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My recent experience of NHS speech therapy

Ben Hewett | 15.04.2014

Ben Hewett shares his progress after returning to therapy after over twenty years, and highlights the growing threat that NHS services are under.

Ben HewettI didn't start stammering until I was eight, so because I spoke fluently up until then, my beginning to stammer constituted a change in the way I spoke - unlike those who stammer from the time they can talk - this served to emphasise my stammering to everyone who knew me and draw attention to it. I didn't understand and greatly feared it. I was taken to a speech therapist. This experience - which consisted mostly of reading exercises and being repeatedly told to slow down - was of little help. In hindsight, I believe that the period of time during which I spoke fluently reinforced the idea that fluency was the norm and thus stammering was abnormal and should be hidden at all costs; to return to fluent speech was all I wanted and nothing less than this would do.

My single-minded desire for fluency (and my hatred of stammering) persisted throughout my teens and twenties, during which I struggled to achieve anything I wanted to. I left school after my GCSEs, worked in various unfulfilling jobs for eight years (hiding my speech and the impact it had upon me as best I could) before finding the courage to go to university. There I found some confidence, both personally and academically, which gave me hope. However, upon leaving university, my speech deteriorated and my confidence nose-dived.

Return to therapy

At this very low point, I decided to seek speech therapy again. I had little optimism that it would help (given my previous experience) but decided it had to be worth a try as the alternative was far worse. Implicitly, I wanted fluency but this was quashed in the first session when I was told - in the kindest possible way - that there is no cure and that I was likely to stammer, in some capacity, for the rest of my life. This was hard to take but, in a sense, a degree of relief set in: maybe I didn't need to struggle anymore. This sense of relief - resignation, in all but name - was soon replaced with optimism that even though I may stammer for the rest of my life, there were things I could do to manage it. Much of therapy to date has centred upon identifying my stammering behaviours - my avoidances, as well as what I physically do when I block - and desensitising myself to the act of blocking. To allow myself to feel the full force of a block (which were often uncontrollable) and to not panic and avoid the block was a crucial step for me. I won't sugar-coat it: desensitising myself to stammering has been one of the hardest things I've ever done but it's also one of the most empowering as the sense of acceptance, and therefore of control, was genuinely attitude-changing. This sea-change in attitude and the boost in self-belief soon resulted in another important change: I realised that my speech-related anxieties derived from my own negative relationship with my stammer, rather than from anybody else's negative reaction to it. This further increased the sense that my stammer was something which was mine and as such, it was something that I could change.

I started working through Block Modification Therapy, an approach premised upon the idea that I had a choice as to how I reacted to a block. Whereas before, my reaction was to struggle and 'push through' the block, this taught me to do the opposite: to stop, identify where the block was, reduce the tension and to slowly and calmly utter the word. I soon realised that I could block and still utter any word with minimal struggle; blocking didn't have to mean I couldn't say that word.

The most significant benefits I have gained from therapy have been the changes in belief about my speech. I believed that stammering was something which happened to me, and was to be avoided. I now believe it is something I do and something which doesn't have to be struggled against or avoided. My outlook has changed completely. I still stammer and find it difficult at times, but I now have a few skills to manage it in order to lead the life I want to lead.

Therapy cut short

Unfortunately, however, after almost nine months, my therapy was prematurely cut short due to cut-backs at the Trust which provided the adult stammering service. This news was very distressing as I was several months away from completing the therapy plan set out for me and I felt very much like I'd been abandoned. The dire situation in Birmingham with regards to adult stammering services prompted the BSA to launch an awareness campaign in the city, involving local MP Jack Dromey, giving me the opportunity to be interviewed by a local newspaper in order to raise awareness of the issue. The interview - a telephone interview of all things! - went really well and, in a way, the opportunity to assist the BSA in this way helped me to realise how far I'd come in my stammering journey. Thankfully, whether due to the pressure of the interview or not, I'm being transferred to a neighbouring service and will continue my therapy there.

Newspaper article featuring Ben. Headline: 'Patient feels 'abandoned' by stammering service axe'.

From Speaking Out Spring 2014, p.11