There are one or two people – maybe even three – now reading this blog, who have never met me in person. There are a few more who are friends on Facebook. They probably will not be aware that I have a stammer. Something that was a cause of great anxiety for me for many years since I was around six years old.
It seems that our emigration to New Zealand may have triggered it. Who knows?
I received various forms of treatment for my problem, from my early teens until my early thirties. Hypnotism, psychoanalysis, medication, speech therapy. In the end I beat it by learning not to let it bother me. I still have it, but now it is your problem, not mine. That makes it no problem at all to me. In fact it seems to have almost gone. Some days I never notice it and other people don’t seem to either. Yet there was a time when I literally could not get a single word out, let alone a sentence.
When I was around nine or ten, I heard Tom Lehrer for the first time. I loved his humour. I remember one quote:
Speaking of love, one problem that recurs more and more frequently these days, in books and plays and movies, is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love: husbands and wives who can’t communicate, children who can’t communicate with their parents, and so on. And the characters in these books and plays and so on, and in real life, I might add, spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can’t communicate. I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up.
That is what I did. For a long time. Until I was 15 only a few people had heard me utter an entire sentence. To others, I may as well have been a mute. Now, you couldn’t shut me up if you tried.
A one-on-one conversation as a young adult became manageable. If anyone mocked me or grew impatient waiting for the next word, my ire usually fuelled a scathing comment without a stammer. “I suppose you like to kick the crutches of cripples too!”
My greatest achievement in one sense, was being able to speak in public. To lecture on subjects within my expertise around NZ, to train people in various countries around the Pacific, to give a speech on behalf of the Minister of Health in the Beehive in Wellington. I still prize an email from the Director General telling me that speech was a credit to me and to the Ministry of Health. Not so much because of its content was I proud , but because I actually delivered it. My greatest achievement in another sense, is the empathy I gained through having an insight into how it feels to be different.
After University, my stammer prevented me entering many fields I thought I would like to try; Teaching – I told them children should be exposed to difference, they said no – they wouldn’t get away with THAT nowadays. Customs Officer, Police, Lighthouse Keeper – well, I suppose it could be tricky using the radio in an emergency. In any case, lighthouses were automated shortly after. I would have been out on my ear. I worked in the construction and drainage trades mostly. I knewI was smart enough to do better. I had MENSA membership to prove it.
When I was interviewed for the position of trainee health inspector, one of the interviewers could not let the matter of my speech impediment go, despite that I felt I was handling the interview really well.. He asked several times whether I could manage the job with my speech impediment. I assured him that if I could manage the interview as well as I believed I was, then I could manage the job. The others seemed convinced, but he kept coming back to it. Time and again he referred to it as if trying to convince the others on the panel that my speech problem was a deal breaker. It clearly bothered him. Finally he asked if I had any special training for my stammer. I told him no, I had learned it all by myself.
Out of eight candidates, I got the job. They phoned me that same night to tell me I had been selected. I guess I was lucky someone on that panel had some empathy and a sense of humour. By good luck and their support I found a profession and a career I could believe in and achieve something.
We are shaped by small things, for good or ill.