‘Selective Mutism’ (or SM) is a label that’s followed me around for over 18 years. SM is commonly defined as the ‘failure to speak in certain social situations’ and, to most people, this would appear to be the extent of the condition.
What most people don’t realise is that SM is a severe form of social anxiety and, without the correct help at a young age, this anxiety can lead to the sufferer developing panic attacks, other anxiety disorders and depression.
I suffered with SM between the ages of 2 and 14 and, during this time, I faced many situations that no child should have to deal with. A common misconception about SM is that people tend to believe that the sufferer is choosing not to speak when in fact, it’s the complete opposite. This misconception caused me many problems with teachers, particularly as I got older and started comprehensive school. Many teachers thought I was being deliberately insolent and trying to cause trouble when actually I physically couldn’t speak in school because my anxiety was so severe. Some of the teachers appeared to think that it was their job to try and make me speak, making my school life very difficult. I hated going to lessons, particularly maths, as my teacher would always single me out and make snide comments, even telling me when I was 14 not to bother turning up for the maths GCSE exams as I would never pass. Consequently, my schoolwork began to suffer.
Although my anxiety is still severe, I try not to let it affect my everyday life.
I faced bullying from all angles when I was in comprehensive school. I was bullied for several months by a girl a few years older than me, then for two years by a girl in my year. I also had comments made about me by some of the sixth formers. I did my best to just get on with what I was doing and to ignore what was happening but, as the bullying grew in intensity, this became impossible. There was one teacher, my head of year, who really looked out for me and she used to let me stay in her room through break times to escape the bullying. I don’t think I’d have lasted as long in that school had it not been for her. I also always had a great group of friends who used to look out for me. Unfortunately, their friendship wasn’t enough to stop the bullying and at the end of year 7, aged 12, I started having panic attacks. I don’t think that the bullying is the main reason why I started having them, however it certainly didn’t help. These panic attacks carried on for the next two years. Every day I would turn up at school and have to be taken in by my head of year because I was too anxious to walk in by myself. After two and a half years of constant bullying, snide comments from teachers and panic attacks, I couldn’t take anymore.
By the age of 14, I’d seen 11 different psychiatrists. Due to a lack of knowledge about SM, none of them really knew what to do to help me. In early 2008, aged 14, I was advised by the psychiatrist I was working with at the time not to move schools as it would only make my anxiety worse. By the time it got to April, I was at breaking point. One evening, after another day of panic attacks and bullying, I made the decision that I wanted to move schools. I spoke to my parents and we began to search for a new school on the internet. We found a much smaller, independent school which, on the surface appeared perfect. I knew though that the only way this plan was going to work was if I could go into the school on my visit and talk straight away, something I’d never done before. Somehow, I managed to do this and I started at my new school in May 2008. I managed to get my schoolwork back on track and gained good grades in my GCSEs. However, my battle with anxiety wasn’t over yet.
I faced bullying from all angles when I was in comprehensive school.
In December 2009, I started having panic attacks again, only this time they were much more severe. At my worst, I’d have up to 60 through the night. This went on in this intensity for 2 and a half years. I did my GCSEs, AS Levels and A Levels on less than 3 hours sleep a night. Although I managed to get through my GCSEs, it was a different story when I got to sixth form. My general anxiety got a lot worse and I ended up missing most of year 12 and 13 due to it. Consequently, I didn’t get the grades I wanted or needed in my exams and had to take a gap year in order to redo my A Levels. At this point, I didn’t believe that I’d get into university, despite that being my aim since I was very young. I knew there was no way I’d be able to move away due to my anxiety, so I was limited to only applying to the two local universities. Thankfully, I managed to get the grades I needed to go to my first choice university to study maths. When I spoke to one of the tutors on results day, he said that they were offering me a place not only because of my results, but also because of my determination to succeed.
I’ve currently just finished the first year of my maths degree, after being told 7 years ago that I wouldn’t pass the maths GCSE. Although my anxiety is still severe, I try not to let it affect my everyday life. Although I’m doing a degree in maths, my main aim in life is to use my experiences for something positive. I want to help raise the awareness of SM and also to help other people with mental health difficulties. From my own experiences, I’ve learned that, even in the darkest of times, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, you’ve just got to keep striving to reach it.