Despite finding it difficult, Helena was encouraged by her speech therapist to write this article to open up and share her feelings about growing up with a stammer. Read how she has gradually learnt to accept it.
Writing this is very uncomfortable for me but I write anyway. Walking down the memory lane of stammering always makes me cringe, but I’ll carry on. I’ve been challenged by a lovely specialist speech therapist to share my journey more widely. I am tearing up, overwhelmed by my emotions as I bare my vulnerability. I’m tempted to take a break to compose myself but I know myself too well — I may never finish this piece. So here we go!
I’m Helena and this month I’ll reach my 49th milestone. I’ve stammered since the age of three. I’m told I woke up from a nap one day and my speech just fell apart. My uncle had a severe stammer. A couple of cousins on my dad’s side stammer too. My stammer’s very obvious and is characterised by blocks and repetitions. As a child, I would stamp my foot and/or tap my thigh in a bid to get difficult words out. I’ve struggled with it into my adult years.
I first became aware of my stammer when Dad once yelled at me, asking me to "speak properly". I must’ve been about five or six. I then began seeing it as a bad thing. I was embarrassed by the way I sounded, so tried hard not to stammer. You probably know, if you do stammer, that trying not to stammer serves only to induce more stammering. I could never hide it because of its severity, and I often dreamed of the day I’d wake up and it would be gone. If wishes were horses, as they say.
School in general was fun. I enjoyed it to a large extent, however I was teased quite often and it was horrible. I cried a lot as it really did hurt. As I write this, suppressed emotions flood back. I’m fighting back tears as I relive my barely 7- or 8-year-old self being mimicked mercilessly by a bunch of giggling girls, completely oblivious to the pain they were causing. I was totally defenceless, as any attempt to speak would throw me into a stammering fit which provoked even more mimicking and laughter. I’m sure their intention wasn’t to cause emotional pain; it was innocent fun, purely for entertainment. If only they knew.
Blocking is like trying to get your car started in third gear; there's no biting point to get it going. It feels like spinning wheels on ice, where your wheels spin but your car just won't move as there's no connection between tyre and tarmac.
My stammer was never discussed at home and growing up I felt alone in dealing with the associated feelings of anxiety, embarrassment and lack of self-worth that comes with the territory. Come to think of it, I would probably have hated it had it been brought up. It only had negative connotations as far as I was concerned. It impacted my life in many ways from career choices to the more mundane things like joining in fast-paced conversations, asking for tickets, ordering food, etc. Like many who stammer, it affected my confidence and I had very low self-esteem too. I had to find coping strategies to get by.
My first speech therapy was in my early to mid-20s. I did breathing exercises and prolongation of sounds which I regularly practised at home. It was great when it worked, usually when alone, but the proverbial cookie always crumbled in real-life speaking situations.
What it feels like for me
Fairly recently in a moment of frustration, I captured my thoughts on my stammer and narrated it to my speech therapist friend. It read:
"I instinctively know I'll stammer on a word even before I open my mouth. Not because I fear the word as some theories propound; but because a certain connection between my brain and my speech doesn't always sync. I don’t always stammer on the same word; sometimes I can say it no problem and sometimes I just can't, try as I will, depending on how well synched the connection is at the time of speaking.
'Visually, fluent speech to me is like a straight line. My speech is like a broken line. Easy days are like a straight line with some breaks in it. Difficult days are like a running line of dashes, the gaps representing stammering moments; sometimes narrow and other times wide.
'Blocking is like trying to get your car started in third gear; there's no biting point to get it going. It feels like spinning wheels on ice, where your wheels spin but your car just won't move as there's no connection between tyre and tarmac.”
In spite of the challenges my stammer presents, I am a happy, free spirited person with a positive outlook on life. I try not to dwell on things I cannot change and work on things I can. It takes precious little to make me happy. I have an amazing family who I adore and a small circle of friends with whom I have good laughs. I have accepted that my stammer is a part of me. It is what it is.
I hear many testimonies of people 'overcoming' their stammer or how it’s improved either with age or therapy. I strive daily to find that pathway to easier speech and I think I’m gradually edging closer to that goal with the help of my kind speech therapist friend.
If you'd like to share your story, find out how here.
(Image: posed by a model, picture courtesy of Jakob Owens, Unsplash)