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Damaged sentences

I am a woman who stammers.

I belong to a group of people that is 1% of the adult population – those who stammer. And there are four men to every woman who stammers, so that’s pretty rare. Added to that, I was born on 29 February 1968, so I’m a Leap Year baby, what are the odds on that? A rare creature indeed!

I’ve stammered for as long as I can remember, since I was a child of four when I forced out my vowels and bumped out hard consonants like C, G and especially double consonants, CR and GL are a killer! You speak to anyone ‘not in the know’ and they would say “Just talk slower and the words would sort themselves out. Just think about what you say before you say it.” Stammering really doesn’t work like that. To all intents and purposes it is a disability, because it impacts on a stammerer’s daily life and it is covered by the Disability Act of 2010. However, we people who stammer don’t consider ourselves disabled. It is certainly a communication disorder, neurological in origin, ‘wiring in the brain’, much similar to how dyslexia, dyspraxia, Aspergers, ASD conditions, work.

To explain further, stammering is not as a result of nerves. It is exacerbated by nerves, certainly, but the disorder affecting speech production and verbal communication is there from birth, probably pre-birth. The exacerbation of a stammer, in childhood as speech and language develops, would depend upon the child’s societal, hormonal, environmental, situational and interpersonal development. For example, conditioned as a result of receiving negative responses to the staccato dysfluency of speech.

Right, enough of the fact, what about me, this woman who stammers? Well, I was an Army child, the younger of two with an older brother, so a much-loved, easy-going child with a secure, if gypsy-like upbringing. My mum used to be proud of the fact that despite going to 12 different schools in 14 years, I never once missed a day’s schooling as a result of a move. Education and home-life was secure. We didn’t do the foreign holidays that is commonplace now, in fact we came home to England or Wales for our summer holidays – Tenby and Cornwall were favourite places, as well as the Black Forest and treks around north-west Germany. A happy, relatively free-range upbringing. As far as I’m aware there was nothing traumatic in my child. I just had a stammer.

Moving to Liverpool – my parents’ childhood home – aged 11 was when the stammering hit me as a problem. It was a tender age anyway, previously looked after by both the Army lifestyle and doting parents, I was thrown into the maelstrom of comprehensive education in a sprawling Liverpool suburb. It was a culture shock on all fronts for a pre-pubescent. My brother and I had different accents from these ‘in yer face’ Liverpudlian ‘Scouse’ adolescents and we learned to adjust in our different ways. He learned to communicate with his fists (he was 13); I withdrew into myself more. I just didn’t want to speak as I was both laughed at for my accent and my stammer. I did, however, get by in my own inimitable way. I lived in my head a lot; always good at English I wrote voraciously – stories in which it was more important for characters to be fluent and nicely spoken than it was to be beautiful.

People who stammer are good at avoiding words and situations, constantly scanning sentences ahead in their minds, word switching and substituting, sometimes with such skill that the listener can’t tell. Self-delusion is common, of course; the listener sometimes, even often, can tell; they just don’t let on. The more mature, more comfortable, more confident of people who stammer, who can handle it well, rely less on the highly stressful word-switching and either use techniques learnt in therapy or simply confidently stammer on regardless.

So how does it feel to stammer, when it is at its worst? Well, stammering is so more than peppering a sentence with a few extra sounds or syllables. It can involve the heart-wrenching realisation that the word won’t come out of my mouth no matter how hard I try. The standing there, eyes wide or blinking, frantically trying to search for a synonym to use instead. Some other word, any word, that can express what I want to say, while seamlessly placing a plaster over my damaged sentence. The word eventually comes out, but with a few modifications. It is distorted, as if a magician has taken out a bouquet of dead withered roses instead of blossoming red ones. No one knows about the clearly thought-out sentence in my head, or that I’d been silently repeating the correct word over and over. So it can have a damaging effect on one’s self-esteem and desire to communicate, as I learned over the years and I became a covert stammerer and avoidance and secrecy became an ingrained personality trait.

Did it stop me doing what I wanted to do? No, for the most part. I’ve gotten to where I want to be though this could be more to do with the military upbringing than anything, the ‘not giving up’ mentality. Independence weaved with pride which was intertwined with a bubbling desire to never let the bloody thing stop me, no matter how much I cried at night as a teenager.

I had good parents who encouraged me and I did O levels, A levels and went to university to do first a Bachelors’ degree, then a Masters. I bought my own home at the age of 27 and did the bachelor woman about town bit. I lived on my own, ran a car and had a good job as a school administrator. I pushed myself, yes, for whatever reasons I wouldn’t give into the very easy route ‘I can’t do this’. A friend of mine said to me very recently “you were a woman before your own time, Lesley” which I never really got but I think I do now.

Now, I work in the very people-orientated profession of adult and community education, where confident speaking and communication forms the main part of my job, including the dreaded telephone. Managing a team of tutors and organising courses that often constitute a career or life change for many adults is stressful and ‘not being able to speak’ can be hugely disabling. I have gone through a wide variety of emotions, including the ‘aaagh someone hung up on me’ mortification after making a much avoided phone call and the ‘stammering chip on the shoulder’ when feeling isolated and ‘no-one understands me’. Getting to the end of a day, or evening when running night-school, was frequently an achievement in itself and one that many non-stammerers would not really appreciate. It is one, however, that all people who stammer, no matter how apparently fluent they appear, will identify with.

Coinciding with the realisation that my marriage was falling apart, I went to a British Stammering Association conference in Durham in September 2009, which introduced me to a whole new realisation – other people stammered!! After the post-conference liberation faded, I reconciled the new-found confidence back into my real world. I realised then that there was no ‘fluent’ world and a ‘stammering’ world, it was just all one, with unique people in it and that we just ‘happen’ to stammer.

A covert stammerer kids herself by saying ‘my speech was okay this week, phew I got away with it again’. It is a way of coping and for the most part it works, as it looks like, to the world, you’re coping, which in the short-term is good. I realised, however, that this was not healthy as I was still letting the stammer win – either stammering or not stammering becomes the main aim in your life and that started to annoy me. Changing this thinking over the past six years, along with the other more fundamental changes in my life, has brought me to the point I am now.

I am 47. I’ve achieved a life-long dream of completing and publishing a novel, left my husband and have been separated for three years. I have been plagued with depression for other reasons than the stammer, but I am as happy as anyone else can be. I feel positive, with a stammer that used to be disabling but is now just a nuisance, that I have to cope with when it happens. I have friends who stammer who are running support groups and going on the radio. I am doing inductions at night school, picking up the phone with alacrity, undoing that temptation to avoid situations and phone calls, contributing more willingly in meetings with the words I want to say not words that I can say without stammering. I feel confident enough now to appreciate the skills I do have and to utilise them as best I can. One of those is to write articles that hopefully will encourage at least one more covert stammerer to stop passing the phone to someone else.

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