What if you can’t ask when you need to go – exploring selective mutism

For the month of February I will be exploring Selective Mutism. Yesterday I wrote about the way I used to pretend to talk, so that I would fit in. I shared the way I didn’t like to be noticed – and how I chose to meet other people’s expectations, instead of being true to myself. Today, I am going to explore a common problem with selective mute children, which is being unable to ask when they need the toilet – and also the feelings of shame that may evolve following an accident.

When shame holds you back

I’ve been avoiding this one, but it’s something that feels incredibly important. I am avoiding it because of the sense of shame I still harbour surrounding the memory I am going to share. Shame is a feeling that I find difficult to admit, both to myself and to other people. A realisation that ‘I didn’t do as well as I could have there’, ‘I was wrong to do that’ or ‘I could have prevented that from happening’ is never a proud moment – but admitting our short-falls can be an incredibly empowering experience.

There are monsters living in the toilet

A few weeks ago, my seven year old daughter shared with me that she was scared of flushing the toilet. I could completely understand, and so I eased her discomfort by sharing my own childhood fears. I remember being about the same age, and I was scared that a monster might swim into the toilet bowl while I was sitting there! This was my big fear at home.

12897815_sAt school, I was scared that other people might walk in on me. Or spy on me while I was doing my thing.

I also couldn’t ask to go to the toilet – and in my school, we always had to ask.

How I got around not-asking

There are a few things that people often don’t think about when they consider the child with selective mutism. One of them is the fact that they can’t ask to go to the toilet, the obvious resulting fear being that they may have an accident at school.

On top of my inability to ask when I was small, I used to hate the idea that people would know what I was doing. This meant that even when I found a version of my voice – and was technically able to use it to ask to go to the toilet, I still found it nearly impossible to do.

The great thing about school is that there are always playtimes and lunchtimes – breaks in class when there is no need to ask when you need to go. My usual approach was to take these opportunities to go to the toilet.

However, it wasn’t always this easy.

Sometimes things don’t go to plan

There are a few memories I could share with you here – most of them from my younger days (seven and below). At that age, an accident can be embarrassing – but it’s not all that uncommon. There is pretty much always someone who would help to clean up the mess afterward, include any feelings of shame, disappointment (or otherwise) that may surface.

In this post, I’m going to share something that happened when I was eleven. This was a moment that I have never shared with anyone. It was the time in my life that I have felt the most ashamed of myself ever – the thought of  disclosing my own inadequacy to act on my needs felt unbearable. Today I feel that this story needs to be shared for two reasons. The first is so that I can make peace with the child inside of me who still feels she messed up, and I can show her that it’s actually not that big a deal. The second because there may be other people reading this who are eating themselves up over something that has been and gone and that they could learn from if they’d only make peace with the shame they feel.

Can the ground just swallow me up now?!

We needed to go to reception and ask for the toilet key if we wanted to go to the toilet outside of break times. I think it was because people used to go there for a sneaky cigarette. To me, it was the most ridiculous rule I’d ever heard.

I never went to ask for the toilet key – I always timed my toilet breaks between classes, when the toilets were opened.

Until one day when our class ran over-time.

The next class was at the opposite end of the school. We all had to run to get there on time – and I was desperate for the toilet. Oh dear. I considered going – but I was scared that if I turned up late I would get into trouble. I was even more terrified of that. I figured I’d ask to go once the lesson started instead.

The chance didn’t present itself for a good 30 minutes. I didn’t know if I could make it. The toilet was at the bottom of the stairs.

Three flights of stairs.

I flew down those stairs, and I made it – then triumphantly pushed open the door.

The door was locked. I had to ask for the key. I couldn’t go any further. 

I was mortified as I stood there, eleven years old, at school, urine flowing down my legs. I have never felt so vulnerable as I meekly took myself to reception, standing at a funny angle, trying to hide the evidence. I hoped that maybe when I returned with the key I’d see that I had imagined the whole, sorry affair. 

I hadn’t.

I locked myself inside the toilet and cried (and cried). I was cleaning myself up as best I could – when there was a knock on the door. I froze.

There was a teacher outside demanding to know what was going on. I wanted the toilet monster to come and gobble me up … but I didn’t believe in him anymore. I have no idea how I got through that day. The rest of it is a blur – returning the key to reception; returning to my class to make scrambled eggs; walking home in my wee-stained socks and shoes.

I never spoke a word of it to anybody.

On that day I had a choice. Instead of facing my fears and asking for the key, then potentially being a few minutes late for my class, I created for myself a much more uncomfortable experience. I also set myself up to learn a lesson that I would never forget. It has taken me 25 years to understand that lesson. Putting off the things that cause us discomfort will only create more discomfort in our lives.

Maybe you have had an experience in your life where avoidance of something you didn’t want to do actually created a greater sense of discomfort. Maybe you’ve had many.  If you can relate, I’d love to hear about your experiences – sharing these things is a great way to move past them.

I’d also love to hear if you have any tips on helping children with selective mutism to ask when they need to go. Please don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter if you’d like to stay in the loop regarding my experiences with selective mutism – and the growth that has happened since.
The Cat Got My tongue!

Did you like this post? You may also like ...

  • Pingback: Here's why I want to share my stories with you()

  • Jenn

    Oh Kat, you have so much courage to share this! It brought me back to my childhood when I really had to go and even though I knew I was about to have a horribly humiliating experience, I just could not raise my hand and ask. The thought of everyone looking at me and hearing my voice was too much to bear. It was aweful! I too still feel the shame of it.
    At my kids’ school when the kids need to use the toilet they raise their hand with one finger up. Then the teacher can just nod at them, and they can go. No exchange of words necessary. I think it’s brilliant, and would have saved us shy ones a lot of anguish back in the day!

    • Kat

      That’s awesome! At my kid’s school, the younger kids make a ‘T’ for toilet with their hands … although I’m not sure it continues past that first year … I love the sound of your kid’s school!

      It was quite scary to share this story, but I’m past it now and all was okay! x Thanks for sharing yours too xx