Every morning I catch the bus to work. I smile and chat with various familiar faces I see every day. We talk about all kinds – the weather, history, family trees, days out, holidays. When I arrive at work I wave, smile, laugh, gossip, chat about anything and everything. That’s before I’ve even taken my coat off. Rewind my life, however, and you would see a very different person. So allow me to tell you a story. This story begins not with once upon a time, for it is not that kind of story, but rather, it begins with one very gloomy morning in December 1989. The day was just as you would expect any day in December to be, dark and cold and bleak.
In a classroom, the teacher was pointing to various things you might see on a farm and picked children to tell her what those things were. When she pointed to a tractor she asked a little four year old girl what it was. The little girl was unable to reply, frozen with utter terror. The teacher told her to stand up. She trembled as she rose to her feet and again the teacher pointed to the tractor and asked her what it was, feeling terribly awkward and embarrassed, she started to breathe faster, she felt hot and cold all over at the same time and started to sweat and feel faint and dizzy. Her heart was pounding in her chest so much that she felt like she could hear her own heartbeat. Her stomach churned as she felt that knot of fear winding itself tighter and tighter into a ball in her stomach as she trembled.
The teacher repeated the question slower as if she couldn’t hear her or didn’t understand. The little girl’s classmates started to whisper behind their hands, “Why doesn’t she just answer the question?” Other children began to giggle behind their hands. The little girl blinked back tears and swallowed the horrible ball of shame that was stuck in her throat. The teacher glanced at the other children and let out a disappointed sigh before sending her to play with a puzzle on the other side of the classroom away from the rest of the class. After setting the children work to do, the teacher sat next to the little girl and asked if she knew the answer to the question. The little girl simply nodded. “And will you tell me what it was?” she asked. “A tractor” the little girl whispered, just loud enough for her teacher to hear.
When the school day was over and it was time to go home, the little girl shivered as she stepped out of the classroom and into the chilly playground. She peered at the faces of parents waiting for their children until she found the familiar smiles of her own mother and father. The little girl wore a thick hand-knitted red cardigan, a white shirt, a red and silver tie, a grey skirt and long white socks pulled over her knees with shiny black buckled shoes on her feet. She paused briefly to fumble with the toggles on her red coat. Her mother often put her curly dark brown hair in pigtails and tied red ribbons in her hair to match her school uniform. It was on this gloomy afternoon that the teacher came running out of the classroom, her eyes blazing with excitement. The other parents turned to stare at her as she ran toward the little girl’s parents. “She spoke to me!” She cried out in sheer delight. “She spoke to me!”
This little girl was not quite like other children. She didn’t speak. Oh, she was more than capable of speaking, but for the first three months after starting school at the age of four, the little girl had not spoken a single word to anyone. Not even the tiniest sound escaped her lips. Her teacher’s reaction to her uttering a single word was often echoed by others throughout the little girl’s childhood and adolescence and even into her adulthood. This little girl had Selective Mutism. This little girl was me.
I was perfectly capable of talking, sometimes excessively, at home, but in certain situations or around certain people where I felt uncomfortable, I would become silent, unable to utter a single word. Selective Mutism is basically a fear of talking. The fear of talking outweighs the desire to talk and so renders the sufferer silent. I had an overwhelming desire to talk to others, but often to my distress, fear imprisoned my voice and the words in my head would not come out no matter how hard I tried. Selective Mutism is never, ever a choice. For many people talking comes as naturally as breathing. Words flow off their tongue like the endless stream of water in a river. The concept of silence is as alien to them as talking once was for me. My silence meant that I was unable to express myself. My thoughts, opinions and feelings were suppressed. Inside the private confinements of my mind I could be talking at a million miles an hour, yet not one word ever escaped my lips. I could be silently screaming, shouting, laughing and crying, full to overflowing with emotions, but no one ever noticed for all they could see was a silent, emotionless girl.
I envied people who could talk as freely as they desired for they had no idea what it was like to be trapped inside yourself, bound to silence against your will. I desperately wanted to be part of the activities at school, whether it be sports, the national eisteddfod or class discussions. I often had a lot that I wanted to say and I knew that I could contribute hugely but fear overwhelmed me and the teachers decided I was being defiant, attention-seeking and a reluctant student.
One day, when I was seven years old, my teacher asked a question about rainbows and expected the children to write the answer in their exercise book and then bring the book to her so she could see all of the children’s answers. I carefully wrote my answer and lined up to show my teacher. When it was my turn I handed my book over. My heart sank as the teacher’s face wrinkled in frustration. “This is not the answer, silly girl!” I shrank as my teacher’s eyes fixed upon me with a piercing stare. “What is the correct answer?” I was unable to utter a sound and stood frozen to the spot, hardly able to breathe. “Speak to me!” my teacher demanded, the children in classroom stopped to watch, some with mouths wide open. Unable to get any answer from me, she sent me to stand in the naughty corner. “Think about what you have done,” she scolded, “You can stay there until you are prepared to tell me the correct answer!”
I felt tears on my cheeks and hated myself with all my might for being unable to answer. At dinnertime the teacher sent me to wash my hands. My friends stood near the sink glaring at me. I looked away and tried to concentrate on washing my hands. One of my friends raised her hand to another friend’s ear and whispered “She’s not our friend anymore, we don’t play with naughty girls.” I spent the next few weeks alone in the playground, often pacing around a quiet little courtyard that the other children never really bothered with. And those friends never played with me again.
Even as a teenager I faced teachers unwilling to understand. One afternoon, my form tutor was taking the register. “Okay people, settle down.” For such a small person, my form tutor had a loud voice. The din in the classroom gradually became quiet. My form tutor flipped open her register, clicked her pen and began to call out names.
“Here” I replied when she called out my name. This was normally the only word I would say all day at school. The form tutor called my name again. I cleared my throat and tried again, “Here Miss.” That was a bit louder.
Irritated, my form tutor clicked her tongue and looked up from the register. She peered around the class until her eyes finally connected with mine. Her face was like thunder. Her voice boomed around the classroom. “When I call your name you should answer instead of just sitting there. I shouldn’t have to look up from the register to see if you are here. SPEAK. LOUDER!”
I looked down at my hands. My heart was hammering in my chest.
“DON’T YOU DARE LOOK AWAY FROM ME WHEN I AM TALKING TO YOU, YOUNG LADY!”
I flinched and looked back up. My form tutor’s face was threatening to turn purple, her eyes were flashing dangerously.
I sat frozen and trembling as the teacher continued to call out names. I looked down at my hands again so that no one could see my eyes pooling with tears. I burned with shame.
Not all of my teachers were like this, however. My Science teacher would call me “Smiler” because he said I was always smiling. My Geography teacher told my parents that among all the quacking ducks bobbing around her classroom, I was the graceful swan, and my Geology teacher somehow always seemed to know when I knew the answer to a question even though I never once stuck my hand up.
My Geology teacher always wore a purple jumper over his shirt and tie. He was hands down one of my favourite teachers. On my first day studying A Level Geology, I discovered that I was the only girl studying the subject. Feeling slightly intimidated by the boisterous boys sitting at the back of the classroom, I chose a seat nearer to the front and sat as quietly as I could so I didn’t draw attention to myself. My Geology teacher arrived like a steam train barging through the classroom door. He started our first lesson by asking a question. “What is Geology?” One lad, The Brain, shouted, “You’re the Geology teacher, sir, not us.” The teacher held his hand up, “That’ll do.” He tried to continue with the lesson but he was interrupted by The Brain. “That’ll do, Pig.” Snigger, snigger, ha-dee-ha-ha. The teacher sighed and shook his head slightly at The Brain’s reference to Dick King Smith.
He called each of us up to the white board in turn. We had to write one word to describe what we thought Geology was about. Slowly the board filled with words like rocks, stones, volcanoes, lava, dinosaurs and fossils. I was the last to be called up. I had no idea what to write, all of my ideas were already written on the board, so I wrote the first thing that popped into my head. I wrote “The Earth” and handed the marker pen to the teacher who took it with a small smile on his face. “No one wrote a wrong answer but only one of you had the answer that I was looking for.” He drew a big circle around my answer. “Geology is also known as Earth Sciences. ‘Geo’ meaning Earth. ‘Ology’ meaning Science. Geology is the study of the Earth.” My Geology teacher smiled at me then he asked another question. “When was the Earth first formed?” We each took it in turns to write a number on the board. I thought I knew the answer. I remembered reading it in Dinosaur Magazine that I’d collected every fortnight for months when I was younger. One person wrote 2,000 years old, another wrote 15,000 years old. The Brain wrote 16 years old. He obviously believed the world revolved around him. I wrote 3.4 billion years old and handed the marker pen back to my teacher. He smiled but shook his head. I’d got it wrong and yet I was sure I’d been right. “The Earth is 4.54 billion years old.” But then he circled my answer. “The first life forms appeared on Earth 3.4 billion years ago.” Damn, but at least I’d shown potential.
Handing out text books, the teacher asked the class to write a short introduction to Geology. What the subject is about, its age, its formation. The Brain took this as a cue to start mucking about at the back of the classroom. “Hey, Jenny.” It was The Brain. I froze, my heart plummeted and I could feel myself breathing faster, I knew he was going to poke fun at me. Why couldn’t he just do his work and leave me alone? I thought as I looked behind, warily. “What did you do over the summer?” I gulped and gritted my teeth as I turned back to my work and hung my head. I stayed as still as a statue and stared at the words in the text book without really reading them. He knew I wouldn’t say anything. Why did he have to be an ass about it and humiliate me? The Brain moved over to my table. “Sorry, I didn’t quite hear you. Do you know, it’s rude not to answer people when they ask you a question!” A chorus of snorts and sniggers erupted all around me.“Have you made any notes yet?” My teacher swooped on The Brain. “Or have you just spent the last ten minutes of my class being a cabbage?” The Brain moved back to his table at the back of the classroom and grudgingly picked up his pen, I was surprised he even knew how to use one.
As I got older I felt increasingly more isolated. I desperately wanted to feel accepted, but as a teenager I was alienated, my classmates simply didn’t see the point in trying to talk to someone who wouldn’t talk back. Everyone knew I could speak but they couldn’t understand why I didn’t speak. “Why don’t you speak?” One girl in my year asked me during break time in the corridor outside the Art Studios. What was I supposed to do when people asked me, “Why don’t you speak?” Like as if they genuinely expected me to answer them. “Just say something.” She demanded. I looked away as I edged slowly back to get away from her, she mimicked my movements by edging toward me. I could feel her critical and insensitive gaze boring a hole into me. I knew that to look into her eyes was have that dark seed of self-hatred planted within myself and feel it spread and bloom. “Say one word.” I shook my head. “Why not?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Do you think you are better than us? Is that why you won’t speak, because we’re not good enough for you?” My back found the wall. I was trapped in a corner. “Does your voice only work at certain times of the day?” I shook my head. “Are you doing some kind of weird sponsored silence?” I shook my head. “What’s up then, cat got your tongue?” The bell rang and I breathed a sigh of relief as she turned back to her friends with a smirk after calling me a bitch.
There was a gang of boys that seemed to enjoy targeting me, pushing me over in the corridor, tripping me up on the stairs. One of the boy’s favourite things to do was swagger right up to me, put his face near mine and shout, “SPEAK!” Another mate of his made a beeline for me outside the computer rooms one day. Pushing me back into some filing cabinets, he trapped me in a corner of the corridor and demanded that I speak to him. “Say something, anything, I don’t care what it is.” I looked at him like a deer trapped in headlights. “Just speak, it’s not hard.” I gulped, wondering how to escape. “Do you only work if we stick a coin in you or something?” His mates laughed. Egged on by how hilarious his cronies found the situation, he continued, this time with sarcasm, “Oh my God, will you just shut up! Give someone else a chance to speak will you.” I remained silent and weathered the humiliation.
The worst though, was The Brain and his mates. One day during a GCSE Maths class, The Brain was messing around as usual. I was working on equations, taking no notice, focusing on getting my work done. Suddenly a scrunched up piece of paper flew across the classroom and hit me right on the forehead. The classroom erupted into laughter. The Brain pointed at me, laughing to the point of tears, clutching his sides as he doubled up. “Did that hurt?” The Brain shouted over to me. I glared at him and then carried on with my work. “Oi, mute, I’m speaking to you!” He was sneering at me. I glanced around to see the entire class sniggering and staring at me. My maths teacher had his head buried in a text book. “Oh my God, you’re such a freak!” The class erupted into laughter once more. What was I supposed to do when people pointed at me and called me a freak simply because I could not speak? The sad truth was I usually never did anything at all. My silence prevented me from defending myself against the bullies. I wished I could retaliate against people’s rudeness, tell them to mind their own business. But of course, I couldn’t. My fear of talking held a vice-like grip on my throat. On the odd occasion when I did manage to get a word out the response from the other children was one of shock and excitement and “Oh my God, she spoke, did you hear her speak!” I was ridiculed and found myself to be easy prey for the bullies.
Others would take advantage of me because I couldn’t speak out or stand up for myself. In time people gave up trying to talk to me, choosing to ignore me instead. Within a couple of weeks of starting school at the age of eleven, I had earned myself the title of The-Girl-Who-Doesn’t-Speak.
Physical Ed – double period, always before dinner. I hated PE. Sports were humiliating for me, the teachers often sent me to bat the ball against a wall when the class was playing tennis which of course only served to reaffirm that I was different. I was always picked last for teams, without fail. After PE the other girls would often dump their bags on me to drag back to our classroom while they all went off to get their dinners. They knew I couldn’t stand up for myself and say no.
One day, we were all spread out on the tennis courts, the other girls were chatting and gossiping. I stood alone, silent. The PE teacher blew her whistle and we huddled closer to her. She had perfect shoulder length brown hair and wore glasses. She had wrinkles around her eyes and carefully applied make-up. She didn’t look like a PE teacher. I thought PE teachers were supposed to be butch and sweaty with frizzy hair pulled back in a ponytail. She had two piles of vests in baskets on the ground and a ball under her arm. We were going to be playing netball. Of all the sports I despised, netball was top of the list. The teacher picked out two girls. One girl from my house, Mars. And another girl from Jupiter house. She explained that instead of playing in house teams she wanted to promote inter-house relationships so she asked Blue Team Captain and Red Team Captain to pick team mates. I ended up being picked last. Surprise, surprise. I grabbed the last blue vest. It was ripped so it wouldn’t fasten on the side. It flapped furiously in the wind like it wanted to escape. Perhaps it hated PE too. We got into position and the whistle blew. Girls dodged and lunged and waved their arms in the air, side-stepping, pivoting and jumping, trying to take or keep possession of the ball. I cowered and tried to be invisible. It didn’t work. A Blue shot the ball toward me. It hit me squarely on the chest and I only just managed to catch it in time. I froze. I was suddenly surrounded. The Reds moved in like predators while my team started jumping up and down and flailing their arms about, shouting at me to throw the ball to them. I didn’t know which Blue to throw the ball to so I chose the Blue closest to me. I looked at her pointedly and I pushed the ball away from my chest and into the air in her direction but a Red stepped in front of her and now the Reds owned the ball.
“Why did you throw the ball to the Reds?”
“She threw the ball to them!”
“What did you do that for?”
“Why don’t you speak?”
“Hello? Anyone home? Knock, knock, knock!”
“Are you stupid or something?”
“Do… You… Speak… English?”
A whistle blew and our PE teacher swooped in. “Girls, get back to the game.”
The Reds were standing on the opposite side of the court watching the Blues turn on me. They just scored. The Blues stared me down as they backed away to the centre of the court. My whole body felt numb and flushed with heat. I remembered to breathe again but I couldn’t get enough air. I breathed faster and deeper, chest heaving. My vision went slightly hazy.
“You, back into position.” My teacher commanded, pointing at me.
On my first day back to school as a Sixth Former, I could feel the familiar knot of fear in my stomach as I got dressed. Studying myself in the mirror as I brushed my hair I decided that, at the very least, I looked okay. My make-up was simple in natural shades, nothing over the top. I hated attracting any sort of attention, good or bad, so I decided to stick with a more natural look.
Scrutinizing myself some more, I adjusted my black blouse. It had a pretty little ruffle on the front. I was relieved that I no longer had to wear the awful maroon coloured uniform that the younger students had to wear.
I stopped fiddling with my blouse and thought back to August when I found out what grades I had achieved in my GCSEs. Many of my teachers had been convinced that I would not do well because I simply didn’t talk. My school reports were full of comments from my teachers such as, “Jenny will never get far in life because she doesn’t communicate”, “She will never achieve her full potential because she doesn’t talk”, “I have tried to get her to communicate but she refuses to cooperate so there is nothing more I can do”. I had believed them. I was convinced I’d failed to get good enough grades to get into Sixth Form. Luckily I did okay, and that meant that I could go on to study for my A Levels. And now I was going to prove all my teachers wrong and show them that I could achieve. I pulled my dark brown hair into a pony tail and looked myself straight in the eyes. People often commented on my eyes. They were big, like a Disney character. One girl in school even commented that my eyes were colour of a tropical lagoon. I had liked that, although my cheeks had gone red like a traffic light, I swore I could’ve halted traffic with my face. I was pretty sure that the girl was just trying to be nice but I appreciated the compliment nevertheless considering that for the majority of the time people ignored me. I felt very much alone, often like a ghost, like people couldn’t see me, until, very rarely, someone would look at me and smile and say hello. That small acknowledgement would make my heart swell and give me hope that maybe one day things might change, it reminded me that I wasn’t invisible. I felt very different to everybody else. I desperately wanted to fit in and be just like the popular girls who everyone seemed to love. I would often dream of a day when I would miraculously start to talk and everyone in school would be astounded by my new found confidence. Suddenly all the girls would want to be my friend, the boys would want to date me, the teachers would think I was fabulous, everyone would laugh at my jokes and I’d live happily ever after. Giving myself a stern look, I took a deep breath. “Okay, this is a new start, you’re older now, you’re in Sixth Form, you aren’t a little kid anymore, you can do this, you HAVE to speak, you WILL speak!”
Every year for as long as I could remember, I would make a wish, say a prayer, give myself pep talks and promise myself that I WOULD speak. Every birthday I made the same wish as I blew out the candles on my birthday cake, “I wish I could speak!” Every shooting star I saw I would close my eyes and repeat over in my head, “I wish I could speak!” Every coin I tossed into a wishing well was sent to the watery depths with the words, “I wish I could speak!” When I visited the Trefi Fountain in Rome, I turned my back, threw my coin over my shoulder and uttered the wish I had been making for years, “I wish I could speak!” At the wishing well in Disneyland outside Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, I peered into the well, dropped my coin and watched it disappear as a little echo repeated the familiar wish, “I wish I could speak!” Every year I would break those promises, the wishes never came true and the prayers always went unanswered. The fear of talking would consume me, I was the Girl-Who-Did-Not-Speak, and slowly I became filled with self-loathing.
At break times my high school swarmed with students. They all came in pairs or packs. Even the teachers moved around in pairs. I remember my very first day at high school. I had prayed. I prayed for a friend. Just one friend. I told God that I didn’t mind whether my friend had short hair, long hair, what colour their eyes were, whether my friend was a he or a she, if they were tall or short. I told God that I didn’t even care if they slept in a coffin and drank blood at night. I don’t know if God heard me, but I do know that one day when my father and I were looking at the books in the local bookshop, my Dad spotted a book written by JK Rowling. It was my Dad who suggested buying it, “Give it a go, it might be good.” And so, Harry Potter entered my life. I would spend my break times alone most of the time, sat in some quiet corner of the school reading my Harry Potter books. The Harry Potter books meant the world to me, they were my means of escape. The corridors of my school would melt away to be replaced by the corridors of Hogwarts and for just a little a while I could pretend I was some place else. Harry, Ron and Hermione often felt like my only friends, they were there for me when no one else was. But I did have one other friend, her name was Sophie. I was 10 when we brought her home. She was just a tiny kitten with cotton soft, long white fur, a pink nose and the cutest pink toe beans. And she was my best friend. She was always there when I came home from school, to sit with me, comfort me and play with me. I was devastated when she passed away at the age of fourteen. My childhood best friend was gone, and I’d never be able to cuddle her again like I used to when I came from school with eyes filled with tears because of one bully or another.
Once some of my classmates said, “Come and hang out with us, Jenny!” I was so happy that someone had noticed me and wanted to include me. I hadn’t had any dinner so they said they would wait while I grabbed a sandwich from the Snack Bar. They stood over by the stairs as I joined the queue. I turned to see them chatting and laughing and I smiled, it was nice to have some people to be around, instead of being on my own. As I got to the front of the queue, I picked my sandwich and a drink, handed over the money and when I turned to join the others, they had gone. I looked around me, and peered up the corridor, but I couldn’t see them. I thought maybe they would come back for me, so I sat down and waited. After a few minutes I opened my sandwich and took a bite. That’s when I noticed some faces spying on me around a corner. I could hear giggling and shushing as the faces quickly disappeared. They ran off. They never did come back for me.
At the age of 15, I started dating my first boyfriend. He was persistent and refused to take no for an answer when he asked me out. When I say no for an answer, I mean I shook my head. I eventually relented and we started dating, but I didn’t speak to my boyfriend at all for the first two months. I communicated with him by writing letters and we would have whole conversations written in notebooks. He even taught me sign language so that we could communicate. Then one night, New Year’s Eve to be precise, my fear of talking around him suddenly disappeared. Just like that. One minute I was terrified of speaking to him and then the next minute he couldn’t shut me up. He never even reacted to my sudden talkativeness. He acted like I had always been speaking to him. I respected him for that. Normally the slightest sound from my mouth warranted an uproar. People in school would ask him if I ever spoke to him, if he’d ever even heard me speak. He would tell them that I never stopped talking and that he couldn’t shut me up. They were amazed by that and baffled, some of them had never heard me utter a single word and they couldn’t understand why I could talk to my boyfriend but not talk to them.
One memory I won’t forget though, was dinnertime on my first day at high school, aged eleven, I followed the throng of students pouring into the canteen as my tummy rumbled an impatient growl. The canteen was not as big as it should be for the amount of students that were trying to fit inside it. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and I was elbowed twice. The guy in front of me ordered a burger with chips and gravy, a milkshake and a chocolate cake. He got extra large helpings of everything. The Dinner Lady must’ve really liked him. She turned to look at me expectantly as she roughly grabbed a white plate and waited to fill it with my order. I tried to clear my throat. The dinner lady rolled her eyes impatiently. “Chips and gravy.” I managed to splutter. I didn’t get extra large helpings. In fact I think I got extra less. I slid my tray along and managed to get a carton of milk and an oat biscuit.
When I got to the till the dinner lady added up the total and waited with her hand outstretched for the money. It was only then I realised I’d left my money at home. I opened my mouth and closed it again and gulped. Thankfully the dinner lady was lovely and seemed to understand. “I’ll put it down as a free school meal, just this once.” She said kindly with a warm smile. I turned to face tables filled with people and spied a table with only two occupants and decided to make for it. The two girls watched as I dropped into a chair opposite them and slide my tray on to the table. Neither of them took their eyes off me. “I’m Hannah. This is Hannah too. What’s your name?” They both had blonde hair. They both had blue eyes. They were eating the same food. They had the exact same school bags on the chairs either side of them. I simply smiled back in reply. They even had the same hair clip. They both had very similar coats in grey. “What house are you in?” They reached for their drinks at the same time. I couldn’t reply to tell them I was in Mars house, and instead grabbed my carton of milk. They seemed not to care. “I’m in Neptune.” I looked at the other Hannah expecting her to say that she was in Neptune too. “I’m in Pluto.” WOW. I pulled on the corner of my milk carton. It wouldn’t open. I tugged harder and suddenly my hand rammed into the edge of my tray. The tray flipped into the air. Chips and gravy flew over my head. My oat biscuit flopped to the floor. The white plate smashed into pieces on the floor behind me. I sat rooted to the spot still holding my carton of milk as the whole canteen went silent and heads snapped in my direction. The two Hannahs stared at me with their mouths open. My heart hammered in my chest, I held my breath. The roar started slowly and quietly. As more people started to join in the noise in the canteen grew deafening. Everyone was banging on the tables, stamping their feet, clapping and cheering. I knocked the table as I jumped to my feet and fled from the canteen with my ears ringing. I forgot that there were five steps leading up to the canteen, my foot found nothing but air, my eyes widened in shock and I found myself slipping down the stairs. My butt made friends with the bottom step.
This is not a story about survival. Living with Selective Mutism is about fighting. It’s about digging deeper than you ever thought you could and finding strength you didn’t even realise you had, it’s finding courage and building it up day by day, it’s earning your bravery, it’s standing strong in the face of adversity and ultimately becoming stronger for it, it’s facing your fears and saying “NO, I will not give up, I will not give in!” It’s about determination to prove everyone wrong, and the willpower to free your voice and show everyone the person you are inside.
When I left school, I had gained nine GCSEs, two keyskills qualifications in IT and Maths, and I had seven A Levels. I went to university and graduated with a 2.1 honours degree in Religion & Theology. I achieved all of that, despite my Selective Mutism, and I proved my teachers wrong.
I am now almost 33 years old and I work in a Museum. My job requires me to teach Ancient Roman history to groups of up to 30 visitors for an hour and a half twice a day, which means I speak non-stop for a total of three hours a day to potentially 60 people. Or if you look at it another way, I speak non-stop for 15 hours, weekly, to potentially 300 people, or 60 hours, monthly, to 1200 people. I have worked at the museum for almost four years now which means, so far, I have taught 57,000 people about the Ancient Romans. Not bad for someone who was once too terrified to utter a single word. Strangely I feel no fear of talking when I am standing in front of my groups at the museum. I overcame my Selective Mutism without any professional help or medication. Just sheer determination and will power.
And so next week, I will catch the bus to work as I have done for almost four years. I will take my place next to a Roman ship and turn to face thirty people I’ve never seen before and as the entrance door closes and a hush descends, I will smile at the unfamiliar faces and my voice with ring out clear and confident, “Welcome to Dewa Roman Experience. My name is Jenny.” Those people will listen as I talk about Roman food and how Romans bathed and they won’t realise how far I’ve come, or how hard I fought to utter a single word and the long journey to free my voice.
Now, if you are reading this and you are struggling with Selective Mutism then I can tell you that it won’t always be like this. I overcame my Selective Mutism. You can too. Have courage and be brave. “Courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Never stop fighting. Never stop believing in yourself. Never stop wishing. Every word you manage to speak is a triumph. Every time you manage to speak you win. Don’t stop trying. You can do it, you can, I know you can because I’ve been there, I know what it’s like. It might seem impossible right now and it might seem too difficult but you can overcome this. And if you are feeling different or weird just remember, the world would be a boring place if we were all the same. “No one has the right to make you feel inferior without your consent.” A great lady once said that. If you feel like you don’t belong or don’t fit in, you do, I promise you do. You are not alone. Find the determination, find the strength, and don’t give up hope. “Hope is that quiet little voice at the end of the day saying, ‘Let’s try again tomorrow’.” And when you overcome your Selective Mutism, just like I have, pass this message on and tell your story.
I didn’t find out about Selective Mutism until I was 18. Until then I had no idea why I was different to everyone else. I knew it was more than shyness. I searched and searched for anything that resembled me. I would search bookshops and libraries and never found any books, novels or information. No one seemed to be like me, I felt so lonely that I was the only one who couldn’t speak. When I was 18, my Dad came home with an article on Selective Mutism ripped out of a magazine that he read. He showed it to my Mum first. They both knew instantly that the article was describing me exactly. I was in my bedroom doing homework when my Mum showed me the article. Finally, I had a name for what I was experiencing.
From then on, I have found various novels and books on Selective Mutism that weren’t available when I was younger. I wish I’d had those novels and books and articles when I was younger. I would’ve been able to explain to people why I couldn’t speak, I might’ve been supported more in school by the teachers, things might have been different. I found lots of people who also had Selective Mutism and shared similar experiences and I realised I wasn’t really alone, I wasn’t the only one in the world who couldn’t speak, there were others exactly like me. I felt relief, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Like for the first time I belonged, I did fit in, there was a whole community out there that knew what I was going through. What I try to do now is share my experience and spread the word, create awareness, and try to describe Selective Mutism as accurately as I can to help others and let people with SM know that they are not alone, I know exactly what they are going through. Luckily there is much more support and information now for people with SM than there was for me when I was younger. So I guess, my younger self would have been relieved to read something like this and know that I wasn’t alone.
©Jennifer Anne & SMIRA 2018