Easier Done Than Said
by Paul Bond
Stammerers live in a near constant state of fear of everyday talk and meeting people. For the sufferer, even the most mundane task such as buying a train ticket or ordering a meal can set the heart racing and the anxiety levels soaring. Perhaps the most terrifying situation of all is the job interview. Even fluent communicators view the prospect of competing for a potential career opening with a certain amount of trepidation, but for the stammerer, the obstacles are tenfold.
I'm one of the lucky ones. I managed to find an employer who looked beyond my sporadic speaking difficulties, and who actually read the details on my CV. It didn't seem to matter how long it took for me to answer the questions that were posed. The company recognised my potential and offered me the job that very afternoon. The fact that my stammer didn't hold me back on that particular occasion was a life-enhancing moment, but not all corporate grillings were the same. For several years before I took up my current position, I spent lots of time and effort on attending interviews, only to be turned down for obscure or 'unspecified' reasons. 'Unspecified' after the event, but during the question-and-answer sessions, the worried glances and look of horror on the faces of the various personnel managers and directors that I encountered spoke volumes. As I reeled through a stammer or struggled in silence to break through a 'block', the facial expressions said it all. When you stammer, you repeat the start of words or particularly troublesome letters - P's, B's, F's and S's in my case - and when you block, the chest tightens, air is squeezed out of the lungs, and you just can't vocalise in the way that you want to, in spite of your most determined efforts. To say that the condition is embarrassing is an understatement, and when a stutter affects your livelihood and stops you from landing that 'dream job', it goes beyond a minor annoyance.
I had my worst interview experience in my hometown of Blackpool in the mid-nineties, where I attended at the regional offices of an insurance company in the hope of being recruited for the much-advertised position of Branch Administrator. I'd meticulously groomed, had spent an age on carefully pressing my office attire, and had done enough research to enable me to answer questions such as "What do you know about our organisation and its activities?" or "What is it about us as insurance providers that attracts you to our company?" I'd also re-trained in computing after being made redundant from the clothing trade, had acquired administration skills and a managerial qualification along the way, and had worked tirelessly at my chosen profession until the company where I'd laboured for eleven years closed down.
As I left the house on the morning of the interview I felt confident of my abilities and had done my utmost to push back the inevitable fears that had come upon me in the hours leading up to that fateful meeting. I imagined the insurers to be a friendly bunch who celebrated diversity of life, and who had an acute awareness of different personal and social backgrounds. The interviewer therefore, just had to be an understanding person should my speech impediment rear its ugly head. I was positive and self-assured, and gave myself at least a 60/40 chance of being successful.
As I made my way to the interview though, I was suddenly gripped by the all-too-familiar thought that I wouldn't be able to say things as clearly, or as well, as I wanted to. I tried to put the apprehension and deeply unsettling anxiety concerning my speech to the back of my mind, but my nervousness prevailed, spiralling out of control. When I arrived at the offices, I slid the interview invitation letter under the nose of the receptionist - a common 'avoidance' strategy much used by the seasoned stammerer - and was ushered into the seating area of the foyer, where I waited for twenty long minutes for the ordeal to commence. All of my earlier confidence had evaporated during the short journey from home, and all I could think about was getting the interview over with and returning to the sanctuary of my own four walls. My stomach churned, my breathing was erratic, and when the branch manager finally emerged and welcomed me with a calculating smile and a stiff, impersonal handshake, I just knew that I was going to fail, and fail miserably.
He began by asking me why I'd applied for the position. I told him that I enjoyed working in an office environment and that I'd re-trained in IT in order to broaden my skills. He continued by quizzing me about my family life and asked whether I was married, had any children, and owned my own home. Then, with the skill of a test match spin bowler, he said "So how long have you been working with computers?" The answer was five years. I was utterly dismayed and was instantly out for a duck. "Why ask that?" I protested to myself, "Why not pick something that's not so difficult for me to actually say?" In the blink of an eye I had to make a crucial decision: whether to attempt the 'five', bearing in mind the potential that the start of the word carried for setting off a block or a stammer, or whether to avoid it altogether and say 'three' or 'two' instead. I knew that fewer years' experience would diminish my appeal, so I took a running jump at the offending numeral and gave it my best shot. "It's been er well, I'd say mmm f-f-f-f-f". At that, the manager threw his hands up in objection and cried "Hold it right there!". He seemed annoyed at my stammer, and with a look that nearly turned me to stone said "You didn't tell me that you had a problem with your speech…I wouldn't have even attempted to interview you if I'd known!". He called the meeting to an early and very abrupt end, and 'advised' me to go home, take a pill to calm my nerves, and to think long and hard before applying for any jobs in the future, especially ones where I might be called upon to deal with members of the public. I wanted to tell him where to shove his precious Branch Administrator job, but I couldn't. I was so tense and wound up that I could barely breath, let alone argue or protest. I left the interview feeling bewildered, useless and close to breaking point.
Over the course of the next two years I took manual, unskilled and non-speaking jobs whilst applying for 'proper' career openings within the computing sector. I stuffed teddy bears in a soft toy factory, worked behind the scenes in a friend's gift shop, entered credit card numbers onto a system in a data processing office, and struggled to get by on the meagre wages that such lowly positions paid. All the while I dreamed of being fluent, and of living life without having to plan each and every step of the day, for fear of encountering a situation where I'd have to speak to strangers or ask for something in a shop. My life seemed futile and unbearable. Being free of my stammer was all that I could think about and those long, arduous months were the most difficult that I've ever had to live through.
I've stammered since I was eight years old, and as any speech therapist worth their salt will tell you, you're either born with a speech problem or you develop one, usually during early childhood, and usually as a result of some traumatic event. My own stammering 'trigger' came in the guise of the revelation that I'd been adopted, that my elderly parents were actually my grandparents, and that my sister was really my mother. Several days after being told the news, I made my acting 'debut' as a pageboy in the school play. Before that, I have no recollection of being anxious about speaking, but on the opening night I suddenly became conscious of speech, and all of my attention seemed, for some strange and unfathomable reason, to be focused on the mechanics of uttering words. I managed to say "Yes your Majesty, I mean no your Majesty" liked I'd rehearsed, but after that I never spoke the same ever again.
Over the years I've tried everything to rid myself of the condition, and have experienced all of the tortuous verbal exchanges that are regular occurrences in the lives of many of my fellow stammerers. At school, the dread that I felt at having to read passages from a book in English lessons, or having to call out my name to make myself known to a new teacher at the start of each academic year, was accompanied by irregular visits to the speech therapy clinic at the local hospital. I always bought a weekly 'rover' ticket to spare myself the embarrassment of having to 'state the destination when paying' when I travelled around Blackpool on its numerous buses and trams, and whenever I went out socialising I would always insist on buying drinks in rounds, to avoid having to order my own tipple whenever my glass became empty. When it was my 'shout' I'd simply stuff some money into a friend's hand and tell him to "get them in" while I scurried off to the toilet, where I'd wait until enough time had passed for the pint pots and tumblers to be replenished.
In my early twenties I foraged around on the peripheries of mainstream medicine looking for a cure. I tried hypnotherapy and acupuncture, and read countless numbers of books on 'the power of the mind', 'the magic of thinking big' and 'self-therapy for the stammerer'. None of the methods that I dabbled in brought about any kind of sustained relief, but they did help to raise my own awareness of the fact that a stammer is as much a psychological problem as it is a physical one. I preferred to write to people rather than telephone them, and whenever I had a query on a utility bill, or wanted any work doing on the house, I'd always send out a carefully worded letter requesting information. Having a stammer inadvertently gave rise to my interest in writing and literacy, but the letters and various other forms of correspondence that I despatched asking for help or quotes, were no substitute at all for being able to speak without fear of being belittled.
It was only when I met my wife that I gained enough confidence to sell up and leave Blackpool and its myriad of bad memories behind. We got married on the edge of a lagoon in Barbados and had the ceremony photographed and recorded on video. Fortunately, the cameraman edited out the blocks and stammers which peppered the exchanging of the marital vows, and apart from the fleeting verbal glitches, the day passed off without incident. When we returned home we put the moderate, end-of-terrace property on the market, and when we finally found a buyer, we moved in with Sonia's parents in Tockwith; a sleepy, idyllic village which lies mid-way between York and Harrogate. We stayed there for just over a year until we'd saved up enough money to buy a modern town house, and during that time I registered with as many IT recruitment agencies as I could possibly find. With Sonia's help, and with a couple more computing qualifications under my belt, I discovered that I was much more of an attractive proposition now that I lived within the Leeds catchment area, and the city's bustling epicentre. I had several interviews, all of which were the same nerve-jangling, fraught affairs that they had always been, but the change in my personal circumstances had brought about a shift in my outlook, and even though I still stammered, avoided, and made the usual excuses for myself, I managed to build on my experience by securing temporary contracts working as a programmer within a bank and a marketing agency. I left the bank to join my present company, and despite being financially rewarded for my diligence and my overall working performance, there was still a deep and ever-present void in my life, where fluency once resided. Memories of speaking without encountering difficulties had faded as I had grown older, but I could still recall what it was like being able to talk without becoming anxious, and being able to make 'untainted' conversation.
Shortly after we'd moved into our brand new house in Copmanthorpe, a leafy suburb of York, I watched a series on terrestrial television called 'Embarrassing Illnesses', which each week focused on bad breath, sweaty feet, and, to my utter amazement, stammering. With each new episode came fresh revelations about the plight of sufferers at the hands of unwelcome and 'taboo' conditions, and when the spotlight finally fell on speech impediments, I became aware for the very first time of the work of 'The Starfish Project', an organisation run by an inspirational lady called Anne Blight. One of the featured stammerers, Robert Hilton, attended a Starfish three-day intensive training course, during which individuals from all walks of life underwent various sorts of stammering relief therapy, which included group discussions aimed at raising self-esteem, ordering a meal in McDonald's, and having a khaki belt pulled tight around the chest to control the breathing. Several weeks later I conducted a search over the internet looking for web sites that contained the words 'stammering' and 'UK', and there, listed among the multitude of research papers and bodies such as the British Stammering Association, was the homepage of The Starfish Project (www.starfishproject.co.uk). I clicked on the link, read the testimonials, and jotted down the contact telephone number. That evening I rang the Starfish office, and because I hadn't telephoned a stranger in a long time, I was more than a little concerned at how I'd be perceived, and how I'd carry myself during the tentative exchange. When the voice at the other end of the line gently uttered "Hello…Anne Blight speaking…how may I help you?", I just knew that my words had fallen, perhaps for only the second or third time in my entire life, on a sympathetic, understanding ear. We talked at length about her experiences of helping stammerers and about the driving force behind her decision to set up The Starfish Project. We ended the conversation by promising one another that we would work together on my stammer, and that we would meet up when I attended the next available course.
Anne listened to what I had to say, not the way in which I was saying it, and when I travelled down to the Boship Farm Hotel in East Sussex several months later to join the ranks of the previously ignored and ridiculed for my first Starfish workshop, I finally got to speak to her face to face. I followed in Robert's footsteps by having the famous khaki belt applied to my upper abdomen, and by using the breathing techniques and thinking about what it was that I wanted to say, rather than how I was going to go about saying it, I managed to gain more control over my stammer than I'd ever done before.
Like the alcoholic who's 'on the wagon', I will forever be a stammerer, but these days I'm a 'recovering' stammerer, and therein lies the crucial difference. I have good days and bad, and sometimes I forget to put into practice the methods that Anne taught me how to use. I've discovered that there is no miracle cure and that the way in which the stammerer is perceived is a crucial factor in the seemingly endless cycle of worry, which gives rise to anxiety and negative attitudes, which subsequently help to fuel the condition. Once I was a stammerer without a job, but now I'm an employed person who lives, for the most part, without a stammer.
Copyright Paul Bond 2002
Since writing this article Paul has given an interview on BBC radio about recovering from stammering, folowing this the BBC invited Paul as part of the Suprise Yourself initiative to read the Action Line bulletins in between programmes for a day.
The BBC report from the local radio station web page appears below -
"Surprise Yourself!"with the BBC in North Yorkshire
Many people have ambitions and dream they wish they'd done something about, how often have you thought to yourself, "I wish I'd got around to doing...."
"Surprise Yourself!" is a week long campaign from the BBC in North Yorkshire which is all about trying something you've always wanted to do and enjoying yourself along the way! Maybe you want to sing, dance, learn a language or take up a sport - whatever your dream or ambition, let our campaign provide the help and encouragement you need. Go on; take that first step towards learning something new and "SurpriseYourself!"Through the week we'll be hearing from people who have surprised themselves.
One of these is Paul Bond, a recovering stammerer who lives in Copmanthorpe, on the outskirts of York. He's spending a couple of days working with Graham Reagan and Neil Foster on the Action Line, he'll also be presenting some of our Action Line bulletins.