International Stuttering Awareness Day: Winning Back Words

The second in a two-article collection, highlighting International Stuttering Awareness Day. Sarah Maclean reminisces on life past and present with a stutter*. A reminder of how much my life has changed.

Do you ever have those dreams where you try to run? No matter how much energy you direct to your legs, no matter the sheer will, you’re capped at a slow amble. Or worst still, frozen. How about those dreams where you’re trying to shout for help? You’re lucky if it comes out as a whisper or a strained squeak. Fear bubbles up in your body, your heart hits your ribcage and you wake up in a cold sweat.

As a person with a stutter, this was a feeling not just isolated to the occasional bad dream, but life every day.

One in 100 people have a stutter, and it affects more men than women. I don’t know the catalyst for it. In family videos, I am pretty fluent up until the age of eight. At that point in your life, other children aren’t as cruel, and you don’t realise that you’re different.

However, as I got older I became more covert, attempting to find weird and wonderful ways to keep it out of earshot. I would walk through what I should say in my head, picking out any keywords I might struggle with and how to get around them. I built up a huge mental thesaurus of words I could substitute when I felt a physical block or freeze come on. When I gave my food order, I would go with the easiest option to say as opposed to what I actually wanted. The dish could change in a split second if I felt any tension. Avoidance of situations and sounds. Something other stutterers can resonate with.

The tricks and avoidance I put myself through got more complex, and frankly ridiculous.

I battled in social and academic situations to appear normal. To simply disclose my stutter was something I would never have dreamt of. As a result, feedback from university presentations was to “not be so nervous“, “relax more“, “have more confidence” and “be more fluent” in my speech. At that time, to only receive criticism referring to the content of a presentation or regular delivery feedback was my goal. I would wince as professors and other students gave feedback. “Don’t mention the stammer”, I thought.

I gave myself a hard time. How could I fail to master something that everybody else took for granted?

I was frustrated at myself and anybody who tried to offer me advice.

I didn’t have the knowledge and the right mentality at the time to own and manage my stutter.

Interestingly, I’ve worked in plenty of customer-facing roles including my current position. It is an environment that I thrive in. Whilst I got plenty of positive feedback, I was exhausted from daily tricks, and a jacked-up friendliness to compensate for verbal blocks and overt distortion. I realised that I owed it to myself to finally address this dusty elephant in the room. I enrolled in the McGuire Programme in May 2017, a programme run for stutterers by stutters. The initial 5-day course is demanding and forces you to take a long hard look in the mirror. No more tricks, no more avoidance, and immediately you are pushed out of your comfort zones.

Looking Ahead.

Joining the McGuire programme has transformed my confidence, my life, and improved my acceptance of my stutter.

I disclose my stutter explicitly to strangers, friends and colleagues. I take every public speaking opportunity I can. I challenge myself to speak to as many new people as possible. Through the programme, I have a new network of friends I can ring anytime. Alongside several other members, I help organise the bi-weekly McGuire Amsterdam support group. I want to help empower others as the coaches on the programme helped to empower me.

Remember, there is no scientific cure for a stutter. It can’t be “fixed”. I will always need to actively manage it. However, I now have the physical and psychological tools I need to work towards articulate and eloquent speech. It is an exciting journey from the fear and frustration, to self-actualisation, and realising your full potential along the way.

– Sarah Maclean

Feature Image: Maclean

*It is acknowledged that stutter and stammer are the same and can be used interchangeably.

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