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Out of the blue

Chris Todhunter | 01.12.2008

What's it like to develop a speech impairment in later life? Chris Todhunter was in a senior corporate position when he began to have difficulties talking.

The deal was coming together. It was quite a big one: hundreds of pages of closely-typed legal documents, hundreds of millions of dollars all over the place. And as Director of Legal Services I was sitting in the middle of it.

The phone rang. I lifted the receiver and listened. 'Right,' I said, 'I'll meet you in half an hour at Annnnnovery.' Damn, I thought, they'll think I'm drunk. I tried again. 'Allnnnnnnovery.' I tried again at half normal speed. 'All-en - and - Overy.'

I didn't think anything of it until I had reason to refer to our law firm again. The same thing happened, and I thought not much more of it, only that I must be more tired than I thought, and all I needed to do was to slow it down a bit and take care. So next time I had to refer to the firm, I paused slightly and said the words slowly and carefully.

I don't know that it actually happened, but I felt acutely as though everyone in the room turned and looked at me, as if to enquire as to the reason for the sudden change in pace. No matter, I preferred that to the inexplicable slurring from which I just couldn't escape, every time I spoke the words without taking the requisite degree of care.

I don't think the situation changed much before the deal closed and the pressure eased a bit. I hoped the slurring would go away as I managed to get more sleep, but it didn't. Within an appreciable period of time, I found there were other words I was tending to slur. I didn't read too much into it, deciding that all I had to do was take a bit of time and care and my tongue would usually do what it was told.

Then came the evening when a few of us dined out the old Chief Executive and dined in the new. We started with a sociable pint of beer, and it was during the main course, after a glass of red wine, that my tongue lost all discipline. I started to tell a very funny story but I became literally tongue-tied: my tongue just did not work. I engineered a coughing-fit and remained silent for the rest of the evening, merely joining in the general laughter. I became worried that alcohol was my problem, but was puzzled as I didn't usually drink during the week and fairly sparingly at week-ends.

Developing 'the block'

I laid off alcohol for two months, but nothing improved in my speech. I found I had to take more care with more words and eventually I found that the average speed of my speech was reducing in my attempt to enunciate more carefully. It became more acute over the phone and eventually I came to dread the phone - even at that early stage. I developed avoidance and evasion techniques and frequently ended up with tortured sentences. I found myself struggling to plan every word, every phrase, every sentence. I discovered 'the block'. Words just wouldn't come out. I think it was primarily as a result of my not knowing how to cope with the new speech difficulty. I did entirely the wrong thing: I pushed harder, got more determined to 'take charge' of my tongue. The more things didn't work, the harder I tried and the crosser I got. Net result, the whole works seized.

All this while I hadn't mentioned it at home to my wife. It was very much a question of what the 'it' was. Was it that my speech had got lazy through tiredness? Or was I becoming an alcoholic in the sense that I couldn't tolerate one glass and the effect was cumulative? Or was there something else? One evening I casually mentioned that sometimes my tongue didn't always do what it was told, and had she noticed anything? Her answer was of the 'yes and no' category: yes she had noticed something, but no it didn't present to her as a 'problem'. However she persuaded me to see the doctor which I did.

He asked a variety of questions of the type, 'have you noticed yourself becoming more clumsy recently?', he checked my reflexes, my ability to stand on one leg, and how steady I could hold my hands. He could find nothing specific but still referred me to a consultant neurologist. Neither he nor a further consultant in London, who gave me MRI and other scans, could find anything the matter with me.

In one sense I was relieved, but in another I was frustrated. Did this mean I would have to deal with this on my own? It looked like it. All I needed to do, I told myself, was imagine I was back on the parade ground at Dartmouth and take charge of muscles in my tongue and throat which had obviously got slack.

To this readership I don't need to say that things got significantly worse rather than better. I was 45 years old, in a senior corporate position in a specialist professional capacity - and I sounded drunk: slurring my speech and compensating by speaking slowly and trying to enunciate clearly. I felt I was becoming a laughing-stock and losing the dignity that someone in my position ought to have. My confidence ebbed away.

Moving on

It was a significant factor in my decision to leave my job, and in our decision as a family to move up to the west of Scotland. This turned out to be a good move because our new GP referred me to the Speech and Language Therapy department in the local hospital. There Pauline did wonders for me: taught me the necessity of relaxing the throat muscles, and how to do it; how to soften the hard consonants; how to breathe while speaking; how to regain confidence for speaking on the phone. In short, she gave me a tool-box of techniques for managing the bad days. It took a few sessions for me to recognise and accept what I was, but without any pressure from Pauline one day I realised what I had become: a stammerer.

I realised what I had become: a stammerer. It made it so much easier to bear, giving it a name and knowing I was not alone

It was like a sudden release. It made it so much easier to bear, giving it a name and knowing I was not alone - indeed, I was in the company of so many wonderful and ordinary and sane and sober people, as I discovered through the BSA. I enjoyed reading articles by my fellow stammerers, basking in their companionship through the pages. I was slightly disappointed that there weren't many articles by people who had acquired stammering later in life, but that was a minor detail.

But the bad days were still there. Too often speaking felt like trying to wade through treacle, always made worse by stress, tiredness or that injudicious glass of wine.

One day I was referred for other reasons to a neurologist in Glasgow. (Incidentally, 'neurologist' is not a stammerer's favourite word ...) It was not long before he diagnosed neurological causes for it all, the detail of which need not detain us here. I had been on the point of signing myself off with Pauline on the basis that I thought she had given me all the sharpest tools in the shop and it was now up to me to practise using them. But I held back until I had had the medical diagnosis. Pauline and another of her colleagues were able to give me a few more tips relevant to my condition and then I signed off.

Recently I guess I have let my techniques slip and let the tools get a bit blunt, concentrating more on maintaining my balance and other things. But then reading articles in a recent edition of Blether (the BSA Scotland newsletter) by Jeffrey Blitz and Jeremy Campbell reminded me that I am not alone in facing these enormous pressures, and that with a bit of discipline (principally relaxing in my case) I can control my situation.

I am particularly struck by the number of stammerers writing in the BSA magazines who were never referred to speech therapists. I guess this is because of the postcode lottery. I was extremely lucky to get an NHS referral - and to such a wonderful speech therapist too! If I was so lucky as to get a therapist at all and a good one at that, where does that leave others who are less lucky? I would say that the pages of the BSA magazines are an excellent starting (and developing) point. There is companionship and support to be had, as well as information. Even better, if you can get in with a group of other stammerers they can pass on techniques and ideas. Above all, I suggest it's a matter of realising you are not alone in your struggle (so relax), and your audience don't care a fig if you stammer (so you can relax even more).

From the Winter 2008 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 10 and 11.