article

Stammering no longer defines me

| 12.05.2015

How one person who stammers had a life-changing realisation in a therapist-led support group – and decided his stammer was not going to affect his life.

I'm now 60, so as my earliest memory is from about age 5, my story starts 55 years ago.

Throughout my childhood, until I got to 16 and started work, I was seriously mentally and physically abused by my mother. I have had a stammer since a young age, and my elder brother (15 months older than me) also stammers. I recently obtained some of my school reports, which started to mention speech difficulties from the age of 6/ 7 years. 

I believe I was taken to speech therapy once but I have no definite recollection of that. However all through my childhood my mother claimed that the speech therapist had said that I 'was putting it on'. It was of course highly unlikely that anything like that was said by the therapist, but that is what I was told and of course that sticks with you.

Another very early memory is being beaten by my Mum for being left-handed. I regularly had my left hand tied behind my back. Anytime I was caught using my left hand I was hit. My first school compounded that by keeping me in at break times to 'practice' my handwriting - in other words to write with my right hand. So although I was born left-handed from the age of 5/6/7, I was compelled to be right-handed. The effect of that I believe has made me poor at anything involving co-ordination - such as sport. I'm especially poor at things like darts and also my handwriting isn't at all good. I've read articles that claim a link between stuttering and forced right-handedness but of course I've no idea whether it was triggered by that, or another reason, or genetic.

Another very early memory is being beaten by my Mum for being left-handed.

School days

My school days were a daily nightmare as, besides being bullied at every school I went to, there was little understanding from the teaching staff of how to handle a child who stammers. I'm assuming it's very different now, I certainly hope so!? On a scale of 1 to 10, my stammer was probably an 8. Every day, or it seemed like that, I was asked to read something out, or answer a question in front of the class. This of course gave a continuing opportunity for humiliation and mocking. I hated school and had very few friends.

As I mentioned, I got hold of some of my school reports recently. These showed so many signals including erratic academic performance that there was something wrong with my home life yet nothing was ever picked up. One term I'd be close to the top of the class in a subject, then the next I'd be at the bottom, with various comments such as 'unable to concentrate/ shows no interest in the subject/ failure to hand in homework etc. etc.' I think the fact that I was from a middle class family didn't help. My father worked away from home through most of my childhood, so wasn't aware of how badly abused I was.

Edinburgh masker

Despite an abusive, unhappy childhood and being prevented by my mother from doing any school work at home so not being able to revise for my O levels, I passed a few and left school at 15 to start work as a trainee accountant. Moving out of home at 18, I was married and a father at 20. I think I was about 30 and working for a local authority when I heard about a device called the ‘Edinburgh Masker'. I went to my GP and told him about it, and he referred me to a speech and language therapist. I was offered speech therapy but declined that and said that I'd just like to be given one of the electronic fluency devices I'd heard about. It was a battery box with a lead to two ear pieces and to a collar-type arrangement which went round my neck. When I spoke I'd have a buzzing in my ears so that I couldn't hear what I was saying.

It was really quite effective and I could hide the contraption pretty well with having long hair. Although unwieldy it gave me the confidence to talk in a public forum, for the first time. As a result of that new-found confidence, I became the Chairman of the Union branch which meant chairing quite large meetings as well as Committees etc. I didn't use the speech contraption often but it served a very useful purpose at that time because I was pretty fluent when I used it and I was grateful to have had it. I used it for maybe 12 months. Probably my stammer would have been about a 6 out of 10 at that time.

Support group

Fast forward to my mid-to-late 30s, I had 2 children, a mortgage etc and a decently-paid job in the NHS.  My stammer had improved (probably a 5 out of 10) but it was still the way I defined myself and the way that others often defined me. I tried very hard not to 'hide behind' my stammer or to avoid anything just because I stammered, but in truth I did. It was something that was on my mind every hour of the day and whenever I spoke.

Then, as part of my job in the NHS, I met a speech and language therapist who was naturally professionally interested in finding out what type of therapy I'd had. She invited me to join a stammering group at the hospital we both worked at. I went along, with some reluctance and mainly because I felt I should support the idea. In the event, I quite enjoyed it though and joined in for a number of weeks with whatever was going on. I wasn't expecting that anything was going to happen there to improve my stammering - it was more a support group than therapy.

I suddenly twigged that if I didn’t stammer, my life wouldn't be any different at all to what it was.

After a few weeks we did an exercise one evening which was about identifying what life was like now with a stammer and what it would be like without a stammer. Group members all had to think about it and then report back in turn. I listened to a number of others telling us about how awful their life was with a stammer and saying that without it they would have e.g. a better job, a girl friend, a better car, their own house or whatever. That session turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. I suddenly twigged that in fact my life wouldn't be any different at all to what it was. I stood up and said that if I didn't stammer I would have the same job, the same wife, the same children, the same friends etc etc. I was a stammerer but so what? I don't think I went back to the stammering group after that though I did thank the therapists that ran it.

The realisation that stammering didn't need to be the negative that I'd let it become was transformational and truly life-changing. From that day I simply came to terms with the fact that I'd always stammer but it was really no big deal and wasn't going to affect my life at all. OK, I may take a bit longer to get my words out but what difference does a few seconds make to anything? I was different to most other people but we are all unique.

Career took off

Following that session, my career took off almost immediately. I believe that was due to a great extent to my newly-discovered confidence that there was no reason why I couldn't achieve what I wanted to. In the past 20 years since then I've worked at a very senior level in the NHS. I've been Chief Executive at 4 Healthcare organisations, an Advisor to the Department of Health and worked at Director level for more than 20 GP OOH services. Over that period I've spoken in public many times doing presentations etc. That's not to say I particularly enjoy doing presentations but neither do many other people. I don't try and hide my stammer (not that I can), I just talk the way I always do and have not experienced any problems. In fact, I often sense that people warm to me because I'm at ease with my stammer.

If I could choose not to stammer would I do so? Yes, of course but it really wouldn't make a great deal of difference to anything about my life. When my granddaughter asked my wife why Granddad talked like he does she told her that I had a stammer and explained about it. So it's just a matter-of-fact thing for her. In my work now and my social life I meet many people and can honestly say that I don't have the slightest problem communicating. There are (at least) two positive things about having a stammer. One is that people remember me. I can talk to someone on the phone I've not met for many years and they will immediately say - 'is it Mark'? I like that as it’s better to be memorable! The second positive is that I think that my experiences of being bullied for being a stammerer have made me kinder and perhaps more supportive of 'the underdog', or those who have difficulties. I like to think that I can see the positives and strengths in people, whereas some only seem to see the negatives.

I know this may not be the case for everyone but the benefit I got from contact with Speech Therapy services was in learning to live with my stammer. The fact that I never sought conventional speech therapy as an adult maybe shows that it wouldn't have been for me? I'm very grateful indeed to have benefited from the skills of the speech therapists I chanced upon only because I worked in the NHS. If my experiences can be used to benefit any other person who stammers I'd be delighted.