Tongue Tied

ravenscroft.jpeg About the presenter: John Ravenscroft was born in Birmingham, England in 1954. Since leaving school he has worked as a van driver, a salesman, a musician and a schoolteacher, but he says by far the most useful job he ever had was making plastic inscription-plates for coffins. For a time he ran an eight-acre smallholding in Staffordshire, where he learned to grow his own food, drive a tractor and castrate piglets. He now lives in Lincolnshire with his wife Astra, where he spends much of his time struggling to write fiction and co-editing Cadenza Magazine. His short stories have won prizes in various literary competitions and been published in dozens of magazines, including BuzzWords, Lexikon, Night & Day, Peninsular - and yes, he admits it, Woman's Weekly. His work has also been broadcast on the BBC.

Tongue Tied

by John Ravenscroft
from Boston, Lincolnshire, England

I have a stammer.

Let me say that again.

I have a stammer.

It's not easy for me to write those words, because I've spent just about my entire life - nearly 50 years so far - trying to keep my stammer a secret. Covering it up. Subverting it. Coming up with ways - oh so many ways - to stop people from finding out about it.

Hiding the shameful truth (and yes, it still feels shameful) has become automatic, so much a part of who and what I am, that it's nearly impossible for me to open up - especially as I've been very successful in my deception. Hardly anyone knows about my speech problem, and even now I'm wondering if coming out is wise, or if I ought to keep the lid on this particular can of worms.

But that's just my habitual fear of being discovered, the dread of being laughed at. The fact is, I know I have a stammer - and 50 years is a long time to spend lying to yourself and everyone around you. It's time to come clean.

I don't know how old I was when speech first became difficult, and I don't know what (if anything) caused the problem, but I do know how having a stammer made me feel.

On the evening of my ninth birthday, it made me feel life wasn't worth living.

My parents had arranged a party for me, and it was supposed to be fun, but like most stammerers I found social occasions stressful. All that company made me nervous, and constantly being on your guard against verbal slips - I was doing it even then - is exhausting. At some point I lowered my defences, tried to speak, and stammered. I stammered in front of everyone.

Thinking back, reliving that distant afternoon, I can still taste the shame, the frustration, the self-disgust. It felt like I'd stammered in front of the entire world. It felt like the whole universe knew my secret, and was busy sniggering about it behind my back.

I remember lying in bed that night telling myself I was a stupid, pathetic, worthless failure. I wanted God either to kill me or cure me there and then, and I didn't much care which option he chose. Anything, anything at all, would have been better than having to go on day after day fighting a private war, a war I knew I could never win.

Because that's exactly how it seemed to me - precisely what it felt like.

Most days were bad days, but school days were the worst. Monday to Friday I'd get up, put on my uniform, and reluctantly head towards the battlefield. I had to fight the other kids in my class, the school bullies, even some of the teachers - but the battles I dreaded most, the ones that led directly to all the others, were with my own tongue. A tongue that refused to do what it was supposed to do, a tongue that constantly betrayed me.

A traitor in my own mouth.

I don't think people who've never had to cope with a stammer can fully appreciate how much it blights a sufferer's life. Speech is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, and the way we speak goes a long way towards defining who we are.

When your speech is broken, when you can't fix it however hard you try, you're on a dangerous path - a path that's littered with deeply unhappy men, women and children. Broken speech can easily result in broken people, and it's not unknown for stammerers to become so depressed they contemplate suicide. In some cases they go beyond contemplation.

Nor do people realise there are different kinds of stammer. I have a form known as "Interiorised Stammering" which is a fancy way of saying I've developed various strategies that allow me (most of the time) to hide my lack of fluency. But it wasn't always like that. My problems used to be very, very obvious.

My earliest memory of stammering - an accurate one, I think - runs like this. I'm in the kitchen of my childhood home and I've just spilled a glass of orange juice all over the floor. I'm trying hard to say I'm sorry, but I can't get the words out. I'm well and truly blocked. My father is holding my head still and telling me to slow down, to breath deeply, to take it easy. My mother has my hands locked securely inside hers.

Maybe that's when it first started. I don't know. But over 40 years later I can still remember how worried they looked, still hear the concern in their voices.

If I flash forward a few years, I see myself in Mrs Tranter's class, eight years old, everyone standing to attention. Mrs Tranter is testing our knowledge of multiplication tables.

I don't think Mrs Tranter (not her real name) liked teaching very much. I don't think she liked children very much, either. But she seemed to enjoy the power of being in control, and she must have loved giving us tests, because she tested us on everything under the sun, frequently, for what felt like hours.

She'd pounce on any incorrect answers in a way that strikes me now as decidedly unhealthy.

"Mary Smith, what are five nines?"

"Forty-five, Mrs Tranter."

Mary Smith was lovely. Bright, too. I had a secret crush on Mary Smith that began when I was five. It never really went away.

"Correct. Sit down." Mrs Tranter always sounded vaguely disappointed when a pupil got the answer right.

Mary sat, leaving the rest of us standing at our desks, throbbing with an unhappy mix of terror and expectation.

"John Ravenscroft..." I felt myself skewered like a bug on a board, and my throat began to constrict. "What are eight 12s?"

I knew the answer. Ninety-six.

I brought the tip of my tongue up to the roof of my mouth, where it needed to be if I was to say the word "90". I took a deep breath, desperate to give Mrs Tranter what she wanted, longing to be allowed to sit down like Mary, wishing I was anywhere else but here.

"Eight... times... 12... is...?" said Mrs Tranter, very slowly, pinning me to the wall, waiting for the squirming to begin.

Inside my head I was screaming out the answer: Ninety-six! Ninety-six! Ninety-six! My tongue, however, refused to budge. Superglue hadn't yet been invented, but my mouth was full of the stuff - all the moving parts I needed for speech were locked fast.

I'd been in this position before, knew how the game went, had the T-shirt etc. If I tried to say "96" my throat would constrict even more, my face would turn bright red, and the big veins in the sides of my neck would stand out like fat, ugly snakes.

Then I'd start to stamp my feet. And it would all be for nothing, because the only sound I'd produce would be a ridiculous nuh... nuh... nuh... similar, my sister once told me, to the noise her Elvis Presley LPs made when the needle got stuck.

And as soon as I made that noise, I'd be finished. Game over. Everyone would laugh at me.

Well, I wasn't going to go there. Not again. Perhaps my lifelong habit of avoidance of stammering at all costs was born at that moment. I stood up straight, made myself look Mrs Tranter in the eye, and said nothing.

She sighed her special sigh, the one she used often, the sigh that told me how stupid I was - then moved on to Colin Birch.

She came back to me, though, time and time again.

I was the last one left standing that morning, and because I still couldn't (and wouldn't) speak, she made me come to the front of the class and write the answer to her question on the blackboard. When I did, I pressed down so hard the stick of chalk snapped, and everyone got to giggle after all.

Even Mary.

Oh well... At least I got the answer right. And at least nobody heard me stammer. Not that day, anyway.

Since then I've done many things people perhaps wouldn't expect a stammerer to do: I've been a teacher myself (a more sympathetic one than Mrs Tranter, I hope), been a union representative, been interviewed on radio, been a semi-pro musician... but all the time I've been hiding the truth.

Well, not any more. I have a stammer, and I'm no longer prepared to be ashamed of the fact.

Maybe openly admitting I have a problem will be the first step towards getting rid of it once and for all.

We shall see.