So you probably guessed what this blog is about, d-d-didn’t you?Since a young age, along with my Epilepsy, I’ve had a stammer. Usually I repeat my words because I get full-on blockages. It happens at home, school, work, everywhere. Speech therapy has never worked. It’s not a physical obstruction- I could recite a novel to myself at home out loud and speak perfectly fluently. Strange really. I could go on a bus and be unable to ask for a bus fare without making myself humiliated, sometimes I can’t order a coffee and I struggle in particular to pronounce ‘L’, ‘A (it’s really humiliating when you can’t say your own name)’, ‘W’ and ‘H (How do you greet someone on the phone without saying Hello?!)’. Other times, I can sub-consciously speak perfectly fluently to people. It’s stress-related but not stress-caused. When I carried the Olympic torch, it was undoubtedly the happiest day of my life, and although I stammered to the hundreds of people who spoke to me and collared me for a photo with the torch, I then went live on BBC North West Tonight to over half a million people and spoke perfectly. When I was climbing Mont Blanc, I was also ecstatic, but stammered badly all week. Despite being happy, these scenarios had one thing in common: stress and pressure. Having 3000 people watching, serenading and cheering you for the proudest 300 metre jog of your life isn’t really stress-free.
It’s one of those things I’ve learnt to live with. A lot of people say they don’t notice it. Usually because I won’t speak when I’m going through a bad episode of stammering. It holds you back from saying things and engaging in conversation. I certainly notice it. I think it’s merely a case of whether you care if you stammer or not. It can be aggravated or alleviated for no reason at any unrelated time. Certain people can trigger it- when I have a bad stammering experience with one person, I have one every time I speak to them, even though I can speak perfectly fluently to someone else 30 seconds earlier. When I get on a bus, my heart pounds, when the phone rings, my heart pounds. The sub-conscious mind almost makes me stammer and tells me that I’m going to.
‘So don’t think you are going to stammer then it’s fine?’ you may say. Not so.It’s not something that can be completely controlled. You get a full blockage and physically can’t produce a word or even speak, no matter what you think.
Also, there’s nothing more annoying to a stammerer than people saying ‘Take deep breaths’.It’s true that being calm can help but even if I take 15 mins to relax before making a call, your heart pounds in the seconds that you make or answer a call and so far I haven’t been able to control this. Your sub-conscious mind kicks in and it’s not just a case of deep breaths. You do get into a habit of talking too quickly but it’s not an easy habit to break and it’s not often that someone warns you in advance that they’re going to call you so you can ‘take deep breaths’ for 15 minutes.
It’s not always a fear of speaking to strangers either. It is better with family and close friends, but even so, I can speak to them and be unable to say a word without pulling faces like a Goldfish and eventually having to find alternative words to explain something because I can’t pronounce what I want to, or even having to prompt ideas/pretend I’ve forgotten something, even though I understand exactly what I mean.
So what has this got to do with Everest? Well, although over 10 or so years I’ve become over conscious of my stammer, which is linked to my Epilepsy, it’s more of an obstacle than people realise. ‘Don’t care about what people think’ is also unhelpful and difficult to achieve when it’s developed you into a very self-conscious person over a long period of time. It isn’t a choice. It’s true that when I don’t think about my stammer, I speak perfectly, but a friend who is learning NLP quite rightly pointed out that you have to think about something to be able to think not to do it. So as soon as someone sees me in the local shop, my phone rings, I know I have to order something or knock on a neighbours door, my mind kicks in before hand.
I have to climb Everest before I even climb Everest. My stammer has been a pain for most of my school life and has been the source of humiliation, negativity, frustration and a lack of confidence and inability to socialise/be taken seriously. But besides the bullying and the times when I’ve launched my phone against a wall in frustration, there’s more at stake in the next year.
Most people are supportive and patient with it. Some people aren’t. It’s inevitable though that people who don’t know about it may not take a stammerer seriously. Not good when you’re trying to secure nearly £35,000 in funding from a corporate. Most of my sponsorship will be done by email but phone calls and meetings are inevitable for success. People see me in the street and sometimes I can’t even give them the courtesy of a ‘hello’ back, as much as I’m burning to do so. Same with phone calls.
So what do I do? I battle on. I can’t let it stop me achieving what I want to achieve. The past couple of years, it hasn’t. My stammer is the same as it’s ever been- but I’ve managed to put it behind me and gain confidence. For example, last Summer I was asked to present an assembly at my old school about my Olympic torchbearing experience, to over 200 kids. I was petrified. I did it, and by the end of the Summer, I’d actually contacted schools and care homes asking to do assemblies- in the end speaking to over 1000 people! One request to do a radio interview ended up with my being hungry for more, making contact with other stations and 2 radio stations including BBC Radio Merseyside ended up being about 10 with an audience of over half a million. I spoke twice on BBC North West Tonight which was broadcast on the night I carried the torch, and for the first time in my life, I felt confidently calm and spoke fine. It was unbelievable to think that the same person who’d been unable to speak in class and skip presentations at school, was contacting people to speak in public! It didn’t cure my stammer though.
To get a non-uniform day at my school, which will raise £1000 for Baruntse, I had to agree to do an assembly to every year group at my school. I’ve never been so scared, but I did it, and over 4 days spoke to over 650 kids on my own. Last week I spoke on the radio, and although my stammer was as bad as ever, I still made the contact to do it for the sake of raising my profile. I rang two managing directors of two massive companies last week- I stammered and I was almost shaking, but knew I just had to get on with it. In the next few weeks I have 5 meetings regarding Everest, all of whom I’ve initiated. I’m absolutely terrified. However, emails don’t get enough attention nowadays to neglect the power of a phone call.
I’m prepared to suffer to make my goal happen, and always will. Even when my stammer makes the whole sponsorship-seeking process more stressful and even more difficult. My stammer may never be cured. I will always care about it, but I will never let it be an obstacle to me climbing Everest, like it was an obstacle to me years ago. I’ve gotta do what I gotta do.
I have a stammer, but the stammer doesn’t have me.