Stammering: One woman's story of taking back control
From being unable to leave her house alone to being able to read at Mass, Co Armagh woman Edel Reel's life has been transformed thanks to a course aimed at those who stutter. She told Jenny Lee about it
AS A teenager Edel Reel's life was ruled by her stammer. Unable to say her own name, she left school at the age of 15 with no formal qualifications.
Since then, however, thanks to a programme which has helped her overcome her fears, Edel is now taking control of her life again.
Stammering – or stuttering – is a relatively common speech problem in childhood but can also persist into adulthood. It is estimated that one in every 100 adults has a stammer; it varies in severity from person to person; often, people find that they have periods of stammering followed by times when they speak relatively fluently.
Stammering usually occurs at the beginning of speech and people will often avoid certain words or speaking situations to try to hide it. This was certainly true of Edel who despite reacting positively to speech therapy as a child, regressed during her teenage years. She admits that growing up with a stutter was "extremely difficult".
"I got to the stage where I couldn't say my name. I used to call myself El," says the 23-year-old. However, unlike many who stutter, she didn't suffer bullying at school.
"I was lucky that I was in a small class. We were all close – they always helped me out when they saw me struggling with my name or a challenging situation.
It was the simple things that teenagers enjoy, such as going into a takeaway and ordering food, that Edel was unable to do. She would always carry paper and pen with her in order to write down what she wanted to say.
Stammering is fuelled by fear, stress and anxiety and as she progressed in secondary school Edel's difficulties returned with more severity.
"I was so stressed and felt I needed to get out of school," recalls Edel. So she left school early and was delighted to find employment in McEvoy's drapery in Newry.
"I loved it. It was just a new change and my speech was good for a while. However, it got worse again and I physically couldn't talk," she says.
Then, just before her stammer forced her to quit her job too, a chance meeting with a customer gave her hope. "He told me he knew a guy who did a course for people who stammer and that it had really helped him."
That course was the McGuire Programme, founded in 1994 by Dave McGuire, an American with Co Fermanagh ancestors who stammers himself.
The treatment programme focuses on the psychology of having a stammer, addressing the problem through concentration, assertiveness and non-avoidance. It also teaches sufferers to use costal breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) as a way to control speech. This type of breathing, often used by opera singers, involves taking deeper, longer breaths.
McGuire Programme graduates include Pop Idol singer Gareth Gates, Wet Wet Wet guitarist Graeme Duffin and the Scottish international rugby union captain, Kelly Brown.
More than 1,700 people have enrolled on the programme in Ireland since it began here in 1996. Courses are held in venues including Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Galway. Joe O'Donnell, the programme's regional director in Ireland, believes its success lies in its emphasis on ongoing coaching and support and the fact that all the tutors are people who stammer and who have been through the programme themselves.
"It's more than a three-day course. Each student is assigned a coach to work on a one-to-one basis over the phone once or twice a day. There are also fortnightly support group meetings held in 13 locations throughout Ireland and refresher days held once every three months."
The McGuire Programme takes a holistic approach that treats stuttering not so much as a problem with speech but more an issue with how we relate to people and the world around us.
"People who stammer are non-assertive people. They agree with everyone else's opinion as they don't want to voice their own opinion just in case they start to stammer," says Joe.
Each course ends by the class going into the busy city centre and each participant having to stand on a box and give a speech in public – similar to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London.
"It's all about going outside your comfort zone and being assertive. Once you stay still in life, you are going to move backwards. As human beings we are reluctant to change things about ourselves but everyone on the McGuire Programme is encouraged to continually expand their comfort zones and change things in their lives," adds Joe.
Edel saved up to pay for the course by working in a cafe, where she was involved in limited customer service.
"I wanted to do this course badly, so I worked hard. But once again my stammer got worse and I had to give up my job. I couldn't say anything at all and three months before I was due to do the course I was so bad that I was afraid to leave my house alone."
However, she summoned up the courage to travel to Cork for her three-day-course in May 2012 and on reflection says: "It is the best thing I have ever done."
Eighteen months ago she returned to working as a sales assistant in McEvoy's drapery in Newry, where her former colleagues were surprised by the transformation in both her speech and her confidence.
"The programme is not a cure. I am always going to have a stammer and I still have bad days, but now I have more good days than bad days. The biggest change is my confidence and being able to stand up for myself."
Edel has now read at Mass and is constantly challenging herself by embracing her feared words and situations, with a radio interview next on her to-do list.
There is no quick fix to tackling her speech impediment and Edel engages in daily exercises, as well as attending regular support meetings.
"I read for 10 minutes in order to warm up my diaphragm, as our diaphragm sleeps when we sleep. I also have to do 20 minutes' costal breathing every morning and every time we speak we take a costal breath. It's a lot of hard work, but the more work you put in the more you get out of it."
:: For further information about the McGuire Programme and forthcoming courses see stammering.ie.