Entering the Dragon’s Mouth
Counsellor Amy Leggatt gives an account of training in a talking therapy as a person who stammers.
I’m a qualified counsellor and person who stammers (pws). As far as I’m aware we’re a fairly rare breed, so I’d like to share my experience of training and working in the counselling field as a pws, with all its challenges and rewards.
I decided to embark on a diploma in counselling in 2015, having previously completed two preliminary qualifications, and qualified as a counsellor in 2017. My main motivation was that, after addressing my own psychological and emotional struggles with stammering over the years, I wanted to support other pws to deal with theirs.
At the beginning I felt very anxious about clients potentially not wanting to work with me because of my stammer.
I’d had speech and language therapy in the past, which I’d found very helpful, especially in terms of speech techniques, but this alone hadn’t been enough to deal with the, at times, hugely painful feelings such as shame and anxiety stammering often evoked in me, and the associated unhelpful behaviours. This made me want to explore these issues further and I saw a counsellor who, although didn’t stammer herself, had an awareness of stammering-related issues. This proved to be a huge turning point in my life and through this process I found more helpful ways to relate to my stammer, rather than returning to my default avoidance strategies and judgemental attitude towards myself.
However, since then, at times I have felt I could have really benefitted from seeing a counsellor who stammered themselves, someone who really ‘gets it’, thus creating a short cut to understanding. To date I have not been successful with finding this ‘someone’, so I wanted to give to pws that which I didn’t have myself.
I was apprehensive about applying for a counselling course, as I wasn’t sure how the course directors would react to my stammer. However, part of the application process was around applicants showing self-awareness and a willingness to share their emotional and psychological experience, so I disclosed my stammer and its impact on my life in my application. I got through and was invited to a group interview, where I again disclosed my stammer, and to my delight I was accepted onto the course.
Fortunately, my peer group were very supportive of me and my struggles around my stammer throughout the course and for this I am very grateful. However, there were times when I felt I had stepped straight into the dragon’s mouth and seriously questioned what on earth I was doing!
For example, as part of the course I worked on placement as a volunteer counsellor at a community counselling service. At the beginning I felt very anxious about clients potentially not wanting to work with me because of my stammer, which realistically, is a possibility when meeting new clients. To help manage these fears and put clients at ease, I decided to disclose the fact I stammer at the beginning of our first session, to name ‘the elephant in the room’, and reduce some of the awkwardness that may have been there had I not done so.
People who stammer can send a really positive message to clients, that, although we may have difficulties to deal with, we don’t have to let them stop us from living meaningful and fulfilling lives.
I also invited clients, if they thought it might be helpful, to share with me anything that may have come up for them around my stammer. Two clients disclosed that although it had taken them a little while to get used to my speech, it had faded into the background and they barely noticed it anymore.
However, not entirely unexpectedly, one client declined to work with me because of my stammer. Although this felt hurtful at the time, I used my therapeutic training to understand what might have been going on from her perspective. The client had said that she felt unable to cope with her life situation and that she feared that because of my stammer, I too would be unable to cope with her issues. In the therapy world this is known as ‘projection’, where a person struggles to tolerate their feelings, and then ‘projects’ these feelings onto others, often as a deflection from their own. This understanding helped me to not take the rejection too personally. It was also important for me to remember all the positive experiences and outcomes I’d had with clients.
As difficult as the challenges of my training could be at times I feel that through overcoming them, I am definitely more resilient than I was before, and this prepared me well for negotiating the sometimes rocky terrain of a career in counselling.
Since qualifying, I have a small private counselling practice in Kent. It has been very encouraging for me to see that as well as specialising in working with people who stammer and those who live with other impairments and disabilities, I am also able to attract and work well with general clients.
However, as is often the case for many counsellors, building my private practice is taking time, and paid employment is in short supply, especially in the UK’s current political and economic landscape.
That said, if there are any pws reading this who are interested in becoming a counsellor, please don’t assume that you can’t do it because of your speech. You may come across obstacles and rejections along the way, as do many counsellors for myriad other reasons, but it can be done, and pws can send a really positive message to clients, that, although we may have difficulties to deal with, we don’t have to let them stop us from living meaningful and fulfilling lives.
If you have any questions you’d like to ask Amy, you can email her at email@example.com