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Taking flight

| 20.02.2019

In this article, Andrew Bolton talks about the family outing that inspired him to pursue his dream job despite his stammer, and the confidence this gave him.

My name is Andrew, I have just turned 70 years-old and have stammered for most of my life.

Apparently I was slow to start talking and when I was about 4, my parents bought me a new bed with a nice wooden bedhead. I must have been in the early drawing stage at the time, because I managed to scratch onto it an excellent picture of a train, with steam coming out and carriages stringing out behind. I was quite proud of my drawing but my mother wasn’t impressed and some raised voices were the order of the day. I’m sure that it was this incident that triggered my stammer.

Taking off

During my schooldays I found it hard to mix with other children and dreaded the teacher going round the class asking questions. I wanted the floor to open up; anything other than to be subjected to this humiliation. But I struggled through.

From the age of 8 when I went to an air show at RAF Waddington, I wanted to join the Air Force and work on aircraft. I decided to try and sign up. At my medical, the doctor asked if I had any problems that would stop me enlisting and I mentioned my stammer. ‘That won’t be a problem,’ he said as he signed my papers. By this time I was managing to control my speech to a certain extent by choosing words and phrases that I knew I could say without too much difficulty and by putting words in front of others. 

I dreaded the teacher going round the class asking questions. I wanted the floor to open up; anything other than to be subjected to this humiliation.

The job took me to Germany and whilst there I went to a speech therapist. But I didn’t find this too helpful. I remember telling the therapist that approaching a complete stranger and asking a question was difficult and she promptly asked me to go to reception and ask for another appointment. I just clammed up and couldn’t get a word out.

Hypnosis

When I was posted to 617 Squadron Tornadoes in 1983, I was determined to sort my speech out. I saw a doctor who recommended that I try hypnotherapy. I had been to see a hypnotist’s show before and was impressed, so I gladly went along. However, I was informed that it wouldn’t help me with my speech but that I could be hypnotised to go to sleep! (I know what you’re thinking – where’s the link?) I explained that my stammering was worse when I was tired, so she thought that if I got a good night’s sleep then I wouldn’t stammer so much.

It went so well that she had difficulty waking me up and I could hear real concern in her voice as she shook my leg. The result was that for the last 35 years, when I go to bed I can drift off to sleep by counting backwards with my breathing from 5 to 1. It’s just as powerful now as it was then. 

Growing in confidence

I was then posted as a technical instructor on the Lightning aircraft propulsion systems and I found that when standing in front of a class of adult students, I could speak quite fluently without restraint. I really enjoyed it. I even fell asleep one day when talking in front of the class with a flipchart and when I came to, I had no recollection of the last 20 flip pages. But the class still seemed to be engrossed in what I was saying so I just carried on! 

After this, I started up a stammering self-help group. About eight people regularly attended and it seemed to help, as we could practice job interviews and presentations, etc., in the knowledge that we all understood the problems involved. Two of the attendees even became an ‘item’.

Rising through the ranks

I managed with my speech through promotion to Sergeant and then Chief Technician, before becoming a Flight Sergeant at the age of 40. It was at this point when I realised my speech was improving. I was becoming more confident in myself and was able to converse with Officers and fellow SNCOs with no problem. It seemed as though a weight was being lifted from my shoulders and I was able to surge forward with my speech. This continued when I reached the rank of Warrant Officer.

Sometimes when I’m tired I trip up on a word...but I recognise the situation and don’t beat myself up about it.

I left the RAF at 55 and became an aerospace management auditor, which required me to ask questions all day. I have audited in 26 countries worldwide over the last 15 years and have even evolved my ‘overseas English’: I slow down and pronounce each word clearly and using my stammering skills, I scan the sentence ahead to identify words that might be difficult for the auditee to translate or understand and replace them with something simpler. I was once told by a Saudi Arabian auditee that the English word I had just used wasn’t correct and I realised I had simplified it too much.

Sometimes when I’m tired I trip up on a word and it takes a second or two to get it out, but I recognise the situation and don’t beat myself up about it. I am writing a book about my experiences to show that people who stammer do not have to limit their experience of life. My message is to go for it!