Living With a Stammer

Living with a stammer can be isolating and frightening but reporter Freya Findlay meets one man who is not letting it hold him back.

James Tennant

Living with a stammer can be isolating and frightening but reporter Freya Findlay meets one man who is not letting it hold him back

Imagine if you struggled to speak so much that when asked something as simple as your name, you can’t say it for 30 seconds – 30 long, frustrating seconds.

On a chair in front of the video camera sits a young man with his head down. The interviewer behind the video camera asks the young man what his name is. Staring intently at the floor, it’s clear to see that the young man is trying to reply, that he really wants to reply, but that under his calm exterior he is fighting and failing to say, “James Tennant”.

James is from Greystoke and at 24 years old has now lived with a stammer for 20 years. He has no idea why it started and knows that he will never be able to get rid of it but he is determined that it will not hold him back.

He says of stammering: “You know exactly what you want to say but when it comes to saying the words they won’t come out. So you feel scared, frustrated, isolated and you feel fairly upset. I didn’t want a stammer. I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I want a stammer’. It’s just something that started when I was four. I didn’t know how to control it and it got worse.”

The video of James trying to say his name is hard to watch. It was filmed on his first day on an intensive course with the McGuire Programme, which teaches physical techniques and mental strategies for dealing with stammering. It is a course run by people with stammers for others who stammer. James decided to attend the course after reaching rock bottom in 2012.

He says: “Before the programme, talking was very hard for me. It’s something that everyone takes for granted being able to talk but when you can’t you’re stuck, you’re absolutely stuck,

“I’d had speech therapy before with the NHS but I got to a stage three years ago where I couldn’t say a single word, so I had to do something about my stammer.

“It’s something that got worse over the years. At school it was hard. I remember times where I was in class, I had to answer a question or I had to read something and I couldn’t do it. I think it got to that stage because I had just become so scared of talking and I didn’t know what to do. I was stuck. I was in a very bad place.”

James recalls one weekend when he came home from university at Leeds and he did not speak a single word to his parents for two whole days. He says that his family, friends and work colleagues at marketing agency, Ponderosa group in Leeds, where he works as the social media executive, have always been very supportive.

“I have always had fantastic support,” he says, “Everyone always understood about my speech and that I obviously had a lot of trouble.”

As James speaks he takes deep breaths. At the McGuire Programme course, James’ speech was stripped right back and he learnt a new way to talk and a new way of breathing.

He explains: “When you take a breath, you breathe from your crural diaphragm but as a stammerer, I get stuck if I breathe from my crural diaphragm so they teach you something called a costal breath.

“So every time I speak I have take a costal breath to help control my stammer.”

James wears a belt around his chest to help his costal breathing – where he breaths in quickly, fills his lungs and then breaths out a much slower pace and speaks. The McGuire Programme also includes work on the mental side, guiding people to accept themselves as a person who stammers and who is working on their speech. It also teaches mental strategies for dealing with the fear or stammering and ways of developing an assertive attitude to stammering. In total there’s 55 hours of training in five days.

“It’s a tough old slog,” James says with a smile.

It was also a life changing slog. Three days after he struggled to even say his name in front of the camera, James stood in Newcastle city centre on a podium and addressing a crowd of strangers, spoke clearly not only his name but he went on to explain how the McGuire Programme transformed his speech and his life. When he steps down from the podium he bursts into tears.

He says: “It was incredible. It was the best feeling in the world after 21 years, I could finally say what I wanted to say. I didn’t have to swap words, I didn’t have to use tricks to get words out. I didn’t have to avoid situations or say ‘umm’ or ‘errr’ – small tricks that I had started, all of that stopped. It was life changing – that’s the correct term.”

Three years later, James is in control of his stammer and is doing things he once would have thought impossible. He made a best man’s speech in front of 200 people, he joined a speakers club and has given a speech at his old secondary school, Austin Friars in Carlisle.

He cannot speak highly enough of the McGuire Programme, which counts Gareth Gates in its alumni and featured in the Channel 4 documentary Stammer School. It was the first time he was surrounded by people who also stammered and experienced the same problems as him.

People can return to do as many courses as they want and in the past three years, James has completed five full courses in Newcastle, Wigan, Dundee, Coventry and Manchester. He is now passionate about helping others who stammer and in November, he is going on a staff training course to become a certified primary coach.

“Growing up at school I was the only person who stammered, so you think you’re by yourself and you go on a course where everyone stammers and everyone has done the same thing. It’s just the best feeling and to go on courses to help other people, that’s so rewarding.”

For James, it does not matter how fluently or quickly he speaks, what matters is control. He has to work on his speech every day and do exercises in the morning before going to work. He has left behind his former tricks – like saying ‘umm’ or using words that are easier to say but not the exact ones he means or wants to use.

He says: “I will never be a fluent speaker because I will always have a stammer. But it’s up to me how much I want to control it. That’s an important thing.

“It’s a fantastic thing – I can talk for the world.”

First published at 20:42, Thursday, 09 July 2015
Published by http://www.newsandstar.co.uk