Testimonials from Covert Stammerers

'I'd hidden my stammer for the best part of twenty years' by Emma Birchall

My first Starfish course was in May 2012. As a covert stammerer, I'd hidden my stammer for the best part of twenty years, which was when my NHS speech therapy ended. Without any on-going, supportive therapy, I buried my stammer, not realising that this was the worst thing I could have done. I hid it from everyone, became a walking thesaurus, a master of word substitution and an expert at avoidance. I let my stammer control me; I passed up opportunities, dates, interviews, parties. I made excuses. I rang in sick. My stammer controlled my A level choices, my career path, even influencing the names I chose for my daughters.

There is usually a moment, a tipping point when those of us who come to Starfish decide “enough is enough”. Mine was a particularly bad day with my speech at work. I was sick of thinking about what I thought I could have been and what I thought I could have achieved if I didn't stammer. I turned to Starfish after reading testimonials just like this one and after speaking to Anne, I booked my first course – the first step of an amazing journey.

To be honest, I had no idea what a covert stammerer was until Starfish. I remember trying to explain to Anne on the phone after I sent my application that I didn't stammer any more - I just blocked and couldn't get words out. I didn't realise that this was also a form of stammering. My biggest fear when I arrived on my first course was that other 'overt' stammers would wonder why I was there as on the surface, there didn't seem to be any problems with my speech; but I knew I couldn't always say what I wanted to say and the frustration that came with that was immense. When I arrived on the course, I found people just like me, people telling their stories and experiences and I sat there thinking “Yes, that's me! That's how I feel!”

Starfish has not only provided me with a range of techniques to help control my stammer, it has also given me a new perspective on my stammer along with a caring, supportive network of amazing people who know exactly how it feels to be in your shoes. With the support of Starfish, I can now talk openly about my stammer. I have a new confidence that enables me to say “By the way, I stammer. I use techniques to help with my speech.” Doing this removes the fear I once had of speaking. At the start of my first course, I could never have imagined doing this and now I've told rooms full of people at work before giving presentations, I've told interview panels and a conference hall full of complete strangers. I actually still can't believe I have spoken at a conference!

The fear, embarrassment and self-loathing I once had because of my stammer has gone. I don't let it control me anymore. I challenge myself, put myself out of my comfort zone and don't let my stammer stop me from doing the things I want to do. My speech is by no means perfect but I always say what I want to say, the way I want to say it. And as Anne says, why strive for perfection in an imperfect world?

Starfish is the beginning of a journey and what makes Starfish the success that it is has to be the lifetime support and commitment for all of us involved. This isn't a one-off course, this gives a support network, the opportunity to come back whenever you want both to work on your own speech and also to support and encourage those just beginning their journey.

I cannot begin to explain how thankful I am to Anne & David for their dedication and support for all of us who are now part of the Starfish family. If you're ready to challenge your stammer, if you're ready to take control of your speech then please come and join us at Starfish; I did, I never looked back and it has changed my life.

Emma Birchall

Read Emma's article 'Life is easier now I don't hide my stammer' on the Lancashire Telegraph website

Emma Birchall's Lanyard
"I think it’s a great idea and is way outside of comfort zones".

'I very quickly created 'work arounds' when choosing my words' by Beth Williams

Frustration, avoidance,shame, embarrassment...these are just a sample choice of words which I would use to describe 13 years of being a covert (secret) stammerer.

Everyone is familiar with overt stammering. Its visible...It's audible...Covert stammering isn't so well known, for the simple reason that people hide it...and if they are anything like myself...they hide it very well.

In my late teens I started experiencing something. Something that I couldn't explain....Initially not even to my closest relatives or friends. When I tried to pronounce certain words I simply would be unable to say them. I quickly began to dread situations which required me to speak in front of others and I very quickly created 'work arounds' when choosing my words (often changing words which began with a vowel or a hard sound for something else). In addition I avoided all public speaking situations, remaining mute in most meetings and not applying for promotions when I knew I could take on the role in question.

Over a period of 8 years through avoidance and selectively choosing my words I had formed a habit. One that I was unsure how to break. I would start all most every sentence with the word 'what' in an attempt to limit my chances of blocking on a word. I was also speaking at speed to get what I had to say out and my fear of public speaking had reached an unbearable level.

During this time I had made myself apply for promotions within work and I had been successful with these endeavours. However I had a desire to progress further, which would inevitably mean that effective communication, especially the ability to present confidently and clearly, would be of paramount importance. My speech was affecting my confidence and self-esteem and I knew that my happiness and career development would be hindered if my speech didn't improve.

I can recall asking friends and family if they thought I had a speech impediment. The response was unanimous 'no, you trip over your words...but everyone does that'. I was confused and I can vividly recall asking myself   'How come those closest to me can't see my inability to express myself fully when I speak?'.

At a loss, I started looking on the internet and stumbled across the term covert stammering. I felt immediate relief and comfort from the fact that this was a recognised condition and that many other people were experiencing something similar. Over time I started looking in to therapies but the cost of most were expensive and in total honesty I couldn't face the fact that I was indeed a stammerer.
It took me another 3 years to build the confidence to initiate contact with The Starfish Project. I called and spoke to Anne Blight who within three minutes showed me more understanding than I had felt over the last 13 years.

I attended my first ever Starfish course in September 2013 and I haven't looked back since. The therapy, techniques and support which you receive are truly outstanding...and life changing.

As a Covert stammerer I had worked very hard at hiding my affliction from others even though, at times, it must have been obvious. My biggest hurdle was accepting that I was a stammerer...and then telling other people the same.  I had hidden this secret for 13 years....as I made the assumption that I would be ridiculed… laughed at...how wrong I was.

In January 2014 I attended a training event through my employer. The day was styled on 'The Apprentice'.

We were split into teams and tasked with creating a company which would design training packages to companies in the financial services sector. At the start of the day we were asked to assign tasks to each person within the group.

Upon reading the list of tasks available there was only one which I was going to do...Presenting. Two of my team members also wished to take on this challenge. I knew it would take a lot for them to let me take on this responsibility, as they were both more experienced with public speaking than I was.

I took a deep (costal!) breath and explained that I was a recovering stammerer and that I had been working on my speech and for me this was the ultimate test.

For a moment the room fell silent. One by one each person agreed that I would be the presenter for my team. Several people congratulated me then the conversation quickly moved on to assigning other tasks to the team. For me time stood still. Not only had I just told several of my peers that I was a stammerer..but they also believed in me to present on their behalf.

I was astounded. There was no laughter or finger pointing, just mass support and confidence in my ability to represent them.
At the end of the days activities I stood up and delivered a presentation to 40ish people, including 4 company directors and our CEO.
The fact that my team didn't win the overall event genuinely didn't matter to me. I had won. I had let others in, accepted their support and with the technique which was taught by Starfish I delivered a strong presentation.

If upon reading this, any of my comments have resonated with your own experiences...please look to attend a Starfish course. You will never regret it and will never look back.

Beth Williams

'I was only trying to hide my stammer from myself
… because everyone knew I stammered.'
by Andy Edwards

I'm am writing this long overdue testimony will a huge smile on my face and a feeling of immense pride inner peace at how far I have come since my first starfish course in September 2009.

I have just returned from my 10th course (9 as a refresher)and can't believe the change in my speech but more importantly my attitude and mind-set towards my speech since I first walked into that amazing room in the Boship Hotel where my new speech journey began.

Being an experienced covert stammerer (30+years) I put on a persona of a smiling, fun loving guy who stammered very occasionally and when that happened it didn't really bother me.

But really I was mentally exhausted from thinking ahead to change words I thought I would block on. In emotional turmoil inside every time I avoided a situation for fear of failure and humiliation and crying inside if somebody did hear my stammer (my secret). Although I was only trying to hide my stammer from myself because everyone knew I stammered family, friends work colleagues etc.

Meeting new people was a horrendous experience as well.

My covert mask had got me through school and teenage years. It had given me a good career, and a wonderful, supportive wife and two fantastic children. But all this had I come at a cost as I was carrying round massive unseen bag of things that had hurt me in the past.

The push I needed to change how I thought about myself and my speech came when I went on a stag do and avoided all weekend, hardly speaking really for fear of stammering, I felt very isolated an all-time low.

So I came home looked on the internet under stammering and chose the Starfish Project as the one for me and boy am I glad I did.

I travelled down from north wales to a hotel just outside Eastbourne on Tuesday. Sat in the hotel lounge feeling anxious, nervous and slightly sceptical as to whether it would work for me.

Over the next three days I learnt a technique to control my stammer, ways to push myself and challenge my stammer head on. I had found something that I could work on, something that gave me as much control as I wanted. I was told it wouldn't be easy and they were right. But if something is worth having then effort and hard work is the least it deserves.

Four and a half years on I would not say it had changed my life because that was good anyway i.e. work family etc. but it has changed me as a person made me like myself and be very comfortable excepting I have a stammer. I am not the fluent speaker I longed to be before starfish because it is not a cure but I am a recovering stammerer who no longer tries to hide it every time I open my mouth to speak. I am very open about my stammer and tell people about it and what they can do to help. Something I would have never done before I went on the course. I have done many things since my first course I wouldn't have dreamed of but it's the little things that matter the most to me, getting involved in conversations, ordering for myself and family and feeling less anxious when using the phone etc. because doing these things are gradually reducing my negative baggage/iceberg.

I now am that happy smiling fun loving guy who stammers occasionally and for that I would like to thank the bravest, determined, courageous, honest, strongest and truly inspiring people I have ever met. The new people who take a leap of faith every month, the refreshers who give so much every course and ask for nothing in return, Pauline who works so hard behind the scenes, and of course Anne and David Blight for their empathy, grace and total understanding and passion to help us.

Thank you

Andy Edwards - proud recovering stammerer.

Read Andy Edwards story in 'One' the in-house magazine for Airbus

Having a Voic article

My Dirty Little Secret - A Story of Covert Stammering by Phil Boler

I was eleven or twelve when I started to stammer. It wasn't a conscious choice. It was just something that happened to me.

Until that point I was the most confident kid in the school - standing up to read in assembly, doing all of the school plays and reading aloud in class were things I really relished. English and French were by far my favourite subjects and I loved writing stories. I'd even won awards for public speaking, and for reading aloud in French. I dreamed of growing up to become a famous actor, comedian or public speaker. Both academically and socially I was going places. I was happy.

And then the stammer came along, uninvited and unannounced.

At first it wasn't too bad. I found that when the blocks came I could usually just push through them, and still get the words out. But, like a slow and cruel stranglehold, the stammer got worse and in the passing weeks and months my confidence began to drain away.

Boarding school was a tough place to grow up. Survival depended upon being able to hide your weaknesses and stammering was the last thing I wanted. In a 'sink or swim' environment I learned to hold my breath. As it turned out I carried on holding it for the next twenty-five years.

I didn't actually know what stammering was back then. I thought there was something wrong with me, something dreadful, demonic and shameful. The very idea that someone might discover this hideous defect filled me with absolute dread. If anybody found out I would surely be ostracised, singled out for bullying and even punished. So I decided to bury it deep and conceal it as best I could. And so the stammer became my stammer. It became my dirty little secret.

And that's really what covert stammering is; covering it up. This means changing words, avoiding speaking situations, and refusing to openly acknowledge that you have a stammer. It's not so much a case of being in denial. You're very conscious about it. You just don't want anyone else to know about it.

Well, public speaking was the first thing to go. That meant the plays I had so loved being a part of were consigned to the past. As much as it pained me to turn my back on acting, it was a necessary sacrifice to keep my secret safe. Speaking in class became more and more terrifying so this slowly dried up. Even the English essays and stories, that I had once taken such pride in writing, became short and sterile. I even swapped most of the words with ones I could say, just in case I had to read it out aloud in class the next day. The very thought of it made me feel physically sick.

I thought my dirty little secret was safe. But what I couldn't hide was the silence that replaced it, and questions began to be asked. Why was Phil so quiet these days? Why was his school work going downhill rapidly? Why isn't he taking part? Has he just given up?

In a sense I had given up. Yes I wanted to be a success in life, but preserving the secret of my stammer was paramount, even if it meant self destruction. One by one my friends lost interest in me. I was no fun anymore. Teachers at school began to give up on me. Having once showed such academic promise, I had let them all down. I had let myself down.

Then there was one occasion. It only happened the once. In the pit of my misery I made the reckless decision to confide in one of the teachers and come clean about my stammer.

'Come in', commanded the voice from behind the door. I entered, trembling. 'What is it Phil?'

Silence. Torturous and enduring silence. My face contorted, willing the words to come out.

'Spit it out boy!'

'I……. I…….I've…… ggggg…….gggggg…….' I pushed as hard as I could but the words just wouldn't come.

'Oh for goodness sake, what's wrong with you! I haven't got all day.' His eyes were boring holes in mine.

'I….. I've …… gggg……ggggot……a……..ssss……sssss……sssss……sorry……sssss……sssss

I said it. I actually said it. The relief was immense. Finally I could reclaim my life and it would all be OK again. I stood there waiting for the help that I desperately needed.

But help didn't come. He threw his pen down on the desk, stood up and walked over to me.

'You haven't got a stammer, Phil. You're just bone idle', he yelled at me. 'Get out of my sight. You're just looking for an excuse for your laziness, and it's pathetic. Go on, get out!'.

So that was that. The stammer was still in charge, and it would surely remain a secret forever. But let's be clear about this - there are secrets and there are open secrets. However much I tried, it would be impossible to live my entire life in perpetual silence. Of course there would be occasions where I would have to speak, however awful it would be. Everyone knew I stammered, but to me it was still a shamefully dark and fearful secret.

As I grew into a teenager, my strategy for dealing with it remained the same. The first and obvious rule was to avoid any speaking situations, whatever the cost. Secondly, if you really have to speak, keep it as short as possible. Thirdly, avoid or replace any words you struggle with. And finally, if you really have to say something, just try to push the words out as hard as you can, no matter how long it takes.

While this strategy allowed me to deal with the stammer, it also meant that every aspect of my life suffered. I became a shadow of my former self, betraying my potential and making an enemy of my own future.

I had very few friends. Socially I fell down the gap between the 'in-betweeners'. People didn't want to be seen speaking to an oddball like me, and I was quite cool with that – at least it meant I didn't have to say anything back! Talking to girls was an obvious no-no, as was sticking up for myself, and having any sort of a life. I was in the bottom class for most subjects and my career aspirations were limited to menial non-speaking jobs. I even considered being a hermit, living in a cave far away from people, and away from my stammer.

But there were moments where I had bursts of courage, where I wanted to reclaim the life I deserved, and reveal who I was and what I was capable of. My mind was incredibly fertile and creative, and I longed to find a voice to express my thoughts and feelings. At age eighteen, having flunked most of my exams, and with oblivion opening up like an enormous gaping chasm in front of me, I decided to face my stammer head on. I enrolled at university, to study languages.

All of a sudden I had friends, genuine ones who wanted to know me and hear what I had to say. I was happy again. Yes the stammer was still there, as was my desire to conceal it, but I was in a safe enough environment to try to speak more and more, and push my boundaries. I was seen as a bit of a joker and life started to open up. My confidence was still very fragile and it didn't take much to bring me down, but I got through it, and four years later I graduated. I should have been so proud of what I had achieved, and yet I felt like a fraud every time I looked at the certificate on my wall. You see, to me, a degree in languages was like a certificate of non-stammering. It wasn't a true reflection of me. And so my dirty little secret endured.

The big wide world held infinite promise, even through the blinkered eyes of stammering. At age twenty-three I surprised myself by landing an office job with a good company. I felt a million lifetimes away from my twelve year old self. My job involved speaking all of the time and I was determined not to let my stammer ruin it all. Of course I had bad days – days where my speech blocked so much I didn't want to speak to anyone. On days like these, the stammer was reminding me that it was still in charge, and not me. And the more it controlled me, the more I tried to conceal it.

Then two years ago it happened. One of my best friends from work invited me out for a beer. He said he had something important to ask me. He was getting married the following year and wanted me to be his best man. I was over the moon. I'd never been best man before and I said I would be honoured. No sooner had I accepted, a familiar voice in my head started telling me, 'You can't possibly be best man. You'll have to phone people to arrange the stag do. You'll have to stand up and deliver a speech.'

But this was an occasion of much greater importance than stammering, and for once I didn't listen to the voice. I decided I was going to do something about it.

It just so happened that another work colleague also had a stammer. He'd told me that he used a costal breathing technique to control it, and that he'd learned it on a course quite nearby in East Sussex, called The Starfish Project.

Having tried speech therapy, and various other treatments, all without success, I had reservations. The Starfish Project is a three day intensive residential course, and it was a bit daunting. But with a best man's speech due in twelve months time, I was resolved to giving it my all.

The course is run by Anne and David Blight (it's much more than a course, as I quickly discovered – it's a way of life) at the Boship Hotel near Eastbourne. I was one of nine new starters, all of us with differing severities of stammering. There were also plenty of 'refreshers' who had come back on the course to practice their technique and help the new starters. The course runs once a month, and after your first course you can come back as many times as you like, as a 'refresher'.

It was simply amazing to be able, finally, to speak openly about it with other stammerers. Stammering can be dreadfully lonely, and having the support, advice and encouragement of some of the most fantastic people I have ever met, who had been through similar experiences to me, was incredibly emotional.

There are a number of courses that teach costal breathing to control a stammer, but with Starfish there is also a strong focus on the person, as well as the condition. As Anne said to me, 'Every stammer is different and every stammerer is different.' I'd never felt so supported in all my life. I'd never felt like an individual before. There was hope. Finally there was hope! It was an epiphany, and one of the best decisions I've ever made.

The costal breathing technique works. There's absolutely no doubt about that, and the hundreds of people who have become a part of the Starfish 'family' are proud evidence of its success. The most important thing I learned was simply that there is no shame in having a stammer. It's not an indication of weakness, stupidity or bad character. While a stammer may choose the person (not the other way round) it takes a massive amount of courage and presence of mind for that person to seek help to do something about it.

The Starfish Project definitely gives you the tools to deal with a stammer. There is no actual 'cure', no matter what anybody tells you. There is no magic pill or surgical procedure. But it is possible to learn how to control it and, more importantly, to regain control of your life. And thanks to this wonderful organisation many stammerers like me have been able to do just that and embrace all that life offers.

Well, twelve months later I was standing in front of a hundred and fifty wedding guests with a microphone in my hand. As I spoke to the room I realised I was finally in control. I delivered the speech without stammering once, and I took my time to make the most of it and really enjoy the moment. Everybody laughed at the jokes and applauded at the end. I'd done it! I'd beaten the stammer!

But for a recovering covert stammerer like me, beating the stammer isn't simply about not stammering.

A few weeks after the wedding I was standing in the queue at the fish and chip shop, and a news report about the film 'The King's Speech' came on the television in the corner. The lady in front of me turned and said she had seen it the previous week, and what a fantastic film it was. The old Phil might have just smiled politely and uttered a few words of agreement. But instead I sparked up a conversation, and actually told her how I had stammered from a young age. I told her all about the Starfish Project, and how it had transformed my life. She was fascinated and we continued chatting for ages.

I think that was the moment. The moment when my dirty little secret was out, and I had been the one to declare it with a great measure of pride. And that was the point where I finally re-claimed control of my life.

Phil Boler

Painfully Covert by Sara Wilson

If I had to choose one word to describe the effect of my stammer on the first 24 years of my life, it would be "lonely". Obviously I knew that I wasn't the only person in the world who stammered, but I was the only one I knew of. Painfully covert, the only people who really knew that I stammered were my parents and younger sister. The stammer would rear its ugly head when I was asked to read aloud or make a presentation in school, or place a takeaway order on the phone etc; all of these instances were laughed off with "Oh I'm just sleepy/nervous/not with it today/daydreaming..", I even went so far one time as to say that I had forgotten my reading glasses...I don't even wear glasses!

As is the case with many other stammerers, doctors didn't have a clue. One family friend who is a GP recommended "A holiday to relax her, and when she comes back it will have gone." (!) My own GP recommended public speaking, and when I was finally referred to an NHS speech therapist at the age of 16, a once-a-week one hour session of reciting the alphabet really did not help me at all. My family's thoughts were "Your stammer isn't as bad as you think it is, you don't really need help."

The speech therapist that I saw once a week was very nice but obviously had little experience with adult stammerers. Her office was set up to look like a child's play area, with a wide selection of toys and children's paintings on the walls. The only activity we ever seemed to do was recite the alphabet slowly. We never, ever discussed the emotional side of stammering, something which I found benefitted me most greatly when I came to Starfish.

I joined the Starfish family when I was 24, having researched it myself. I had finally plucked up the courage to apply for a PGDE course and pursue my dream of becoming a Primary School teacher. I had previously been disheartened to find out the extraordinary, unaffordable prices that other courses were charging. It also seemed to me a hugely humiliating and stressful experience to be asked to make a speech in public, such was the tactic used by other courses.

I CANNOT SPEAK HIGHLY ENOUGH OF THE STARFISH PROJECT. I have never known such a warm, welcoming, genuine, patient, kind group of people. Anne and David Blight are the most caring and nurturing people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. It is so PERSONAL which makes it so different to other corporate courses, and on my first course it struck me that Anne knew the name of every single person she spoke to. Nobody is forced to do anything that will embarrass or upset them, there is no pressure; only lots and lots of support, encouragement and SMILES! For me the most important part of Starfish is knowing that I'm not alone.

It was a great source of comfort and support for me to meet other people, from many walks of life and different age groups, who understood what I was going through. I was admittedly a bit sad at first that I had to come to the course on my own, having also dealt with my stammer on my own for many years, but that feeling didn't last long as I was welcomed into the Starfish family with open arms. I'll never feel alone again, and 24 is better late than never!

There is obviously no cure for stammering, and I do have days where I find myself revisiting bad habits and old painful memories, but on those days I know I have the wonderful phone list; 6 full pages (and counting) of names and numbers of people who are always ready to listen. The key is to TAKE ONE DAY AT A TIME. I know I will never be fluent, but asking for my train ticket instead of using a machine is one step that I'm proud of. Doing little things like that every day are the key to building confidence and a successful recovery from stammering.

Sara Wilson