Speech Therapy in Prison part 1: Mark's story

12th June 2020

In the first in our three-part article, Mark tells us how having speech and language therapy in prison had a transformative effect on him. His article is introduced by his therapist Stephanie Burgess, from Airedale NHS Foundation Trust.

In 2015-16 I worked with Mark, who was in prison, via video link for a total of thirteen therapy sessions over nine months. When I asked Mark what he wanted to be able to achieve from therapy, he said he wanted to be able to talk to anyone, rather than having to pick and choose who to talk to.
When I work with people in prison, I accept that it may not be possible for the client to make big changes, as it can be difficult for them to practise outside of the therapy sessions or to find someone they can talk to about things, which is an important part of the therapy process. However, Mark's story is proof that anything is possible with hard work and perseverance.

Over the months, I saw a complete transformation in Mark, from the first session, when he was shaking and crying, looking down, covering his mouth and constantly switching his words, to the last session, when he was laughing and joking, stammering openly, telling me how happy he was to have been able to join in with a discussion about football and to have wished his daughter a happy birthday, and really wanting to get the word out about stammering.

At our last session, Mark told me that having speech therapy was the best thing he had ever done and it had changed his life. Here is Mark's story in his own words.

Stephanie Burgess, speech & language therapist, specialist in stammering, Airedale NHS Foundation Trust.

Living with my stammer

My name is Mark. I'm 45 years old and I have stammered for as long as I can remember. While growing up I was told "If I can't talk properly, don't talk at all", which stuck with me.

While at school I was called a problem child because I would not read out loud or interact with people, as I was scared to speak. Other pupils stuck up for me and stopped bullies from bullying me. I asked for speech therapy at a young age but was told no. Even going to the corner shop scared me as I had to ask for products, so I used to write them down and give the shopkeeper the note. Back in the 1970s-80s nobody really knew about stammering, so I had no-one to talk to.

In my adult life I went from job to job, as being a loner it was easier to avoid work colleagues and change jobs.

After I knew I could read, write and do maths I left school at the age of thirteen. I've always been a loner and only had one friend at a time, as I did not like talking to people and just avoided them. I always thought I was the only one with a stammer, as I never met anyone else, and knew I was different than everyone else. I just wanted to be 'normal'. 

In my adult life I went from job to job, as being a loner it was easier to avoid work colleagues and change jobs. Every time I had to speak to new people my first words were, "I have a speech impediment", which I was sick of having to say. When I got older, I started to notice people finishing my sentences off.  As my stammer makes me block or makes me repeat my words, I started to speak using words I could say without stammering, so my sentences never made sense to other people but did to me. I can remember while living at home I was not even allowed to answer the phone, as my parents did not understand my speech problem.

Prison & seeking help

Things turned bad and I ended up in prison. In this environment it was so difficult as these people live by their own rules, so I stayed in my room most of the time on my own. Then people would come and see me, asking why I stayed in on my own. I couldn't tell them the truth out of fear of them laughing at me or mimicking my stammer.

I used to swear a lot as that seemed to help me get my words out, which must have made me sound really bad.

Then the bullying started, so I decided to ask for help with my stammer. I asked to speak to the doctor, which was the first step to deal with it. I smoked for decades and decided to quit. That was easier than admitting to a stranger that my stammer was causing me so much of a problem. I thought I was too old for help so was surprised when the doctor agreed. At first he could not tell I had a stammer due to my switching words so quick, and told me how clever I must be to be able to do it. I thought I was stupid as at times it did not make sense. And I used to swear a lot as that seemed to help me get my words out, which must have made me sound really bad. When the doctor agreed, I was over the moon and so scared at the same time. It was the doctor's first time he had approved a speech therapist in prison, so he did not know what I should expect.

Panic attacks before first appointment

After weeks of waiting and changing my mind over and over, my first appointment arrived. I was so scared of having to discuss my stammer again to another stranger I was having panic attacks while waiting for my time slot. It was an appointment I will never forget for two reasons: one, it was the most scary and upsetting time of my life to admit to someone how my stammer was affecting my life; and two, it was the start of a new chapter in my life having to live with my stammer and not care what anyone else thinks, as it's their ignorance of stammering.

In that first hour session I broke down crying trying to explain my stammer and the way it was affecting my life. I was expecting the therapist to tell me there was a cure for it. Over the years the only advice I had was to slow down my speech, take a breath, or they finished my sentences, which never helped me. When the therapist told me there was no cure it crushed my dreams of being 'normal'. After that session I considered not going back, knowing I wasn't going to be cured and having to go through my childhood of stammering, which was really difficult to discuss. After speaking to an officer and work colleagues they talked me into going back. I'm really glad they did. 

Stammering iceberg

My therapy was via video link from prison, and the next few appointments were cancelled due to technical problems. But after that, we discussed the technical side of stammering and filled in my iceberg, which showed me what I do and the way I feel when I stammer. The therapist pointed out one major thing she noticed: I put my hand over my mouth when I spoke, to cover the fact I stammered. So I learned that if I was sat down while talking I could sit on my hand or, if stood up, I could fold my arms, which helped me stop doing it.

Moving prisons knocked me back but I pushed through. I was even mimicked again which I struggled with and had to see the doctor again to restart my therapy back up. At the next session we discussed goals for me to achieve, which was to talk to two or three people about my stammer and therapy. This was really hard as I was in a new place and didn't know many people here. I managed to speak to two people who were interested in what I had to say, which surprised me. I made a list of words I struggled with, so the next few sessions I learnt the technique of sliding and bouncing into words from my list. I went away and practised day on my own till I got the confidence to try it on a friend. He never batted an eyelid so I knew I could practise on him.

Poster on my wall

In these places, every time you leave an area you have to give your name and the place you are going. As most people with a stammer know, giving your name is really difficult.  For me, even the location I was going to I found difficult. So when I got confident in bouncing my words, I started to use it more openly.

I even made a poster to pin on my wall saying, 'No words are scary', which so surprised me, as I would never have thought I would dare emphasise my stammer. That day a few lads came in, read it out loud and started to laugh. First I started feeling stupid, but then remembered my therapy and told them what it meant, as people with a stammer fear many words. I was there for close to an hour discussing stammering, not even caring if I stammered. On my next session I told my therapist about it. She said she was going to use my idea for her therapy, which made me feel really good and proud of myself, knowing I’ve done something that will help other people.

One thing I always wanted to do was say happy birthday to my daughter over the phone, which I've always struggled to do.

Over the next week while practising my words, I got to thinking I could get the word out about stammering and how difficult it is for someone with speech impediments. My therapist sent me some more help and advice, and information which I pinned up on my wall to point out to people.

One thing I always wanted to do was say happy birthday to my daughter over the phone, which I've always struggled to do. After speaking to my therapist about it, she told me to split the word up. Again the key was to practise over and over. The day I said it over the phone, my daughter was so surprised as that’s the first time I’ve said it fully for 22 years, which made me so happy. 

Therapy can help

I could not have done any of this without therapy and the excellent help and advice from my therapist. After 40+ years of stammering, I never thought I could ever stand in groups of people and join in conversations, or speak openly over the phone. With many thanks to my therapist, I can.

If anyone reading this is considering speech therapy, take that step and push through the difficult times. Once you do, life gets better and a lot easier; as I'm coming to the end of my therapy, all the techniques I've learnt will help me forever. And if I meet people who want to know about stammering, I can teach them. My therapist told me she would teach me to be my own therapist. I didn't know what she meant at the start — but now I do. She told me if I ever need therapy again I can just ask. If I ever get that bad again, I would not hesitate.

Read part two, in which Stephanie talks in detail about working with Mark in prison, and in part three, Mark gives us an update of his progress after leaving prison.

This article was first published on our old website in March 2016. Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash.

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