14th November 2022
Russell Reader tells us how he's learnt to be open about his stammer after 40 years.
When I came out as gay at the age of seventeen, the sense of relief was enormous and life changing. Now, twenty-three years later, I am coming out for a second time — this time as somebody who stammers — and the relief at being open and honest is equally empowering.
I have stammered since I was young. During a recent visit to my GP, I noticed on their computer screen there was an entry on my record dated 1985, when I was three years old, that simply read "HAS A STAMMER". Speech therapy followed when I was at primary school, then as a teenager and again as an adult. I learnt some really helpful techniques, but never learned to love my stammer. To me, it was still something to be hidden and worked around, and as such it's taken me until the age of 40 to start allowing myself to stammer — and to be open about it.
Negatives & positives
Everybody who stammers does so in a different way. One of the worst things for me about having a stammer is that people sometimes think that I am nervous, or that my silence means I'm not knowledgeable or interested in something. It's also confusing, because I am very happy to go on stage and speak to 100 people, but if we're going around a room doing introductions then there is a strong chance that when my turn comes, I literally won't be able to say my own name. That is unless I am chairing the meeting, in which case I am usually fluent. And I absolutely cannot read to a fixed script without stammering — which made high school hell, with classmates laughing and teachers thinking that I was being difficult when I refused to read aloud.
It sounds so simple now, but really all of this could have been avoided if I'd just told people that I had a stammer.
It's only now that I realise that having a stammer has brought me many benefits. It has made me a better writer. It has given me an in-built thesaurus. Most importantly, it has helped me understand and appreciate differences and hidden disabilities. But it has also caused me decades of fear, stress and anxiety.
Having a secret stammer and constantly creating workarounds to conceal it has been exhausting, draining and depressing. It has held me back. I've spent countless hours over four decades worrying myself sick about having to say my name at the start of a lesson or meeting the next day. I've kept hundreds of opinions under wraps, especially in large meetings where the risk of stammering — and the shame that I feel as a result — has been too big. I've dropped out of interview panels and other situations where I knew I would struggle to speak, using many excuses, telling white lies and letting people down. I've also ordered many meals and drinks that I didn't really fancy because I couldn't say what I actually wanted!
It sounds so simple now, but really all of this could have been avoided if I'd just told people that I had a stammer — at school, at the start of a meeting, in general conversation, before an interview panel, in a pub — but that was such a shameful and scary thought that it's taken me until the age of 40 to finally start owning it, and in doing so start to take away all the fear and hard work that it has caused me — just liking coming out as gay did all those years ago.
I will always have my stammer, and I'm finally proud of it. It's made me who I am.
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