After some hypnotherapy, Josh Raymond sees his stammer as a strange, panicky pet, but one that has his best interests at heart. He finds it helpful to understand what it is trying to say when it stops him speaking.
I’ve never written about my stammer before. For twenty-five years or so, I didn’t even talk about it.
This was not because I couldn’t. As stammers go, mine is not particularly severe. I can say my own name pretty easily, but the ‘six’ towards the end of my phone number is a challenge, as is the name of my road. The reason I never mentioned my stammer, and changed the subject if anyone else did, was simply that I didn’t want it to be there, and so tried to hide it.
I do remember fluent speech. At the age of four I was at the precocious end of chatty, and my parents would even show off my ability to name things aloud. Then at some point around that time my speech stopped working properly. I don't think it was caused by any one thing. I definitely liked sounding articulate and speaking quickly, and might have put pressure on myself to do that all the time. All I know is there followed a quarter century of finding difficult a thing that most people do with ease.
City Lit course
To loathe a seemingly unalterable aspect of oneself is not much fun. I would spend long periods behind my motorbike helmet, shielded by engine noise, trying to spit and push out difficult words, but the harder I tried the worse it got. I don’t know what it was about turning 30 – that it starts with the same sound as ‘therapy’? – but I signed up for a course at City Lit. I thought a group would help, as battling my stammer on my own clearly didn’t. Plus City Lit is an excellent place in general. Diverse and humming with life, it’s like London itself in miniature.
Our therapists were Rachel, Jan and Carolyn. For someone who’s into phonetics, that’s one liquid consonant (r), one affricative (j) and one plosive (c), almost as if they had named themselves on purpose for the sake of the course. They listened with patience and taught us fluent-speech techniques, as well as other, more psychological arts. These included disclosure (being ‘out’ about stammering), and non-avoidance (don’t order a ham sandwich when you want a cheese one just because you can’t say ‘cheese’). There was also ‘voluntary stammering’, by which one stammers calmly and on purpose, as a means of desensitisation.
The main thing I took from all this was that the stammer is a paradoxical beast. When I stopped trying to hide it, tension drained and it went away. I also learned to speak to myself only as I would to another person – no shouting, belittling or calling names. This was a revelation; it turned out that I had been verbally abusing myself for years.
I also learned to speak to myself only as I would to another person – no shouting, belittling or calling names.
Unfortunately though, my fluency didn’t last. I didn’t do much of the long-term homework we were set, and they did warn us, but about the only thing that has been with me as long as stammering is a powerful dislike of homework. Dismayed, I also found myself wanting to understand my stammer better – why it visited me so forcefully sometimes, yet at other times left me alone.
Palace Hypnotherapy was recommended by a friend. I was, and still am, having plain old psychotherapy too, and that had given me an insight which I brought to my first session: when I express my emotions, I speak more fluently. This seemed to make sense to hypnotherapist Philip, and we had a good chat about behavioural psychology as applied to me, in particular the idea of emotional disinhibition. And while everybody’s stammer is different, I did wonder if “I love you” or “I hate this” might be, physically speaking, quite easy things to say. People who stammer don’t stammer when they sing and, unless I have this wrong, when they swear. Unfiltered expression gets through.
Philip sat me in a comfortable chair and asked me to picture a staircase, and become more relaxed with each step down I took. At the bottom of the stairs I imagined a situation we had discussed – a recent party, at which my stammer had been an uninvited guest. In this version, though, he suggested alternatives: ways not just of speaking, but of thinking and being as well. The essential message was that I will say what I feel, and that what I feel is worth listening to.
The essential message was that I will say what I feel, and that what I feel is worth listening to.
It felt like something melting – the same release brought by being open about my stammer, but set somewhere deeper – and it has lasted. The night before my wedding this year I listened to the mp3 Philip gave me, and the next day delivered a pretty fluent groom’s speech. I still have a stammer, and always will, but understanding what it is trying to say when it stops me from saying anything has equipped me for difficult moments.
And the strange corollary of all this is that when one understands a thing then hating it becomes much harder. I cannot (excuse the pun) speak for you, but when I stammer it tends to be because I am rushing, or anxious, or not saying what I truly feel or want. I have come to think of my stammer as a strange, un-purchased pet – a panicky familiar that yowls and spits and gets in the way, but which has been with me for a very long time and in its shivery, paranoid way does have my best interests at heart. The stammer is a paradoxical beast, and its final paradox may be that if somebody were to take mine away – put it in a cage and cart it off – I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn’t feel lessened, and miss it.