What is it like to wake up one day and start stammering? Developing a stammer later in life, known as 'acquired' stammering, is rare, but that's what happened to Hannah (name changed and stock photo used for anonymity). Here she describes her experience.
One Sunday in October 2018 I woke up with a stammer. It had developed after a series of traumatic events, and I struggled to speak at all.
I remember not being scared and it making perfect sense. I was literally speechless about events in my life at the time, including leaving a career I had been passionate about with just a slight possibility of getting a temporary job. This then dramatically collided with my brother being given days to live.
I decided to go online to see if I could find out if what I 'had' had a name. My search took me to Stamma's website and I remember feeling quite delighted that my loss of speech had a rather fantastical name: 'psychogenic stammering'. Psychogenic stammering is a form of acquired stammer caused by stressful events.
Throughout my life, speaking had been my strength and indeed vital for my career and now all the words were trapped inside my head and unable to come out.
The doctors seemed more nervous about it than I was and I was seen within the hour to have it confirmed that it was not stroke-related but was probably caused by the traumatic events. Knowing this, I didn't ask the doctor for speech therapy but was happy to work things through with a psychotherapist.
Living with my new stammer
What made things the hardest were the looks of concern, the frowning, the impatience, the assumption that I must somehow lack intelligence. In the months following, I would weep for myself and the change in how I was seen by the world. I cried so many tears too for the loss of my identity which came with it. Throughout my life, speaking had been my strength and indeed vital for my career and now all the words were trapped inside my head and unable to come out.
Just three days after my speech changed, and not knowing if my brother would live or die, I had to start a new temping job. That morning I practised one sentence in front of the mirror over and over again. I joked that I would need to become a wallflower, which gave friends a lot of laughter as they only knew me to be gregarious. I was so nervous and had no idea if the organisation was going to send me straight back home or not.
I could cope in my new world but not my old one. In the end, I used social media to help me.
It turned out that not only did they not send me home, they kept extending my contract. The organisation welcomed and celebrated diversity to the top of the hierarchy. Later on, I was to discover a network for people who stammer in my workplace, who were to play a big part of my learning to live with an acquired stammer. Through them I learned about days when I would stammer more and days when I stammered less, about dysfluency, cluttering and blocking. I learned too that I was not alone in being able to sing, pray and swear quite fluently! I learned the vital difference between communication and fluency. Most of all, I learned I was not alone.
My 'voice before' and 'voice after'
My life however, had become oddly split between my 'voice before' and my 'voice after'. Some people only knew me with a stammer whilst others knew me without it. Sometimes those worlds collided, such as new colleagues calling my mobile and hearing my old voice in my voicemail. Or sometimes, colleagues would come out with me in the evening and be shocked to find me stammering a lot in front of those from my 'old' world.
At one point I stopped going out as I didn't want anyone I knew to see me and give me 'the look'. I could cope in my new world but not my old one. In the end, I used social media to help me. Firstly, I sent voice messages via WhatsApp to close friends to let them know things had changed. When I was ready, I posted a video of myself talking on Facebook and left it there for 24 hours for others to process so that when we saw each other in real life, I could receive support and not have to spend time making sure they were OK first. I also learned one sentence by rote to say to anyone whom I met who didn't know.
At a time when I was raw with overwhelming grief and confusion, my stammer encouraged the majority of people to be kind.
Fifteen months on, I still need to use that sentence to explain that my speech is different, that a few stressful events happened including my brother dying, that I am OK and do not need fixing. The amount of people that wanted to 'heal' me rather than 'hear' me were thankfully few and far between but they were very much there. And this too needed to be managed. It was exhausting.
My stammer is manageable on most days. It is still tiring both psychologically and physically. I have learned that I can now speak my second language (German) without a stammer, and when I switch back to English it also becomes more fluent. I now challenge those people who frown when I speak. The people in the stammering network in my workplace instilled the confidence in me to successfully apply for a job as a trainer. I declared my stammer on the application form and requested extra time in the interview.
When I look back, overall I am grateful for my stammer. At a time when I was raw with overwhelming grief and confusion, my stammer encouraged the majority of people to be kind — and on the whole, most of them were. My stammer kept me safe. And to some extent, it still does today when I declare it before presenting to an audience of people.
Stammering has become part of my new identity, and as my fluency reappears in part, I’m no longer sure who I will be without it.
For more information on stammering which starts later in life, known as acquired stammering, see our Variations & Complications page. Find out more about stammering networks in the workplace, or setting your own one up, on our Professional Networks page.
Have you had a similar experience? If so, leave a comment below or write your own article — see how Share Your Story page to find out how.
Photo by Askar Ulzhabayev on Unsplash.