Why I Didn't Talk in School
I greatly admired Carrie Fisher for her unabashed ownership of all that she was, for her honestly about her mental health, for her talent, her humor and for telling her truth. She was both an inspiration and a comfort. One of the unwavering affirmations I’ve felt from the praises for her has been how important it is to advocate and talk openly about mental illness. Over the past year I have been more accepting of a particular part of my story, greatly due to Carrie. I think now is a good time to share it.
I suffered/lived with/just simply had a sever anxiety disorder they now call Selective Mutism through most of my childhood. This co-existed with social anxiety, the effects of which I still live with today.
It basically meant that, for me, while I was perfectly able to speak I couldn’t in most public situations including church, shopping centres, doctors surgeries and school. Both to strangers and family and close friends in those public places.
I couldn’t speak even if it meant me getting into trouble. I couldn’t speak even when it would be less embarrassing to. I couldn’t speak even if it meant my schoolwork suffered. I couldn’t speak even when I was getting bullied. I couldn’t speak when I was constantly asked why I didn’t.
It was like a brick wall fortified across my throat and the words would try to get out but couldn’t pass the wall. That is how I described it to the last therapist I was treated by.
I went through many different therapies, some of which I can’t really remember. 3 stand out overall.
I went to Art Therapy, which was a room full of as many craft supplies as you can dream up. I would go in with a therapist and essentially be let loose for an hour. I think we kept it up for a while however I was far too concerned with what I was doing that I never really spoke back to the therapist. Ultimately, for fairly obvious reasons, it made its mark on me. But it wouldn’t make me speak.
I remember another treatment where I had to lie down and have my head massaged by a doctor. It was in a building attached to a private dentist and it was fancy af. I used to be so bored lying there and even at the age I was, 8 or so, I remember thinking that particular treatment was a waste of time. However it got me out of school early and my brother and I were allowed to eat the sugar cubes from the serving of tea my mum got, and so I never said I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I wasn’t a shy kid, I had an attitude and I could be pretty conniving at times. I often felt like I was treated like I didn’t want to speak. That I was refusing to. My ‘reward’ for speaking at school was a trip to Disneyland Paris. I remember so many times adults would say, frustrated and almost angry, that if I just said one word I would be able to go. Would I ever be able to say one word? No, I felt 10 times worse then. I wished in those situations just to run away. It was all that I knew. I didn’t know I had an anxiety disorder. I knew I wasn’t the same as the other kids but I wasn’t the one making me different. I only knew what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.
The last therapist I went to focused on Speech and Language therapy and was and writing a book on Selective Mutism. I worked with her over a number of years. These years were the last I spent in Primary school. The steps were so small I didn’t even realize they were steps. I remember exercises like recording the stories I’d written on tape recorders and having them played to my teacher, then a small group of friends and then eventually one to the whole class. It was a story about a hedgehog. I had called her Helen (my best friend had named her hedgehog Hannah). I went bright red and my heart beat so fast and the kids intermittedly turned around to look at me. My best friend held on to me the whole time. I went from speaking to my mum in school grounds, to a few group of friends, to other school children, to answering the phone at my house (I hated this and still hate this), to talking to my teacher in the classroom. I was just short of answering the register out loud.
By the time we were coming to the end of my treatment we had found out I hadn’t been admitted to my local secondary school. I was going to a school 30 minutes away where I didn’t know anyone. Leaving behind my friends who had taken time to help me in my recovery, even though none of us really understood it, was really daunting.
As I came out of therapy I enrolled in drama school to continue social development and build confidence. I found I liked playing a character. I do it still now: to answer the phone, leave a voicemail or ask for directions.
I don’t think I can say all the ways surviving 11 years of this disorder has effected me, but I can say undoubtedly that it has. I still struggle. I struggle through. Looking back I can see the path that lead me to today.
Drama school lead me to theatre. Theatre lead me to story telling. I found art as a way to express myself when I couldn’t find the words. I could communicate without speaking.
I know I am able to face things. I know that I have to face things to function, to achieve that which I long to do. I know its ok. I know I don’t have to be embarrassed of my childhood.
I performed on stage at the age of 13. I started at secondary school when I was 11. I was quiet and awkward but I answered the register.
We went to Disneyland the next year.