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The teenage girl who stammered

Lesley Brownlow-Mackerel | 01.05.2012

Life was going well for Lesley Brownlow-Mackarel growing up in the 1980s. But all that was about to change, as she remembers what it was like to be... the teenage girl who stammered.

Lesley in front of a red doorResearch shows that 1% of the population stammers. We also know that more men than women stammer. I am therefore part of the small percentage of the small percentage of the population who has a stammer. I feel reasonably well-adjusted and self-accepting of it - I have bad speech days, I still stammer when nervous, tired or excited, and the telephone is still my nemesis - but I admit I have a stammer and feel happier with it than I have for a long time. Having a stammer has, in my case, helped me to develop a high sense of irony, creativity and a quirky outlook on life. There are actually many benefits to having a stammer, although it is hard telling this to a depressed adolescent.

I wasn't a 'troubled' teenager (though I did have my moments), but I did go through all the usual hormonal angst. The teenage years are arguably the most traumatic stage in the life of someone who stammers, regardless of gender.

I do remember very clearly my experiences as a teenage girl with a stammer in the 1980s. The sense of humour that people associate with me now took a nosedive for almost three years, the worst years being aged 13 to 15. I was picked on; it was low-level bullying. I can still remember those who teased me. I can recall those dark, bitter moments of hate-filled resentment, when all I wanted to do was run home and stay there, never to see those horrible, mean-spirited teenagers ever again.

When I was 12 I was quiet but not necessarily shy. I had been living in Liverpool for just over two years, having moved up from a tiny army school in rural Oxfordshire whilst my dad served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. I had always been to small schools, always closeted, and I read a lot and wrote short stories. It had been a good childhood; family life had been consistent and I never felt that I missed out. The stammer was part of me but I was not really bothered by it. But then I was plunged into a vastly different culture – a massive suburban Liverpool comprehensive school, with noisy ebullient teenagers who spoke with fast accents and vied rowdily for attention.

I became quieter and unsure but remained happy with my own friends. I liked school; I was teased for being a 'swot' but that mostly didn't bother me. My stammer was mild and didn't seem to bother my friends either.

Then I turned 13 - that age when the little girl disappears for ever, when breasts sprout, menstruation starts and boys ping your bra. Back then we fancied Simon Le Bon and no boy was ever a match for him. Adolescence to me was a time when friends argued over who was more handsome, Tony Hadley or Simon Le Bon. A nice friend of my older brother started looking at me in a funny way.

How 'The Block' started

Studying Shakespeare for the first time in English class one day, the teacher wanted me to read the part of Lady Macbeth. In one unguarded 'swotty' moment, I said that I had already read the play and that I liked her role. All eyes stared at me - or so it felt. I wanted to say those immortal words: "Out, out damned spot", but I couldn't get them out of my mouth. I had always wanted to be an actress because it was so exciting being someone else, re-enacting poetic words such as those. I had read the lines to myself many times in front of the mirror, imagining my handsome male lead. And yet in front of real people I could not say them! 'The Block', as I called it, had started. The heart that had previously only belonged to Simon Le Bon and my brother's friend dropped to my shoes. My chest constricted; my lungs couldn't take a breath. My face flushed and I developed a twitch. My body was a mass of self-conscious nerves. I looked around, the silent 'what's the matter with her?' look evident in everyone's eyes. Someone said: "Can't you s-s-speak, L-L-Lady Macb-b-beth?" Classmates sniggered. Someone else comically banged the back of the teaser to get it out, producing even more hilarious sniggering.

I looked around, the silent 'what's the matter with her?' look evident in everyone's eyes.

So there was me - that girl who had only wanted to read her books, sing along to Spandau Ballet, act in front of the mirror, go to discos and dream of being asked out by her brother's friend - became obsessed with her stammer. Awash with menstruation and hormones, my thoughts and emotions were all over the place. I had all the normal teenage girl worries: school work, hating certain teachers, liking certain boys, wanting to stay in bed and read and write stories, not wanting to do PE, arguing with my brother and problematic periods that made me lethargic and often faint; but now I had 'The Block' to contend with too. I felt that only my close friends and songwriters in bands really understood me. The one overriding thing that made this teenager even more frustrated was that she felt she couldn't even speak.

No-one understands

We all know the typical teenage characteristic, that self-centred way of thinking that 'no-one understands'. When adult hormones kick in and more complex emotions arise, along with experience, independence, and fewer parental-led activities, the brain reverts back a little; it says: "Oh my god, I'm on my own!" You become sullen, unforgiving, isolated and confused. For the teenager who stammers, none of those complex emotions has a cat in hell's chance of being communicated.

That was how I felt. I could say something sophisticated like: 'I felt like I lost my voice', but looking back it was simply withdrawal. Already self-sufficient with my army upbringing and my own circle of friends I became shyer, more nervous. I signed up for a drama club but hated it. I created ways of getting out of the acting I wanted to do. I just watched people and wished. How many opportunities did I miss? I can't bear to think. Was I talented at acting? I had no idea. Although I adored the stage and the thought of performing and entertaining people, the actuality of it terrified me; I couldn't bear to find out if I could really do it. Instead I developed the other outlet I loved: I wrote stories avidly, creating other worlds, flagrantly plagiarised from my beloved Enid Blyton, and later, K.M. Peyton (anyone remember Flambards?) I later wrote stories based on Elvis Presley and George Michael lyrics.

I was referred to speech therapy. I detested it. I was 14 and went with two other boys who sniggered a lot and called me names. I refused to go anymore.

My generation was the first to do GCSEs (called '16 plus' back then), and I had to do an English oral exam. I went home afterwards and cried for an hour, utterly humiliated as this horrible boy teased me mercilessly about the 'b-b-budgies' that I talked about (my dad bred budgerigars).

Lesley nowI was good at languages and took French and German. The German oral exam was a horrible experience I can't remember, so it must have been traumatic. But I remember the French exam well - I had made the mistake of going to a party the night before and was still feeling relaxed and confident the next day and I blasted it. It was probably my biggest 'overcoming the stammer' achievement in my life at that stage and I was justifiably proud.

I moved to university at 18, although with rather lazy arrogance as I had not done as well in my A-Levels as expected. I went to Teesside Poly, as it was then, and it was fantastic! I 'found' myself with like-minded people and even met another girl who stammered.

My stammer can still be characterised as mainly a 'block' stammer, exacerbated by nerves and/or excitement and hormonal/heat changes. I was covert for years as a result of 'The Block', finding even more devious ways of not stammering which actually made it worse. Now I am more overt and have been known to happily stammer, as I did as a young child.

It would be interesting to do a study on whether covert stammering is more a female socialisation issue than male. More important than studies, however, is the encouragement of self-acceptance and self-esteem, as well as good sense of humour. One thing they don't teach you as a teenager is that you don't become a 'grown-up' at 21!

Lesley has written and self-published her first novel, 'Clouds, sapphires and The Beatles', which you can purchase as an ebook at www.amazon.co.uk/Clouds-Sapphires-The-Beatles-ebook/dp/B006U0MDO0

From the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 12 and 13