Christine (centre) with Ed Balls at a talk about his book "Lessons in Life and Politics". During this talk Ed Balls spoke about his own 'coming out' about having a stammer while he was Shadow Chancellor.
Back in the 80s when I spent four years as a student at the University of Aberdeen studying for a B.Sc. Hons in Pharmacology. I was a very different person to the one I am now.
I have had a stammer all my life. During primary school, I used to pray that I wouldn’t be picked on to read out loud and then moving on to secondary school, I was outed as someone with a stammer, when my history teacher asked me to read a passage out loud. The words would not come out and after what seemed like an eternity, the teacher started reading bits of the passage out and I had to repeat the words after her. That was one of the worst moments of my life, I wanted to earth to swallow me up then and there. After that I was bullied by boys in my form who mimicked me whenever they had the chance. I reframed from speaking up in class after that. From then onwards I worked even harder to hide the fact I had a stammer.
During my time at UoA, I was quiet during tutorials and lectures, the last thing I wanted was for anyone to know that I had a stammer. I can remember the first morning when I had to stand up in front of my fellow pharmacology students and present, I was so worked up about having to do this and worried about my stammer, that I recall taking a swig of cider before I left my study digs to try and calm myself down! Towards the end of our final year we had to spend a weekend away along with all the lecturers in a retreat near Edzell, in Aberdeenshire. We each had to present our honours project and answer questions. I didn’t enjoy the experience at all which looking back was such a shame as potentially it should have been the highlight of our final years at Uni. I was dreading my turn to present. I wasn’t even at ease in the dining room as we eat our meals with our supervisors and fellow students. I ended up getting a 2ii Honours degree, which I was very disappointed with at the time, I have no proof whether my introverted nature had any effect on my final mark, but I don’t think it helped. I spoke only when I felt I would not stammer, and others probably perceived me as someone who was quiet or basically did not have that much to say.
By the time I was in my mid/late 20s however about a year or so after I was married and living in London, I was getting more and more depressed living with this constant struggle to keep this awful thing a secret, no one really knew the real me. I rarely initiated conversations when we socialised in larger groups. How did your husband not know, you may be thinking? He thought it was my Scottish accent plus the fact I spoke quickly. I could bear it no longer and one night I told him that I had something to tell him. He thought I was going to say that I had been having an affair! I broke down in tears and told him about my stammer. He was such a comfort and support, thanks to him I started seeing a speech therapist on a regular basis and have not looked back since.
My stammer was suddenly out in the open, this was difficult to deal with in many respects, my family and some friends were alarmed at how I was now sounding. My own parents thought it was because I was living in London and the fact I was married! I knew deep down however that this was the right thing for me, it was the start of my journey to being free and able to express myself. Yes it has been quite a tumultuous journey at times, there have been loads of really rough patches when my stammer has been much worse both at work and outside or work and it has been a huge task to talk, I have suffered from aching jaws and been exhausted many times simply trying to get the words out, but there has also been spells when I have felt much more in control and felt relaxed when others have heard me stammer. Now in my 50s, often the first thing I will say when I meet someone is "I have a stammer, it’s nothing to be alarmed about, I just might take longer to say certain words". Being open about having a stammer has been the most effective therapy for me by far. I now help run a support group for women who stammer. The group provides a safe space for women of all ages who stammer to come together on a regular basis to share issues or concerns and to provide support for each other.
To all students out there at AU who have a stammer, please remember you are not alone. There are many places you can get support including joining the British Stammering Association and their Facebook group. There is also a Facebook group for Women who stammer, where you will find details of the online support group I help facilitate. The Scottish Stammering Support Network has a very active online support group for men and women that meets every two weeks.
Do not suffer in silence. Talk to a close student friend about how you are feeling and what they can do to help (e.g. tell them it is not helpful when they finish your words or sentences, ask them to be a good listener etc.) Talk to your supervisor or a supportive lecturer, it is important they know why you find it hard to speak up sometimes during tutorials. At this same time however I would strongly encourage you to speak up whenever you have something to add or a question to ask. We have a lot to contribute in the same way as fluent people. So what if other students or a lecturer hears you stammer? Some people might think, oh she has a stammer or that was a really good point she/he made, while others might simply be thinking ‘what shall I have for lunch today or what’s my next lecture?!’
The more you move outside of your comfort zone and speak up whether you stammer or not, the more confident you become. Allow yourself to grow to your full potential and let others hear you. You have a great voice, and you have a right to be heard and listened to. If I had the chance to relive my time at UoA there would be no holding me back now!
Visit the Support and Wellbeing pages to discover the range of support available to students at the University of Aberdeen.