article

Mama with a stammer

| 15.08.2016

Heather is a teacher and a mum. Having speech therapy in her 30s brought home the costs of having hidden her stammer, in terms of opportunities missed, friendships lost and potential unfilled.

A few years ago, I took up blogging. Many people say that the reason they take up blogging is to give themselves a "voice". I think what people mean by this is that they welcome an opportunity to be heard, to put across their viewpoint and share aspects of their lives that they feel will be of interest and helpful to others. For me, blogging has literally given me a voice, because for a long time I didn't have one. That's because I have a stammer.

Woman with computer sitting on benchFrom being a little girl I was aware that I found speaking very difficult and struggled to make myself understood. I found that the easiest way to deal with it was just to stay quiet and not try to speak, as it was such an effort anyway and usually pretty pointless. The years rolled on and I remember being taken to speech therapy and being taught to blend words together. This helped for a while though I do remember being "discharged" and "cured" when I was about 8 - the truth was I had just got better at hiding it.

I do remember being "cured” when I was about 8 - the truth was I had just got better at hiding it.

Close-knit friends

I was lucky to never be bullied due to my stammer, I had a close knit circle of friends who I think in hindsight protected me from the world and would speak on my behalf. Opportunities were missed, potential unfulfilled as the years rolled on and I became used to being silent, hiding my “shame” alone and never ever speaking of it to anyone; even though I clearly did have a stammer, no-one ever mentioned it to me, or asked me about it, or suggested getting more help. I remember a teacher at school cruelly asking anyone in the class who had a stammer to put their hand up – I kept my hand down, and could see everyone looking towards me, how can people be so unkind?

I remember a teacher at school cruelly asking anyone in the class who had a stammer to put their hand up

Underachievement at university

But by far the hardest was to come – leaving the security of my close friends and venturing to University.  As I was quite academic I chose the best university that my predicted grades would allow – and was overjoyed when I got a place. No-one from my comprehensive school had ever been accepted to such a prestigious institution before.

Within the first few weeks it became clear that it was going to be very difficult to make friends if I avoided even saying my own name. Because my home friends had known me for years, I hadn’t really ever had to think about introducing myself, but suddenly, I had to do it all the time. Because of this, I would never ever speak to anyone in my lectures as I was terrified they would ask me my name and I knew it was a word I found torturously hard to say. There was no way I could face three years of total isolation, so by Christmas I had made up my mind to see out the year and then transfer to somewhere closer to home. Still now, I look back and can’t believe I didn’t ask for help, or just say to people – “bear with me, I have a stammer”, but I can honestly say it never once occurred to me.

Still now, I look back and can’t believe I didn’t ask for help, or just say to people – “bear with me, I have a stammer”

I managed to transfer to a lesser university and again had similar problems making friends due to my anxiety about speaking – if there was ever a “group project” I would end up with no group, and lost marks because of it. I went from being a straight A student to someone who scraped a 2:2 from a second rate university. To say it was horrendous is an understatement.

Move abroad

I was now faced with my next challenge - the working world. I was utterly terrified of using the phone and would have regular panic attacks thinking about what might happen if I was faced with this situation. After a few years of moving from job to job I decided to go and live abroad for a while, to try and "sort myself out".

This kind of worked. I actually found that slowing my speech down whilst speaking to non English speakers helped me a lot and enabled me to learn how to breathe properly when speaking. It also built up my confidence in my own ability to speak as I stopped worrying about the judgements of others - since they didn't know whether I was speaking English correctly or not! Amazingly for someone who found it hard to speak in English, I learned multiple languages and did not stammer when speaking them. I cannot scientifically explain this but it was an interesting and positive development. At last I had a voice.

I stopped worrying about the judgements of others - since they didn't know whether I was speaking English correctly or not!

Turning point

For a number of years I spoke fluently and confidently and became a primary school teacher – having to speak all day long!

But a few years later after getting married and having a child my stammer re-emerged, even though strangely I never stammer when I teach, (though I do know of others who do). I will never know why my stammer re-emerged, but it did. Maybe because I was tired, maybe it was neurological, who knows. But this time I decided to do something about it. After 35 years of never really speaking of it to anyone, I made an appointment to see a speech and language therapist.

This was a huge turning point for me. She taught me that it was not my fault, there was nothing to be ashamed of, it did not mean I was incompetent or I was a bad person, it was just something that happened to some people. During our sessions I cried inconsolably - for the opportunities missed, friendships lost, potential unfilled, but worst of all, my inability to face up to having a stammer and deal with it.

During our speech therapy sessions I cried inconsolably.

After many months of agonising sessions I eventually told my husband and parents what they (of course) already knew but had never ever mentioned to me - that I have a stammer and it has almost ruined my life. But it's also part of me, I started blogging because I had no other voice, and that has changed my life really positively. What this has taught me is how important it is to face up to things because generally they get worse, they don't go away. Now I don't care how I sound when I speak - it's just the way I talk and I'm glad I've finally found my "real" voice.

Funnily enough I have never stammered when teaching. For me it's like putting on a different persona, a mask, but in truth at the end of each day I am exhausted by "pretending" to be fluent. I haven’t yet tried opening up about the stammer to the children. However, I find that the more I speak aloud, the less I stammer generally. I recently joined a singing group, and found that singing had a very similar effect - maybe it's to do with some wiring in my brain. But it's a positive development anyway.

Now I don't care how I sound when I speak