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  • Writer's pictureMichael Ratcliffe

Stammer, Be Gone

Stammering has been likened to an iceberg by therapists: only the tip of the iceberg shows above the surface but the bulk of it is hidden under the water. From my own personal experience I can tell you that a stammer is something sufferers battle with daily, not just because of the outward struggle with speaking, but with the anxiety, shame and frustration that is felt every single time we go to open our mouths. It is a condition that is poorly understood; unsurprising given that sufferers spend their energies desperately hiding it from others.

I have spent 24 years trying to hide my stammer from the world; it's exhausting and I have decided enough is enough. And so finally I made the decision to confront mine instead, in the form of volunteering for the British Stammering Association (BSA). I'd be lying if I said it has been easy; bounds of unrelenting and deep-rooted shame I have squirrelled away over the years resurfaced in an instant and continue to contribute to a very emotional start to 2018. But after only the first couple of sessions with the BSA team, I have already started to feel overwhelming relief too in my decision to accept my stammer.

I hope that by finally accepting and opening up about this part of myself, I might just help educate those who are fluent ('normal' speakers) and offer some level of reassurance to other members of the stammering community that whilst a stammer is hard work, it does not mean the end.

Some basics

It is well documented that it is around the age of 5 when most stammers develop but there is no known cause, only some evidence that a range of factors, from neurological to environmental, can contribute to their development. On average about 5% of children will struggle with a phase of stammering and a quarter of these will go on to live with one for life. Because there is no known cause, there is sadly also no cure, only ways in which to help sufferers better control and manage their speech. Many of you will know that stammers range in severity from one that is now mild like mine and nowadays fairly manageable, through to severe with sufferers struggling to get out any words at all. I cannot stress how much, regardless of severity, a stammer impacts you mentally, emotionally and sometimes even physically.

How has it affected me?

Honestly, in every way possible when it has come to interaction and speech. It's difficult to explain, but when I wake up in the morning I can immediately tell whether or not it'll be a good day or a bad day with my stammer and this can directly impact my plans. Just a few examples below:

  • Meeting anyone new can be difficult anyway, but throw a stammer into the mix and the anxiety of it can be overwhelming. Before I meet someone new I'll be thinking about what I'll have to talk about, the names/words I'll need to use and whether or not they'll notice and say something. Though it is wrong to assume that a stammer is a sign of nerves in general, my stammer is worse if I am nervous so stressful situations don't help; it's a vicious cycle.

  • School was understandably difficult; children are cruel and my stammer was a central part of the bullying I endured. Teachers would still of course encourage me, like any other student, to get involved and interact, but being asked to present and/or read out was a nightmare realised and when it came to talking about University and work life, it deafeningly played on my mind...would I be good enough? Would they want me?

  • If I'm having a bad day and know I'll struggle with certain letters/sounds, I avoid them. This has led to scenarios where I have: ordered something entirely different in a coffee shop when I get to the till, shortening my name to Mike (which incidentally I hate), pretending I've forgotten certain words mid-sentence in the hope that whomever I am speaking to will fill in the gap and, in the worst cases, avoiding speaking entirely (though those of you who know me will know that is very rare).

  • And then there is work...some sufferers can simply not get a job either because their stammer makes them unsuitable or because they are too anxious to endure it. Sadly, some sufferers have been known to give up on their dream jobs or to never strive for promotions because their anxiety about stammering is too much. My work makes me anxious everyday; when I am in the office I do have to use the phone as part of my job which sufferers can tell you is a huge source of torment. When I'm out running one of our conferences, I am constantly meeting and talking to new people which leads to the difficulties outlined in the first bullet. That being said, I do prefer speaking face to face than by phone and so this often helps in real life environments.

Stammering in the media

There have been a few examples over the years (think Gareth Gates, The Kings Speech etc), but one in particular really struck a chord with me. A few months ago a video clip went viral of the GoggleBox cast watching a 16-year old called Musharaf overcome his debilitating stammer as part of the Educating Yorkshire series. Casual talking was very strained and difficult for him but after working with his English teacher, the episode ended with him making a speech to his school and classmates.

It is difficult to describe what this moment would have meant for this kid; he will have been overwhelmed with pride, relief and emotion in his hard work, and he would have been terrified to test himself in such a stressful setting in front of people I have no doubt will have bullied him for it over the years. The reactions of the GoggleBox cast was really heartwarming and you could clearly see it was opening their eyes to a condition very foreign to them. And yet, in the final few seconds, one of them ends with 'I wouldn't want him to read me a bedtime story!' Musharaf was reduced to a cheap punch line and believe me, this will have unravelled more of that new found confidence than you can possibly imagine.

My point here is having a stammer is like being trapped in your own head with no voice at all. It's stressful and embarrassing and often met with impatience and mockery; so when people try, a little compassion and understanding goes a long way. Just think about that should you ever come across someone who stammers, or indeed someone who is differently abled in general. Don't mock, don't stare, don't laugh. Ask questions, learn and offer encouragement.

A final thought

As I mentioned, I have only just started training with the BSA ready to get involved in a few elements of their operation. Despite my stammer I survived school, I survived university, I survived job interviews and today, I survive a job within which talking is crucial. No part of this journey has been easy but the resounding takeaway here is that it has not stopped me. This volunteering opportunity will not only give me the platform on which to help and reassure others that are suffering, but will also be, and has already been, cathartic for my own struggle.

If you are struggling, you are not alone. Reach out.

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