|Speaking Out articles
Easier Done Than Said
For some people, moving to a new place, finding a supportive employer or a supportive partner helps to overcome the difficulties of stammering. When Paul Bond moved to Yorkshire for work, he found all three.
I used to live in a near constant state of fear of everyday talk and meeting people. Even the most mundane task such as buying a train ticket or ordering a meal set the heart racing and the anxiety levels soaring. Perhaps the most terrifying situation of all was the job interview. Even fluent communicators view the prospect of competing for a potential career opening with a certain amount of trepidation, but for a person who stammers the obstacles are tenfold.
I'm one of the lucky ones. I managed to find an employer who looked beyond my sporadic speaking difficulties, and who actually read the details on my CV. It didn't seem to matter how long it took for me to answer the questions that were posed. The company recognised my potential and offered me the job that very afternoon.
The fact that my stammer didn't hold me back on that occasion was a life-enhancing moment, but not all corporate grillings were the same. For several years before I took up my current position, I spent lots of time and effort attending interviews, only to be turned down for obscure or 'unspecified' reasons. 'Unspecified' after the event, but during the question-and-answer sessions, the worried glances and look of horror on the faces of the various personnel managers and directors that I encountered spoke volumes. To say that the condition is embarrassing is an understatement, and when a stutter affects your livelihood and stops you from landing that 'dream job', it goes beyond a minor annoyance.
I had my worst interview experience in my hometown of Blackpool. I felt confident of my abilities and had done my utmost to push back the inevitable fears that had come upon me in the hours leading up to that fateful meeting.
As I made my way to the interview, I was suddenly gripped by the all-too-familiar thought that I wouldn't be able to say things as clearly, or as well, as I wanted to. I tried to put the apprehension and deeply unsettling anxiety concerning my speech to the back of my mind, but my nervousness prevailed, spiralling out of control. My stomach churned, my breathing was erratic, and when the branch manager finally emerged and welcomed me with a calculating smile and a stiff, impersonal handshake, I just knew that I was going to fail, and fail miserably.
The manager began by asking me why I'd applied for the position. Then he said "So how long have you been working with computers?" The answer was five years. I was utterly dismayed and was instantly out for a duck.
"Why ask that?" I protested to myself. I took a running jump at the offending numeral and gave it my best shot. "It's been...er...well, I'd say...mmm...f-f-f-f-f...". At that, the manager threw his hands up in objection and cried "Hold it right there!". He seemed annoyed at my stammer, and with a look that nearly turned me to stone said "You didn't tell me that you had a problem with your speech...I wouldn't have even attempted to interview you if I'd known!".
He called the meeting to an early and very abrupt end, and 'advised' me to go home, take a pill to calm my nerves, and to think long and hard before applying for any jobs in the future, especially ones where I might be called upon to deal with members of the public. I wanted to tell him where to shove his precious branch administrator job, but I couldn't. I left the interview feeling bewildered, useless and close to breaking point.
During the next two years I took manual, unskilled and non-speaking jobs while applying for 'proper' career openings within the computing sector.
All the while I dreamed of being fluent, and of living life without having to plan each and every step of the day, for fear of encountering a situation where I'd have to speak to strangers or ask for something in a shop.
My life seemed futile and unbearable. Being free of my stammer was all that I could think about and those long, arduous months were the most difficult that I've ever had to live through.
I've stammered since I was eight years old. Speech therapists work on the assumption that stammering has a neurological basis, which supports the idea that stammering is a 'naturally occurring' phenomenon, but my own stammer came about as the result of childhood trauma. The 'trigger' event which gave rise to my speaking difficulties was the revelation that I'd been adopted - that my elderly parents were actually my grandparents, and that my sister was really my mother.
Several days after being told the news, I made my acting 'debut' as a pageboy in the school play. Before that, I have no recollection of being anxious about speaking, but on the opening night I suddenly became conscious of speech, and all of my attention seemed, for some strange and unfathomable reason, to be focused on the mechanics of uttering words. I managed to say "Yes your Majesty, I mean no your Majesty" liked I'd rehearsed, but after that I never spoke the same ever again.
Over the years I've tried everything to rid myself of the condition, and have experienced all of the tortuous verbal exchanges that are regular occurrences in the lives of many of my fellow stammerers.
In my early twenties I tried hypnotherapy and acupuncture, and read countless numbers of books: The Power of the Mind, The Magic of Thinking Big and Self-Therapy for the Stammerer. None of the methods that I dabbled in brought about any kind of sustained relief, but they did help to raise my own awareness of the fact that my stammer is as much a psychological problem as it is a physical one.
Having a stammer inadvertently gave rise to my interest in writing and literacy, but the letters I wrote asking for help or quotes were no substitute at all for being able to speak without fear of being belittled. It was only when I met my wife that I gained enough confidence to sell up and leave Blackpool and its myriad of bad memories behind. We got married on the edge of a lagoon in Barbados and had the ceremony photographed and recorded on video. Fortunately, the cameraman edited out the blocks and stammers which peppered the exchanging of the marital vows, and apart from the fleeting verbal glitches, the day passed off without incident. When we returned home we to Tockwith; a sleepy, idyllic village which lies mid-way between York and Harrogate. During that time I registered with as many IT recruitment agencies as I could possibly find. With my wife Sonia's help, and with a couple more computing qualifications under my belt, I discovered that I was much more employable now I lived within range of Leed's bustling epicentre.
I had several interviews, all of which were the same nerve-jangling, fraught affairs that they had always been, but the change in my personal circumstances had brought about a shift in my outlook. Even though I still stammered, avoided, and made the usual excuses for myself, I managed to build on my experience by securing temporary contracts working as a programmer within a bank and a marketing agency. I left the bank to join my present company, and despite being financially rewarded for my diligence and my work, there was still a deep void in my life, where fluency once resided.
Shortly after we'd moved to York, I watched a television series called 'Embarrassing Illnesses', which each week focused on bad breath, sweaty feet, and, to my utter amazement, stammering. When the spotlight finally fell on speech impediments, I became aware of The Starfish Project, an organisation run by an inspirational lady called Anne Blight.
Later, when I rang the Starfish office Anne listened to what I had to say, not the way in which I was saying it, and when I travelled down to East Sussex several months later to join the ranks of the previously ignored and ridiculed for my first Starfish workshop, I finally got to speak to her face to face. I had the famous khaki belt applied to my upper abdomen, and by using the breathing techniques and thinking about what it was that I wanted to say, rather than how I was going to go about saying it, I managed to gain more control over my stammer than I'd ever done before. Like the alcoholic who's 'on the wagon', I will forever be a stammerer, but these days I'm a 'recovering' stammerer, and therein lies the crucial difference. I have good days and bad, and sometimes I forget to put into practice the methods that Anne taught me to use.
I've discovered that there is no miracle cure. The way in which a person who stammers is perceived is a crucial factor in the seemingly endless cycle of worry, anxiety and negative attitudes, which subsequently fuel the condition. Once I was a stammerer without a job, but now I'm an employed person who lives, for the most part, without a stammer.
From the Autumn 2002 edition of Speaking Out.
The Starfish Project website is at www.starfishproject.co.uk.
See also: Costal Breathing index page.
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