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‘Why Don’t You Say Something?’

People who have difficulty speaking don’t really talk about it that much. 

I considered training as a mime artist. 

I visited semi-silent convents, contemplating whether to join. 

I spent two thirds of my RADA recall audition sobbing hysterically because I’d lost the power of speech. 

You may have seen me on trains with my partner, returning from disastrous parties/meetings/interviews/gigs/basically any occasion, having typed conversations on the notes app of my iPhone because I haven’t yet regained power over my vocal chords. 

Or…

You may have also seen me be normal. Totally normal. Talking, not only in regular social situations, but on stage, under stress and to strangers. 

My Dr Jekyll is the person who performs stand up with only a flicker of nerves; My Mr Hyde is the weirdo hiding in the loos. 

The whole situation is totally ridiculous. 

I am prone to Selective Mutism. 

No, I hadn’t heard of it either. 

I can’t really express what it is better than the NHS UK: 

Selective mutism is a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations.

It usually starts during childhood and, left untreated, can persist into adulthood.

A child or adult with selective mutism doesn’t refuse or choose not to speak, they’re literally unable to speak. 

The expectation to talk to certain people triggers a freeze response with feelings of panic, rather like a bad case of stage fright, and talking is impossible.

In time, the person will learn to anticipate the situations that provoke this distressing reaction and do all they can to avoid them.

However, people with selective mutism are able to speak freely to certain people, such as close family and friends, when nobody else is around to trigger the freeze response. 

Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children. It’s more common in girls and children who are learning a second language, such as those who’ve recently migrated from their country of birth.

(For the rest of this excellent article, please see: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/selective-mutism/

I’d never been particularly keen to attach a label to my speaking problem, having not wanted to make more a ‘deal’ out of it than necessary. Plus, as most literature on the condition explains, the term is so broad, that it is unlikely to conjure up a comprehensive picture of what a selective mute looks like anyway. 

Speaking was never really my go-to thing. I started speaking much later than children normally do, and my mum tells me that even once I’d started to speak, I often refused to do so, getting by instead by pointing and miming. 

These days, I can lapse into a state of frozen silence, of not being able to say anything at all, at basically any time. It becomes more likely to happen during bouts of depression, if I’m near my period, or if I encounter intimidating behavior. Interestingly, the bullying doesn’t even need to be happening to me – witnessing it has the same effect. Occasionally, when under pressure to speak and I have not yet reached peak frozenness, I may be able to have stuttered conversations. These are exhausting and I’d prefer to just write off the communication session and go home.  

The majority of the time, I can speak perfectly normally. A lot of people who know me will be completely surprised by this piece. 

Other common misconceptions of why the hell I’m not saying anything, include assumptions that I am: 

  • Rude
  • Insane
  • Refusing to speak in order to gain sympathy
  • Shy

Shyness is an interesting one. My only disappointment with the NHS article is what it associates Selective Mutism with shyness. I do not think that social anxiety is the same thing as shyness. 

As the wonderful (yet somewhat problematic to modern tastes) Flanders and Swan’s Twice Shy song expresses, we’re all shy to some extent – performers especially once we’re off stage. However, I’ve gotten into enough trouble over the years from saying and doing what I think truly right, to know that ‘shy’ isn’t really my default. 

As for social anxiety – even if I’ve had no problem speaking whatsoever, I’m the sort of person who will go home and agonise over minor social interactions for fear that they were inadequate, or that what I said was taken entirely the wrong way.  

Shyness though? No. There’s a sort of pity which is extended towards people who are deemed ‘shy’ and I’m not having any of it. 

There’s an assumption that being quiet is a negative trait. It’s easy to see why we think this – society is still on the crest of the throwing-off-oppression wave, and to be quiet is to still be oppressed. 

I have no wish to be completely subject to my selective mutism. It’s a pain in the neck. Yet it is an integral part of me. I tend towards quietness. I enjoy brusts of being vocal, but find it exhausting, and am happy to return to being the quiet one of a group – still enjoying the company of others, but not always being the person with a reply. 

So I hesitate before saying that I want to ‘get rid of’ selective mutism – not that I think it’s possible to anyway. Trying to obliterate it completely feels a bit like self loathing. I will always be a quiet person. That’s fine. That’s my groove, and I wish that society valued the silent people a bit more. Then again, why would they? It’s easy not to notice us.

There is a difference between being quiet and being afraid to speak. 

When on silent or semi-silent spiritual retreats, I feel like I’m cheating. Not that ‘who can stay  silent the longest’ is meant to be some sort of ecclesiasical sport, but it is meant to be an intentional action to improve reflection. 

There was a time in my early twenties when I very seriously considered entering the religious life, ie. becoming a nun*. My reasons for being drawn to this life were very flimsy, and I know that I would have been refused entry had by any religious order. Put simply, I had no ‘calling’ to this way of life, it was simply that I was scared of the wider world in the state I found myself in – constantly frightened of failing to communicate (and also with a faith that I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do with, but that’s another story). To live in a world where no one expected regular speech seemed the easy way for me, as unusual as this might seem. 

Quick explanation if anyone is unsure of how Christian religious orders work – you kind of need to have a genuine ‘calling’ towards that way of life. Being able to get up at 5am in the morning to pray, effectively de-weed the convent tomato greenhouse and remain almost entirely silent, is all GREAT, but being able to do those things happily, doesn’t actually mean you should become a nun. These days entering any sort of religious life is extremely difficult – I know many who have been refused first time – and ‘being terrified’ definitely isn’t their number one reason for selecting anyone. 

I realised that even if I could have fooled my way through selection for a religious order ( ‘calculated deception’ is not a Christian virtue FYI), I realised that taking the easy option wasn’t what I wanted, or what was the right thing to do. 

Instead, I went back to working in theatre. 

This blog post is a ‘just getting it down on paper’ sort of post. This is a subject I have been afraid to explore further, and whilst I may have started clumsily, I’m keen to explore more. I wrote most of this some months ago and considered putting it on facebook as a sort of confessional and point of order. So few people who know me know why I sometimes act weirdly. My fear was, that the truth of the matter may sound even stranger than whatever their assumptions would have been. I then started putting the subject into my stand-up comedy routines, and as people seemed generally accepting (or at least, amused) by the topic, I decided that I would publish this piece after all. But I’ve cheated and put it on a blog which only a certain number of people I know will see – not the entire facebook eclectic rabble from my past. The fear I have is clearly still at large, even occasionally in the written word, as well as the spoken. 

It’s tricky to spread the word about something which has none. 

*Nuns. It’s what we call them in pop culture, but most nuns who you meet are called ‘sisters’. In fact, it would be unlikely that you’d even meet a ‘nun’ because to be a nun means to be in a cloister, in other words, they mostly stay in their convents in contemplation.