I’ve had a stammer for more than 20 yearsOctober 22, 2020
‘Hadley!’ Hearing my name being whispered, I was crumbling inside.
I was 15 and performing in my school musical. Despite having a lifelong stammer, I’d always managed, but for the first time in my life, I couldn’t get the words out.
Underneath the glow of the stage lights, I could barely make out the vague shadows of the audience. But I knew that hundreds of people, including my classmates, were watching.
As a fellow cast member relayed my lines, desperately trying to remind me as though I’d forgotten, there was nowhere to hide.
The most frustrating part was that I hadn’t forgotten – I knew every word, I just couldn’t form them. I had no choice but to remain on stage and persevere. At the time it seemed to go on forever, but after 30 seconds or so, they finally came.
I’ve stammered since I was around seven years old, and that sense of panic is familiar. In some cases, a stammer might go away of its own accord, but for 3% of adults it’s a lifelong condition.
Today, on International Stammering Awareness Day, I’m reminded of those moments where it has defined me. I’m not ashamed of my stammer, but there are still things that cause pangs of discomfort.
I always knew it made me different. My brother stammered, too, and luckily, we were both naturally confident with brilliant, supportive parents.
To begin with, it was ‘hidden’ – to the casual observer I might physically ‘block’ on a certain word or occasionally prolong sounds, but I found techniques to manage my condition through NHS speech therapy – and I was determined to be a journalist.
With enormous mental effort, I also found ‘tricks’ to hide any struggles (such as ‘tapping’ my leg to a certain rhythm and speaking on cue, or changing certain words at the last minute), until mounting anxiety over my GCSE exams – and performing in the musical – forced my fears to the surface.
Suddenly, it was totally unpredictable.
I’d struggle with regular blocks, repetitions and facial distortions. The frustration of trying to articulate words and sounds would overwhelm me and I’d break down crying. I even feared words and sounds, like the letter ‘B’, which filled me with dread.
I fell into an unhealthy pattern – worried that my stammer was a burden to others, yet rarely talking about it. I remember it took me three months to even tell my first serious boyfriend.
It became the elephant in the room.
I’d spend months stammering covertly, usually when my anxiety was low, by avoiding eye contact, pretending to forget what I was saying, and being purposefully quiet in group situations. I’d pretend I was a fluent speaker, then something would happen in my personal life and I’d fall apart.
After university, I found it difficult to get work. My stammer was so visible that I’d scrape my teeth, struggling with jaw pain trying to ‘force’ my words out.
During one interview, I was so embarrassed that I burst into tears. I’d already told the interview panel about my stammer and they were incredibly patient and sympathetic, but it’s a miracle I still got the job.
When I was 21 years old, my parents encouraged me to try an intensive speech therapy course called The McGuire Programme. It focuses on self-acceptance and learning a diaphragmatic breathing technique called costal breathing. It was hard work but liberating.
We were taught physical and mental coping strategies to counter-act any fear and to confront challenging situations. One exercise involved taking our new breathing technique to the streets and introducing ourselves to as many people as possible.
We’d practice everyday situations like asking for directions or booking a hotel room over the phone. Rather than achieving fluency, the goal was to be eloquent, and honest about our stammer.
The programme wasn’t a quick fix or a cure, and there were daily exercises to practice (which I still do now). Still, no matter how much I’ve learnt to accept myself I know that others seem to have an issue with my speech.
Don’t get me wrong – I know how hard it is to support someone who struggles to get their words out. It is so under-represented in society and portrayals of stammering in films, such as the weak, pitiable Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, present us as someone to be laughed at.
A few years ago, I was introduced to an acquaintance in a bar. To take the pressure off, I decided to slow down and stammer ‘on purpose’. Something I’d learnt during The McGuire Programme to counteract the tendency many of us have to hold back.
‘H-Hi, I’m Hadley, H-How are you?’ I said.
Her first response was to mimic and mock my way of speaking by deliberating slowing down, emulating my repetitions and rolling her eyes. I was mortified.
‘Actually, I have a speech impediment,’ I said, defiantly.
Later, this woman came over crying and apologised. It’s one of the most humiliating incidents of my life and I wish situations like this could be avoided for everyone.
My hope for the future is that we don’t feel shy about the subject. I’d rather if someone feels uncomfortable or unsure about my stammer, they ask me about it. I want to find the best way for everyone to communicate and support each other.
I know that’s not easy. There’s always the fear of hurting someone’s feelings or embarrassing them. I encouraged my last boyfriend to ask questions if he wanted to.
My friends and family have had time to get used to it. They are so patient, although I’m sure seeing me struggle makes them feel helpless sometimes. I imagine they want to take away my stammer and soothe my embarrassment, and I love them for that.
I’m 30 years old now, and I’ve accepted it for what it is. I’m committed to sharing more with those around me. I’ll tell friends if I’m having a bad day, or if I need to practice my speech therapy techniques.
On a group holiday last year, my friend Alex was amazing – she reminded me how great I was doing and listened patiently as I practiced certain techniques to manage my stammer.
I haven’t let it hold me back. It’s shaped who I am and led me into the career I always dreamed of. But there are still those who find it funny or embarrassing, and I believe there are ways we can end the stigma.
If you’re close to someone who stammers – ironically – it’s OK to talk with them about it. Perhaps there’s a word that’s giving them trouble, a speech therapy course they’re doing, a presentation at work they need support with.
No matter what happens, we can’t let discomfort lead to judgement about someone’s speech.
This isn’t something I can change, but I’m grateful every day for the people I love who help me manage it.
For support and information, visit https://stamma.org/ or https://www.mcguireprogramme.com/en
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