I’ve been trying to write this article for about a year now, but with the international stammering awareness day being upon us, I figured I would just put it out there and hopefully it will help to explain the journey I have been on…
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a stutter/stammer*. I wasn’t born with it, and according to my mum it started when I was about 4, so I enjoyed a whole 2 or so years of fluent speech (as fluent as a 2-4 year old can be!).
It’s a part of me and now defines a part of my character. I say that because I believe it has given me a somewhat interesting view of people. For example, I find it very strange that people who have fluent speech get really nervous about talking in front of people, whereas weirdly, it doesn’t bother me that much!
I wanted to write this article to share some experiences I have had over the last few years that have really shown me that my stammer does not matter, and should not stand in the way of doing what you want to do.
My stammer manifests itself in the form of blocks. I can open my mouth but nothing comes out. I’m still learning how to cope with this because the sounds on which I block seems to continually change!
Anxiety about a situation, nerves, tension and tiredness all serve to make my stammer worse. Sometimes this is anxiety about having to speak (therefore descending into a vicious circle resulting in really bad speech), but nowadays, as I’ve learned to cope with my speech better, it is more about the actual situation rather than speech.
As a child at junior school, I attended speech therapy, and frankly found it to be somewhat useless. At the time, the emphasis was on slooooow, sluuuuurred speech to encourage fluency, but I found it to be more degrading when using this in public than actually stammering!
Also, as a child I lost count of the number of times people told me “oh you’ll grow out of it”, “it’s just a phase”… well guess what… I didn’t grow out of it, and it wasn’t a phase! Surprise! Ok, I accept this does happen to some people, but for the majority of us, it doesn’t.
However, I am very lucky to have great family and friends who support me, and exhibit great patience (with a certain amount of ribbing of course!). Without this support network, things would have been much harder.
I reluctantly returned to speech therapy in my late 20’s, and was surprised how things had moved on. There was far more research on stammer, and more techniques to try. I read the book “self-therapy for the stutterer” by Malcolm Fraser, which showed me that there was not a one technique fits all approach to coping with a stammer, and it also highlighted some of the common traps that stammerers fall into, some of which I was guilty of.
Over the following few months, we worked on reducing the amount of word avoidance, and bad habits (err, umm etc), and increasing the amount of eye contact. This has stayed with me since. Most of the actual techniques I didn’t find that useful, but it showed me that I could gain some more control over my speech if I were more deliberate about it.
At school I hated reading out loud in class, and kept myself to myself whilst in lessons. I had a good circle of friends, but most of the other children just pointed, laughed and took the piss. Children can be very cruel.
University was a very big turning point for me. I quickly realised that no one was going to help me ask for things, I would have to do it myself. Over the course of the 3 years, my confidence grew tremendously through necessity.
Being in Scouting has also proved to be a great source of support and confidence in my speech, and character generally. As a leader, at some point you have to talk to a large-ish group of kids/parents. Being the leader in the room, that source of authority, helped to give me the confidence. I had information that they needed to know, and they would have to listen to me to get it. I realise we can’t all be in those positions of authority all the time, but those occasions are help to build confidence at talking to groups.
I find it fascinating how other people react to my stammer. Strangely, I get worried about how people feel about listening to me. Most of the time people are fine. You get the ‘helpful’ ones who try to finish your sentences (most of the time wrongly), or guess words. They mean well, but it does get annoying.
You get what I call the ‘McDonalds effect’ where the person serving you just starts laughing. Sometimes I let it slide, other times I call them out on it which makes them feel uncomfortable. Neither approach makes me happy.
Then you get the “forget your name did you?” people… NO, I DIDN’T FORGET MY FLIPPING NAME!! One incident like this happened recently with a health professional at an appointment with my daughter. I was asked her name in the waiting room by the professional at which point I blocked. She said “I thought you forget her name for a minute there” to which I replied “I have a stammer”… one very embarrassed healthcare professional and a smirking waiting room later she apologised and we moved on.
Over the years I think I’ve probably heard most comments, jokes, apologies; observed most attitudes, both good and bad; and experienced most emotions. My outlook now is, I’m Chris, I stammer, get over it!
Achievements… aka don’t let it hold you back!
This section isn’t here to boast or provide some self-gratifying ego boost to myself; it’s here to show the things I have achieved, despite having a stammer!
I hold a private pilots license, something I thought would be unachievable with my speech as it is. If you’ve every heard air traffic controllers speak, it’s very fast and concise… something I don’t find easy! But, through practice, and careful preparation, I passed my license tests including the radio communications section.
In my career, I hold a managerial position as the head of software testing at a software company, and contrary to any ambitions I may have had, I actually started public speaking 2 years ago, giving presentations at testing conferences to hundreds of people! This is something that would have absolutely terrified me a few years previously, but I actually rather enjoy it!
I instruct archery, rifle shooting, climbing and many other activities for Scouts and Guides, all of which involve dealing with groups of people of all ages.
So… what does all of this mean?
It doesn’t really have to mean anything, but I guess the answer may fall into two camps:
Firstly, if you have a stammer, take heart that you are not the only one with a stammer, and you can achieve great things despite of the impediment. Try and get out of your comfort zone, you may surprise yourself. Reach out to those of us who have been there who can offer you support, advice and encouragement. There will be bad days, but there will also be good ones. Don’t let it hold you back!
Secondly, if you do not have a stammer, be more aware of those that do. Be patient, we are not stupid, and we generally have a lot to say, it may just take us a bit longer to say it! Please don’t interrupt or try to finish our sentences, we know you mean well, but it doesn’t help!
Stammering affects 70 million people across the world yet we rarely hear about it. I would just ask you all to be more aware…
*As an aside, I think the person that came up with the name ‘stutter’ or ‘stammer’ was really taking the piss, you try saying it when you have it!