My Story: Living with a stammer

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Article by Lewis Hugh

Everybody stutters sometimes. Usually, it occurs when people are nervous or unsure of what they want to say. However, the occasional nervous stuttering that everyone falls prey to is quite different from living with a stammer. I’ve had a stammer since I was able – or unable – to talk. I’m 23 now (almost 24!), so I’ve been a stammerer for around twenty years.

You may have caught the ITV documentary, School for Stammerers, on television around the start of the year: a brilliant broadcast that encouraged me to attend a recent speech therapy programme. This programme emphasises disclosing your stammer to everyone and their dog, so that’s what I’m doing through this article.

In terms of popular culture, there isn’t too much representation of stammering. You’re thinking of Gareth Gates, aren’t you? Perhaps The King’s Speech? Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland)? That’s basically it. I have seen a few films where stammerers are depicted as inherently stupid: Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy comes to mind.

Whilst it’s clear that popular perceptions of stammering are improving, that isn’t necessarily saying much. An old Chinese folk cure was to punch stammerers in the face when the sky was cloudy. Thankfully this was never a belief in Britain, as all stammerers would be walking around with permanent black eyes. No, over here in civilised Europe, the eighteenth and nineteenth-century leading surgeons often recommended cutting up the tongue with scissors or removing the tonsils. Surprisingly, this caused more problems than it solved.

As with many handicaps, there are some misconceptions as to what causes stammering. A common myth is that it’s simply a result of somebody being overly nervous. While having a stammer may cause someone considerable anxiety in social situations, such anxiety itself does not cause stammering. Many particularly anxious people do not stammer, and many people who stammer are not particularly anxious.  Additionally, it is usually not the result of childhood trauma as some believe. I had an idyllic childhood myself, yet I still struggle to pronounce the type of pizza I want.

While the jury is still out on finding a simple, definitive cause of stammering, research continually reveals evidence that it is a neurological issue. “Stammering is at root a neurological condition,” says the British Stammering Association, “based in the wiring of the brain. Studies have shown differences in the anatomy and functioning of the brain of those who stammer compared with most other people”.

Of course, psychological factors play a large role as well. Certain contexts, such as being on the phone, talking to certain people, and ordering food can affect the severity of stammering. Genetics also play a role. Many stammerers have close familial relations who also stammer.

In my own admittedly anecdotal case, my father and great-uncle stammered as children, but luckily they both grew out of it in adolescence as many do. Like a lot of things, it seems to be a very complicated mix of contributing factors that cause a person to stammer and anyone who claims that it has one simple cause is either ignorant or seeking profit.

Fortunately, I have largely avoided being bullied throughout my life. This is partly due to the fact that I’ve always had a good group of friends that were protective, caring and weren’t afraid to have a sense of humour about stammering – light, non-malicious humour, of course.

There have been a few nasty comments, but I think I’m reasonably good as just ignoring them. Roughly two years ago, a girl very condescendingly told me that I had to take breaths when I talk. It had literally never occurred to me, as a lifelong stammerer, to take a breath before I spoke, and I was instantly cured (that may be sarcasm).

Most of my strife has come not from others but from myself. I would beat myself up over not being able to say my name (there is something dehumanising about this). I would feel the creeping death in school when the book was passed around to read. I always became nervous about answering the register in class, something most people didn’t think twice about. The simple “yes, Sir”, or worse, its French counterpart “oui, Monsieur’, presented a daily challenge.

I have been shown some mercy, however, in that my stammer is somewhat manageable. The experts call me a “covert” stammerer. This refers to stammerers who are able to hide their stammer in some situations, and who can occasionally be fluent by swapping out words and using diversion tactics: hence the term “covert”.

The recent speech therapy course I was on, said they actually have a tougher time with us covert stammerers, as we cling so desperately to our coping mechanisms that have sometimes (though often not) worked for us. The problem of using such tactics, of course, is that you don’t say what you want to say. Instead of saying “Did you get here by car?”, I might ask, “Did you get here by vehicle?” I would rather sound odd and, at times, even stupid, than show people that I stammer.

On the recent aforementioned course, I came across a few “overt” stammerers. These are people who find every syllable a challenge: their daily life is significantly impacted by severe dysfluency. Watching these people struggle so much to pronounce their own names made me realise how lucky I am that my stammer is at least somewhat manageable.

Make no mistake, in its severest forms, a stammer is a debilitating handicap. In a 2014 Channel 4 documentary on stammering, named Stammer School, a formerly fluent speaker named Vicky Croft, who had always been the life and soul of every party, acquired a stammer following a stroke and claimed that the impact on her life had been so profound that she would rather lose a limb.

There is currently no cure for stammering. There are, however, plenty of treatments. The most successful treatments attack it from two sides. Firstly, they encourage you to accept your stutter without shame, even to be proud of it. You are told to be dysfluent in public, to stutter ordering your coffee even when you weren’t going to. This helps fight the psychological side of the stammer. You learn that the world doesn’t burn and nobody dies when you don’t speak with perfect fluency (and if somebody is really so offended by a slight stutter then frankly that’s their problem).

Secondly, such treatment programs offer pragmatic techniques on defeating the stammer. One example is costal breathing: breathing from the ribs like opera singers do, to really belt out the words you want to say, although this does have the downside of making you sound like Darth Vader.

Another example is to speak in an exaggerated deep tone of voice. This is to take the tension away from the articulators in your mouth. These treatments that attack both the psychological and physiological sides of stammering are, to my knowledge, the most effective at helping a stammerer gain control of their speech. Still, plenty of stammerers don’t want any treatment and that’s fine too.

Overall, though, I’m fairly happy to stammer and it could always be worse. Whilst I struggle with my speech there are so many things I take for granted every day that other people struggle with. My stammer is just one aspect of me, and it’s not something I’m ashamed of. It can be frustrating, and I’m not going to lie and say it’s been a blessing, but I accept it as an aspect of myself, or a quirk, even. After all, the only thing that stammerers ask for is a bit of patience. Is that too much to ask?

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