One of my earliest ever childhood memories is of a painting of a red locomotive with passenger carriages trailing behind it. It was painted by my Aunt Tricia and gifted to my elder brother. I think he may been five, which placed me at around three and a half. It may have been his birthday.
The painting was ceremoniously hung on the wall of the bedroom that my brother and I shared. The red locomotive was chugging forward along its track, moving onward.
As a young family, we were also trying to move onward from a house fire, which ignited from a gas heater explosion in our front room, one frosty Melbourne morning in the mid sixties. My brother and I had been sitting in that front room, playing with building blocks, in front of an old gas heater. The heater exploded and the room went up in flames. My younger sister was asleep in a bassinet in the corner of the room. My mother was walking out into the hallway and noticed that the curtains weren’t straight and came back in to correct them. Then, just as she was closing the door, chaos erupted. The flames were quickly put out and only contained to the front room. Thankfully we all made it out, but the trauma of the event was felt by all of us for a long time after.
In truth, the trauma of the fire has been dramatically simplified above but in deep respect for others I won’t go into further detail. Our family unit was then, and is still now, very strong and robust, and our happy normal upbringing continued forward, like the red locomotive along its tracks. I have 4 amazing siblings, wonderful parents, and wouldn’t trade a single second of the last 51 years of life, and this is testament to first class parenting and a brilliant, healthy environment to grow up in. For us, it was a significant bump in the road that, in time, gradually lost definition and faded into a distant memory.
That particular bump, however, heralded the arrival of my stutter. As I was so young when it materialised, I haven’t known life without it. My parents made absolutely sure that I wasn’t treated any differently. My Siblings underwent speech therapy sessions with me every Saturday morning for what seemed like 2-3 years. These sessions focused on breathing techniques and tricks and methods to improve vocal flow. It helped significantly to make our speech clearer, and without “ums” and “ahs”. I just thought speech therapy lessons was something everyone did.
Then there were the visits to the psychiatrist when I was seven. Once again, my other siblings went as well, just so I didn’t feel singled out. I didn’t really understand what it was all about. For me, it was a place where I played checkers with a man who asked a lot of questions about all kinds of stuff. At my final session he asked me if I thought there was anything wrong with me. When I said no, he then questioned why I was seeing a psychiatrist. I remember being a bit shocked, because up until that moment I thought I was just playing checkers with a nice man who always let me win.
At that age of seven I often couldn’t say my own name (Now I can say it okay but sometimes still have trouble spelling it!) Words that started with “b” and “f” were a major struggle, a few numbers were difficult., particularly the number “8”. It was what it was, life went on as normal. No-one else seemed to worry about it so I didn’t worry about it either. And it wasn’t taboo, I was always happy to talk about if the subject presented itself, just as I am talking about it now.
My school years were unremarkable as far as stuttering was concerned. I spent a lot of my time trying to be funny, which encouraged conversation, and took the focus off my speech. Talking in front of the class was problematic, but I muddled my way through it. I don’t remember ever really being made fun of, as I didn’t take myself too seriously and I did not react when baited. Most comments were not deliberate, where it was usually a case of someone not realising I had a speech impediment. In those instances, I took the mistake as a compliment.
Creative expression will always find a way to the surface. My first exposure to creative expression was the red Locomotive, chugging along that bedroom wall, and that painting inspired me to want to one day create oil paintings. When one avenue of expression is flawed, other avenues tend to flourish. I discovered, whilst in primary school, that I could draw and that I could write. English creative essay writing was my favorite area of schoolwork. I started oil painting in year 11 and have been dabbling in it ever since. Later in life I even discovered that I could sing! Apparently this is common amongst stutterers. Singing is the act of breathing correctly and fluently projecting a string of set lyrics together; a concept that is, in terms of logic, perverse to your average stutterer. I am still trying to figure that one out.
At home, growing up, we often sat around the dining room table during and after dinner and chatted for hours, to help develop our communication skills. My parents encouraged robust table discussion, in later years banned television on weekdays so we would sit and talk (and then hopefully do some homework!) When there were 6 other lively personalities busily lobbing conversation grenades into the centre of the table, we all had to be well on our game to be heard, and luckily being one of the eldest siblings, I was able to comfortably engage and contribute. Sunday roasts were spectacular culinary events and always attracted regular extra diners (friends would materialise in the afternoon and linger at dusk, waiting for the head count), so the numbers often swelled to 8 or 9 diners, and I will never forget the stories, revelations and the hours of continuous laughter that bounced off those walls. For me, the art of conversation found a vibrancy during those dinners. I owe a lot to that dining room and the people that were in it.
Ohh … and I can still taste those roasts!
By nature I was (and am) an extrovert, so hiding in a hole and pretending that I didn’t exist was never going to be an option. I also reasoned that if I amused people they wouldn’t focus on my stutter. I became reasonably good at telling stories but have never been able to tell jokes, because they have set punchline endings, and I can’t stick to set sentences, needing to be able to create alternative endings when confronted with a verbal “blockage”.
I discovered by the time I reached my early teens that I was no longer shackled by speech, and that I didn’t stutter much, if at all, in social situations, which was a relief really, and gave me hope that things would continue to improve. Things were looking up, and moving forward.
Of course this did not stop me going into shops wanting three of something and walking out with six.
I got used to drinking cafe coffee in random configurations; black, white, with or without sugar, short, long, flat, frothy … you name it, because I couldn’t. I’m not really a creature of habit anyway, so whatever turned up was a new adventure.
Imagine starting a sentence with a defined ending in mind, but having 2-3 alternative endings up your sleeve in case you sense a problem up ahead. Stutterers become very skilled at sentence modification on the run. This is fine if you can change words. Introducing People by name is a killer. Repeating telephone numbers, spelling out addresses can sometimes be an issue. A few years ago I had to present junior cricket awards to the cricket team I was team managing. Everything went well until I had to call out their names! I could have handed that part over to someone else, but I muddled through. The boys didn’t mind too much and the crowd were fine. I felt okay, I would have only felt like a failure if I hadn’t tried.
I decided somewhere along the way that I wasn’t going to ever back away from talking publicly when asked. By forcing myself to endure, I would gradually improve. This turned out to be sound policy. I did a lot of speeches at milestone parties and weddings, and although some were less than satisfactory, the good speeches gradually started outnumbering the bad ones. Then, before making a speech, I would conjure up images in my mind of the good outcomes, and use these positive visualizations as proof that I could do it again, but better. The locomotive was moving along the tracks, gathering speed.
I also decided to undertake a career that would continually place me in the public speaking firing line, so I studied Marketing and went to work for businesses that required a lot of presentations and meetings. In the late 1990’s, along with a couple of other business partners, we started up an importing/wholesaling business and since that time, most of my work days have been spent talking on the phone and with staff, customers and suppliers. This has had immeasurable benefits. Use the telephone 20 times a day for 5,000 days and things have to get easier, right?
My wife Susie, daughter Emily (20) and son James (17) have never seen my speech an issue. I always worried what my kids would think of me stuttering, but I needn’t have. In the end, It has never mattered. I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel. Both kids are pursuing creative careers (Emily in fashion and James in Film) and this pleases my Susie and I more than I can say. I keep seeing that picture of the train on the wall.
So what started out as potentially a “dig a hole and go and hide in it” impediment has, over the decades, faded into the background into a shade of occasional frustration and annoyance. A distraction that no longer finds definition. I laugh when I think about the ridiculous situations I have found myself in. I shrug off the bad moments and enjoy and file away the good ones; but the day that I back down from facing it head on is the day that I have failed or given up. We have to keep chugging along.
I’m still not good at introducing people. You might discover that you suddenly have a new nickname. Sometimes you are left to introduce yourself; and maybe introduce me as well.
1o months ago I met an old friend of ours at a 50th birthday party who is a speech therapist. We chatted about my stutter, and she later emailed me some speech exercise sound files to work through, to try and slow down my speech delivery. She said that I always talked too fast. The series of 5 emails with exercises and tips have been sitting unopened in my inbox ever since. When Margot initially followed me up to see how I was going, I confessed that I hadn’t opened the files yet, and that I was struggling with the concept of revisiting speech therapy. I recently spotted the unopened files again in my “unread” email folder … 10 months, and no progress! In the back of my mind I have always known that they were there. The issue for me is that I don’t know if I want, or need to, change any more. By opening those files, I have to consciously reach into the distant shadows and give my speech impediment definition again. At 52, I’m not sure I have the appetite for dredging up all that stuff. Isn’t it easier to be content and exist happily the way things are?
Then I close my eyes and see the red locomotive that my aunt Tricia painted.