An image showing a page of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse Charlie Mackesy

My Year Of Speech Therapy

5 January 2022
Posted in: Stories

By Susanna - a City Lit student

  • In this article, Susanna writes about her journey towards facing her vulnerability
  • Follow her explerience on our 22 weeks-long online group Speech Therapy course

I’ve had a stammer for as long as I remember. It’s the reason I studied Physics instead of Languages at A level and became a Maths teacher, and the reason I still avoid phone calls at work.

Up until recently I kept it well hidden and very few of my friends have heard me stammer. But I have lived in fear of being ‘found out’. I didn’t tell my mum or my sister about it until I was 40, and they had no idea how much it had affected me. It was always a source of shame to me that I struggle to say my own husband’s name, and I used to go to great lengths to avoid introductions.
It wasn’t until the age of 51 that I finally got around to having some Speech Therapy. In the end it was a conversation with a friend followed by a chance email in my sister’s inbox that finally led me to City Lit. (Ironically my sister is a speech therapist.)

Without Zoom and the lockdown it would never have been possible, as I live in Cambridge and wouldn’t have been able to travel to London every week. I look back on it as the single most positive thing to have come out of Covid for me.

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The Interiorised Stammering course took place on Tuesdays for 22 weeks, and it has transformed my life in many ways. As the course progressed, I understood the need for its length; it takes time to unravel deep-seated habits and to start to see real change.

I had gone through life without ever being able to get to know someone else with a stammer, so the experience of being in a group of ten people who stammered was one of the best things about the course for me. I’ve always been quite a shy person and had previously never found it easy talking in groups.

In the past I had assumed that one-to-one therapy would be the best option for me, but in fact the opposite was true, and the mutual support of the group helped us all to progress faster.

We were guided by an excellent teacher, and our group was lucky enough to be joined by two additional Speech Therapists whose support was invaluable too (logging in from Ireland and New Zealand, thanks to the wonder of Zoom).

I learnt so much every session and looked forward to Tuesdays. We were encouraged to form our own WhatsApp group to keep in touch between sessions. We often worked in smaller groups and I never quite lost the excitement of the ‘break-out rooms’ and finding myself in a virtual room with random people I shared an instant bond with.

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Interiorised stammering

Stammering therapy

Over the weeks we saw each other’s vulnerable sides; laughing and crying over Zoom is surprisingly powerful. A measure of how much the course meant to us was the sadness we felt when it ended. A lot had happened to us all, both as a result of the course and in our personal lives - someone in the group had got married and someone else was about to give birth. (Her daughter is five months old at the time of writing.)

A few weeks after the end of the course I met up with someone from the group who also lived in Cambridge. Seeing someone in real life after seeing them on a small screen for 22 weeks is an amazing experience; I recommend it if you haven’t tried it.

She said that seeing me in person made her feel like ‘it really happened’. A few weeks later, six of us from the course met up on a sunny afternoon in Regent’s Park and that was another of the highlights of my Summer.

Soon after the Interiorised Stammering course ended, I filled the Tuesday evening void in my life with another excellent (but shorter) City Lit course, ‘ACT for people who stammer’. This one was mindfulness-based and helped me to build on everything I had learnt in the first course.

I learnt a lot from it, and it continues to help me in my everyday life. I’m very grateful for the excellent teaching and guidance we received from both the Speech Therapists who ran it.

“When have you been at your strongest?” asked the boy. “When I have dared to show my weakness”. (1)

Once again, the most valuable thing for me was to be part of another group of lovely, interesting people who also happened to stammer. I’m now in two WhatsApp groups that offer me stammering support when I need it. The second group is more scattered geographically so we may not get to meet up in person, but some of us have continued to meet up on Zoom on Tuesday evenings to offer each other support and set ourselves goals. (We don’t always achieve them but there’s always another week).

I’ve always known that there is no miracle cure for stammering but am now much more accepting of this. In many ways the courses at City Lit have helped me to find my voice and to reawaken my love of words. I’ve learnt some very helpful strategies and techniques, and a year on I am stammering less than I used to.

One of my goals at the start of the course was to achieve greater fluency, but I have realised that it’s okay not to be fluent and that there is no shame in stammering openly; there is a line in a poem by Erin Schick that I love:

‘When I stutter I am speaking my own language fluently.’

The biggest difference is that I am less fearful in my everyday life, and more confident in speaking situations. As a teacher I used to have a fear of having students whose names I struggled to say fluently, but this year for the first time I worried less about my class lists. I’ve even started to tell some of my students about my stammer which I would never have dared to do in the past. It feels like a breakthrough.

There’s a Charlie Mackesy drawing where the boy asks, ‘When have you been at your strongest?’ and the horse replies, ‘When I have dared to show my weakness.’

It reminds me how grateful I am to City Lit for giving me the chance to step outside my comfort zone and to find strength through facing my vulnerability. I’ve even started to feel some gratitude towards my stammer- for giving me a unique way to connect to others, for expanding my empathy (the author David Mitchell has described a stammer as an ‘empathy generator’) and for everything it has taught me along the way.

—Susanna, an evening class student

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