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'Don't mention the stammer!' - workshop handout

Louise Wright | 01.12.2004

Louise Wright ran a workshop at our 2004 National Conference about issues people may find with discussing their stammer openly, and possible strategies to do so. This page is the workshop handout. Louise has also written an article about her research on this: Don't mention the stammer!

This is the handout for workshops given by Louise Wright, Specialist Speech and Language Therapist, at BSA's 10th National Conference, 3-5 September 2004 at Stirling University.

Workshop description

"This workshop is for people who stammer, their friends and family members. They can attend together or independently.

"Many people who stammer find it challenging to discuss their stammer openly with their colleagues, friends and family members. Louise has interviewed some individuals who stammer who have difficulty discussing stammering with others. In this workshop she will tell their stories and then let the participants discuss their own experiences in small groups. This will give the opportunity to discuss why it can be hard to discuss stammering openly with those close to you and share possible strategies for doing so."

Stories of people interviewed

Louise carried out some research at The City Lit in 2000 (there is more on this in our Speaking Out article: Don't mention the stammer!. Four people talked to Louise about disclosing their stammers to other people close to them:

'Robert' is 26, has a degree and works in a prestigious job. His parents live some distance away, he lives with his longstanding girlfriend and he has some close male friends who live locally. His stammer is inconsistent and unpredictable - varying from confident fluency to severe stammering. He is very sensitive about his stammer and tries at all costs to hide it. He received therapy as a child and recent therapy has increased his awareness of his avoidance but has not reduced the avoidance itself.

'Jane' is 38. She studied to 'A' level (age 18) and has worked her way up to professional level. She is separated from her husband and has had a boyfriend for a year. Her mother is dead and she is not close to her father. She has some close friends locally. Jane is tense all the time she is talking in anticipation of stammering. She received therapy briefly as a child and as an adult. Recent speech therapy has helped her to talk to people more about it, avoid less, stammer more and modify stammers a little.

'Leanne' is 23. She originates from outside the UK and her parents still live abroad. She came to the UK to study for a degree and is now working as a research assistant. She has a boyfriend and friends locally. Leanne stammered very severely as a child and received extensive and varied therapy as a child and adult. Leanne feels that she lives a double life - one where she shows her stammer and one where she plays a fluent role, mostly through situation avoidance. Recent therapy has resulted in increased stammering but an improved attitude.

'Dave' is 34. He left school at 16 and is self-employed. He lives with his gay partner and has had one long-term relationship before. His parents and sister live in London but he does not have many close friends locally. He used to stammer very severely as a child then stopped talking to avoid stammering. He now blocks badly on the phone but at other times hides his stammer through avoidance. He had therapy as a child and recent therapy has been very helpful. He is now talking more but feels he still needs more therapy to reduce avoidance further.

Here are some of the things they said organised under 4 themes:

Diversity of disclosure a) in different relationships

All four people talked differently about their stammers to different people. For example 'Robert' described how he talked to his parents:

"So we didn't talk a lot about it and when we did it was fairly counterproductive.

And erm more present times erm since I've moved out of the family home I've never told them I've taken further therapy.... I'd rather not tell them."

This was in contrast to his partner:

"My girlfriend of course knows I go on this [therapy] course and umm she is helpful ...umm ...umm ...she's sometimes too helpful."

But 'Robert' has not talked about his stammer in any depth, as he is afraid that if his partner discovers the extent of his problem she will reject him.

'Robert' had discussed his stutter very briefly with two friends who have raised the subject with him, but has hidden his stutter and therapy completely from his best friend. At work however he is at his most open:

"Erm ... there's at least 7 or 8 people who I've told that I have a stammer so I don't know why I'm so open about it here. I don't know perhaps I feel relaxed about it and the people aren't bothered by it. And erm and perhaps it's the fact that I have a lot of strengths that people see so I am quite well regarded here. So just telling someone that I have a stammer wouldn't affect the fact that I am held in quite high regard I think."

Diversity of disclosure b) between participants

The four people were very different from each other. For example this is how diverse they were when talking to their parents about stammering.

Two people shared 'Robert's' reluctance to discuss their stutter or therapy much with their parents.

'Jane' had attempted to tell her mother about her therapy but had dropped the subject in anger when her mother said that 'Jane' had outgrown stuttering years ago. She had not broached the subject with her father because:

"He's just not someone I talk to a lot [laughs]. We're not very close and he's not emotionally very open."

'Dave's' father used to work with him on his stammer every Sunday morning with a tape recorder, which terrified Dave as a child. He said:

"Even now I still haven't told him I'm doing therapy although I see him a lot now but er I still haven't mentioned it to him."

In contrast to the others, 'Leanne' has always discussed her stutter and therapy with both parents. Indeed her parents are the only people she discloses her stutter to in any depth:

"Yeah we have just always discussed the, I mean both the actual stammer, erm the feelings, the fear, the whole thing. Erm and I think that they are the ones who would ever erm, I mean no matter how much time I would spend with someone, I think it is going to be hard for someone to actually come to understand my stammer the way that they do."

Avoidance as dishonesty or lying

All participants talked about lying or being dishonest with others, as a way of avoiding disclosure or situations. 'Robert' was distressed that he lied to his best friend as a way of avoiding disclosing his therapy. He said:

"And I've been forced to lie on a few occasions when he wanted to meet up after work. I said 'no I can't I'm working late' or 'I've got things to do' which makes me quite erm quite upset that I have to lie to him."

He also uses this strategy to avoid discussing therapy practice with his partner:

"Or if I do, like, I do tend to tell her little white lies and say 'I've done it a bit today' whereas in reality I haven't done it a lot."

'Jane' described how she decided to disclose her stammer to her current boyfriend when their relationship changed from friendship to partnership. It was important to her to be honest in a deeper relationship:

'It's a sort of trust thing and not lie you know. Because avoiding is lying in a way, it's covering up. So I think it's an honesty thing that if you're constantly hiding that bit of yourself you're not really being very honest."

'Leanne' also used the word 'honesty' when describing her different patterns of disclosure with her parents, partner and friends:

'And I'm just, just as honest as I can be with my family, just as dishonest and closed am I when it's with him and friends."

She described how she lied to her partner to explain her avoidance of business dinners with him:

"Well I haven't been very honest. I told him right from the start that, you know, I can't remember, I just made a really harsh comment that I wouldn't sit there like with these pretentious people. Full stop. And he hasn't invited me since."

'Leanne' is aware that her lying is giving the impression that she is neither interested nor committed to her partner and therefore doesn't think the relationship will survive.

Lately 'Dave' has succeeded in informing his partner fully about his stammer and therapy. In the past he also failed to admit the real reasons for avoiding situations, but in contrast to the others he did not feel that he was consciously lying to his partner:

"I've never felt as if I was lying to him or anything like that by not ... Because a lot of it I didn't actually recognise it myself that I was avoiding these things. It's just automatically I would do it. So I never really felt that I was holding back."

Being forced to disclose stammering to others

The previous theme raises the question of why people eventually disclose stammering. All of the participants described disclosing their stammer in situations where they felt forced to do so.

We have already heard how 'Jane' felt she had to tell her partner when their relationship changed from friendship to deeper commitment to conform with her need to be honest within partnerships.

'Dave' described how he was refusing to attend social and work events with his partner to avoid stuttering. He eventually told his partner his real reasons when he felt his behaviour was jeopardising the relationship:

'Erm so it was only really when it actually caused a few problems between us during therapy that I was actually able to sit down with him and show him written information, sort of thing. Like avoiding situations for example.'

'Leanne' on the other hand, described her history of ending relationships when they reached the point where disclosure became increasingly likely. She had, however, described how she felt driven to reveal her stammer to friends if they made negative comments or jokes about people who stammer. With her current boyfriend, she had recently told him about her stammer for the first time as a result of just such a situation:

'We were sitting at this really nice restaurant having a really nice dinner. And suddenly the man that I am so much in love with erm tells me that he went to this school reunion and there's this guy in his class had stammered badly. And then he did just the most outrageous imitation of this guy, at the table in this restaurant and I was just sitting there. And I can't remember what I said. I can just remember, you know, the blood sort of leaving slowly. And I went to the bathroom. And I was just sitting there thinking OK. Time to say something."

'Robert' had discussed his stutter with his girlfriend for the first time when he had reached crisis point at work and needed her help.

'It was an exceptional circumstances, I was even going sick off work, I couldn't face going in and that she knew something was wrong and she knew my stammer was bad because it was bad in general, because I was so stressed at work erm it was bad at home as well. So she knew something was wrong and erm so even though it was quite stressful telling her it felt easier because I was almost forced into it basically."

Reactions of others to disclosure

When the participants did disclose their stammer to others they reacted in many different ways. In some cases the reactions of others affected whether the person stammering continued to talk about their stammer.

'Jane' told her oldest friend about her stammer during a drunken conversation when they were sharing deep secrets. However it wasn't mentioned again for ages because the friend was following 'Jane's' lead.

"She said 'God I'd never have known' and then it was never really mentioned again. And then I told her I was going on this course in September because I was meeting her on the night after the course. So that was a good excuse to tell her. I said 'I've just been to an evening class' and she said 'Oh what's that then?' And I told her all about it. She said 'Oh that's really good. You're doing something about it because I remember you mentioning it ages ago but you didn't seem to want to talk about it so I didn't.' "

'Leanne' has told about 5 of her friends with differing reactions. She disclosed most about her stammer to a male friend who reacted in an interested way.

"He's just been really good at slowly asking a bit more. And he's been really sort of curious. You know 'But how do you think like that? And how can you be like this, if you really think like that?' He's been really sweet."

One of Leanne's friends reacted in a negative way because she hadn't told her sooner.

"Her reaction was just like getting really 'OK. Fine. I don't know you at all then. See you later' kind of thing. And, you know, she was just like 'God I've known you for a year and we've just talked so much'. She was more like 'What is this whole thing about?' "

Both 'Jane' and 'Dave's' parents denied that the stammers existed. We've already heard how 'Jane's' mother said she'd grown out of it. 'Dave' described telling his mother he had an interiorised stammer.

"I have told her, yeah. But her reaction has been 'But you don't stammer'. I've tried to talk to her about it again but erm there just seems to have been really little interest."

Even if people are interested in talking about the stammering they can still find it hard to understand. 'Leanne' felt her parents understood her stammer better than anyone else yet she described how they still had difficulties.

"Erm there's the, you know, small things. I mean they do understand the fear you can have if someone is going to phone, or just the fact that you have to order a bus ticket can, you know, ruin you looking forward to some trip or something. But still when we sort of talk of it they say 'God, but do you really think about it like that?' And then they'll go you know 'We just never understand it a hundred percent.' And they took part in therapy when I was young."

The person who stammers may find it difficult to help their partner understand stammering. Dave described how he had failed to gain the interest of a previous partner in his stammer yet his current partner is very supportive. He now thinks that may have been because he hadn't been able to explain the stammer very clearly to his first partner.

"So to try to explain that to somebody else, that I'm actually avoiding words and blocking. It was harder to explain because I couldn't quite understand it myself I suppose........ And that's one of the big ways that therapy has helped. ..........Yep, and I'm sure if I could now explain it to him, he'd understand it just like my partner has now, so yeah."

Questions to promote discussion and sharing of experiences.

The person who stammers

1.Who have you talked to about your stammer and why?

2.Have you ever felt you were lying about your stammer?

3.How have others reacted to your disclosures?

4.If you would like to talk to others about your stammer, how can you best go about it?

Friends and family of the person who stammers

1.How much do you feel you understand about the person's stammer?

2.How have you reacted when someone has talked to you about their stammer?

3.Have you ever felt the person lied to you about their stammer?

4.How can you help someone talk about their stammer if they want to?

Speech and Language Therapists

1.How can you understand how someone thinks and feels about disclosing their stammer to others?

2.How can you help a person who stammers achieve their goals in disclosing their stammer to others?

3.How can you help their family, friends and colleagues support the person who stammers, if that is what they want?

© 2004 Louise Wright.

Louise Wright is a specialist speech and language therapist in the West of Cornwall Primary Care Trust.