproductive therapy sessions, with a lack of understanding from most professionals I saw. I was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Some hospital staff had not even heard of SM, let alone knowing how to provide appropriate help. Although the overall experience was pretty abysmal, seeing other people my age in the midst of mental illness first-hand helped me feel less alone with my own.
I managed to start at a different school at age 16. I was allowed to sit exams in a smaller room with extra time and rest-breaks. I was excused from high anxiety-inducing lessons, such as PE and drama, and given a quiet room to sit in at lunch and break. These adjustments got me through to obtain my GCSEs. Although I had negative experiences with teachers, I did have some who were incredibly understanding throughout my whole school experience, who would go out of their way to research SM in their own time, so they would know how to help make my school life more manageable for me. I cannot express what a difference this made.
Something that has been constant throughout has been my creativity. At age 18 I began attending watercolour and oil painting classes at a local education centre. They were small, relaxed and informal and I was gradually able to relax. With support from family members, I started to look into what would be required for me to attend university to study art. At the time, it seemed an impossibility as I had not done A Levels. However, 2014, I was offered a place at London Art College to study Fine Art Painting. In summer 2017, I completed my degree.
When I was in hospital at age 15 without an ounce of hope left in me, one of the nurses asked me “If you could be anywhere in five years, where would it be?” I responded in a quiet, helpless voice, “at art college”. I remember almost laughing to myself hopelessly at the sheer ridiculousness of that idea. But, lo and behold, there I was at Art College five years later.
Since graduating, I have received a lot of interest in my art. I was selected to take part in the Clyde & Co Art Award Programme and went on to win their Staff Vote Award. I have gained representation with an online gallery, where I sell my work. I have a place on a Masters course for Autumn 2018 with a bursary award. Recently, I was shortlisted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Although I often cannot believe the progress I have made, I still have times where I am entirely overwhelmed with anxiety and SM rears its head. However, these are gradually becoming more infrequent and less disruptive. I am proving to myself, and to others, that it is still possible to achieve things and live a life, despite the challenges I face. It is not my whole identity, it does not define me, it is just an element of me.
As I get older, I am learning to see the positives in my journey with SM. It has made me a more sensitive, empathetic, observant and caring individual, as well as helping drive me to produce more powerful art as my main form of communication. Although I’m much more able to talk now in general, I’m still sometimes described as “quiet”, however I now try not to see this as a negative thing. In reality, some of us are naturally more reserved and introverted. I still find it almost impossible to initiate conversations.
SM is not a choice. I can be a fun, daring, silly person. I enjoy roller coasters, swimming in the sea, going to concerts, exploring new places. I’m not the tense, uptight, dull person I may sometimes come across as when I’m anxious.
I feel nervous sharing my story, but I feel I owe it to my younger self, as well as those who are suffering currently. Now that I do have my voice more (or at least my computer keyboard for now!) I am determined to do what I can.
Selective Mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder which prevents those affected from speaking in certain situations, such as at school or in public. Find out more here.