Health Viewpoint: I want to say what I think

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Indy Lifestyle Online
All my life I have stammered. At 46, I have reached the point of middle-age re-evaluation, of needing to assess how I want the rest to be. Going on as before is not an option.

I have finally done what I have been meaning to do for 10 years. I wrote to the speech therapy department of my local hospital. You are supposed to go through your GP, but what the hell, I thought, it would be bad enough without extending the chain of humiliation.

I have had three sessions with a therapist, exploring how I think and feel about myself and my speech. The speech and language department had everything arranged to remove all risk of embarrassment and anxiety, and nothing could have been easier than getting through that door. How I wish I had known 20 years ago that it would be like that.

I had been to speech therapy before. When I was five my mother trundled me along to the local clinic, where a pretty young woman told me she had no 'magic wand', no pill for my stammer. I know now she was (clumsily) telling me no more than the truth, but at the time I found it devastating. Why didn't she have a cure? Was she telling me my stammer was permanent? This well-meaning lady had unintentionally passed upon me a sentence, the first of the icons of my stammering, that I was to hug to myself for 40 years.

I do not remember anything else about that first attempt at therapy. It could not have gone on for long, and ever after I vigorously shunned my mother's suggestions for one treatment or another. I spent my school years coping, devising strategies, enduring, taking it on the chin, being publicly crucified by stupid but (I can hardly write this) well-intentioned schoolmasters who thought they knew how to help. I do not need to elaborate; anyone who stammers will already be saying: 'Yes, yes, I know exactly what you're talking about.' To fluent speakers, I say that no black words on white paper can describe the fire of humiliation that a stammering child endures week in, week out.

Today, my therapist is concerned with the emotions behind my stammering. We must get at these before trying to do anything about it. But I think I have got the gist of therapeutic thinking.

First, change your mental attitude towards stammering; learn not to mind so much. But how could anyone not mind about being unable to communicate as and when they want?

Second, learn how to discard your crutches gradually - the word-avoidance techniques and other tricks of the trade that every stammerer becomes so adept at using. (Obviously they are not good enough, though, otherwise there would be no stammer.) The idea is to let your stammer come out into the open, to stop trying to hide it - to stop being ashamed of it.

Third, when you can accept your stammer, more or less dispassionately, you and the therapist can try to do something about it.

As my therapist reads this she will be frowning, for I am not adhering to the first rule. Too right I am not. For one last time, before I put it behind me, I want to express the rage and frustration at what has so tainted my life.

I want it to be known that I am angry that I have had to stammer for all these years; that my childhood and adolescence were blighted by being made a figure of fun; that every fibre in my body is suffused with stammering; and that frustration, loathing and contempt for it fill my veins and make bile in my stomach.

I am fed up with being manifested as less than I am. I am outraged that this filthy incubus has assumed the right to sit in my mouth and in my soul. It has violated me for too long. Now I am going to wring its neck.

This is not, of course, approved behaviour. My poor therapist will be wringing her hands in dismay and non-stammerers may be mystified by these verbal pyrotechnics. Fellow stammerers will be stomping their feet and crying 'Right on'. But I will be good. I will change my attitudes. I will do everything that must be done. And I will win.

A survey to mark Stammering Awareness Week, 22-28 November, found 63 per cent of stammerers say their choice of career has been restricted; 27 per cent say it adversely affected their promotion chances; and 31 per cent say their stammer was given as a reason for being turned down for a job.

The Association for Stammerers, 15 Old Ford Road, London E2 9PJ (081-983 1003 or 081-981 8818).