The emotional toll of stammering is not understood enough
Ellis Collins writes candidly about the effects of negative responses to his stammer, as well as working as a Lifeguard.
I've had a stammer ever since I can remember. There are times when I don't stammer much, if I'm with close friends for example, but I've come to terms with the fact that I'll never be 100% fluent.
As I've got older (I'm 42), I've asked myself more and more whether I class my stammer as a disability. When applying for jobs, I'm always in two minds whether I should mention it on the application form. When I applied for my first job, I put it down as a disability. When the lady asked me about it, she said politely that she didn't really class it as one. I was only 18 or 19, and I kindly nodded and didn't force the issue. Now that I'm older and know that stammering can legally be classed as a disability, I definitely would say in any interview that it is.
I think what's not spoken about enough, or understood by the majority of people that don't stammer, is the amount of mental and emotional toll it takes on a person, especially when they are young. I had a very sheltered upbringing. I had a controlling and overbearing mother. My father wasn't around much. My stammer was something that wasn't spoken about, it was hidden. If I needed to speak, my mother spoke for me. In her mind, she was doing me a favour, I think; she hated seeing me struggling with my speech, so she did everything for me.
I've come to terms with the fact that I'll never be 100% fluent.
Secondary school is when the big mental and emotional issues started. I remember one particularly bad experience when I was 11. We were in Maths class; the teacher asked a question and some kids were getting the answer wrong. I put up my hand. "Yes Ellis, go on". "Five," I said. "Great! Ellis, explain how you got five". And then I had a severe block. The whole class (or at least it felt like that) laughed out loud. It destroyed me. I instantly broke down. The teacher, to his credit, shouted at my classmates, "You all should be ashamed of yourselves, he's the only one who got the right answer". After that, I was never the same. My self-esteem shattered into pieces. I remember one classmate came up afterwards and told me he never laughed. I appreciated that.
I'm not still bothered about that. I'm over it. It happened and I can't change it. But it's something that made me the person I am today.
I used to stress about upcoming situations days in advance. I worked out ways to avoid them, to say little to no words. I used to go into stationery shops and write on their little notepads, then tear the page off and go to shops where you had to speak. I cringe when I think about that now.
I remember being in bed at night crying, praying for God to take stammering away, asking why he had given it to me in the first place. I even remember thinking two or three times that I would have been better off dead. But I was always too scared to even consider how to make that happen. It's definitely something that I shudder thinking about, hoping that my kids will never have to struggle with something like that on their own.
I was surprised how far my confidence had grown over the years. Yes, I had anxiety and I stammered, but it didn't get in the way too much. It felt good talking about myself.
Another time I was speaking to my mother, I struggled for what seemed like an eternity to finish my sentence. I couldn't do it, no matter how hard I tried. I started to cry and my mother did too. She wanted so much for me to speak fluently. In her mind, all I needed was a 'miracle cure'. She sent me to various speech therapists, all with varying levels of success. But in the end I'd always revert back to my usual speech patterns. This constant struggle in my teenage years has affected me to a great degree. I should really think about going into therapy!
I still get terrible social anxiety around new people and if I need to speak to someone. It's hard for me to make small conversation. Each word is selectively chosen, each sentence is carefully formed to make my life as easy as possible, to be as fluent as possible.
I now work as a qualified Lifeguard. When I took the qualification, everyone had to do the usual 'tell us about yourself' part, a stammerer's nightmare. But I was surprised how far my confidence had grown over the years. Yes, I had anxiety and I stammered, but it didn't get in the way too much. It felt good talking about myself.
Interactions with guests are a mixed bag — when they ask me questions that require complex answers, I get bad anxiety. I tend to use a lot of hand gestures when giving directions. I used to get asked the time a lot, and I showed guests my watch whilst saying the answer. Recently my watch broke and I noticed that I was asked the time far less... I don't think I'll be getting it fixed, lol. But I do feel supported at work. I've often been asked if there's anything my employer can do to make my role easier. I appreciate them asking.
The reason I'm writing this is that hopefully others will read it and think, "Damn, this guy went through the same stuff I'm going through". Hopefully somehow it'll help them along their journey. What brings me comfort is knowing that every struggle has already been experienced by someone in the past. You're not the first person to go through it and you definitely won't be the last. You've just got to work out what helps you most. Some of those things won't be perfect. But that's life. Try to enjoy it.