Silence Is Not Always Golden

My Selective Mutism Story

Nicole Van Zyl

Copyright 2017 by Nicole Van Zyl
Photo of a worried child.

One day in class when I was in grade 3, we had to read to our teacher. When it was my turn to read, I stood next to her and read from the book we were given, very softly. Everyone in class couldn't believe it. "Wow, she's talking!" they said. Now you might ask, whats the big deal with that? Well, what if I told you that I had Selective Mutism?

Selective Mutism is a severe form of anxiety disorder when the person finds it difficult to talk in certain social settings. It was once thought to be rare but now it is believed to be more common than previously thought. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 1000 children have it and it can also last until well into adulthood. People just assume that it's shyness, but it is not even related to shyness. Some people think that Selective Mutism is related to trauma, but studies have shown that children or adults with SM have not been traumatised in any way.

Before I get to my story, I would like to point out that people with Selective Mutism are not disabled. People have called me disabled, often when I am sitting right there, and it does hurt. I can hear and understand just as well as the next person, so you can talk to me. Don't assume that I'm disabled because I don't talk. I can talk, I just have a social anxiety disorder that makes talking extremely difficult. I will find my own way of communicating.

Also don't nag a person with SM to talk, it can make things so much worse. Just give them time and they will talk when they are ready. People with SM just need you to understand them and support them, and love them for who they are.

This article is not about me feeling sorry for myself and it's not to look for sympathy. (I don't want that) I wrote this article to create awareness about SM so that we can be more understanding about people who have this disorder.

I was a very talkative child at home, a real chattabox (in fact, my late grandfather used to call me chattabox, and that is something that I miss). I guess you can say that I was shy but I don't think I was shy enough to not talk to anyone at school. I would still play and interact with my friends without talking. I would speak only when spoken to, usually just to the teachers. Luckily I had teachers who understood me and they wouldn't force me to answer a question in front of the whole class if I was uncomfortable. They would sometimes call me up to their desk to answer the question just to them, which I would do softly. For this,I will always be grateful to them.

I think I did have a fear of talking. I was always scared of saying the wrong thing and getting in trouble. It felt as if the words would literally get stuck in my throat and no matter how I tried to talk, they wouldn't come out. I had a fear of letting people hear my voice. I was afraid that if I spoke, it would be a huge deal, like people saying, "Oh wow, you can talk!" or "We're so proud of you!" I didn't want anyone to make a big fuss. That was my biggest nightmare!

I was bullied at school by other children and my PT teacher and my computer teacher. I don't think they really understood me. I was especially scared of my PT teacher (terrified actually) I don't think she understood me, so she picked on me every time I went to her class. One time when we had to make a paper finger puppet, we had to draw a man. I knew that I couldn't draw well, and I was scared of being made fun of (that was also my worst nightmare). So I just sat there, not doing anything. She never understood me the way my class teachers did. She shoved the permanent marker in my hand, held my hand closed, standing behind me, she held my wrists and forced me to draw. It hurt a lot and I had red marks on my wrists. I never told anyone about this because I was too scared.

There was a school psychologist who tried to work with me ( I don't think I gave her a chance!) I was so scared of that PT  teacher and the kids who would bully me that it got to a point when I didn't want to go to school. Don't get me wrong, I loved school, and I miss that school. It was the best school with the best teachers. I was just scared and I couldn't tell anyone about it.

When the psychologist let me sit with her in her office after another one of my breakdowns when I just wanted to go home, there were times when I wanted to tell her what was going on inside of me but the words would just get stuck. Later on I wrongly  blamed her for everything. ( Its easier to blame other people than to blame yourself) I even convinced myself that I didn't like her. But looking back, I remember she was actually very good to me. (She even cleaned my glasses for me once!) I never gave her a chance to help me and I think I owe her the biggest apology.

I just bottled everything up inside until it exploded. It got to a point when I wasn't going to school at all. Eventually, I was sent to a children's psychiatric hospital. That was my worst nightmare come true. I thought my parents didn't want me anymore. The caretakers treated me so horribly. One even kept threatening to hit me for no reason! I was given so many pills, one kind had almost a blinding side effect. It would make my eyes jump so badly that I couldnt see. That was scary! The psychologists knew nothing of SM. They just thought I had been sexually abused and they wouldn't believe me when I said that I wasn't. I was so happy when I was finally discharged, but it left a lasting impact on me. I had nightmares for years after that.

I even thought about suicide. It wasn't serious and I never attempted to kill myself, nor was it a wish to die. Nobody even knows about those thoughts I was having. I would think if nobody likes me, nobody would miss me if I was gone. Just having that option made me feel better somehow. It got to a point when I was scared to be left alone. I was scared that I would do something to myself without realising it. Just that knowledge made me know that I didn't want to die. And I knew that I couldn't do that to my grandparents

. I was extremely close to both sets of my grandparents, and without their even knowing it, they made my thoughts stop.

Five years later, the school psycolgist came to visit me to see how I was. But I did the only thing I knew how to do, the thing I did all my life. I ran away. I locked myself in my room, refusing to see her. I didn't give her a chance. That is something I will always regret. She tried to help me and I didn't give her a chance.

I want to tell everyone out there, don't bottle things up. Tell someone what is bothering you. Otherwise it will just explode. Don't wait until its too late. I still have Selective Mutism. I have to fight with myself every day. I only wish that when I was a child, more therapists knew about Selective Mutism and treatment, maybe then I would have overcome it.

I had a choice. I could either feel sorry for myself or I could use my experience to help other people. I chose the latter. I know I went through all that for a reason, and that reason is to help others and give them hope. There are a lot of things that I don't remember anymore, but I hope this article helped you understand what it's like to live with SM. Children and adults with SM need people to understand them, and to accept them for who they are. Don't force them to do things they are not comfortable with, and don't force them to talk, it will only make it worse. Just be there for them and support them, that's all they silently ask for.

SM is a scary and lonely thing to live with. You feel isolated from the world, like you are in your own little bubble, hoping someone will come and help you break free. Sadly, nobody was able to help me break free, but if you open your heart and see how  much people care about you, let them get close to you to help you break free. Live the life you were born to live and you will set the world on fire.

I want to say one last thing. Whatever storm you are facing, never let go of Gods hand!

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