17th January 2023
Helen tells of a traumatic childhood incident that kickstarted her fear of talking, and how she eventually came to terms with her stammer.
I am 51 years old as I write my story. Before I started school, I was a happy, bubbly, chatty child, full of life and fun… with no stammer. My first year of primary school, however, was to change my world as I knew it.
At 4 and a half years old, I was bullied, mistreated and had the fear of God put into me by my teacher. As punishment for being a chatterbox, she would put her hand over my mouth and nose so I couldn't breathe. I was absolutely terrified of this woman so much so that I still had dreams of her up until my 40s! My late mother recalled that I would cry and scream and not want to go to school. I was just too young to be able to explain what was happening. This was hell for me and I developed a mistrust of teachers. It was around that time that I started stammering.
Nobody knew I was dying to join in the conversation and had so much to say but I just couldn't.
As my stammer developed and became more noticeable, I couldn't control it. At home my two brothers thought it was hilarious to mimic me stammering, saying I sounded like a machine gun! I got angry and with that the more the words wouldn't come out. I just resorted to physical fights.
As I got older, when I was out in groups or new environments, I was very selective when I would speak, which was almost never. I was told a lot "Oh, you're so quiet". Nobody knew I was dying to join in the conversation and had so much to say but I just couldn't. The blinkin' words were stuck and wouldn't come out. I was so self-conscious and frustrated.
My mum decided to take me to a speech therapist after being told by my primary school "She'll grow out of it". At the therapist's office I was calm and secure, so guess what? I didn’t stammer! Because of that the therapist told my mum I didn't have a problem. I knew at that point I was on my own and there was no more help coming. I often thought to myself 'how come I stammer less in certain situations? If that's so, then it must be possible that I can speak without stammering'. This planted a seed that made me try and replicate the situations I was more comfortable in.
In high school things were tough. I had to really be careful of what situations I was in so that I didn't feel embarrassed if I stammered. I hid it very well even from my friends. The most terrifying time was in lessons when we had to read aloud from a book. This generally went in rotation around the class so I knew when my time was coming. My hands would sweat, my heart raced, I tried to estimate where my turn would be in the book and practice the first word over and over so I could get it out. 'TH' words were my absolute nightmare. I often pushed my tongue hard to the roof of my mouth, thinking it would get the bloody word out! My friend sitting next to me knew of my problem and I asked her to repeat quietly the word over and over to me and sometimes this worked. At other times it was just less stressful to be off school (pretending to be sick) to avoid my turn at reading out loud.
Years later, someone told me that I had overcome a very difficult impediment and changed a negative to a positive. I didn’t see it like that AT ALL...
Learning to live with stammering
Over time I started to realise that if I made patterns with words, replaced words quickly to trick my brain, breathed in a certain way, made a certain noise with my mouth (like a click), moved my head or body in a particular way or avoided certain words, etc, I could actually have a normal conversation!
Years later, someone told me that I had overcome a very difficult impediment and changed a negative to a positive. I didn't see it like that AT ALL because for me it was a survival skill to not be noticed, feel normal, and not be made fun of. I believe we don't get over a stammer but rather we learn to control it and set our environment up to succeed.
Over the years I have deliberately put myself into positions that pushed my comfort level. I've taught workshops, given speeches, led groups of people and many more situations where I have lots of eyes on me. I use all the tricks and skills I know to do this, even to this day. Through becoming a yoga instructor I learned breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques that I use regularly. I got help for the abuse I suffered as a young child at school and was able to be at peace.
Do I still have a stammer? Yes, but I am comfortable with it now because it is part of who I am. If I am very tired or have a glass of wine, the control barrier naturally is lowered and my stammer is there in its full glory. Overall, life is good and I hope my story gives some hope to others because it is possible to live free and succeed with a stammer.
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(Note: picture above is a stock image.)