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Opinion Stuttering is unforgiving – it never rests – but despite it I've found my true voice

A person hanging up the phone as you attempt to say hello or an awkward smile on a listener’s face can be excruciating, but I’ve come to a point where I truly accept my stutter.

THERE’S A CERTAIN comfort that comes from being in the company of people who have travelled a similar path as you. It’s strange how complete strangers, when brought together because of a need for help, can abandon their shelters and open up.

We never really know what someone else is going through, but when we’re with those who, with a single glance, can tune directly into our thoughts, we know we are somewhere safe.

I first attended therapy when I six or seven. My mam had known for 18 months or so that something was not quite right. I regularly stumbled over my words, and when I was excited, I went from stumbling to blocking. Not even a sound would pass my lips. Long pauses, tensed up shoulders and a huge amount of frustration (on both sides) eventually led her to a speech and language clinic. The diagnosis was clear. Her son had a stutter.

Thankfully, my mam was much more open-minded about the speech problem compared to the speech and language therapist. To my mam I was always the loudest when playing outside. During the long summer evenings she knew where I was by simply popping her head out the back door. It’s that mentality that I carry with me now, and I’m glad I can say that. My mam always saw past the stutter and, eventually, I began to see past it too.

The greatest challenge is mental

Stuttering, to me, is a hugely personal and complicated speech problem. The public cannot see it, but the person that stutters will go to great lengths to hide it, and I mean great lengths. I once stayed in a taxi for an extra 15 minutes because I could say ‘village’ but I couldn’t say ‘Kilnamanagh’. That was one of the more expensive speech blocks!

Stuttering, for all its physical components, is far more mentally challenging. Yes, I’ve pulled muscles in my shoulders from blocking so severely that I got caught between trying to force out a word and catch my breath, but it’s the thoughts inside my head at the time that still stay with me. And it is there where my journey started, in my head. Rather than dealing with the stutter first and the person second, I looked inside myself and worked on what I was anxious about, and the stutter seemed to look after itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I still stutter every day. I still dread having to make phone calls, go to the bank, pay onto the bus, order a drink over a busy bar counter, order a taxi or a takeaway, introduce myself, and a whole host of other mundane tasks – but I do it.

I’m one of the lucky ones, though, or at least I have been lucky to meet the people I have met. Throughout my teenage years I wasn’t the butt of every joke, I didn’t get bullied because of my stutter, it seldom stood in the way of romance, and I had a huge cohort of friends. I left school after my Junior Cert and took up employment in the local pub. I had been working there for a while lending a hand on busy nights and I loved it. I loved it so much I stayed there for 12 amazing years until a severe back injury led to me not being able to stand for lengthy periods. I always wondered why I chose the job when it meant I would actively have to speak to the public every day.

Seeking professional help 

When I think back to when I started, I remember it being an issue for me, but it never stood in my way. I did, however, reach a point after my 21st birthday when I knew I needed to seek some professional help. I was in pain due to severe blocks, and I was in a place mentally that I found uncomfortable.

Through the HSE, I was pointed in the direction of a five-day residential course run by speech and language therapist, Jonathon Linklater. The participants I met on the opening morning were the first people I had ever met that stuttered. There is a comfort that comes from being in the company of people who have travelled a similar path as you. Instantly the positive atmosphere brought me comfort, and from there I took the first steps.

The therapy put the person at the centre, with the stutter being looked upon as a secondary issue. If, when you speak, you don’t mind whether or not you stutter, then you mentally begin to unravel the years of anguish. I completed the therapy course and felt like I could take on the world when I left, but the euphoria didn’t exactly last. It was hard once back in the real world and not surrounded by people who knew exactly what I felt and what I was thinking.

I stayed with it, though, and stayed positive – but there were many set-backs. A person hanging up the phone as I attempted to say hello, an awkward smile on a listener’s face when I completely froze, or the many other soul-destroying moments when the words would not come. The years passed by and I just got on with it, but I was never happy. Stuttering is unforgiving. It never rests. It’s there when you wake and when you lay your head down at night. It eats away at you; chipping away at what is left of your self-confidence over and over again. But you have to believe that there is something else. You have to hope that someday, for some reason, things will change.

I broke the habit of a lifetime

My watershed moment came and went and I didn’t even notice until two or three months after the day itself. My dad died suddenly one morning in March 2011. It was a massive shock to us all, and in the evening when the funeral arrangements were being made the priest asked about a eulogy. I nominated myself without giving it a single thought. In an instant I had broken the habit of a lifetime. For the first time in my life I had willingly offered to leave my comfort zone, and it had been the easiest decision I had ever made. I stood up the next day and read to the packed church. I stuttered, I cried, and I even got some laughs, but, most importantly, I found my true voice. I’m not saying that I reached some promised land, but there was glimmer of light.

A couple of months passed and then one day, out of the blue, I realised what I had accomplished in the church that Saturday morning in March. I’d faced up to the fear that had been with me since I was a child, and the world had not ended. It was still turning. From then until now I have been on a journey, and it will most likely never end. There is no cure, and anyone who tells you different is not being truthful with you. There are several therapies that can help manage stuttering, but it will always be there, and I’m OK with that. Having recently completed an honours degree in Media Production Management in Ballyfermot College, the world of journalism is where I now find myself.

Once again I have thrown myself into an environment that requires me to interact and speak to a huge number of people daily, but facing what I once feared is the only option in my eyes. There was a time when I wished I could work somewhere I would never have to speak, but that would not be helpful.

On Saturday 18 October, I will share my experiences of living with a stutter with those who attend National Stammering Awareness Day in Jurys’ Inn, Custom House Quay, Dublin 1. One percent of the Irish population stutter, and events like this one act as a refresher to remind those who attend that they are not alone. National Stammering Awareness Day is held in a friendly, supportive, healthy environment, and if you come to Jury’s Inn, I can guarantee you will meet a welcoming group of people who only want to support you.

Simon Walsh is a sports journalist. He blogs at Diary of a Stutterer. For more information, visit the National Stammering Awareness Day website

Almost 3,000 children are waiting over a year for speech and language therapy

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