‘Finding My Voice’
As we sat down at a table in a local café, it was hard to imagine that this confident young lady I was talking to suffers from a severe and debilitating stammer, but this indeed was the case.
Now 26, Ballymoney’s Megan Gribben, was enrolled in the ‘McGuire Programme’ helping people overcome their stammer, when she was 17.
Megan was born and brought up much like any young girl, BUT for one difference, she struggled to get even the simplest of words out.
Hindered by a profound stammer, by saying nothing she hid it from all but her closest family and friends.
“Silence, complete silence for years. Mum knew me so well she could actually answer questions that I was asked, she done it for so long.”
She went on to say,
“I was scared of people finding out that I had a stammer. I didn’t want to be seen to be different, so by staying silent, I looked like I was the same as everyone else.”
‘THEY SPOKE FOR ME’
As much as home life was extremely hard for Megan without a voice, it was her school life which would be the most challenging and difficult during both her early years at St Bridget’s Primary School in Ballymoney and later at Dominican College in Portstewart.
A simple task like morning registration was a huge challenge to Megan. While her other classmates answer in full to the teacher, Megan could only simply rely ‘yes’, if anything at all.
Megan’s mum was one of the few people that could understand Megan without her having to say a word and when it came to school, Megan’s Mum would call with her new teachers and ask them not to make Megan talk in class.
This was one of the many ways she learned to cope with the battles of school life.
It was all well and fine relaying on her Mum to be her voice, but at school there was a limit to the support Megan’s Mum could provide given she wasn’t there with her.
This is where Megan’s close friends became her support network.
“I had great friends at Primary & Secondary School who pulled me through it, without them I don’t know how I would have got through it, genuinely”.
When I asked her how they helped, Megan simply said,
“They spoke for me”.
An incident when the class was being covered by a substitute teacher stood out for Megan.
When she was asked to read aloud in class, it took five minutes to get the first words out. Surrounded by her class mates, Megan felt ‘deflated’ and her confidence, what little she had, had taken a knock.
So much so that in similar situations in years to come, Megan avoided class, often choosing to hide away in the school toilets.
“Teachers aren’t taught about stammering, it’s all phycological, but the suffering goes on and its awful.”
Many of us take speaking to family and friends for granted and the thought of not speaking to them on regular basis is inconceivable to most, but for Megan this was everyday life.
A trip to her grandparents involved sitting in the corner saying nothing and as she grew older, she avoid visiting them altogether.
Then Megan dropped a bombshell which had both of us with tears in our eyes!
The first time she was able to speak to her father properly was when she completed her first course with The McGuire Programme, simply stating, as if it wasn’t obvious from her face, that she was; “emotional now just thinking about it”.
The MCGUIRE PROGRAMME
It was during an evening at home with her Mum watching a documentary on stammering on television, that this programme called ‘The McGuire Programme’ was highlighted.
Thinking nothing more of it, Megan carried on, but a seed had been planted in her Mum’s head who approached Megan to ask if this programme would be something she would be interested in. It didn’t take Megan long to decide.
Could she finally have a way of dealing with this debilitating stammer? The answer was yes and a few phone calls later to the regional director, Megan had enrolled on the programme at the age of 17.
As Megan explained to me, The McGuire Programme was started by Dave McGuire in 1994, who himself suffered from the debilitating effects of a severe stammer, but who went on to learn ways to cope and overcome these.
Founding The McGuire Programme, Dave has been able to help others like Megan, breaking the chains which bind stammer suffers in their daily lives.
One of the most famous stammer suffers which the programme has helped, was Pop Idol contestant and singer Gareth Gates.
Dave still plays a very active role in the programme, speaking on a regular basis to many of the participants over the phone or via Skype, including Megan and continues to pass on his experiences and techniques.
The programme doesn’t boast to cure but the techniques taught in the programme are an important part of the course to improvement of a stammer starting with ‘costal breathing’.
“I breath from a different part of my diaphragm, from the top of it, giving a much powerful breath.” Megan explained.
“Another technique is ‘non-avoidance’. Anything that you have avoided in the past, for example introducing yourself, you are taught to go and find as many people as possible and introduce yourself. These are called ‘disclosures’.
I would sometimes do these in Ballymoney.”
More recently Megan also challenged herself even further, and agreed to take part in a radio interview about her stammer on local community radio station FUSE FM Ballymoney.
The programme continues to be solely run by volunteers and indeed those who themselves have a stammer, with no professional help from the likes of speech therapists.
The programme currently runs three courses each year in both the North and South of Ireland for anyone from the age of 14 years up. Alongside courses for those who have gone through the programme, there are also fortnightly support groups within Northern Ireland.
Megan, who still regularly attends these courses and meets along with fellow programme participants, describes them as a ‘big massive family’, saying;
“It’s like going home when you go to see them. On the first day they make you sit in front of a video camera and do a first day video.
“We’re asked our name and about members of the family, just to give them a baseline of the severity of your stammer.
“I remember on my first that I couldn’t say anything. I tried to get my name out for about four minutes, but nothing came.”
A stammer, though it can be controlled or regressed with hard work and determination, for most people will never fully go away and indeed can often reappear at particular times or occasions.
It’s still a daily struggle for Megan who told me that stress can bring on a relapse.
“If I am stressed out or emotional the stammer comes to the fore. If you’re thinking of other things and not your breathing or taking your time, it can all get on top of you.
“But that’s where you go back on the phone list and get help from the programme coaches.”
Having joined the programme at the age of seventeen, Megan now 26, admits it’s only been the last couple of years that she has progressed to where she is now, confident in her speech.
She revealed that denial had played a huge part to getting help with her stammer. The birth of her sister’s baby finally gave her the ‘kick up the bum’ to face her stammer head on.
She set herself the goal of being able to read stories to her little niece, a goal Megan achieved and surpassed.
WHAT LAYS AHEAD
Megan has grown in confidence over the past couple of years, now doing readings in her local church and has recently joined the ‘Mid Ulster Toastmasters’.
This is a group allowing people to build confidence and to find their voice, which Megan has whole heartily embraced and is a regular speaker when the group meets.
So what does the future hold for Megan?
This was something she didn’t have to think about for too long, almost cutting me off mid question.
With a nervous but enthusiastic laugh;
“I want to do a TED Talk”
Megan replied. This of course is in reference to the popular videos shared online of informative, educational and inspiration talks whose slogan is ‘ideas worth spreading’.
Megan, now a university graduate in Social Psychology, has come a long way from hiding in the school toilets or avoiding awkward social interaction.
She continues to progress and later this year plans on taking her exams to become a coach in the McGuire Programme, allowing her to follow in her mentor Dave McGuire’s, footsteps; passing on her experiences, ALL going back to the founding principle and ethos set up by the programme – getting ‘Beyond Stuttering’