Lost for Words: Living with a Stammer

woman with a stammer with hand on mouth

There’s a beautifully written article about stammering in The Guardian this week by the writer Maggie O’Farrell.

Entitled ‘The monster in my mouth’ she describes how she’s always stammered and has developed coping strategies over the years that she still uses today:

…regard the telephone as an instrument of treachery, exhort others to speak for you, and (most importantly) look always for the line of least verbal resistance.

Living with a Stammer

Like Maggie O’Farrell, I also stammer, but in my case it’s not a permanent condition.  Instead, it’s this thing, this ‘monster’ that comes out of hiding every few days or weeks and I can never predict its arrival.

Most people are surprised when I tell them I stammer. They’re used to hearing me speak fluently and seeing me socialise in a relaxed manner.

But there are others who’ve experienced the full brunt of a stutter-strewn conversation with me and been unable to hide the looks of bewilderment and awkwardness on their faces as I descend the spiral of repeated consonants, staccatoed words and abandoned sentences.

Sudden Onset of Stammering

I started stammering when I was sixteen. I can still remember the first time. I was standing with a group of friends at school and I wanted to ask a question that started with the word ‘What’. Except, what came out was, ‘Wh – wh – wh’. Try as I may, I could not get the word out. I was stuck!

But why the sudden onset of stammering at sixteen? For years I could remember almost nothing about being sixteen. My fifteenth and seventeenth years contained vivid, technicolour memories, but being sixteen brought up nothing but greyness.

Causes of Stammering

As far as I’m aware the jury is still out on the causes of stammering. It may be a genetic thing but nobody in my immediate family stammers and there is much debate about whether or not psychological factors may play a role.

My sixteenth year was an unhappy one. My best friend moved away.  I was lonely, and while most of my other friends had boyfriends, I was falling in love with an older woman and not daring to tell a soul. Perhaps that had something to do with the stammering. Perhaps not. I knew I was different. My stammering definitely marked me out as different.

Within days of my first stammer I began experiencing the same situation with all questions beginning with the letters W and D. Then it was all kinds of words.

When I was twenty-one and in my Drama Honours year at university my stammering got completely out of control. The irony of being a Drama student who could barely speak was not lost on me. I was fine when it came to speaking my lines and performing in plays but speaking with certain people was almost impossible. I can still remember the Professor imploring me to ‘Just breathe, my dear’. Breathing helped a little but not enough.

There were times as a secondary school Drama and English teacher when I would be so tired and frazzled I would be unable to string a sentence together for weeks at a time.

Then, something would lift. The brain storm that seemed to be frying my speech neurons would be gone and my thoughts and speech could start to flow freely again. Until the next time.

Coping Strategies for Stammering

In social situations I got used to looking interested in what people were saying, nodding my head, laughing in all the right places and occasionally saying, ‘Yeah’ in agreement, or, ‘Oh dear’, in sympathy. I knew that if I tried to say anything else I would stammer.

I still do that today. Sometimes as I formulate something I want to say I can hear the stammer in my brain before I speak. There is nothing I can do to stop it coming out as a stammer. Nothing.

If I have enough presence of mind, I can substitute words quickly enough to avert a crisis. Instead of asking a question beginning with the letters W or D, I take a deep breath and begin with, ‘Have…’ Other times I throw in extra words just to avoid the word I know is going to give me trouble. But sometimes, the best thing to do is just to keep quiet and smile.

Occasionally, if I’m stammering with someone I know well I may stop and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m stammering. It happens sometimes,’ and that has been enough to bring the stammer under control.

Stammering Triggers

Over the years I’ve come to recognise certain triggers for my stammering.  Tiredness, nervousness and too much alcohol are the most common.

Sometimes I meet a new person and something about them makes me nervous.  I feel about to be judged. And even though I may have been conversing fluently with someone else a moment before I suddenly descend into stammering mode which only makes matters worse.

In conversation with a person who speaks very quickly I start stammering and panicking as I struggle to interject and get a word in edgeways.

Or, if I’m walking down a street, lost in thought, and someone suddenly stops to ask me for directions, the interruption sends my speech into an explosion of repeated syllables.

‘The Telephone as an Instrument of Treachery’

Most often, I stutter on the telephone.  Not to my friends, but to people I don’t know who I feel I need to impress in some way.

I hate picking up the phone and calling people I don’t know. For years I’ve dabbled with the idea of being a freelance journalist, but the thought of phoning up editors is just too much for me.

Phoning about a job interview, calling up a literary agency, phoning back a potential client. All these situations are bound to reduce me to a sweating, stuttering wreck so I procrastinate for as long as I can.

Why I Love Writing

Which is why email is my friend. I love putting my thoughts in writing. Apart from typos, my writing is fluent.  There are no long time lapses while I struggle to start a sentence with the letter D or W. No sentences that sound like a stuck record as I get stuck on the letter I – i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i.  None of that. Just one word gracefully followed by another.

Writing is smooth, writing is silent, writing requires no steep intakes of breath. When I write I don’t need to witness the horror or embarrassment on another’s face, I don’t need to feel my own face burning hot red with terror and shame.

When I write, the world is a safer place.

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