Can you talk to your family about your stammer?

The article's authors. Trevor Bradley and Wendy Ronaldson

28th May 2020

Trevor Bradley and Wendy Ronaldson look back at what it was like to grow up with a brother or sister who stammers too.

At a recent online meeting of the Doncaster Stammering Association support group, one of the topics that came up for discussion was siblings and stammering. This was a subject of particular interest to members Trevor, Gillian and Wendy.

Trevor spoke about his brother, who stammers too, telling the group that when they were growing up, stammering was never discussed between them as it was a taboo subject back then. This was an experience shared by Wendy and Gillian, sisters who both stammer. Wendy explained to the group: "Even though we were, and still are, really close, we also never discussed stammering when growing up, again because it was a taboo subject." 

After the meeting, Wendy and Trevor (pictured above) were inspired to put pen to paper specially for Your Voice and write about their observations of stammering within their families. First up is Trevor's story, and you can read Wendy's by scrolling down.

Trevor & Terry

My brother and I never talked about 'it' until this year, 2021. 'It' being the fact that we both stammer. So why did we never talk about it growing up together? It was probably the age gap between us — Terry was born in 1944 and me in 1951, seven years apart. We didn't share activities or interests and I had my twin sister to play with, who didn't stammer.

Taboo is perhaps too strong a word to use. It was more like acceptance of the truth — acceptance that we both found it uncomfortable to talk about stammering, even though it was seen as normal within the family.

Now 77 years old, Terry told me, "I can't remember all the experiences from my younger days, but at school the thing I feared most was reading aloud in class. Each pupil had their turn and no one was excused!" I can only speculate that reading aloud advertised his stammer, making it public knowledge. If anyone forgot his name, Terry would be known as 'the tall boy in class who stammers'. My brother said he had a friend who sat next to him and also stammered, and they both got fed up with trying to be fluent. 

It was more like acceptance of the truth — acceptance that we both found it uncomfortable to talk about stammering, even though it was seen as normal within the family.

When he left school, Terry found a job, socialised and didn't hold back from talking to girls. He had NHS speech therapy in his younger days but couldn't remember if he found it beneficial. He told me his therapist was the only person he had talked to about stammering during his lifetime, until now.

Thankfully, he told me, he was never bullied because of his stammer. This was my experience too. And like him, reading aloud in class was something to fear, so I usually asked to be excused and thankfully this was granted. Terry pointed out that when I was confident in myself, I only had difficulty on a few words within a conversation, and that's what made the difference for me. At school, if I was challenged I did not back down, I would always fight back. 

Looking back, I viewed stammering as a fault that needed to be hidden from view. I saw myself as inferior, so the fear of being criticised and judged was just too difficult to handle. I saw stammering as a disability in that I couldn't always express myself the way I wanted. Now when I stammer, it doesn't bother me at all.

Being on my own I could cope with everyday life; keeping speaking situations to a minimum became normal for me. This was how I continued coping over the years, thus friendships were never easy.

In the ideal family, if one exists, all members should feel comfortable sharing their struggles and be willing to support each other. 

So, what I have learnt over the years of managing my dysfluency? Number one: there is no cure for stammering. I have wasted too many years searching for one. At the age of 18 or 19 I attended private speech and drama lessons to learn to speak expressively by reciting poems, monologues, tongue twisters, modulating my voice and pausing for emphasis. I secretly wanted to know how to make friends and have conversations. 

Some years later I joined a self-help group in my hometown of Rotherham. Great — a problem shared is a problem halved, and a chance to unlock my emotions and thoughts, and share them with others who have a similar experience. I had a two-week intensive therapy course in Sheffield with brilliant support from my firm, who paid my wages while I attended it. The next step moving forward was when I joined the Doncaster Stammering Association. With Bob Adams as Chairman, the mantra of the group is that communication is key, not fluency.

A man sitting facing the camera, with the title Share Your Story

These were the stepping stones to building my confidence in speaking situations. I was not alone anymore. So, seek help, support and guidance. It is out there. Make the effort, now, today.

I used to wish that my brother had approached me when I was younger and given me some tips on how to handle my stammer. In the ideal family, if one exists, all members should feel comfortable sharing their struggles and be willing to support each other. 

Wendy & Gillian

Gillian and I grew up in the 60s and 70s in a large family of nine, and we started stammering around the age of 5. I say 'we' because Gillian and I are identical twins. We cannot remember stammering at primary school although we were told that we did. We do remember being reserved, however we didn't want to be. We wanted to join in with the pantomimes and plays, but stammering got in the way. 

Sisters Wendy and Gillian as children
Sisters Wendy (left) & Gillian

We both clearly remember stammering throughout secondary school. We became aware of what it was called when our parents received a letter from the teacher. We were then asked if we wanted speech therapy and we both declined because we didn't know what the therapy consisted of. Our siblings and parents never spoke about our stammers all the while we were living at home. We think this was because we declined the therapy, so my parents thought it didn't affect us that much. But it did.

I suppose because there were two of us, it gave us a 50/50 chance of having to ask for things, so we went everywhere together.

We didn't know why we made these different speech sounds. All we knew was that these sounds were different to the other pupils. We both found school challenging due to being bullied and in the spotlight for being different — different because of our stammering. 

We didn't discuss with each other what we saw as our unusual speech. We wanted to but we didn’t know how, because it wasn’t talked about in society, unlike bullying; we did talk about our experiences of the bullying. Our discussions were about trying to avoid the bullies and the mimics, their actions and threats, and whether or not we should let our parents know what was going on. 

Our stammering experiences were subsequently driven from overt to covert in the hope that things would change for the better. They didn't, and it actually made things worse. We kept ourselves to ourselves and avoided the playgrounds, girly groups, school trips and canteen dinners. We didn't talk about our stammering until long after we left school. 

Generally, growing up together as twins with a stammer was an advantage. Although we didn't know how to talk about stammering, we would help each other to get what we needed from the shops or get home from school. We supported each other by asking for things, eg sausages rolls from the butchers, a quarter of sherbet dip from the sweet counter, or asking the bus drivers if this was the Goxhill school bus to get home. We discussed who was going to ask what at that moment in time. Whoever felt able enough, or less likely to stammer, would ask.

Having someone to talk to who also had a stammer was really significant. We grew up together, we both had the same experiences, and we knew each other inside out. And we knew what we discussed back then wouldn't go any further.

We had each other to fall back on if things didn't go to plan, which made things less stressful. If anything did go wrong, we discussed our plan of action on how to get by. For example at the butchers, we waited outside until the queue went down before going in so we felt less embarrassed or vulnerable, and pointed at the sausages behind the counter to minimise our stammers. 

I suppose because there were two of us, it gave us a 50/50 chance of having to ask for things, so we went everywhere together. If we felt embarrassed or stupid we would half joke about our embarrassment but also be frustrated at the same time. So having someone to talk to who also had a stammer was really significant. We grew up together, we both had the same experiences, and we knew each other inside out. And we knew what we discussed back then wouldn't go any further.

Artwork from the article's author Wendy
Some of Wendy's artwork

It was only later in life when I started sharing my paintings of my feelings around stammering with Gillian that it began to open doors for me. I used art to visually express my frustrations of not being able to get the words out or not being able to open up to family and friends about my stammer. But painting and sharing my work with my twin helped me to build up some resilience to my feelings around it. This enabled me to then access speech and language therapy, and eventually join the Doncaster group. 

As for Gillian, she started transporting classic cars with her partner Brian. "Whilst Brian was driving," she said, "I had to answer telephone queries from clients. This was a busy role which was initially frustrating and it left me feeling useless and distressed. Clients would talk over me or hang up and I would have to ring them back, which made it more frustrating. But after 4 and a half years, I was grateful for Brian's persistence in encouraging me to phone the clients back. This gave me more confidence and greatly helped with my stammer."

Gillian recently opened up and told me that when we were trying to get by in our younger years, it was special for her to have a sister who was in the same situation, someone that she could turn to and who would understand. For myself, looking back, I also cherished having a sister so close and in the same situation who I could confide in. 

Read more about how Wendy found her voice through art, in her article 'Wendy's stammering art'. If you'd like to write your own article, or share how you express yourself through art, poetry or whatever, see our Share Your Story page.

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