An elderly man looking to the right of the camera, with the sun setting behind him
Posed by a model (Photo by Matteo Vistocco)

Stammering has shaped my life massively

John looks back on his life with a stammer, how it has impacted him and what has helped him look at things positively.

I saw a feature on stammering on the news today. Watching a young man appear to struggle with his speech during the interview was a very emotional experience for me. I knew exactly what he was going through and it motivated me to write a few words.  

I am 75 and have stammered my whole life. My parents, when I was maybe 7, took me to see a speech therapist. In those days therapy was primitive and, I hope, far less advanced than it is today. The therapist gave me a Jack & Jill book and asked me to read from it. Internally I was annoyed, feeling greatly belittled. I had a reading age, at the time, equivalent to a child of 14 — I know that because the headmaster tested us every year.    

I read the book without a hiccup. I never had any problems reading anything aloud. I couldn't understand how the therapist did not know that my stammer only manifested during conversation when I had to generate the sentence myself. I find reading so much easier and there's less stress involved. There's far less to think about, less for the brain to do. But having to think about conversation — forming the sentence and controlling the mouth parts to speak — was far too much for my brain to deal with simultaneously. I was of course totally unable to tell her any of that; no way could I have got the words out. It took so much effort that it was often impossible to complete a meaningful sentence. I went away thinking, as I still do, that the therapist had little idea.  

I immersed myself in books, possibly to avoid having to speak to people.

Bullying at school was frequent, and consequently I always felt like an outsider. I immersed myself in books, possibly to avoid having to speak to people. I avoided certain words. Anything starting with a vowel was more difficult, and I would swap in an alternative. I felt that this interfered with the natural flow and made sentences at times seem odd to the listener. I was obviously bright, partly as a result of all the reading, and was, in my final year, made Head Boy. This involved having to sit on stage every morning assembly and speak, but I can't remember how I felt about that. Maybe my mind hid it away, or maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought.

By my teenage years I had taken up a number of activities I could do solo, possibly as yet another way to avoid having to meet others. But the avoidance of speaking to people has had long-term effects and is NOT something I would recommend to others. The ability to chit-chat about trivia is still underdeveloped in me. Even now I cannot get easily into a casual conversation, the sort of nattering you find in a pub with friends.

The big one was girlfriends; how the hell do you approach a girl, in itself a stressful situation, when you know you will struggle to get the first word out? Something else to be avoided.  

The avoidance of speaking to people has had long-term effects and is NOT something I would recommend to others. 

The general public can have little idea about how much a stammer can affect one's entire life. I think it's right that stammering can be seen as a disability. It undoubtedly affects the ability of some to do certain jobs, even to apply for them.

I really didn't like people trying to finish my sentences. They were only trying to help but it meant that the sentence was not mine; it often did not say what I wanted to say or wasn't how I wanted it to be worded. I hated the telephone, it was somehow worse not being able to see the person.

One thing that seemed to help was an evening course I went on. Not because of any techniques they explained, but because there was a girl on the course who stammered a lot more than I did. I felt so sorry for her, and was able to appreciate my situation more. I almost felt lucky. I progressed through university and did well at work, gaining a bucketful of qualifications. I even got married.

Things get better

I think it's important to realise that if you can gain self confidence in any way, things will improve. Life is possible with a stammer and the more life can distract you, the less of an issue stammering will be. You might reach a stage where you don't even notice it. Become good at SOMETHING. Speaking becomes easier if you know a topic well. Good practice. Fear of stammering can be overcome to such a degree for life to be great.

Life is possible with a stammer and the more life can distract you, the less of an issue stammering will be. 

I have wondered occasionally what my life might have been like had I not had a stammer. It would certainly have been different. But would it have been better? Had I not felt I needed to immerse myself in study and become good at various other things, might I have ended up like my two brothers, both of whom became good-for-nothings? Stammering has shaped my life massively. Mostly, I believe, positively. It has made me the successful person I became. I was dealt a hand and managed to play it well. I might not have made 7 no trumps in life, but eventually came up with 6 spades.

I hope therapists these days help to boost confidence in people. It is possible to be a success with a stammer. But you need to acknowledge it, work with it. It can change too; I stammer less now than I did as a kid. It only now bothers me when I see someone else suffering. Things will not, in the long term, be as bad as you think. Have that confidence, keep it with you.

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(Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash)

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Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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