A Change in Perspective

19 Jul
11 Jan

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This article is approximately a 10 minute read.

Nora is an ISA Board member. Having studied History and Politics at UCD, Nora completed a double Masters in European Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden and the University of Strasbourg, France. Nora then worked for the European Commission in Brussels. Since returning to Dublin, she works as Policy and Advocacy Manager of European Movement Ireland - an independent, not-for-profit organisation working to develop the connection between Ireland and Europe.

My name is Nora and I have a stammer. In fact, I have had a stammer for as long as I can remember. Stammering has always been a part of my life, and for a long time it felt like something to overcome. As some of you reading may appreciate, my speech has been tied up with a lot of emotion for me, particularly shame, embarrassment and fear.

Over the years, my stammer has more often than not been something that I have found very difficult to talk about. As a teenager, I don’t think I said the word ‘stammer’ to many people outside of my loving and supportive immediate family or the skilled and professional speech and language therapists I worked with. Of course I knew I had a stammer, and I assumed people I met must have known too - but it was too painful to acknowledge out loud.

I used to understand managing my stammer as doing whatever I could to not stammer. The aim was unambiguous - stammering was bad and not stammering was good. My speech presented many difficulties and often felt like a struggle. For a long time, avoidance was my main tool. There were debating teams I didn’t join, plays I didn’t act in, student union positions I didn’t run for - alongside all the other interesting and fun things I did do while generally enjoying and doing well in school and college.

Since then, I have come to find another approach to my speech -accepting that I do and will stammer. And for me, one of the most useful ways to do that is to talk about the fact that I have a stammer. By naming it, by saying the unsaid, I feel less fear around it. I have tried to be more open about it with new people and with people in my life I may have never discussed it with before. I have found that this has helped to untie some of the emotion too - it’s progress that I can now talk about my stammer without crying.

In 2010, I took part in a Dublin Adult Stuttering (DAS) course which played a big role in the shift in my approach. At weekly meetings, a group of us would share our experiences. Talking (and stammering) openly about my speech, and hearing others talk (and stammer) openly about theirs, in that environment helped me to start to accept it in a way I hadn’t realised I needed to. Outside the group, I told my colleagues at the time that I was leaving the office early on Wednesdays to go to group speech and language therapy. They didn’t quite know how to react - as many people don’t when faced with someone who stammers - but it felt freeing to say.

DAS also provided me with other useful tools. We were introduced to voluntary stammering - intentionally sssssliding on the first sound of a word. At first, it felt uncomfortable and counterintuitive. It went against everything I had been doing before to try to hide my stammer! But I came to see that it helps to remove fear and to give a sense of control - once you show your stammer, there’s nothing to hide. To this day, I have a piece of paper from the DAS 10 course on my bedroom wall - it has ‘SLIDE’ written on it and acts as a nice reminder and good encouragement.

After DAS, I lived abroad and only got the chance to attend ISA events every now and again when I happened to be visiting home. When I moved back to Dublin in 2016, I knew I wanted to get more involved in the ISA and joined the Board soon after. I am so glad to be an active member of an Association that works to build and develop the community affected by stammering and be a trusted source of reliable information in a non-judgemental, inclusive and empowering way. Our work in raising awareness to help people who stammer and those around them better understand and accept stammering is particularly important to me.

Attending ISA events myself - including the Walk and Talks, Comedy Nights, Open Days and National Stammering Awareness Days - and using ISA services - the monthly Women’s Phone Group, for example - have given me great support and have enabled me to feel more connected to the stammering community.

Joining the ISA Board prompted me to, among other things, speak to my boss about my stammer. It was the first time I had ever broached the subject and said the unsaid to a boss - and fortunately, it was a very positive experience. We agreed to work together to identify opportunities that would develop my public speaking skills without pushing me to do anything that made me feel too uncomfortable. Since then, I’ve presented on a microphone to a group of 100 secondary school students, briefed a government minister and her team, and spoken at a conference in the European Parliament, to name a few. Each experience was scary, I stammered during of every one of them - and I’m so pleased I didn’t let that hold me back!

In many ways in my life, I’m lucky to be able to say that my stammer hasn’t limited me. Not, for example, when it has come to the countries I’ve studied and worked in, the loves and friends I’ve had, the career I’ve made.

But my stammer has had an impact on my self-esteem, and I have often felt very self-conscious about it. There have been moments of great frustration when I sound so much more eloquent in my head and wish I could come across like that out loud. In those moments, I have felt unable to present myself as how I really am. Yet, I have come to accept that having a stammer is part of who I really am. The struggles, silent and otherwise, have helped to shape me; and while I wouldn’t

wish a stammer on anyone, I’ve also become more appreciative of the positives my stammer has brought me. It has helped me to be empathetic and to want to put people at ease. It has also been a source of bravery. I am brave each time I choose to speak and allow myself to stammer, especially in feared situations such as the public speaking experiences I mentioned or even saying my own name.

My stammer has helped me to listen to what others say and to mean what I say. It’s important to me to communicate well rather than ‘fluently’. It has also afforded me the opportunity to be a Board member of a national charity, which I’m proud of.

While joining the ISA Board has enabled me to be more forthcoming about having a stammer in a positive and proactive way, there are most certainly times when I still struggle with my speech. But with time, they have affected me and gotten me down less and less. And while there are still plenty of people in my life I wouldn’t feel able to talk to about my stammer yet, my confidence around it has grown. Sure, there’s still a long way to go - but I know I’ll keep working on it, and that it’s important to try to not give myself too much of a hard time about it.

Just as I have had a stammer for as long as I can remember, I accept that I will always have a stammer. It is, as it may be for some of you reading, ever-present and ever-variable. Stammering is different for everyone and there is no definite explanation or reason. As much as it would be great if there was, there is no magic cure. Instead, I think the best tool at our disposal is to work towards feeling more comfortable with stammering and being around people who stammer.

Still now, I find it difficult to write about my stammer. The ‘iceberg’ - a term many of you who have done speech and language therapy will recognise - is deep, but I’m glad to be talking about it and chipping away at the iceberg bit by bit.

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