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Me and my mate, Stammer

John Ayerst | 01.02.2013

Summarising his new book of ‘random recollections of a stammering survivor’, John Ayerst explains how getting speech therapy later in life has helped him to fulfil his true potential.

I simply must introduce you to my mate, Stammer. He and I have known each other for nearly 60 years, but did not become close friends until 15 years ago when I attended my first BSA Conference. That weekend completely transformed my life and changed forever the nature of that long relationship with my stammer. Instead of treating him as an enemy, we became allies and now work together in perfect harmony. He never lets me get too complacent and crops up every now and then to keep me on my toes. When he does I just smile, pause and press on with what I was saying, before being so rudely interrupted!

This wasn’t always the case. For over 40 years, since first becoming aware of my stammer at the age of seven, I dreaded its constant reappearance and it was the direct cause of much suffering and humiliation. My earliest experiences of speech therapy were not successful. The first therapist, a dragon of a woman, was nothing but a bully. Later, I was taken to a famous specialist in Harley Street, who afterwards told my mother that he had never come across a case quite like mine! Well, I may have been an interesting case but it didn’t stop me from being a nervous wreck!

My experiences as an adult were just as bad. I always left therapy sessions feeling discouraged, depressed and a failure. This didn’t change until I was nearly 50 in 1995 when, after losing another job because of stress, I asked my doctor to recommend me for further speech therapy, eleven years after my last session. I was willing to try anything. This time it was different. I was seen by a woman young enough to be my daughter, who suggested that I should make a friend of my stammer, talk to family and friends about it and not regard it as something shameful. For the first time I left the session feeling positive and liberated from fear. Yet after they ended I was once again left feeling isolated and alone. At work I was regularly told that everybody knows stammering is only psychological, and with a few visits to a therapist and a bit of will power, I would be cured. In other words, it was my own fault that I continued to stammer.

Being confident in our authentic selves

Yet all was not lost. Two years later I came across the BSA and booked a place at its annual Conference. It far exceeded my expectations; in fact I was absolutely flabbergasted by the whole weekend, which had a very healing effect on me. The most important single workshop I participated in was one on speaking circles. In it, I learnt that probably the greatest secret in communication is authenticity. If we are strong and confident in our authentic selves, public speaking becomes natural and a real connection is made between speaker and listener. I was empowered to embrace my stammer as an integral part of me. My speech therapist taught me the theory of making a friend of my stammer. The Conference taught me how to actualise this theory and make it a living reality.

Later, partly as a result of an excellent election speech which I was told I had made at a local disability charity’s AGM, I became its Chair. I was able to put into practice everything I had learnt, which helped me steer the charity through some very difficult and controversial changes with more confidence than would have been possible in my pre-BSA days.

This is not to say that everything in my life since has been sunshine and happiness. Over 40 years of coping with the submerged two-thirds of the stammering iceberg had left me with a history of what my doctor labelled nervous depression. Yet the love and support of my wife, Gabrielle, and the extraordinary fellowship experienced within the BSA, has enabled me to be the person I was meant to be and to be strong in my own authenticity.

Since my wife and I moved to Berwick upon Tweed over four years ago, I have taken on a new lease of life and feel at last that I am achieving my true potential. In no more degree, I owe that change to the BSA. So, if any member reading this hasn’t yet been to a Conference, they should go to the next available Open Day. It could change your life forever.

From the Spring 2014 edition of Speaking Out, p12