A day in the life with Selective Mutism – when society does not understand, support, include or accept you – can be extremely frightening and challenging. If I think back to my high school days, I remember the feeling of absolute fear rushing through my body when I tried to go about my day to day life. I spent much of my time and energy on dodging the harm of others, both students and staff. I remember on a typical school day packing my bag with my lunch at 7:45am – this is a simple task yet it did not feel simple to me. “Oh no, I can hear my juice bottle sloshing around in my bag as I walk and move, I’ll have to leave it behind and go thirsty”. “My mum has made me tuna sandwiches for lunch today, but I don’t think I can take them, when I open my bag people might be able to smell them, which will draw extra attention”. Apart from these barriers, eating at school was basically impossible anyway; I, not dissimilar to many others who have SM, find eating in public extremely difficult. This difficulty surrounding eating is due to my frozen state making it near to impossible to move my mouth. I have often felt semi-paralsyed and painfully numb, situationally – environment dependent.
I remember arriving at school at the age of 14, at 8:45am, and holding back a few minutes away from the main building to avoid the crowds. However, dodging the crowds meant also having to dodge the teachers, whom were hurrying everyone along. I had to make sure I avoided the “why are you late?” question…after all, I couldn’t answer anyway. I remember arriving to registration room a few minutes late and losing my breath due to severe anxiety, whilst having to force myself through the door to walk to my seat. I remember listening out for my name in the register and feeling as though I were about to be sick. I knew I couldn’t answer the register I was far too frozen, but on my IEP it stated: “Natasha will look up at the teacher and smile when her name is called“. This was still impossible, anxiety provoking and pressure inducing – being in registration group, or school in itself was simply too much for me.
I remember hearing the painfully loud bell ring for first class at 9am and trying to gather myself, and my anxiety, together in order to stand up from my chair and walk to class. Everything seemed out of focus, I couldn’t see where I was going, I fell into people, people pushed me into the walls. I felt like I was walking too fast, but in reality I was barely moving at all. People kicked the backs of my legs and often my shoes would be sent flying off my feet. I looked odd and people noticed me as something to amuse them. They’d come up behind me and shout in my ears, making me jump. Their friends would push them into me and force them to intimidate me by shoving their face next to mine begging me to speak. I’d attempt to walk down the stairs, but I’d fail miserably, tripping over myself and missing the steps. The corridors looked like they were spinning round and round and I felt the need to desperately run away and burst into tears, but I couldn’t; I was at school and I had to go to class, it was the law.
I eventually arrived at my classroom and stood in the queue. Everyone would turn around and ask me ridiculous questions, “Natasha do you shave your legs?”, “Natasha are you french?” , “Natasha are you this rude and ignorant at home?”. They’d pull my hair and poke my arms and throw rubbish at me in attempt to get me to speak, or at least react. I stood motionless, hunched over, staring at the floor, my hair draped over my face with one hand squeezing the other for comfort. I felt on edge and terrified not knowing when the next jump scare was going to happen. I remember thinking “someone is walking towards me; are they going to shout down my ear? are they going to push me? I need to stand really tense so that I don’t fall over”. People would come over to me and take my belongings out of my pockets and put their empty sweet wrappers in them instead, they’d pull on the key-rings on my bag and break them, they’d undo the zip on my bag and put bits of left over sandwich and pour orange juice in, ruining my books. I hated lining up for class and nobody seemed to care, they thought “surely lining up for a few minutes isn’t an issue at all”. How wrong could those teachers be? The nasty comments thrown at me inside the classroom didn’t magically not exist in the queues outside the classroom. Bullies are bullies, here or there. How was I ever going to meet my goals in the classroom if my confidence, if I had any at all, had already been crushed before even entering the room?
After an agonising few minutes wait, the teacher would arrive and let us all in. I was grateful when there were seating plans, it didn’t matter who I sat next to, I was hated and bullied by most. Just because I was sat next to someone nice didn’t mean the people in-front, behind, the other side of me or the other side of the classroom were going to not bother raising their voices. I hated when we got to choose who to sit next to, I had no friends and nobody liked me. It was an awful feeling having to place myself next to someone, who would then make such a fuss and create laughter at me. “I’m not sitting next to Natasha, I’m moving”, “I’m not being funny, but if I have to sit next to Natasha I will actually throw up, she stinks”. “It’s pointless me sitting next to Natasha, she doesn’t talk, she doesn’t even nod her head or look at me”. I loved working by myself. I was a hard worker, motivated by good grades and achieving. I could only work well when I was left alone, which was rarely.
So, after the drama and events of the queue, the seating arrangements and of course the register, it was now finally time to start the lesson. The teacher would attempt desperately to be heard explaining the aims of the lesson, whilst 14-year-olds would be talking, shouting and laughing over their voice. The bullies, which consisted of around 80% of the group, would insist on throwing pencils and bits of rubber at my head. They’d whisper and share, awkwardly inaccurate, rumors about my life. They’d burst into fits of laughter at the way I was sitting or my awkward posture, which only displayed severe anxiety and a look of being out of my depth. After the teacher had completely lost their patience and had screamed for everyone to “shut up!” and had of course threatened everyone with lunch time detention, people would quieten down for a short while. The teacher would then again explain the lesson. She/ He would ask us to get out our exercise books. I was filled with dread, I had been through so much already, it was only 9:15am. I was damaged. I couldn’t find it in me to move my arms to find my book in my bag, and if I did I would be faced with noticing someone had fed it left over bacon sandwich and orange juice anyway, so I was better off sitting without my book. The teacher would come over and angrily announce “Natasha, I am not giving you yet another exercise book, how do you keep losing them?” this would be met with unwanted comments from the bullies “she doesn’t talk Mrs/Sir, she’s ignorant”. I’d be given scrap paper and be asked to write up my work in my free time.
So, There I was at 9:20am, at school, in my classroom, sat at my seat with some paper to write on. I was all set to work, wasn’t I?. I’d then find myself thinking, “oh no, I need to get my pen out my pocket without anyone noticing me move my arm, somehow”. I would slowly move my arm and reach my hand inside my pocket and search for my pen. Only to find it was missing, all I could feel was sweet wrappers. This was the norm for me, people took things out my pockets all the time, and I’d often unwillingly carry their rubbish around instead. I sat feeling terrified. I had already annoyed my teacher. I couldn’t speak or raise my hand, I couldn’t attract attention or ask for help. I couldn’t ask to borrow a pen, so I sat there awkwardly. Eventually my teacher noticed me and in annoyance placed a pen in-front of me with force. I began to write down the date and my name at the top of the paper, but then I was faced with the next hurdle. I had been so distracted by the bullies comments and being hit on the head with flying pieces of rubber that I didn’t take in what the teacher had explained about the work. I knew she had written down some key points on the board, but I couldn’t lift my head up to look, so I sat clueless for a short while. I didn’t want to attract yet more negative attention, so I wrote loads of random letters in tiny illegible writing, to make it look like I was busy and I understood the work. This definitely wasn’t my first experience of doing this, I was becoming quite the expert at producing nothing of any worth.
Towards the end of the lesson the teacher would often hand out worksheets for the end of lesson task. This usually went badly. Either the teacher would be completely oblivious to my difficulties and would choose to ask me to hand out the worksheets, which I couldn’t do; I couldn’t acknowledge I’d even been requested to do this at all, which always caused anger. The other way this could go would be for the sheets to be passed along by the students. Once the sheets reached me, they would stay there, as I felt paralysed and couldn’t take one and pass them along, again more anger caused. How can something so simple cause so much bother and anxiety?
The lesson would eventually end and I’d feel the need to reassure myself, “1 down, 4 to go”. I’d then have to relive the walk through the corridors, the queues and the awful lessons filled with harassment and bullying again and again. I was always more than grateful for break time, it was to me exactly as it was called. break time. A break from the crowds, the bullies, the comments, the pushing, the being hit on the head with stationary, the inability to defend myself, the awkwardness of not being able to ask for help, the awfulness of the school day. I always hid in an unused part of the school at breaks and lunch times, with a family member also at the school. She was my best friend. I certainly tried my best to enjoy at least some of the school day, at break time I could talk to my friend and create good memories. Nobody else was around to hear me or taunt me and that made me feel very happy and free. It was such a shame break times only lasted 15 minutes, it was shame I only had a voice for 15 minutes.
By the time lunch time arrived, 1pm, I was exhausted, crushed and done. Unfortunately I still had to cope for another 2 hours. If possible I would eat, often this wasn’t the case. Anxiety had stolen my appetite. Sometimes it made me more hungry. The problem was, if I ate, my anxiety would cause my stomach to hurt and I’d sit in last lesson feeling like I was about to erupt. I suppose a lot of the time I didn’t think eating a few snacks was worth it. I still, like break time, was always very grateful for lunch time, a whole hour away from everyone and everything. I always felt so excited that I just had to get through one more lesson and then I’d be given the gift of home-time.
At 3:05pm the end of day bell would ring and I’d feel an enormous amount of relief. I would meet my friend and walk home, but it wasn’t simple. I had to wait at least 10 minutes so that the streets were far less crowded, but there’d always be someone unwanted along the journey home. This got to me more than anything. It was no longer school time, it was free time, walking home minding my own business. Still, bullies are bullies no matter here or there, like I already said. I’d still be hit with comments, I tried my best to block them out. I’d already tried so hard to block so much out throughout the duration of the day, so it’s not surprising tears would slip out after 6 hours of coping. I’d arrive home and feel an immense pain in my head and exhaustion. It made me sad to see my brother arriving home from school, happy and energised with many funny and positive stories from his day, as well as achievements to share. I felt like such a disappointment. I was wrong to feel that way. I had achieved so much. I had coped in a harmful environment; an environment not at all right for me and my individual needs. Inclusion was missing. Support was absent. Understanding was invisible. Acceptance was transparent. Patience was truanting. Discrimination was vivid. Exclusion was vibrant. Ignorance was loud.