Megan Gribben, a McGuire Programme member and now a first-year student mental health nurse, didn’t let her stammer/stutter prevent her from securing a place on the degree course she always wanted. Read Megan’s story about not giving up and chasing your dreams
For our final course in 2019 we returned to the cultural city of Cork to the historic Metropole Hotel in the city centre. Joining us on our 3 day intensive course were 12 people who had the wish to overcome their stutter, as well as over 50 returning members.
Throughout the 3 days we learned, drilled and practiced physical and psychological techniques. Towards the end of the course we tested these powerful techniques in the real world by talking to many strangers on street and in shops. And to top it off we did public speaking on the busiest street in Cork City. Such a jam packed 3 days!
One of the McGuire Programmes biggest strengths is our comprehensive follow up support. On completion of the course each student is assigned a personal coach who works closely with their student on a daily basis.
During this course we welcomed a new addition to our coaching team – Jack Widger. Jack joined the programme in 2017. He worked very hard on his own speech over the past 2 years and is now in a coaching role on the programme. He’s an inspiration to us all! Here he is proudly accepting his ‘Primary Coach’ certificate from one of our staff trainers David McNally. So well deserved Jack. We’re delighted for you.
There used to be a time when I could only dream about being a strong speaker. To dream about being able to say what I want when I want. Thanks to the McGuire Programme, those dreams have very much become a reality.
My mother always said to me “Simon, I’ll keep looking until we find something to help your speech.” In 2009 she came across the McGuire Programme. I was 14 years of age at the time and had already given up. I accepted the fact that I was going to stammer out of control for the rest of my life. I remember coming home from school and she told me that she rang Joe and there was a course coming up in Cork and that if I wanted to, I could do it. In my head I was saying “I’ve tried everything else, why is this different, why should this work”? But I was willing to give it a go. This was it. My last hope.
Off we went to Cork for the course and I couldn’t believe it. I was surrounded by people who had the same problem as me. I wasn’t alone. In 3 days I had transformed into a confident speaker. It was a dream come true. Fast forward 2 years and I’m doing really well. I’m confident. I have no fear. I am that person that I so desperately wanted to be.
Then one day I decided to stop working and very quickly my speech went downhill. Back in the swamp. My speech was now worse than it ever was. Long story short for roughly 7 years I stayed in the swamp. I was fine with other McGuire people but in the real world my speech had fallen apart. I was embarrassed to pick up the phone and reach out for help from the coaches. I was ashamed at myself that I had given up and failed. I was now 21 and was working as an apprentice plasterer and one Friday I quit my job because I couldn’t speak to my boss. Every time I’d open my mouth, nothing would come out. I had given up on life. I went home that evening and I broke down in tears and I said to my mam that I needed to go back on the McGuire Programme. I’m sick of this stammer controlling me.
A year and a half ago I built up the courage to come back It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows but every day since I have challenged and pushed myself and faced my fears head on and have slowly grown into a strong, confident speaker . No more holding back. No more running away. Practice, practice, practice. Time and effort has transformed me.
It’s extremely hard for me to put into words what this programme has done for me. I joined this programme at the age of 17, I was scared, embarrassed and ashamed of having a stammer, or being different from everyone my age! I had a multitude of tricks and avoidance behaviours. The first time I spoke to my own dad on a telephone was after my first McGuire course.
My own parents did not know the extent of how my stammer affected my everyday life because I simply never spoke. Silence for years and years.
After years of speech therapy with no results I was 100% certain that my stammer was the worst stammer in the world, I was hopeless. My mum finally came to me about the ‘McGuire Programme’, off we set to Galway! The only people who knew where I was going were my parents, the course was great but I wasn’t ready. I was so deep in denial, there was no way I was going to come home and tell everyone where I was!
The turnaround for me was the birth of my niece, I set a small goal of being able to read stories for her. That one goal changed my entire life.
In October 2017 I made a decision to return to the McGuire Programme. I had to try again. It was the most nerve wracking train journey of my life as my stammer was worse than ever. However the support I received on that course & still receive to this day will genuinely stay with me forever. I slowly built up my goals , I was honest, I knew what I didn’t do the first time around and I made sure to put all of the techniques into practice, I was determined to turn the panic into fun. I challenged that little voice inside my head that told me for years ‘you can’t do this Megan’.
The past two years have been the most magical of my life! I have reached a level of freedom in my speech I have only ever dreamed about thanks to a lot of hard work, courage and support. I’m so excited about what is to come.
Laura Ludmany was scared of being found out, she says.
When her phone rang, she’d run out to the street so her former boyfriend couldn’t hear her talk. If a client called at work, her stomach would clench. Sometimes she’d crinkle a piece of paper next to the receiver and pretend the line was bad.
Ludmany grew up in Hungary, and when she was a teenager, her best friend made calls for her – to the GP, the bank – pretending to be her. Her friend knew everything about her. PIN numbers, too.
When she moved to Budapest for college, she came up with new tricks. If someone asked for her number, she’d show it to them on her phone. At restaurants, she’d hold up the menu and point to what she wanted.
“I really built up this whole world where I didn’t have to speak, and I was actually really good at it,” she said, sitting outside a cafe on Middle Abbey Street on a recent Friday evening.
The problem was, the more she hid, the worse it got.
Ludmany’s secret was that, since she was three years old, she’s had a stammer. “I was always really afraid that people would learn that I stammered. So whenever I stammered, I felt all these bad feelings, like isolation, guilt, and shame,” she says.
And now, every day, she uses a new set of tools, to keep it out in the open.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Ludmany is in a large room in the Carmelite Community Centre on Aungier Street.
There are twelve people – two rows of six – sitting in chairs, facing each other. They stare into each other’s eyes and breathe.
Patrick Hanlon paces around them, wearing a black band around the middle of his chest. “Let’s do hands on ribs. Let’s kick off this meeting with discipline. One, two, three, breathe,” he says.
The sound of 12 people inhaling and exhaling, forcefully, mouths open, temporarily drowns out the noise of two Dublin Buses stopped outside the windows.
“Have a think about why you’re here tonight,” Hanlon says. “Why do we do the work to be disciplined in here, so it holds up for the next two weeks?”
Right now, they’re practising costal breathing, the kind of deep, belly breathing that opera singers use. Some wear black belts around their chests that remind them to breathe this way.
When non-stutterers talk – Hanlon calls them “fluent” people – they use the upper diaphragm. The costal diaphragm is larger and deeper, and there’s more power there, Hanlon says. “And it isn’t trained to respond to fear like our upper diaphragm reacts to fear.”
So, Hanlon says, stammerers are taught to use this new, lower part of the diaphragm when they speak “to go around that fear”.
They use other tactics, too. They call them “weapons”. One of them is drawing out the first sound of a word. Hanlon goes first.
“Puh.” Breath. “Patrick Hanlon.”
“The first sound is usually the most fearful sound, so you’re hitting and drawing it out to demonstrate to yourself that you have control over the sound,” Hanlon says.
Next, they play a kind of game. They take turns standing up and choosing the “weapon” the next person will use.
Brian Dempsey stands up and breathes in. “Centre and clarify,” he says, then takes another breath. “Before entering a speaking situation.” Breath.“We must decide.” Breath. “How we’re going to approach it.” Breath.“If fear is high and confidence low.” Breath. “We use our weapons.”
The room erupts into a kind of rhythmic talking. Everyone repeats Dempsey’s words, at full volume, taking quick, deep breaths between pops of sound. It’s kind of like a Greek chorus, except no one is in sync.
They take it in turns, each leader saying a slogan like, “We look the listener in the eye. Looking away is like running away.”
The meetings at the Carmelite Centre are every other Wednesday. They’re all about “discipline, breathing, eye contact, and pausing as we speak”, Hanlon says. “All of that is our arsenal against fear.”
Your Name, Please?
Ludmany has an old video of herself. When the camera starts rolling, it’s trained on an empty chair at the front of a hotel conference room.
The title pops up: “Laura Ludmany – First Day”. She strides into the frame, sits down, and faces the camera.
“Can we have your name?” a man’s voice asks. She smiles a little and says, “Yeah.”
Then she tries, for two minutes and 24 seconds, to say the word “Laura”.
She manages to get some sounds out: a few “uhs” and, after a while, “My name is.” She clasps and re-clasps her hands in her lap. She tenses her arms. She bobs her head as if trying to push the words out, as she looks down at the blue-and-white patterned carpet.
She gets to the “L” sound, drawing it out, but she can’t get past it.
She makes the sound for a full breath, then she sighs, laughs a little, and looks up. “Sorry, too stressed,” she says.
Eventually, she looks up and shrugs. Her shoulders sink.
The man says, off camera: “No problem, we’ll come back to that. What’s your address?”
The video is from the first day of a course called the McGuire Programme, which aims to teach people to control their stuttering with a new way of breathing and a different approach to speaking.
Ludmany found the course while googling, after a brutal, hourlong meeting with her boss, in which she was only able to say a few sentences.
She found a video like the one she eventually recorded. In it, a man struggles to say his own name. Two days later, he’s able to speak.
Ludmany moved to London to do the three-day course, and for a fresh start.
The courses are run by fellow stammerers. It’s a worldwide programme. There are courses in different parts of Ireland three times per year.
On the first evening of the course they filmed the video. On the second day, after learning a new way to breathe, Ludmany stood in front of the class again, she says.
“That was actually the first time in my life I could say my name,” she says. “I was 27 years old almost, and I was crying my eyes out after.”
After 45 minutes of practicing at the Carmelite Centre meeting, Brian Dempsey walks over to the front of the room. “Well done, everyone,” he says. “Can we get into a semicircle facing the screen?”
They’re done with the physical stuff. For the next 45 minutes, it’s all about the mind.
Today’s topic is turbulence. As Hanlon explains it, turbulence in speech is similar to turbulence on a flight.
“If there’s a blip here and there on a two-hour flight, you’re not going to say, ‘Wow, that was a turbulent flight.’” But if it’s half an hour of rocky skies, that’s turbulence, Hanlon says.
Dempsey, who has a stammer himself, has led these meetings for five years. He’s a “coach” – each new student is paired with one.
“How can we help each other dealing with turbulence? Hands up anyone who’s going through turbulence at the moment,” he says.
A few hands go up.
One of the hands is Niall Berrington’s. He’s had three job interviews recently, but the third one didn’t go so well, speech-wise, he says. “It’s kind of rocked my confidence a little bit.”
From then on, it’s a support-group meeting. People chime in with stories of their own, tips, tricks. Another young man says he’s also here tonight because of a job interview.
A few days after the meeting, Berrington talks about how one negative experience can overshadow positive ones. That’s what happened with his interviews, he says. Two “went really well”, but the third did not.
“I wasn’t happy with my performance, and I felt like my stutter was dictating what I was saying,” he says. He was shortening his answers and, generally, “looking to get out of the situation”.
“I was sweating loads; I was getting self-conscious; I was looking across at the interviewers and wondering if they were noticing,” says Berrington.
Talking to the group about the interview helped him process it. “There are so many common things we’ve all gone through,” he says.
One of the guys at the meeting offered to do a mock interview with him.
That might give him “a chance to scratch out that negative interview”, says Berrington. A chance to move past it.
What Time Do You Close?
Ludmany lives in Dublin now with her boyfriend. She works from home as an IT engineer, and takes lots of calls for her job.
But she doesn’t hide like she used to.
“The more you avoid saying sounds or words, the higher your fear is going to be,” she said, at the cafe. “We stammer because we are afraid of stammering, so it’s like performance fear.”
Sometimes, when she’s trying to tell a story and is talking too fast, tripping up over sounds, Ludmany stops herself. “Sorry, I need to slow down,” she says. She takes deep breaths and tries to say only three or four words per breath.
When she was a kid, Ludmany used to worry that she’d never be able to get a job. So when she did, or when she got into a relationship, she’d stick with them even if they weren’t right for her.
“That’s the life of a stammerer. My whole life used to be full of these small compromises. Everything, all of my life, was based on my stammer,” she says. It’s not like that anymore, though.
In April, she gave a presentation at work. For almost two months beforehand, she prepared – putting slides together, memorising the presentation, and practising in front of people.
“I didn’t even have one block. Everyone was applauding, and I was almost crying,” she says. “It was a big achievement.”
Ludmany works on her speech every day, she says. She asks the woman behind the till what time the cafe closes, even though the opening hours are listed on the door.
She makes herself stay at the cafe for the 30 minutes before closing, rather than moving to another one, even though the time pressure stresses her out.
“Overcoming a stammer is really a lifelong thing,” she says.
by Erin McGuire
‘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’