A lifetime of hiding

The article's author Tony Robinson

7th January 2021

As a child, Tony Robinson thought that speaking less would be the best thing because of his stammer. But here he explains how he learnt to push himself to speak.

Hello, I'm Tony and I live in Derby, although I was born and raised in Nottingham. You know, Robin Hood and Brian Clough being a few things the city is famous for. 

I was born in the summer of 1960 and developed a stammer at an early age (I cannot remember when exactly). My friends would mock me and school was horrid. Why do teachers make you stand up and say stuff aloud? This didn't really bother me that much, but I did have a pretty pronounced stammer. 

Attempts to 'cure' my stammer

My father firmly believed it was all in my mind (well, to a point he was right) but he took steps to 'cure' me of my 'affliction'. Every Saturday, he would have me read aloud. He did this by standing over me so he too could see the words. He would get angry when I got stuck on a certain word. He was intolerant and used his fists rather than his voice.

It occurred to me that when using my voice, I was going to suffer, so I spoke less. This had the effect of people thinking I was shy and withdrawn, which was not the case.

The book I was reading was a Christmas present from some aunt and uncle which contained short stories. This one story in particular was an underwater adventure concerning a wartime submarine. The lead character was called Muller and I could not say this word for love nor sweets. People who stammer will know there are certain words they will avoid. The 'M' words at the time for me flashed danger, along with those beginning with B, S and N. This would mean my vocabulary was quite limited. 
 
The book episode still haunts me to this day, and I think I will take it to my grave. Why do people think you can be 'cured' in this fashion? It can feel like the public see stammerers as having lower than average intelligence, and a scourge on society. Certainly, if you are behind someone who stammers in a queue, you can hear the moans coming from the ranks. It occurred to me that when using my voice, I was going to suffer, so I spoke less. This had the effect of people thinking I was shy and withdrawn, which was not the case.

Into adulthood: dating & work

As I progressed from schoolboy to adult, the stammer subsided somewhat. In the late 1970s I met my first wife and we lived together until 1985 when we got married. She, for reasons unknown, would not answer the telephone, the door, or go into shops to ask for things; all that was left to me. From a stammerer's perspective this was a nightmare — or therapy, depending on your point of view. Was this therapy? Err… no, I started to stammer more. 

It took 30 years and several close work friends to make me realise that part of my confidence problem was because of my home life. So, in July of 2015, I divorced and got myself a flat to begin again. That meant dating! 

A man sitting in a bar looking at the camera with the text 'Share your story'

When you are composing your online dating profile, you can hardly put 'I have a stammer and won't talk much', because although it would be true, I think you would be making yourself look imperfect. However, through my profile I met a woman who is soon to be my wife. She does everything to boost my confidence and encourages me to take on new challenges, including writing a book about my life.
 
At work I threw myself into projects that would 'force' me to speak. I became a First Aider, Trainer, and a Health and Safety Rep. During the courses we were introduced to 'ice breakers' where you would stand and give a five-minute talk about your life. This seemed to help me; my confidence grew and the stammer diminished.

Before, I hid behind the stammer, allowing it to make the career changes for me. Now, I control it and I am no longer afraid to speak in public.

I can appreciate that there are some reading this who are like me in my younger days, with no clear reason why their stammer has developed. They cannot use the phone; for some, saying their own name is a struggle. I have been there. I worked for a company called Mann Egerton in the 1970s as a rep and needed to call customers. But, as you will have read, I couldn't say words starting with 'M', so I would say 'Ann Egerton', and hope they wouldn't tell. But my workmates laughed and mocked me. This today would be classed as harassment, but it doesn't cure your situation.  

Now we are in 2021 and I am still pushing the boundaries of my learning capacity. Before, I hid behind the stammer, allowing it to make the career changes for me. Now, I control it and I am no longer afraid to speak in public. The stammer is still there, although sometimes it is hardly noticeable. The telephone is no longer a torture device. Okay, I hear you say, how does this aid me? After all I am not like him, I could never speak in public! Really?

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