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On a hiding to nothing by pretending not to stammer

Anthony Leahy | 01.09.2007

The only problem with not stammering was that he was not really living. Anthony Leahy describes how accepting his stammer freed him from fear.

I spent the greater part of my school years avoiding situations that advertised my stammer, often with a 'spectacular' degree of ingenuity. English lessons were a particular challenge due to the dreaded task of reading to the class. Respite only came through developing of avoidance strategies such as asking teachers to permanently excuse me from reading duties.

During my time at university,  I avoided participating in seminars or giving presentations. It was far easier to maintain my veneer of fluency by avoiding these situations, yet the price I paid was to deny myself the opportunity to express my ideas on subjects I cared about passionately.

Professionally, I opted out of an IT career path that would involve regular presentations or substantial client-facing contact. It was easier to pursue an office-bound existence where I could control the method of communication with clients by using e-mail rather than the phone.

Despite managing to attain a high degree of fluency in my mid-twenties, I realised that the framework of my 'success' was built on elaborate layers of avoidance; my speech had become tailored, and speaking situations carefully selected.

To address this situation, I started a speech therapy course (in late 2006) at City Lit specifically aimed at interiorised stammerers. Split into three distinct phases - identification, desensitisation, speech modification - the purpose of the course was to help participants identify overt and covert aspects of their stammer, reduce negative feelings, develop self-confidence and strategies to modify their stammer. My aim was simply to reduce the limitations my stammer was placing on my life.

Through the process of identification, I was able to better understand the complexity of the covert, and overt, aspects of my stammer. By identifying a range of feelings, challenging situations and avoidance techniques I was able to gradually develop a structured view of my dysfluency and begin the process of modifying my mindset.

The real reward was a better understanding of just how much we are bound by a fear of stammering. By constantly worrying about maintaining fluency we simply reinforce our negative feelings and in turn, fuel our struggle with speech.

Later in the course, the shift from identification to desensitisation demanded the biggest personal effort. After managing to successfully disguise my stammer, and develop a complex framework of control and avoidance, I was now faced with a situation where I was not only encouraged to accept my stammer but also advertise it.

Two exercises stick in my mind: one, calling an organisation and announcing I was a stammerer, and two, using a questionnaire to advertise my stammer.

The first of these tasks as actually a lot of fun. I was in a situation where I was not only in total control but also wasn't under any pressure to maintain fluency. There was a certain feeling of liberation 'weaving' the line "I have a stammer so please bear with me" into a conversation with my building society. I knew that at any point during the exercise I could stammer openly without worrying about the loss of fluency - I even used some voluntary stammering to further gauge the reaction of the person at the end of the line.

I used the second task, based on a questionnaire devised by the group to gather views on stammering, to advertise my stammer to work colleagues. After maintaining near total fluency in the workplace I spent a week unravelling all of my 'good' work by talking about my own stammer.

Rather than perpetuating the myth of fluency, I was offering an accurate account of my speech and the challenges

Rather than perpetuating the myth of fluency, I was offering an accurate account of my speech and the challenges (e.g. embarrassment, restricting speaking situations) I face as a stammerer. When undertaking the questionnaire task, I found myself speaking confidently about stammering and the sophisticated way in which stammerers treat speech.

Surprisingly, nearly all of my colleagues knew a stammerer, and none of them saw it as a source of weakness or inability.

What I have learned so far during the course is that many of the negative thoughts and feelings we have about stammering are simply waiting to be challenged. Stammering isn't a crime, it isn't a deficiency and it doesn't need to be a source of shame and embarrassment.

From the Autumn 2007 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 12