Darren Stockford recounts how an intensive City Lit course helped him loosen the grip that stammering had on his voice and his life.
Ironically, the term 'lifelong stammerer' rolls quite easily off my tongue. I've often used it to describe myself to anyone who's asked about my speech problems. It's a concise but, unfortunately, very basic definition of the battle I've been fighting for more than three decades.
While it paints a picture of someone who struggles with speaking, it doesn't convey the feelings I've experienced - the helplessness, anxiety, panic and, in some cases, sheer terror. It doesn't conjure up a picture of someone who's spent years dreading any kind of change in his life, in case he has to meet new people or go into new environments. It doesn't suggest a man whose own name is a source of worry because he sometimes finds it difficult to say.
In February I was made redundant, and I hit rock bottom. I was exhausted, and tired of living only half a life; of being a burden to my wife; of feeling scared of everything. I decided I had nothing to lose by trying some group speech therapy, so I booked a place on the next available course at City Lit in London, which I'd heard about through the British Stammering Association.
The start of a new beginning
The three-week, full-time block modification course didn't focus on, or teach, fluency. It was about accepting stammering, and learning strategies to lessen the impact it has on my life - both mentally (not viewing it negatively when I stammer) and physically (bringing some comfort to the way I stammer).
There were eight people in the group - six males and two females, whose ages ranged from early twenties to sixty. Of the three tutors, two stammered themselves, though both had excellent control of their speech. I found the tutors easy to talk to; they were open, listened well and encouraged the sharing of experiences and thoughts.
In week one, there was a lot of work on the way that thoughts create feelings. It's a simple concept, but revelatory for someone like me who'd been trapped in negative spirals of thought - and therefore feeling - for years.
At the same time, I was given tools to strip down my stammer to its core components - ditching starters and fillers (such as 'um'), losing physical crutches (such as tapping my foot), and stopping the things I would do to avoid stammering, such as pretending to think for a moment. The most important thing was to say the word I wanted to say and keep eye contact, no matter how much I was stammering.
Results from really hard work
By the middle of the first week, I was stammering openly, with hardly any avoidance behaviour. It might seem like a curious process at this stage - unmasking my stammer. I felt raw and exposed, but it needed to be done if I was to successfully use the block modification techniques that would be taught in the second week.
With my stammer naked, the next step was to speak outside - the one aspect of the course I'd been dreading. As I left the classroom with another student by my side and my stammer blowing a gale around my head, I walked into a newsagent to ask for a box of matches. I blocked hard, but the man I spoke to was patient, and I was rewarded with the next best thing, a disposable lighter, which I took back to the classroom as a trophy.
The people I stammered in front of didn't bat an eyelid, but I'd be lying if I said I was comfortable. When I got home that night I cried my eyes out, so intense were the emotions the day had dredged up. I knew it needed to be done, though; I could sit in a classroom all day but it wasn't the real world. And once I'd taken that step, once I'd stammered at a cashier in Starbucks and let out all that pent-up emotion at home, I felt pretty good. I'd been out of my comfort zone and survived.
There were more outside tasks, usually when we'd been taught something new, so we could experiment. Many found that voluntary stammering - adding fake stammering on non-feared words - was a big challenge. When you've spent most of your life trying not to stammer, it can be a wrench to do it on purpose. But the idea - to give the speaker a feeling of control, and to ease the pressure of waiting for the first real stammer to occur - makes a lot of sense. It's a form of 'self-advertising' - being upfront and open about stammering.
The tutors didn't pressurise anyone to do anything. It was surprising, though, how much confidence I gained by being in a class with other people who stammer. It was desensitising being around stammering all day, and liberating to be able to speak freely and be listened to.
In the second week, two block modification techniques were introduced. Post-block was harder for me to get a handle on, and it wasn't something I felt I'd be likely to use outside the classroom. But in-block modification was a revelation, and I quickly started to try to use it every time I stammered - something I'm still doing now, to the extent that it's become second nature when I'm talking at home.
So much more than confidence
After two weeks, with the main part of the course complete, there was a four-week break to allow everything to sink in. My confidence was blooming and my speech was better than it had been for ages (a side-effect of my increased confidence was much more fluency), but I was aware it would be easy to slip into old thought patterns and avoidance behaviours. So I pushed forward with my desensitisation. My block modification fell by the wayside in feared situations, but I was proud to be facing them.
After four weeks, it was good to see everyone again for the final three days of the course. There was a bit of revision before the third technique, pre-block modification, was taught. Though the concept was easy to understand, I haven't slipped into using pre-block in the same way that I took to in-block, which is my new best friend.
Two months on from the first lesson, I'm feeling much more at peace with my stammer, both mentally and physically. Though I still have moments where I feel my thoughts turning negative, I can quickly pick myself up using the ideas I learnt. I know it's early days, but at least I have a bit of positivity to start building on. And if I do slide downhill, I know it's reparable.
My speech has changed for the better. Instead of wrestling with blocks, I'm stammering more comfortably. I hold eye contact without even thinking about it, and there's virtually no word replacement, which I think is what has helped me to feel calmer. Speaking without a jumble of thoughts spinning through my head is liberating. I've had brief lapses, sure, but I catch myself and analyse what I'm doing.
I still struggle with phones, but face to face I'm going into more feared situations and doing what I want to do, such as ordering takeaways and buying train and cinema tickets. While these appear to be everyday tasks, they're things I hadn't done for a huge chunk of my adult life. In some ways, it feels like I've rejoined the human race.
I just have to be myself
The best thing to come out of the course is the realisation that I have the right to be listened to and treated just like anybody else. Telling people that I stammer was something I already did before I started the course. But through meeting other people who stammer, I've realised just how important this act is.
Trying to hide stammering increases its power over me. The more matter-of-factly I treat my stammer, the less likely it is to bother me or anybody listening. I hope it follows that the more people come into contact with people who stammer openly and unashamedly, the less the burden on everybody who stammers. Then the condition will be well on its way to becoming 'normalised' and understood.
At the beginning of this piece, I described my stammering as a 'battle I've been fighting'. The City Lit course has taught me that I don't have to wage war; that stammering isn't about winning and losing. Sometimes, fighting for peace can be like looking for darkness with a torch. Not that I'd want to try right now - I've only just started to enjoy the sunshine.
Postscript: One month after the course ended, I started a new job, having attended two interviews at which I was completely open about stammering.
From the Autumn 2007 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 14-15