Covert? Open? Proud?
(Above, Jack and his wife on holiday in Scotland)
26th September 2022
Jack Nicholas reflects on his covert stammering behaviours and explains how he's starting to think differently.
We are on holiday in Scotland. Walking, reading, exploring. Midweek, it rains. Cloud cover meets sea level. Dricht, damp and grey — this is a day to shop, mooch around, and laze over a meal that someone else has cooked.
A roadside café looks good. Orders are taken and eventually delivered. Mine is not what I thought I ordered. My wife's toasted sandwich is not toasted but slightly warmed to a pale stale whiteness. We question the meals. I am told, "It's what you asked for". Then, to my wife, "Chef says it's toasted". We agree it is a memorable meal. Will make a good story one day.
Not being noticed counts as success for a covert stammerer.
Later, the cashier asks, "Everything fine with the food?" "It was fine", I say. The sarcasm was unnoticed, as was I — which I often consider a good thing. Not being noticed counts as success for a covert stammerer. But the shame of keeping quiet was running riot in my head. First, my meal: was the wrong order my fault because of my stammer? Then, I had left my wife to query her unburnt offering. She is her own person and would not have expected otherwise, but still. And finally, when paying, should I have spoken up? Am I not complaining because I do not want to stammer? Does stammering somehow invalidate what I want to say?
Hiding my stammer
Questions like these have circled inside my head for decades. Like a stammer, they come and go, sometimes repeating endlessly, sometimes blocking out all other thought. As a child and teenager, I stammered often and obviously. I desperately wanted to hide my stammer. I did not know the term but I aspired to be a covert stammerer.
Looking back, I was probably never as successful at appearing fluent as I hoped.
In my twenties, I achieved that ambition using fluency shaping techniques learnt during speech therapy. I still remember the rush of relief and excitement the first time I answered the phone fluently. But that control remained fragile and uncertain, and, over time, I returned to all the tricks many wonderful speech and language therapists warned me against: avoiding words, avoiding speaking situations, changing what I was going to say. Despite encouragement from those same speech therapists, I was reluctant to acknowledge or talk about my stammer and discouraged any attempts to do so. Looking back, I was probably never as successful at appearing fluent as I hoped.
Is there pride in stammering?
During the pandemic, I suddenly found it harder to hide my stammer. I looked for help on the STAMMA website where a video of a Zoom conversation showed me a new way of thinking about stammering: Jonty Claypole and Betony Kelly discussed attitudes to stammering and fluency — including 'stammering pride' and being open about stammering.
Stammering pride is an emotive term. People say they can see nothing in stammering to be proud about, and, believe me, I understand that. For me, the pride is in two things: first, refusing to be ashamed of any disfluency; second, asserting the right of people who stammer to be treated fairly.
Stammering openly may not be easy, but it is liberating. And it is easier because there are so many people willing to help.
When you choose to be open about stammering, you say what you want to say however it sounds; you don't settle for what you think you can say fluently; you choose to speak, not staying silent because you don't want others to hear you stammer.
Stammering openly may not be easy, but it is liberating. And it is easier because there are so many people willing to help. For me, that help started with STAMMA and people talking on Twitter. Quickly followed by a giddy few months with support from so many people in so many ways: conversations with STAMMA staff and volunteers; Sam Simpson's and Patrick Campbell's City Lit course; reading and re-reading contributors to their book 'Stammering Pride and Prejudice'; Christopher Constantino writing about spontaneous stuttering and its impact on your quality of life; and so much more.
- Read about Chris Constantino's 'Stammering Gains', half-way down our article 'A day exploring Stammering Pride'
I had always thought stammering was something secret, hidden, shameful. It was a glorious shock to find a community of people sharing ideas, supporting and encouraging each other. People who will never know me have inspired me to dare to be different. As at that café, I often slip back into old covert ways. But I know that when I stammer openly and proudly, I am happier — and am probably a nicer person to have around!
Back to that Scottish holiday, a day or so later...
Brief blasts of sunshine. We are coming off the hill quicker than we went up. Cross the deer fence, drop down to a forest track. Beyond the birch and bracken, below the cliffs, a wrinkled sea. Cormorants skim the surface, wingtips rippling the water. A seal's head vanishes below the surface, like a conjuring trick. An ineffectual midge horde harry us half-heartedly, more it seems from a sense of duty than any blood thirst. And then, yellow honeysuckle encloses a red-berried rowan, blackberries ripen, and, where trees-end meets road-end, a carpark.
At the carpark, a kiosk selling coffee. I tell myself, "I speak two languages: fluent and stammer. I don't choose which I speak when; they choose me. But I can speak, and accept whatever is".
I order. One coffee is fluent, one not. We drink. Milky white; long black; compostable cups. The server asks, "Is everything OK?" I stammer, noticeably and carelessly: "Everything's perfect".
And just now, everything is.
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