Sharon Benson tells the story of her stutter and how she overcame it. She’s stuttered since she was a child, and it was only much later that the problem was properly addressed. Little did she know that her journey would take her all over the UK and involve meeting a certain stuttering celebrity! Sharon recounts her inspirational story below
Some people may inherit a picture or maybe a piano, but I inherited a stutter! My father, uncle and grandfather all had a stutter. By the age of seven years, it became evident that I too was to face a long battle. Visits to a speech therapist were unsuccessful and I was still unable to even say my name! There were other therapists and courses available, but my family were unable to afford the expensive fees.
School was a constant uphill struggle, being so self- conscious with my speech. I loved English language and literature, always receiving the highest marks which placed me top of the class. Geography and history I excelled at too - but maths was a different story. I was never good at maths. And as for needlework ... it took me a year to make my cookery apron and cap! It was the written word which fascinated me though. During my schooldays I started writing poetry which I continue to do now.
It took 53 years to
find my voice.
When the time came for me to leave Stainbeck Secondary School, it was more turmoil, as I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Office work would be fine, as long as I didn’t have to meet my biggest fear – answering the telephone. Mum couldn’t accept my explanation and fears; she was convinced I was trying to get out of working, but this certainly wasn’t the case at all. I did find a job, desperately trying to control the stutter and avoiding the telephone, but constantly felt my life was on hold. Every day was a challenge. Instead of ordering food I wanted to eat I was stuck with eating what I could ask for. Travelling by bus filled me with dread; knowing I wouldn’t be able to ask for a ticket. I had to write down my destination and show the driver.
I loved travelling though, something I still enjoy now, and worked as an au pair in Italy. In 1973, I spent time on a Kibbutz in Israel, where I celebrated my 21st birthday. I spoke both Italian and Hebrew but wherever I travelled, my stutter went with me.
When Mum died, leaving me an inheritance, I knew instantly what I was going to do. I’d heard and read about The McGuire Programme, an intensive course, and was determined to give it a try. It was probably my last hope. “Beyond Stuttering” said the literature – oh, if only I could overcome it. The McGuire Programme was founded in 1994; its successes are down to combining physical techniques, through breathing and relaxation, and the teaching of how to overcome one’s fears surrounding stuttering and stammering (which it is also referred to as). Apparently, the condition is more common in men than women, although there appears to be no clear reason for this. The repeating of sounds and syllables together with words desperately trying to come out, but refusing to do so, can leave the sufferer with many hurdles in everyday life.
Sharon holding up one of her many inspirational signs
I was determined to enrol for one of their residential courses, no matter where in the country they were held. I did in fact sign up for a total of nine! All were held in different towns and cities including London, Coventry, Manchester, Bournemouth and Dundee. An expensive venture, but I needed the experience and if I could be helped to overcome my stutter, then it would be worth every penny. Each course ran from Wednesday until Sunday. I was really scared of meeting everyone at the first one in particular. No amount of reading the information beforehand could prepare me for the actual experience.
The first evening was a “getting to know you” session when each participant had to introduce themselves. Oh, the fear of that! It didn’t matter that everyone before me had struggled and those following would similarly do so – I was centre stage at that point and I was terrified! Already regretting my decision to attend, I was prompted with, “aren’t you going to say your name?” After what seemed like an hour, I managed it. So that was the first hurdle out of the way. I was amongst many others, all at different levels with their stutter - some being much worse than myself. We were united in trying to find our voice, but were struggling with what could be best described as an instrument of torture!
Sharon on Benson at home
Our coaches were allocated, and we commenced the following morning at 7.00am. A full day of learning breathing techniques - certainly the hardest day of the Course. They were long days too, not finishing until 10pm. Gradually there were signs of hope. On the Saturday our coach took us into the town centre where we were really put to the test. Our task was to approach strangers and speak to them! Introducing myself I had to say I was doing the McGuire Programme and take it from there. Some people apologised with “no time” but others stopped and listened to what I had to say. I gradually got into it and managed a couple of sentences. The course in London was the most scary of all, with us travelling to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. Yes, we had to stand on the customary soapbox to speak! On the final evening family or friends were invited to join us, when they could witness the fruits of our labours! My friends couldn’t believe the results and shared my success, observing that not only had I found my voice but also a new confidence. I had to agree with them. I did have more confidence in myself and I wasn’t going to stop there.
It was during my time spent with the McGuire organisation that I had the pleasure of meeting the singer Gareth Gates! Bradford-born Gareth was runner-up to Will Young on television’s ‘Pop Idol’ in 2002. Since childhood he had had a stammer undergoing speech therapy and hypnotherapy but without success. Concentrating on his music he found that although struggling constantly with his speech, he was unaffected when singing. We use a separate part of our brain to process speech and to sing; something I have found in my life too, when reading my many poems. Following his TV success which led to fame as a pop singer, Gareth joined the McGuire Programme and is now a Speech Coach with the organisation. What a nice down-to-earth young man he is. It was delightful to meet him, being photographed with him too.
Continuing with the Programme, there was always more to be gained and I was hungry to learn. My life was changing beyond belief and there were so many opportunities awaiting me. I joined two friendship groups, one of which was in danger of folding. They were in need of a new Chair – so I put my hand up, volunteering to take on the role! My offer accepted, I introduced guest speakers, feeling comfortable and confident now.
So many new opportunities were available to me and in my next venture, I was to become a member of Toastmasters, an international organisation which helps participants overcome their fear of public speaking. Through their classes I learnt a range of communication skills, from making eye contact to humour. Overall, it is the encouragement of self- development and gaining of further confidence in the art of public speaking. Following presentation of one particular speech, I was delighted to be awarded a congratulatory ribbon in recognition of being the best speaker! There was no stopping me now, but I continued with the McGuire Programme, attending an improvement course held fortnightly in Dewsbury.
My hobbies and interests have increased over the years. I’ve always loved singing and theatre, so in joining Swarthmore Centre in Leeds further opportunities arose. The drama group was fun and didn’t present any problems, as I was able to hide behind a character!
I’ve spoken about my life changing experiences at a few schools and written articles, but it is the talks and meeting people I enjoy most. When the pandemic hit and we went into lockdown, as with everyone, I had to find other things to do. I still enjoy the written word, both with language and literature, so always have a book to hand - then there’s television. As a member of Bramley Elderly Action, I play bingo over the telephone, belong to a reading group and I look forward to giving a talk when we re-open. Ideas often pop up in my head for another poem too, but no matter how we keep ourselves busy. Nothing beats being together with family and friends, does it? How I long for that day!
It took 53 years to find my voice. Occasionally tiredness or stress may cause a slight hesitation in my speech. Certain words can be awkward such as those starting with “st” or “e” as in elf, however as an Aunt said to me, “It’s a miracle!” I’m inclined to agree.
Sharon meeting Gareth Gates
Changing The Words
A poem by Sharon Benson
I couldn’t say muffin, I couldn’t say butter,
If I ordered a burger I’d stumble and stutter.
So instead of me saying the words that I could,
I’d swap them for others that sounded as good.
But you can’t always leave out words that you dread,
There are times when certain things have to be said.
My friend is called Joan, my best friend is Mary
And everything seems to get rather contrary.
Whenever I spotted a difficult sound,
I'd hastily juggle my sentence around.
I spent so much energy word-rearranging,
Whenever I spoke I was chopping and changing.
My efforts to search for an easier word,
Resulted in sentences sometimes absurd.
At times my selections just didn't make sense,
Which made me more anxious, frustrated and tense.
Each time I avoided a troublesome sound,
I felt rather guilty and very soon found,
That my fear of speaking increased even more;
The number of problem-words started to soar.
In time I discovered that word-substitution,
Was simply avoidance and not a solution.
Though I was fluent - or so it appeared –
The words I avoided became much more feared.
One day I decided enough was enough:
I made myself promise, although it was tough,
To say what I wanted, whatever the letter.
At times I still struggled but I felt so much better.
Today I will say any letter or sound,
Confronting my fears is the best way I found.
Should I ever be tempted to waver sometime,
I'll remember the message contained in this rhyme.
Sharon was talking to Maureen Kershaw. Thank you Sharon.
You can find more information about stuttering and ways to help with speech at www.mcguireprogramme.com
The NHS also has a specialised speech therapy service in Leeds.
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Older people share their memories of significant or interesting events in the history of Leeds. In partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries.