Living with a stammer while studying

19th January 2021

Christine Menzies recounts her student days, when she did everything in her power to hide her stammer. Making her more and more depressed, she realised she couldn't keep it secret any longer. Here she tells us the results of being open about stammering, and gives advice for other students who stammer.

Back in the 80s, when I spent four years studying Pharmacology at the University of Aberdeen (UoA), I was a very different person to the one I am now.

I have had a stammer all my life. During primary school I used to pray I wouldn't be picked to read aloud. At secondary school I was outed as someone with a stammer when my history teacher asked me to read out loud. The words would not come out and after what seemed like an eternity, the teacher started reading the passage and I had to repeat the words after her.

That was one of the worst moments of my life; I wanted the earth to swallow me up there and then. After that, I was bullied by boys in my form who mimicked me whenever they had the chance. From then on I refrained from speaking up in class and worked even harder to hide the fact I stammered.

At university

During my time at UoA, I was quiet during tutorials and lectures — the last thing I wanted was for anyone to know that I had a stammer. I spoke only when I felt I wouldn't stammer, and others probably perceived me as quiet or as someone with not much to say. I can remember the first time I had to stand up in front of my fellow pharmacology students and present. I was so worked up and worried about stammering that I recall taking a swig of cider beforehand to try and calm myself down! 

I was getting more and more depressed living with the constant struggle to keep this thing a secret.

Towards the end of our final year we had to spend a weekend away with lecturers in a retreat near Edzell, in Aberdeenshire, where we each had to present our honours project and answer questions. I was dreading my turn and wasn't at ease the whole weekend. I didn’t enjoy the experience at all which, looking back, was such a shame as it should have been the highlight of my final years at Uni.

I ended up getting a 2:2 Honours degree, which I was very disappointed with at the time. I have no proof whether my introverted nature had any effect on my final mark, but I don't think it helped.

Coming out as having a stammer

By my mid/late 20s I got married and moved to London, and my husband didn't know I stammered. I was getting more and more depressed living with the constant struggle to keep this thing a secret. No one really knew the real me. I rarely initiated conversations when we socialised in larger groups. 

How did your husband not know?, you may be thinking. He thought it was my Scottish accent plus the fact I spoke quickly. I could bear it no longer and one night I said I had something to tell him. He thought I was going to say I'd been having an affair! I broke down in tears and told him about my stammer. He was such a comfort and support. Thanks to him I started seeing a speech & language therapist regularly and have not looked back since. 

My stammer was suddenly out in the open. This was difficult to deal with in many respects, as my family and friends were alarmed at how I was now sounding. My parents thought it was because I was living in London and the fact I was married! I knew deep down however that this was the right thing for me; it was the start of my journey to being free and able to express myself. 

Me, now

Yes, it has been quite a tumultuous journey at times, and there have been loads of rough patches when I have stammered much more, at work and outside of it, and it has been a huge task to talk. I have suffered from aching jaws and been exhausted many times simply trying to get the words out, but there have also been spells when I have felt much more in control and relaxed when others have heard me stammer. 

Being open about having a stammer has been the most effective therapy for me by far. 

Now in my 50s, often the first thing I'll say when meeting someone is, "I have a stammer, it's nothing to be alarmed about, I just might take longer to say certain words." Being open about having a stammer has been the most effective therapy for me by far. 

I now help run a support group for women who stammer. It provides a safe space for women of all ages who stammer to come together to share issues or concerns and to support each other.

My advice to students

To all students out there at university who stammer, I'd say do not suffer in silence. Talk to a close uni friend about how you’re feeling and what they can do to help — tell them it isn’t helpful when they finish your sentences, and ask them to be a good listener. 

Talk to your supervisor, student disabilility service or a supportive lecturer. It's important they know why you find it hard sometimes during tutorials. I would also strongly encourage you to speak up whenever you have something to add or a question to ask. We have a lot to contribute. So what if other students or lecturers hear you stammer? Some people might think, 'Oh, she has a stammer and that was a really good point she/he made', while others might simply be thinking, 'What shall I have for lunch today?' or 'What's my next lecture?'! 

Allow yourself to grow to your full potential and let others hear you. You have a great voice, and you have a right to be heard and listened to. 

The more you move outside of your comfort zone and speak up, whether you stammer or not, the more confident you become. Allow yourself to grow to your full potential and let others hear you. You have a great voice, and you have a right to be heard and listened to. 

Lastly, please remember you are not alone. There are many places you can get support. Get in touch with the Students Through University Consultancy (STUC), an initiative to support students who stammer in higher education and help them reach their full potential. It was founded by Claire Norman, who, after hearing her talk about STUC at Stamma's Big Event last October (which you can watch here, with Claire talking at 43:30), inspired me to contact Aberdeen University again after all these years and write this article to share with new students.

You can also get support by joining the Stamma/British Stammering Association's closed Facebook group. There's also a Facebook group for Women who stammer. The Scottish Stammering Support Network has a very active online support group that meets every fortnight — see details for that and other groups, including the Women's Stammering Support Group, on Stamma's Online Events Calendar

If I had the chance to relive my time at university, there would be no holding me back now!

See our College & University page for more ways to get the most out of your University experience. Read more articles from students who stammer.

This article was originally published on the University of Aberdeen's website and was reproduced here, with edits, with the permission of the author and the University of Aberdeen.

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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