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April 29, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash |
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Speak Up

I hate introductions. It’s cliché, I know, but I would rather stick a pin under my toenail and kick a wall than engage in yet another icebreaker or ‘talk to the person next to you’. Arriving at the halls last year and being thrown into a week of ‘speed dating’ and ‘getting to know your floor’ represented something close to my worst nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some solitary hermit with no friends. I do enjoy socialising and, in fact, I love meeting new people, but I absolutely despise introductions. Because I have to say my own name. And this is something I often struggle with.


Ever since I was three, I have had a stutter, a speech disorder described by New Zealand organisation Stuttering Treatment and Research Trust (START) as “an involuntary interruption to the flow of talking”. Also known as a ‘stammer’, severity of the condition varies greatly, from an occasional stumble to a stutter every sentence, and even complete lack of speech. The exact cause of stuttering remains unknown, but it is “thought to be a physical disorder, most likely resulting from a problem in the neural processing area involved in speech production.” The disorder is much more common in males than females, and can be genetically inherited.


Having a stutter is like finding yourself trapped in a maze every time you go to speak. Speech means navigating a labyrinth inside your head, trying to find a clear path from your mind to your tongue, while avoiding towering walls of words you just know you won’t be able to overcome. Sometimes, like your first time entering the Von Zedlitz building, this maze simply has no escape route, leaving you with two options: silence, or breaking down a wall. Breaking down a wall results in a stutter, which can take several forms, including the repetition of syllables or whole words; prolonged sounds; or blocks, where the stutterer is completely unable to get the word out for a time. I hate the feeling of breaking down a wall. An engulfing feeling of tension and self-consciousness comes over me, and my confidence drops like bank balances during O-Week. This is not my idea of a good time, and I try to avoid it as much as I physically can.


I was fortunate enough in my childhood to have the support of speech therapists, as well as friends and family, and my stutter is now virtually unnoticeable to most people. I have strategies that can help reduce the effects of my stutter, including softening hard consonant sounds, which can often be the hardest to say, and slightly slowing my speech. I have also become adept, after years of practice, at quickly conjuring up synonyms and ways of rephrasing sentences that will allow me to speak smoothly. However, these strategies do not always pull through. There’s no synonym for my own name and it just so happens that a hard ‘f-’ sound is one I struggle to say the most. Great. This has lead to countless awkward introductions and situations throughout my life. I constantly run words and phrases through my mind, checking to see if I can visualise a clear path, trying to trace a route through the maze with my finger before I draw the line. I do these test runs in tutorials at uni, trying to decide if I should attempt to break the pin-drop silence that ensues after the tutor has asked a question. I do it when there’s an opportunity to introduce myself, foraging frantically through my brain for a way I can smoothly incorporate my name or avoid it completely. The maze can quickly become a familiar and lonely place, but that certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t others who find themselves caught in their own verbal jungles.


19-year-old Leith Maxwell, from nearby Paekākāriki, has stuttered since he was about 8 years of age. This is relatively old; most stutters appear during the toddler years, hitching a ride with speech development. Leith’s decided to pull up late to the party, following in the footsteps of a childhood lisp and a long period of being sick. It affects him daily, getting worse with tired- and nervousness, similar to most stutterers. His confidence is the primary casualty of the battles through the maze; “mentally, it can really knock me down sometimes and I just feel really bad and awkward about it”. This can lead to a downward spiral of sorts, as stuttering can cause more nervousness and stress, making further stutters more likely. Leith’s stutter can also impact more specific parts of his life; “it can make learning Māori difficult because I know what to say but don’t always have the ability to say it as fluently as I can”.


Oddly enough, different languages can sometimes prove to be sanctuaries for stutterers. Some find that their stutter is nowhere to be seen when speaking outside of their native tongue, likely due to different languages requiring the usage of different parts of the brain. As a language student myself, it is both fascinating and quite exciting to know this potential is out there. I am, however, yet to cross paths with a language I don’t have at least some sort of love-hate relationship with. The search continues. Other stutterers find that their stutter can peculiarly, but very helpfully, make itself scarce in high-pressure situations like army camps, where fluent speech is all but a necessity. Instances such as these reflect just how little is currently known about stuttering, though the condition is actually surprisingly common.


1 in 100 people have a stutter, meaning that chances are, there is at least one stutterer in each of your lectures, and over 200 at Victoria as a whole. But stuttering remains a hidden condition. It’s not easy talking about your condition when talking is exactly what the condition makes difficult. Many stutterers, myself included, actively try to avoid stuttering, hiding it from themselves and others. And stuttering has a rather nasty habit of hiding itself away, lying in wait for a particularly inconvenient situation—a job interview, perhaps—before rearing its head. What follows is little public knowledge about stuttering. Many have hardly heard of stuttering before, and actually hearing someone stutter can leave them unsure on how to react. Leith has experienced his fair share of interesting responses, from the usual laughs and looks of confusion, to empathy, and even assumptions of dyslexia.


Stuttering—the physical act, rather than the condition—is commonly associated with nervousness or lack of intelligence, which can lead to some quite undesirable (and untrue) perceptions. Despite this, stuttering has seen at least a few positive moments in the spotlight. ^The King’s Speech^, an excellent portrayal of King George VI’s struggles with his stutter on the verge of World War II, won Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars. Many other current and former world leaders have fought their own battles with a stutter, including old mate Winny P, ^Mr Bean^ actor Rowan Atkinson, and walking meme Joe Biden. Having these charismatic and admirable lads for company no doubt helps when your stutter is being as persistent as that cold you picked up back in week one. But the most significant impact tends to come from closer to home.


Many stutterers, while not finding it pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, are relatively content with their condition within themselves. Any drop in confidence can often be put down more to the reactions of others than anything else. However, knowing how to approach a stutter can be tricky. Each stutterer has their own preferred response, with some reassured by light-hearted jokes at their expense and others more comfortable with feigned ignorance that a stutter even happened. Generally though, patience and focussing on the ‘what’ of speech, rather than the how, are the key ingredients for a comfortable conversation. Avoid finishing sentences for the stutterer and give them time to speak. But above all—and as ironic as it sounds—talking is key. Ask what works for the stutterer and if there’s any way you could help. This is something I think us stutterers need to work on as well, despite the difficulty this brings sometimes. A maze is much easier to navigate in the light than hidden away in the dark.


A common question stutterers are asked is, “Do you wish you would just wake up one morning and find that your stutter is gone?” The answer is almost universal; despite the struggles, discomfort and embarrassment having a stutter brings, it remains an integral part of who they are. In Leith’s words, “I don’t wish I never stuttered as it is a kinda big part of me… It helps you empathise for others who undergo similar problems.” Joe Biden agrees; “in a sense, it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me […] It sensitized me in a way that maybe wouldn’t have happened [otherwise].” I, too, share this sentiment. Having a stutter can be fucking annoying. It would certainly be nice to be able to introduce myself sometimes without feeling like I’m crashing through a brick wall and starting a collection of perplexed looks. As Leith so eloquently puts it, “it does kinda suck sometimes”. But stuttering is part of me, influencing my daily life and how I view people with similar conditions, forcing me to have a ‘think before I speak’ mentality. I can’t (and don’t) let it define me, but without my stutter, I’m not me. So no matter how many mazes I find myself caught in, I’ll never wish I’d never seen the inside of their walls.

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