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One day, Eric woke up and found that words failed him

Elizabeth Gomm. Jonathan Lee | 01.09.2002

Eric Norbury woke up one morning with a stammer so severe he could hardly get a word out. Elizabeth Gomm and Jonathan Lee report. Article from the Blackpool Gazette.

He was 15, and in an instant, his life was turned on its head. Life at home was bearable with a stammer. Life at school wasn't. He was bullied so much he left school early.

He also gave up on his dream of following his mum, Mary, into the nursing profession.

Instead he chose to help his dad, Charlie, as a painter and decorator. That way he didn't have to confront the public. "When you can't speak and can't even answer the phone there is not much hope for you as a nurse," said Eric.

Thirty years on Eric, now 45, is not only a nurse, he also lectures to his fellow professionals at Blackpool Victoria and three north west colleges.

Eric lecturing.Eric isn't cured. Far from it. He still dreams about the day he can have a conversation without an agonising struggle to overcome a difficult word. The difference now is he's no longer letting his stammer get in the way of his life.

"To give a lecture at first takes a hell of a lot of energy. I have to concentrate on my breathing, but then, once I get going and I see the interest in peoples' faces something takes over. At the end I feel exhausted - but it is well worth the effort."

Eric's stammer first struck for no apparent reason. All he remembers is that overnight life at Blackpool's former Tyldesley Road Secondary School became hell. "The kids gave me such earache at school I told the teachers but half of them just told me to get on with it. I think some of them thought I was putting it on because one day I would be all right and the next day I would be really bad. I couldn't help it. I couldn't stand all the jokes so I left eight months early and joined my father as a painter and decorator."

Eric, who now lives in Bispham, grew up in the family home at Layton, along with his younger brother, who shared dad Charlie's name.

For 13 years after he left school Eric worked with his dad. But, he said: "I always wanted to be a nurse like my mum. I have always had an interest in helping people who are sick. It was in my blood".

Speech therapists - first Janet Billington, and for the past 15 years Linda House - helped him achieve that ambition. But not before he spent a year out of work after his dad's business finished.

Eric was 29. He wondered if he would ever work again.

"I didn't know if I would ever get another job. It was hard because you know you need to go through an interview if you want to get a job and that's not easy when you know you have trouble talking.

"It becomes a vicious circle. You lose confidence because you can't get a job and because you are losing confidence your stammer gets worse and it makes it even more difficult to get work."

A year later Eric was thrown a lifeline. He got a job as a part-time porter at St Annes Old War Memorial Hospital (now houses) on St Annes Road East. It got him a foot in the door of the profession he loves.

Eric also sought the help of specialist speech and language therapist, Linda House. Four years later, thanks to Linda's support, he had made such progress that he applied and was accepted for nurse training. "On a Sunday evening I was a porter. On Monday morning I went back in as a nurse. It was an incredible feeling."

Eric lives alone. He got divorced 18 years ago. This time last year he also split up with fiancée, Sarah, whom he had known for seven years.

Eric has a 20 year old son, Stuart, and an 18 year old daughter, Erika, from his marriage. Despite the fact that stammers can be heredity neither of his children suffer any problems with their speech.

Today, Eric is a staff nurse on the coronary care unit at Blackpool Victoria Hospital. He works 30 hours a week as a nurse and lectures about six or eight hours a week.

He addresses doctors and nurses at the hospital and students at the University of Central Lancashire, Salford University, and St Martin's College at Lancaster, on how to break news of a bereavement. He is also doing a degree in the subject.

"During my time in hospital there have been a lot of occasions where I don't think breaking bad news has been handled appropriately. Nurses often don't have enough understanding of the subject. It is never easy to give someone the news that a loved one has died. It shatters their lives". And it would be the worst moment for Eric to suffer a stammer at the critical moment. "I have had a problem on occasions. But thankfully something normally takes over and the words somehow come out without me stammering. It is easier when you are talking to someone in person. When you see someone face to face you can help convey something through body language."

Eric says the more stammerers who become household names - like Pop Idol runner-up Gareth Gates - the better.

"It is excellent when people like Gareth Gates come to the fore. He is a good role model for people with speech problems. People look at what he has achieved. Hopefully in my way I can inspire people about what they can do."

Determination the key to success

Eric with his speech therapist

Speech therapist Linda House can't believe the transformation in Eric Norbury since she was first introduced to him 15 years ago. "What hits you about Eric is his determination. He is very motivated. And he has done very well to get from where he was to be able to lecture to groups of doctors and nurses.

"To stand up and speak for two hours takes a lot out of everyone. Imagine doing that with a stammer - it's hard work and takes a lot of determination," said Linda.

"Eric has the confidence and ability to manage his speech now. Fifteen years ago he was doing a job where he didn't come across people. He was fearful of going into speaking situations.

"Therapy is aimed at not only trying to ease his stammer but to raise his confidence. And Eric has shown what can be achieved if you have that confidence."

Linda says that a cure for Eric, having had his stammer for 30 years, is unlikely. But she says in looking for the perfect solution people are missing the main point.

"Most people who stammer are looking for a cure. But being able to manage it and being more relaxed about speaking and feel that you can get through situations is a much more realistic aim.

"What's important is learning about your stammer, what triggers it, what makes it worse, what type of words you get stuck on. It's not about avoiding these words. It's about practising them and getting over them."

Linda says Pop Idol Gareth Gates has helped raise awareness of speech problems. "Young people are especially conscious about a speech impediment, but Gareth has done a great deal to remove the stigma.

"So have characters like the writer John Bayley, Iris Murdoch's husband and hero of the film, Iris."

Reproduced with permission from the Blackpool Gazette.

From the Autumn 2002 edition of Speaking Out