I tackled my stammer and changed my life

Having struggled all her life with a stammer, Margaret O’Brien finally decided to do something about it, writes CHRIS DUNNE
I tackled my stammer and changed my life
Margaret O'Brien.

MARGARET O’Brien not only found her voice after struggling for decades with a stammer; she found her feet too.

“I took part in the local Strictly Come Dancing competition for charity,” says Margaret, 57, a health-care assistant with Bandon Community Hospital. “I really enjoyed it.”

Margaret is no longer stuck in a corner or afraid to hold her own corner anymore. For years, she was silenced from a very young age, embarrassed and traumatised by her speech impediment.

“Our house was a very noisy house,” says Margaret, the second eldest of 12 — five boys and seven girls.

“I stayed very quiet. I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. When I went to primary school I stayed in the background and I stayed indoors a lot. Nobody took any notice.

“Secondary school was more challenging. Teenagers and older children can be more vocal and cruel if you are any way different.”

It must have been a lonely, isolating situation for a young girl striving for her place in the world?

“Yes. It was lonely,” admits Margaret, who is a mother of three daughters.

“In primary school I had a few sessions of speech and language therapy, but here wasn’t much help back then after that.”

School was competitive and very challenging.

“School was the hardest part,” says Margaret. “It was horrible. I never volunteered to read aloud in class. I got stuck on certain words, and I tried to avoid them. Other pupils saw my discomfort and they would snigger and giggle. When the teacher asked questions, I knew the answers, I put my hand up half-way and took it down again. I just wasn’t able to express myself.”

Margaret was tempted to leave school early, but others saw the potential that was thwarted by her speech impediment.

“I was deemed too clever to leave school, so I did my Leaving cert,” says Margaret.

“I wanted to be a nurse, but I wasn’t successful in my application. I went to college and I became a chef. My first job was in a chip shop. I didn’t have to talk much, just serve the customers in the queue. I covered up as much as I could. I met my husband at work and we married young.”

Margaret, still harbouring the burden of the stammer that controlled her life day in, day out; took up a position in Upton Nursing Home and then she was offered a position as a chef in Bandon Community Hospital.

“There was a shortage of staff in the wards one week,” says Margaret.

“I was asked to go on the wards and see how I liked it.”

Her caring, capable attitude was spotted.

“I never went back to the kitchen again!” she says. “I loved working with the elderly. I still do.”

How did she interact with people?

“I avoided words that I got stuck on,” says Margaret. “Depending on how nervous I was; I chose my words carefully and I was more confident with those people that I knew.”

Margaret had learned to protect herself by learning methods to cover up her stammer.

“It didn’t get any easier as I got older,” she says.

“I learned methods of avoidance and survival.

“I tried to cover up that I had a stammer and thought nobody would see it, if I kept trying to veer the conversation away.

“I could never start a conversation. I was on my guard the whole time.”

It must have been exhausting and stressful.

“It was,” says Margaret. “I was constantly in fear of getting stuck by stammering and making a fool out of myself.”

One night at home, she was flicking through channels on TV.

“The Late Late came on,” she says. “And singer-songwriter, Gareth Gates was talking to Pat Kenny. Pat asked Gareth, who had a severe stammer, how he prepared for the interview. It was all to do with breathing methods that he practised.

“Gareth had conquered his own speech impediment. He sounded so confident, speaking about the McGuire Programme and how it had helped him.”

Margaret, busy with her full-time job and raising three girls, stored the information away. She was in her early 50s when she plucked up the courage to tackle her own stammer.

“I think it was at a stage in my life that I wanted to do something for me,” says Margaret. “A new start.”

She did her homework on the McGuire programme that held the promise to finally find her voice.

“It didn’t come cheap,” says Margaret. “It was a three day intensive course, costing €2,000. But the coaching methods and support, plus the follow-up afterwards is invaluable. The McGuire programme is a life-long programme.”

It certainly proved life-changing for Margaret.

“I went to Belfast to take part in the programme,” she says.

“The three-day courses are run all over the country, numerous times during the year. You are given the tools and the weapons to deal with the words you know you have difficulty with. Practical breathing techniques are practised which are easy to do when you are shown.

“The days were long, starting at 6am and finishing at 10pm. Everyone was in the same boat, from all walks of life, all ages. We felt a great bond.”

Margaret was a willing and able pupil.

“We had to practice approaching people in the street to ask for directions, something I would never have done before. Now I can.”

Margaret found the confidence that had been stifled for years.

“I got the confidence to stand up for myself. If you can’t do that, it is soul-destroying. You can’t argue back if someone is wrong. It is very frustrating.”

Margaret had muddled through everyday life.

“I was only managing before,” she says. “I never got involved in anything. I never struck up a conversation with anyone. I’d always think back to my school days and imagine people were laughing at me.”

All that changed when Margaret successfully completed the McGuire programme in October, 2016. Her true potential, stifled for so long, shone through.

“It changed my whole life,” says Margaret. “And the follow-up to the programme is on-going. It is all about practice, practice, practice. Relapse is avoided by constant reminders to practice breathing whenever you speak.

“Now I can ask questions. I don’t go out of my way to avoid people anymore. And people are happy for me,” says Margaret.

“They say ‘well done’. I can speak on the phone to anyone and have a normal conversation. I can order a take-out, which I could never do before. I can go into a shop and ask the staff for what I want.”

Margaret loves her new found freedom. So do her daughters.

“They were so happy for me,” says Margaret. “When Karen and Anne- Marie picked me up in Cork after travelling on the coach from Belfast, they couldn’t believe I talked all the way home! They are thrilled for me.”

Margaret not only stands up for herself now, she stands up for other people too.

“I’m the union representative at work,” she says.

Can she talk for Ireland?

“Sometimes I do. Yes, I think I do.”

See http//www.stammering.ie/ for more.

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