Yes, I have a stammer. For most people this means that I am an awkward social mess too overwhelmed by nerves to speak. For me this means I have a problem speaking. It helps if I’m not feeling significantly under pressure but it isn’t an issue caused by a devastating lack of confidence, a misconception which the majority of people have. It just so happens that when I speak I block. For most, effortless speech is a given, yet for over 1% of the adult population speaking involves a significant amount of strain often leaving them feeling ashamed, frustrated and very isolated.
Being raised with a stammer was tough. Not that my family weren’t supportive, they were incredibly supportive but from the moment of my diagnosis an automatic inferiority was instilled in me. At school my parents pre-warned teachers to not force me read out loud and when it came to options teachers advised me against subjects with oral examinations in case I found it too strenuous. By the time I reached teenage years where the embarrassment and shame had been beaten into my psyche so aggressively that it was a natural part of my subconscious, any psychological strain my family tried to prevent at the start of school by not letting me read in class was somewhat wasted by the persistent bullying I received from my peers. I’m proud to say I never let it affect my education, I still took those language subjects and I still sat through the oral examinations despite the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms kicking in prior to the exam even starting. But it did affect every other aspect of my life. You’d think I would have gotten used to it, but each word I struggled on was always just as defeating as the previous one.
My greatest fear has always been the idea that I am misrepresenting myself. On paper I come across very well however in person I always felt the stammer took away from my achievements, successes and experiences. I genuinely believed that meeting me in person was so underwhelming that it reached the point where I felt that anything I wanted to say wouldn’t be worth the effort of saying it; I allowed the stammer to deprive me of a basic human right: my freedom of speech. As a result my social life suffered. A good selection of friends wouldn’t prevent me from failing to attend socials if I felt my too self-conscious about my speech.
Did things change for me with more tasteful depictions where stammering wasn’t portrayed as comical light-hearted entertainment? Not to the extent which was implied. Living post-King’s Speech is sort of bittersweet. It did wonders for raising awareness reassuring everyone that people like Gareth Gates are still here; evolution hasn’t sorted it out just yet! However, people never went to research it further. Instead the age of self-assured therapists emerged where everyone genuinely thought that they were the reincarnation of Lionel Logue under some delusion of grandeur. If it wasn’t bad enough to have to attend my own regular cringe-fest speech therapy sessions where I would be forced to partake in games such as “The Fluency River” – an activity which a five year old would get bored of. When I left speech therapy I was bombarded with self-professed speech wizards telling me to restart my sentence. The only way this would have helped anyone is by them already knowing what I wanted to say so they could say it for me. Despite this shift from the usual tutting, looking at the watch and guessing my next word through an obscure game of charades, the effect was also annoying.
As helpful as TV and film are in raising awareness, the thing with media portrayals is that misconceptions can easily arise. Take Emily Blunt. An example of an actress who miraculously self-cured her own stutter, if that’s even possible. People suggested trying various things that she claimed to have done, such as drama. A coping mechanism I used was accents. Whenever I would tell a story I would do the voices of the people involved. I perfected the art of imitation. As helpful as this was short-term, I couldn’t use the voices of others permanently. It was too tiring. And odd. Using the voice of an old woman or a Canadian man out of context didn’t get you many friends. Others’ idea of helping was to compare my life to other stammerers, pointing out their success and how I could be just like them. However respectful they were in their own fields, I never wanted to emulate these people. I never even wanted to associate myself with stammering, instead I wanted to be the fast talking comedian without a problem. I wanted to avoid the comment, particularly going into law, “that advocacy was pretty good for someone who stutters”. It’s bad enough being told I’m pretty good at anything “for a girl” so not only am I facing restrictions based on gender, but also my ability to do my dream job, a job which by nature involves a significant amount of communication.
A good friend of mine with a stammer told me to never tell myself I cannot do something. He’s right and this is a universal principle which applies to everyone. It’s a lie you tell yourself to avoid the feeling of failure. Instead of pushing your comfort zone you thickly layer the self-imposed restrictions and limitations, a form of self-indoctrination which you eventually begin to believe. It’s much easier to say I can’t do it rather than proving yourself wrong and question your entire self-philosophy. Just because it’s easier to remain where you are doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge the conceptions you surround yourself with. You might just discover that they are in fact misconceptions.
The only thing I can really pursue in my ongoing battle with stammering is self-acceptance. No one really overcomes it or loses it. There is no cure. Wearing headphones while you speak doesn’t cure it. Shouting swear words, although cathartic, doesn’t cure it. It’s a permanent fixture as is any technique you use to control it. To anyone out there suffering with a stammer I have some advice. Check out The Starfish Project. It teaches and supports the technique I use. It has helped me to find a voice that I am finally not ashamed of using. You’ll meet some pretty amazing people there too. For added encouragement one man in particular, the speech guru, the modern day Plato and the giver of the best bear hugs you’ll ever receive, is on the other end of the phone to support you.