This article is part of The Ismaili’s Coping with Challenges series, in which we highlight stories about members of the Jamat who have dealt with uncommon difficulties in their lives.
My name is Jamila, and I have a stammer. It developed when I was 12 and manifested covertly - I would try my best to hide it by switching words and avoiding situations. It became more overt and difficult to conceal in my teenage years. During this time, I also developed social anxiety, which was exacerbated by my stammer.
The internal feelings of shame and frustration for not being able convey what you want, when you want, can be an overpowering experience. I remember going into a coffee shop and writing down 'hot chocolate' on a piece of paper because the ‘Ch’ sound just wouldn't want to come out. It is the hopelessness of being with friends or in class and feeling I missed the chance to share a comment in my mind, because it would take a couple of minutes to get the word out. The frustration when a listener would guess my words or try to finish my sentence.
It also caused confusion when someone would try to comfort me by saying, “I don't hear a stammer,” “be more confident,” or “just relax,” when I was fully aware of how the stammer lurks deep within an iceberg. I often questioned my ability, whether I would succeed at university, or even get a job interview.
Stammering or Stuttering is a neurological condition that affects one out of every 100 people worldwide, about 70 million people in total. It takes the form of a speech difficulty which makes it difficult to get words and sounds out. There is a spectrum with overt and covert forms, as with any condition. It can present as a repetition of words, prolongation, visible tension, avoidance behaviours, or blocks on particular sounds and words. Some incorrect myths are that the condition is connected to intellectual capacity, a person’s personality traits such as shyness or nervousness, or having low confidence.
There is, however, a link between mental health challenges and stammering.
Stammering is more common amongst men than women but is experienced by all ethnicities and backgrounds. The causes are varied. Developmental stammering happens in early childhood when speech and language skills are forming. Acquired or late-onset stammering occurs in older children and adults, and could result from a head injury, stroke, or progressive neurological condition. It can also be caused by certain medicines, or psychological or emotional trauma.
Research shows that 60 percent of stammering is hereditary. Although speech therapy and psychological therapies can help manage the impacts of stammering, there is currently no known cure for the condition. The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering and the UK’s National Health Service have seen an increase in referrals since 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, which caused an increase in anxiety. This was due to the impact of talking on online platforms – a daunting experience for many who stammer. The lack of face-to-face contact and difficulties communicating with face masks also made speaking more challenging.
In my case, I was able to get support via speech therapy as a teenager, as well as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy, and counselling to help me manage the internal feelings that come with stammering. I then joined The McGuire Programme, a speech programme run by people who stammer, at the age of 19. Through this, I learned to accept my stammer as part of the way I speak, and developed speech and psychological tools to help me control it. I was fortunate to find a community that helped me to feel empowered and gain the courage I needed to face my speaking fears.
After working on self-acceptance, I've been blessed with more than I could have ever imagined - speaking on the radio, delivering presentations at work, leading public speaking workshops, and being on the phone everyday to support victims and survivors of domestic violence. My stammer has become my strength while still something I need to navigate and work with daily, but now with the difference that it doesn't dominate my life, thoughts, or visibility as it did in the past.
When you next meet someone who stammers, offer them your patience. Give them time to speak while providing non-verbal cues. Maintain eye contact, let them finish their word or sentence without interruption, allow them to feel included and visible, and ask how you can support them. They may or may not feel open to sharing, but knowing you are giving them time and treating them as a fully wonderful human will make a world of difference. It did for me!
Having a stammer has taught me skills of empathy, self-compassion, and resilience, and helped me to appreciate the arts of speaking and listening. My experience has instilled a strong desire to support others who stammer, and celebrate my speech goals and progress, no matter how small.