Selective Mutism - Leon's story

I had selective mutism from being a very young child; I could not cope normally with many social situations, and would only speak to direct family, and one or two good friends who had been a permanent fixture in my life. I stuck to my mother’s side at all times, the only place I felt protected. I would scream, kick, and cry in sheer terror if it were suggested that anyone other than a close member of the family might sit in the back of the car with me.

While my mum was having conversations with people who, although I had known them all my life, I was unable to speak to, I would shut down. I would perhaps, after a lot of coaxing, be able to look them in the eye briefly, if they weren't patronising or teasing me, as some would do.

At home, and with close family, I was very happy. I was a chatterbox and had a great childhood, mostly spent playing outdoors, climbing, bike riding, building dens, etc. One of my favourite memories is of one day when my grandparents arrived in my Gran's bright yellow car after helping to clear up after a party, they had brought the remaining balloons home - and what could have been better, at 4 years old, than a car filled with inflated balloons!

Sometimes, I would have dearly loved to speak to the people I met, but something still stopped me. It was as though my vocal chords became immovable. Not sore, not stiff, not tight, simply inoperable. My mum would try different strategies, one of which was to tell me that if I didn't make an effort to speak to at least one person that day, I wouldn't be allowed to watch TV that night. I tried to fob her off by suggesting I could try to speak to certain ones who I was already able to speak to.

One day I did manage to speak to someone, I chose one of the least threatening people I knew, so maybe that tells you something about one aspect of the problem. She didn't react in any significant way at all at the time, which I think was very important, because those who made a big thing of me speaking later on were those who I find it hardest to speak to this day. This must have taken some self-control on her part, for I later learned that when I had gone she went up to my grandparents and exclaimed 'Leon spoke to me!'

I was ok with that. I was pleased that she was pleased, but had she said it to my face I think I would have felt as though she was making fun of me.

All that said, and while at times it could be extremely frustrating, I don't regret having SM. I feel that it has given me an insight into the world, and people, that I wouldn't have had otherwise, since, as I was trying to pluck up courage to speak, or to work out why I couldn't speak, or what I should do or say, I was also observing. I was observing the people around me and how they interacted with each other. I was observing rituals that certain types of people seemed to repeat, and what became of these people as I grew up. I learnt how well-meaning people could come across as obnoxious when they didn't know how to handle a situation, and I also learnt how people who others around me saw as well-meaning could turn out to be just the opposite.

I value these assets and abilities in my adult life, and they have kept me from making the mistakes that others have made, and continue to make. Those years of silently watching taught me a lot about people, who my friends really are, and who was just putting up a front to appease the adults around me.

It also taught me to respect children as people in their own right, while some people don't view them as "proper people", I remember how deep thinking I could be at a very young age, and how alienating it felt when people spoke to me, not as though I was young, but as though I was stupid. I remember that when I meet children who have SM now, and purely through showing respect for them as people, and by not making them feel as though they are wrong not to speak, I haven't yet met any who haven't spoken to me, and I consider that a great privilege.

Through these years I always had a strong connection with animals, and although I 'grew out of' (learnt to function with) SM to a large extent, I have always been a very anxious person, and about three years ago I really hit rock bottom and ended up going to A&E for help.

I didn't realise the full extent of the influence that animals could have on me until I was at a small event one evening and I was in my usual state of anxiety, a friend's dog walked up to me, and upon interaction I felt as if she had sucked a large part of the anxiety out of me, brought me back to earth, and made me think more rationally.

Soon after this, I learnt about the psychiatric service dogs that are used in America by people with a wide variety of mental health issues, ranging from anxiety, memory problems, depression, PTSD, and many other things. I did a lot of research and was pointed helpfully to and armed with this information, and already having a suitable knowledge of dogs and dog training, I decided to train my own service dog.

For the first year he accompanied me into shops etc. with his "In Training" badges on, however so far this isn't something that we have needed to carry on, as his being there for me, my having to be there for him, and the positive focus that this has provided, has been of such a help that my anxiety levels have massively improved, my life has completely transformed, and while I don't attribute the whole transformation to my service dog - there are many other factors which played a part - I would say that he has played, and continues to play, a very large part in helping me, and I would recommend a service dog, or indeed any dog, to anyone who has the resources, dedication, and patience to give a him or her a great life.

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