Having a stammer is something that I think about every time I speak, but I rarely speak about. I’m used to leading a double life. Every conversation is a gauntlet to be run where coming away with my disguise as a fluent speaker intact is a personal triumph. When you mock my stammer because you didn’t realise I wasn’t joking, it’s a win. I fake fluency every day.
I started stammering as a child but it only really became an issue when I went to school. That’s when I realised there was a stigma attached to what happened when I opened my mouth. That it was a source of concern. The well intentioned adults who as teachers, family or passers by would avoid asking me questions in case it ‘set me off’ or would speak for me as if my own voice didn’t count. Who finished my sentences. Who told me to ‘calm down’ or ‘think about what I wanted to say’. I knew what I wanted to say it’s just my body was fighting against it.
I remember my first speech therapy session as I started school. I sat down in front of the woman and asked her when my stammer would go away. She slid a box of tissues across the desk as she explained that as I was still stammering at the age of 7 the chances were I’d be stammering for the rest of my life. But as a girl, I was rather rare. Of the 1% of the population who stammers, only 20% are women. Lucky me.
So my speech therapy became about practicing techniques to feign fluency. Back then you didn’t embrace your stammer, you did everything you could to disguise it. So I didn’t think of it as embraceable. It was shameful. To be hidden away. I worried about it all the time and how others thought of me when I did it. Family members would comment on how many times I stammered when I saw them. They meant well — they were trying to mark my progress to success. But no fluency technique was 100% successful and it always came back. I imagined my first kiss would magic it away, like Sleeping Beauty waking from a spell.
Stammering can be an ugly, messy experience both for the stammerer and the listener. Sometimes I spit. My tongue comes out. Sometimes I can’t stop my mouth from spasming into shapes that I get trapped within. My chest feels like it’s in a vice. My eyes shut or I look down. And I can see you watching me go through this and I can see you’re confused or embarrassed or uncomfortable. I feel ashamed. Stammering is one of the few disabilities it is acceptable to laugh at openly.
Ironically, I work in communications so I have a special fear of how you’re judging me. What are you thinking when you hear me stammering on the phone talking to a journalist? Do you want me representing your brand if I stammer in a presentation? Do you think I lack confidence when I trip over my own name? Would you pass responsibility for briefing my comms strategy to the Board to someone else? Does my stammer reveal to you that I’m overwhelmed or stupid or lying or just too shy?
But it’s not all cut and dry. We stammerers are complex folk. I’m also someone who has won awards for my work and presentations, speaks regularly at UK and European conferences, has performed lead roles in plays and once sang on a number 1 hit and a West End show.
Speaking is exhausting. I’m using fluency techniques before I’ve even opened my mouth. Sometimes I can sense the sounds that will tie me up but only a few words in advance. So I find strategies to avoid or substitute or put the word in your mouth so I don’t get dragged under. I squeeze the air out of my lungs or speak on the in-breath or pinch my leg or bury my fingernails in the palms or tap my foot or look away or pretend I can’t remember the word or slur my words or slow my breathing. All to try to exert some control over what feels uncontrollable. Sometimes it’s too much like hard work and I just stay silent.
I’ve had speech therapy on and off my whole life. Some has been better than others, but probably not for the reasons you’d imagine. There are no magic fluency techniques (despite what you might have been sold) only a long road back to the gentle realisation that stammering doesn’t make you broken or damaged or to be hidden away. It just means you speak with a different voice. Working with a colleague who happened to be the CEO and was a fellow stammerer was an eye opener for me. His drive to achieve while also stammering was empowering. He had his own coping mechanisms and used to ask his PA to start his phone calls so he didn’t have to introduce himself — we all *hate* saying our own names. By seeking out others and coming to terms with my own style of speaking, I’ve gained more confidence. I’m learning to trust my own voice and style of speaking, even if it’s not always perfect.
So I’ve started being more open about my stammer in my workplace. I’m a civil servant and I’ve joined up with other civil servants across government who want to create a safe space for people that stammer. A great example has been set by the Defence Stammering Network and we want to get support to every civil servant, regardless of grade or department. The Civil Service Stammering Network is a Facebook group open to any current civil servants who stammer or want to learn how to support those who do, and challenge and change perceptions around stammering. If you’d like to join, simply send an email from your work email address which ends in gov.uk to betony [dot] kelly [at] digital [dot] bis [dot] gov [dot] uk
Stammerers shouldn’t feel they have to lead a double life. Fluency is a myth and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard. So if you are or know a civil servant who stammerers or would like to help people who stammer, get in touch. I’d love to hear your voice, just as it is.