As I sat in a university lecture, my breathing was shallow and fast, my palms sweaty and my heart raced as one-by-one my classmates stood up to speak. This scene played out countless times before but the panic, fear and anxiety intensified each time this situation came around. I looked down at the book and the literature review I had written on the book. Nervously I agitated in my seat. Any semblance of confidence I once had in my own ability was on the floor and soon it would be my turn.
As my fear escalated, my focus and determination simultaneously vanished. ‘Just take it in your stride,’ I told myself. I was visibly uncomfortable, like always, and was consumed with the fear of being ‘found out’, of being seen as stupid and incompetent, of being pitied, of being a stammerer. Then it came: “Patrick Hanlon, you’re next to speak…”
“Ah…..muh……th….I….I”, I couldn’t even begin by stating the title of my report in front of my class, let alone eloquently broadcast the key points of the report like everyone else before and after me. My mind raced as I tried to conjure up different ways to communicate what I simply couldn’t get to leave my lips. Every trick and avoidance mechanism I tried to use failed me. If I could have physically run away, I would have; I was running away in my mind. After five excruciating minutes of broken sounds, non-words, speech blocks and facial struggle, I had to ask red-faced and humiliated to stop. I finished my 1,000 word report after one sentence.
As I sat in my college seminar waiting to be called to speak, I didn’t know it but that marked my lowest point. I was losing a lifetime battle I had to endure and at that point I was honestly ready to give up. I’ve suffered from a stutter my entire life and this was everyday life for me, and for so many others like me. Quietly fighting an internal war with yourself and avoiding situations, words and sounds. Choosing how to phrase things. Reaching for different tricks and coping mechanisms. Things as banal as saying your name at Starbucks, ordering a dish off the menu at a restaurant or answering the phone can be the most excruciating.
A stutter, or stammer, is a speech impediment that affects around 1% of the world’s population. You probably know loosely what it is and you might have come across stutterers every so often in your life. Maybe you’ve followed Pop Idol singer Gareth Gates’ speech difficulties or watched the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech. You might have been glued to the Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary Educating Yorkshire and cried tears at school boy Musharaf’s speech breakthrough.
Living with a stutter is really tough. I’m sometimes asked by fluent speakers what stuttering feels like and I explain it like being blind but with occasional glimpses of perfect 20/20 vision, or being deaf and having small, random spurts of crystal-clear hearing. A stutter is a beast and a real battle between physical and mental state. No two stutters are the same. There is a scale of covert (practically unrecognisable) to overt (incredibly obvious) but even day-to-day how a stutter interrupts your life can be drastically different from person to person. Good days and bad days come and go, but the constant is that your stutter is always there.
I’m a freelance writer, and I spent my entire life battling a stutter, sailing turbulently along and calling at many ports of speech therapy and different teachings and techniques. At 21, the same day of that excruciating scene described above, I found a lifeline in The McGuire Programme, an immersive, intense speech therapy programme run by people who stutter for people who stutter, combining a new way of breathing (from the costal diaphragm, not the crural – which we use naturally) and a transformative mentality. It works for some people, it doesn’t for others and it’s certainly not a quick fix or an easy ride.
Though, I need to assure you: people who stutter are some of the funniest, most intelligent, sharpest and confident people I know. I’ve met hundreds of them. Take it from me, they’re rarely shy, nervous or unsure of what they want to say and some even have comedic timing to rival the best in the business. Unfortunately, before they can communicate what their brain is thinking, their stutter interrupts the process, gets in the way and can often step them in their tracks. But you don’t have to live this out of control way…
I still battle my stutter every day, I will for life. You never lose a stutter. It doesn’t go away and there’s no definitive ‘cure’ – no matter what Google might lead you to believe. What you can do, though, is change your perceptions and mentality and take on board different ways to go about living with a stammer so that it’s no longer an issue that dictates the everyday. My life has been transformed and I live how I never thought I could, never forgetting where I’ve come from as I work hard and confidently on my speech every day in my quest for eloquence and a comfortable level of fluency. So, I want to share three insights on how you can too.
So, there’s a common saying in social work: ‘lean in to the discomfort’, and the same applies here. Whatever makes you uncomfortable, explore it, pull it apart and understand it. When you see the sum of its parts, it’s not so scary any more. Sure, there will always be other scary things lurking around the corner, but having a mentality that you can tackle anything, that you’re bigger than what scares you, and that you’re a strong and confident person will ensure that you’re prepared for whatever comes your way. A stutter seems physical and it is – our diaphragm and speaking system freezes in the face of fear – but really 90% of it is mental. Re-assess how you approach situations, what your mentality is and how you relate to yourself.
Feel The Fear and Do it Anyway
Ask a person who stutters what makes them most uncomfortable and many will say something like ‘blocking and struggling in front of strangers’, ‘stuttering in front of my kids’, ‘being seen as stupid, inferior or incompetent by my work colleagues’ – always anxious and worried about how the ‘listener’ is perceiving you, yet the biggest focus needs to be on how you as a person experiences your own speech. Why are you speaking thinking about everyone else? The only thing that matters is how you feel when communicating. Susan Jeffers’ book Feel The Fear and Do it Anyway is well worth anyone reading.
To use another common expression, ‘play to win’. Don’t go through life dodging obstacles that get in your way and waiting for the next wave to hit. Power through the wave. Tackle opposition head-on. Look a challenge in the eye and see it through. You have no idea how much confidence you’ll gain from having a proactive, rather than reactive, mentality.
Do you see a common thread? It can be summed up in one word: embrace. Uncomfortable and difficult, I know, but when you embrace something fully it becomes less and less of an issue. Most people who stutter will tell you it’s the one aspect of their lives they despise and hate even thinking about or showing anyone. But here’s the crux: you need to break it apart, build up your confidence step-by-step and live the way you want to. You have to walk through that big scary door that’s stopping you and face your fears.
Don’t force yourself to live in fear when there’s a whole wide world out there, a world waiting to hear what you have to say.