BEN ROWLEY NOVEMBER 6, 2018
Confidence: A Stammer Blow
Stammer, stutter, speech impediment, sounds like that bloke off ‘The King’s Speech’. Whatever you call it, I’ve got it. Some who know me will have never noticed before. Some who know me always thought there was something weird about me, but never realised. Some who know me know it’s there, but think it’s barely noticeable. Some who know me know that I’ve had it since as long as I can remember. I’m writing this now because of a Twitter thread I wrote about this almost a year ago, at a testing point in my life, and it was a great comfort to talk about this openly. Well, I’m in a similar position now and I could do with that comfort again.
Plenty of people know what a stammer is, but I imagine not many people know what it feels like. I can, of course, only speak from experience and my own situation. Stammers include moments where people might (partially) repeat or elongate words or sounds involuntarily. I fit into another bracket of those that have their words involuntarily blocked. For the sake of empathy: imagine jumping into a pool of icy water and you rise to the surface, wanting to scream. It seems the air has been withdrawn from your lungs, your throat closes completely and you cannot produce sound, even though you try your hardest. I jump into a pool every time I speak and I’m constantly anxious that it’s going to be icy. It’s mental agony. And no, before you ask, there’s no known cure.
I believe a term used for someone like me is a ‘recovering stammerer’. I’m ‘recovering’ because I was in a much better place than I was one, five or ten years ago. It’s improved steadily over the years to the point I’m currently at where I can engage with the world in a pretty normal way. Whereas, in my early years, I found it difficult to string a sentence together. There’s an abundance of reasons why a stammerer improves as they age; one of them being that you figure out your limitations and are able to implement workarounds. Overt stammering is where you can physically see someone blocking, elongating or repeating what they say. Covert stammering is where the stammerer dodges a potential stammer by interchanging their vocabulary or omitting words, where possible. However, this isn’t always possible - for example, it’s known one of the hardest things for a stammerer to say is there own name. In this case, they may thrust themselves into an overt situation - more often than not, they choose not to speak at all.
It’s a bit of a British stereotype that people dislike human interaction, especially with new faces. Imagine that dislike becoming fear. Imagine dreading every time you speak. ‘What are you afraid of?’ you may be asking. It’s being scared of making yourself look like a complete fool. It’s the fear that the recipient has no idea what’s going on, or worse mock you for it. It’s the feeling of guilt that you’re wasting someone’s time, like you don’t deserve to talk. In a sane state of mind, these things seem trivial and it’s clearly not the way that people feel or act. Although, in a distorted state of mind, it can genuinely feel like you’re of a lower class to someone you’re conversing with simply because you cannot speak. And there are some moments where you need your mind to be at its sharpest: phone calls, interviews, presentations, meeting new people like friends, clients or love interests. Not only can a stammer potentially ruin that interaction, the anxiety of stammering that comes with it can prevent it from even happening in the first place. I can’t begin to count the amount of times I’ve ducked out of a potentially life-changing moment because I let my fear of stammering beat me. It’s pathetic, really.
Mueid Kaleem developed a stammer as a toddler. It meant that even making a phone call was a struggle for him. He went on the #SchoolForStammerers to learn how to control it, and regain his confidence. @ITV @mcguireprogram pic.twitter.com/KIQBN1AWrx
I’ve embedded a Tweet containing a video of a brave man called Mueid. Mueid is a stammerer of severity not dissimilar from myself a few years ago. He’s taking part in something called the McGuire programme: a treatment course for stammerers, run by stammerers. Mueid is holding a simple telephone conversation. I say simple, Mueid’s panic levels are most likely at their highest he’s ever experienced in his life in this video. As a stammer cannot be ‘cured’, The McGuire programme aims to treat stammerers by forcing them into situations of which they are most afraid. These situations including meeting one hundred new people in a town centre, standing on a soapbox in the middle of said town and speaking to the public, speaking to a room filled with hundreds of people whose attention is solely on you and, as you can see, making telephone calls. The McGuire programme assists by teaching and implementing costal (deep and long) breathing techniques, assertive self acceptance and non-avoidance methods (encouraging overt stammering). The McGuire programme is life-changing for people like Mueid. How do I know? I’ve been on it. Without it, I’d be nowhere near the man I am today.
Mueid Kaleem developed a stammer as a toddler. It meant that even making a phone call was a struggle for him. He went on the #SchoolForStammerers to learn how to control it, and regain his confidence. @ITV @mcguireprogram pic.twitter.com/KIQBN1AWrx— ITV News Central (@ITVCentral) January 10, 2018
The confidence it brings has enabled me to go to university, meet so many wonderful new people, succeed in one of the most high-pressure interviews of my life (over the phone!) to one of the world’s biggest companies, broadcast myself on YouTube in front of thousands of people. The McGuire programme is a pathway to granting a stammerer the closest thing to a cure that exists: confidence. Stammering often occurs when a stammerer is worried about stammering, you can imagine how this vicious circle can snowball over a short period before speaking. When speaking with confidence, when a stammerer is at ease, stammering goes away. I’m lucky enough to have experienced a number of pivotal moments and periods in my life which have exponentially increased my confidence. I feel invincible compared to the scared little boy I was not so long ago, but even I know there’s such a long way to go.
Unfortunately, this is not the situation that all stammerers are in. Some are never granted those confidence-building experiences which can define their character for the better. They’re still the trapped soul they’ve been for their entire lives. Key moments and decisions can be ruined, overtly or covertly, by a bodily malfunction which, I repeat, has no known cure. Confidence is a double-edged sword when it’s the only true weapon against stammering. Your confidence as a stammerer is battered every single day, every time you speak, whether you’re on the road to recovery or not. There will be times where every stammerer will stammer and it’s up to them to decide whether they have the mental strength to let it slide, or whether they choose to let it infect their confidence once again. One negative stammering moment can be the start of a very slippery slope for even the most assured of stammerers. Confidence is incredible hurdle for any human being to overcome, it’s just that little bit taller when you stammer.
I want to make it absolutely clear that 99% of people accept stammering and stammerers in the most wonderful of ways and embrace it. They’re far from the problem that stammerers blame. They blame themselves. Sadly, it’s little consolation: all one can do as a listener is lend your time, be considerate or pretend it’s not there. How awful is that? In my experience, a lot of people have tried to calm me down, tell me of their acknowledgement of the situation or even reminded me of some of the mitigations (e.g. costal breathing) mentioned earlier. The truth is, even though it can be a comfort and it’s certainly not discouraged, it’s the battle in their own head that the stammerer is facing. Unfortunately, the listener is just a passenger.
As I’ve said before, these days I am incomparable to the stammerer I used to be. I’m feel like I’m able to live life to the absolute fullest and touch it in any way I want to - even though I still get nervous about speaking every day. The experiences in my life have gifted me the confidence to smash my way through barriers that I know for a fact a lot of stammerers feel they cannot. I’ve been there: it’s a dark and lonely place, especially when you feel you (literally) can’t talk to anyone about it. No one deserves to be forced to sit in silence. I will never take the power of speech for granted ever again and I implore you to consider likewise. Having said all of this, my experiences as a stammerer have brought out the best in me: I have done things which I never thought I’d be capable of and it’s shaped me into the person I am content with today. If there’s one thing I want anyone to take away from this: it’s that believing in yourself is the most powerful thing in the world. Never, ever, underestimate it.
Your ability to speak can change your life. Use it.
P.S. For anyone wanting more information about the McGuire programme, click here. It all started there for me, and I will give back one day.