A Situational Stammerer

 A man holding a book up and smiling for the camera

John Burbidge tells us about his journey with stammering and wonders why he stammers more in some situations than others.  

One of my most painful memories of stammering occurred in my first year at university. Of my four subjects, politics was the one with which I felt least comfortable. The subject matter was alien and the prescribed reading challenged me. When it was my turn to deliver a tutorial paper, I knew what I had written was not up to par, which added to my growing sense of anxiety. 

A few sentences into reading, I experienced a rising fear that words and sounds that had caused me trouble in the past were going to rear their ugly heads. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, they did. I could barely get through sentences, let alone paragraphs. All eyes were on me. I wanted to be anywhere but here at this moment.

I've always been puzzled why I stammered in one situation and not the others.

After a while, a young woman offered to read my essay for me. I gratefully passed her my paper, but I could barely look her in the eye. I don't remember anything about the rest of the tutorial, but I recall the woman trying to console me afterwards. I took a bus straight home and cried much of the way. I couldn't conceive how I would face my fellow tutorial members again, let alone complete my university degree.

What are the triggers?

Interestingly, I never had any problem reading tutorial papers in two of my other subjects — history and anthropology. Both were much more to my liking and very engaging. Indeed, at the completion of my bachelor's degree (with first-class honours) professors in both subjects asked if I would like to pursue postgraduate studies with them. I declined, but I've always been puzzled why I stammered in one situation and not the others.

My short answer to that question is that I'm a 'situational stammerer'. In a sense we all are, given that most of us do not stammer when alone but only in the presence of others. Although I've had a propensity to stammer all my life, it has only become a serious issue in situations in which I either felt out of my depth, was confronted by authority figures, wasn't familiar with or on top of a subject, or simply lacked confidence, for whatever reason. 

The relationship between stammering and self-image deserves further research. 

The question that has consumed me is, 'What is it about such situations that triggers my stammering?' Or more to the point, 'What is it about my relationship to those situations that causes me to switch from speaking fluently to stammering?'

In the reading I've done on stammering, I don't find either question addressed. So much research is focused on remedies to alleviate stammering or ways to embrace it but ignores the question of what causes a person to stammer in the first place. To ask this question feels like revisiting a seemingly taboo or irrelevant subject, and challenges those who assert that stammering doesn't have emotional or psychological roots. I think it has. It is deeply connected to my self-story or self-image, leading me to be fluent at some times and not others. It is the 'others' that linger.

One of the earliest of these occurred when I was eight years old. Commenting on my reading ability, the headmaster wrote on my report card, 'stammers and inaccurate'. Having to read in front of a headmaster at that age was enough to send my fragile self-confidence into an emotional tailspin. Three years later, a YMCA camp leader demanded that I say my name after I had won a swimming race. When I couldn't, and resorted to a desperate avoidance tactic, he screamed at me, "Don't spell it lad, just say it!" One moment I was a successful swimmer, the next a psychological mess.

Coming to terms with stammering

At 74, I rarely have trouble speaking in the presence of others, but every now and then I'm reminded that I stammer — phone conversations, Zoom sessions, phone interviews, and more. Somewhere embedded deep in my psyche is the memory of a struggle with a certain sound or word. Without warning, that memory can reappear in an instant.

But mostly stammering is not an issue for me now. It's something I live with and talk openly about. I read an interview with the actor Sam Neill on the US-based Stuttering Foundation's website. In it, he said that he came to terms with his stammering over time as his self-confidence grew by exposing himself to new challenges and new situations. It has been much the same for me.

A key part of this was the six years I spent in India in my early 30s — and my coming out as a gay man there — both of which had a major impact on my self-esteem. My stammer almost disappeared during that time and has remained a minor concern ever since. The relationship between stammering and self-image deserves further research and I welcome hearing from others who share this interest.

If you would like to reach out to John, email editor@stamma.org and we'll pass the message on.

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