The iceberg that no one sees

May Breisacher, UK

We live in a culture with instant access to information, quick elevator pitches and smooth conversations that permeate throughout all spheres of life. In a world of instant and speedy communication there is no room for people who do not fit the norm — or so it feels. I am one of those people. I belong to the group of disfluent speakers because I stammer.

Below the iceberg

Up until recently I would have done everything to conceal that I stammer. I’ve tried all my life to hide it because I thought I’d be better off not talking about it or making it known that I don’t fit the norm. But I’ve grown tired of it. Tired of not having a voice. Tired of having to swap words or rephrase sentences or even pretend I don’t know something — anything to avoid difficult words.

But I want to have a voice. One where I’m not judged or laughed at because I stammer. One where it’s ok to be who I am with a stammer. And one where I speak for the rest of the one per cent of the adult population who stammers.

I want to break down the barriers and get rid of the stigma that we so often encounter. So here’s my voice, my story.

May Breisacher at an awards event

May Breisacher at an awards event

When it all began…

I was a little over three when I first started stammering. I know it was there but somehow I don’t remember it being a big issue. When school started (aged 6), it all happened. I was mocked, teased, laughed at, called names. I was told I was stupid. That I wasn’t normal because I stammered. So I did what I could to speak fluently, pretending I no longer stammered. It became my mantra to hide it — sometimes more successfully than others. I learnt in school that in order to succeed, to be deemed as competent, to sway that grade, I had to speak and participate in discussions. I learnt to be fluent when I had to be. This continued on in presentations and interviews — hours of preparations, of learning my ‘script’ made me a fluent public speaker and candidate.

I worked with several speech and language therapists over the years — towards the end of my school years, I was actually ok with having a stammer. I could control my speech when I needed to, i.e. in presentations. Yet, over the past few years stammering has moved into the forefront that I feel it defines me more than anything else I have to give. It has become more pronounced and it has changed. I feel like I have lost control over my speech. I fear it will stop me from progressing in my career and becoming a good manager.

I never dared admitting that I had a stammer in interviews or with previous employers. I feared I wouldn’t get the job, if they knew.

What is stammering and who is affected?

Only one per cent of adults has a stammer. Out of those only every fourth person is a woman. I’m a minority in a minority. In a society of quick access to communication and brief introductions, there seems to be no room for people who aren’t quick and brief. Richter and St. Pierre (2014) put it well: ‘Our society and culture places such high value on efficiency and self-mastery. Being able to speak fast and smooth decides who will be heard and taken seriously. A deviation from that gives you a problem and classes you as ‘abnomal’.’

Stammering is such a deviation — it breaks up communication, and is therefore seen as an abnormality. Stammering has therefore become a barrier for me that I neither wanted to talk about nor be associated with. I wanted to be seen as normal, as competent and as intelligent.

And what happened to me as a child has deeply shaped how I still fear to be perceived — at work and generally. But I want to break free from the past. And I want to help clear the stigma that surrounds stammering. People who stammer aren’t more nervous or shy than people who don’t. It’s not psychological but neurological and down to the wiring of the brain. And people who stammer are not less intelligent than those who don’t. The British Stammering Association explains it very well here.

The ups and the downs

Stammering varies between people and also fluctuates for the individual. It’s unpredictable. And that makes it frustrating. There’s sometimes nothing you can do about getting a word out. One minute you’re fine. The next, you stumble across every word. It’s exhausting. It’s tiring. It’s such hard work to speak at times. And it’s extremely frustrating when you can’t say what you’d like to say. I often feel ashamed, annoyed, sometimes even angry.

I have lived most my life wishing there was a cure. Something to fix it. A pill, shock therapy, whatever it takes to re-wire my brain and make me fluent. I still wish there’s something out there that will make it go away. I wake up one day and it’s gone. No blocks, no breathlessness, no repetition, no shame, no humiliation.

Then a couple of weeks ago, the most bizarre thought occurred. When it appeared, I stopped it in its treks because I couldn’t possibly be thinking that. No, it couldn’t be true. Was a thought forming that there might actually be something positive about stammering?

No, I must’ve been dreaming. Why would I be glad to have a stammer? I don’t want it! Yet, there was a thought forming strongly and somewhat proudly. People often say what they think without thinking about the consequences and impact words can have. Words are powerful. They make and they break. Having a stammer has wired my brain that I have to think about what I say and how I say it. Because I could block. So it makes me consider the impact of my words. Even when I have to give bad or difficult news, I think about what I say and how I say it. To give the right message without damaging the relationship.

Having a stammer makes me choose my words carefully, to be more considerate and compassionate in how I communicate. And for that I’m grateful. I’m grateful I have to stop and scan my words and messages. I’m grateful it gives me a voice that thinks of others.

May Breisacher is a senior consultant at EY Financial Services and a member of the Employers Stammering Network.

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