|About the presenter: Pamela Mertz is an active member of the stuttering community, including NSA and Friends. She is involved in Toastmasters, with membership in two clubs. Pam writes a blog called "Make Room For The Stuttering" and publishes the bi-monthly e-newsletter "Reaching Out" for Friends. She is a member of the Board of Directors for an agency that serves adults with disabilities, and is involved with a Story-Telling circle. Pam is the host of the newly launched podcast, "Women Who Stutter: Our Stories". In her spare time, Pam is a full-time high school career counselor. She lives in Albany, NY.|
|About the presenter: Christine Simpson has stuttered all her life and is now in her fifties. Christine has always worked in libraries, including as manager of a large busy library. She has recently taken early retirement and is enjoying having time to lead a self help group for PWS and a telephone group for women who stutter. She lives with her partner Allan in London UK.|
For almost two years, I have been active in on-line social media, (Twitter, Face book) chatting regularly with people who stutter from all over the world. The use of Skype and webcam makes this seem as if we are in the same room. I have made great friends and globally shared the stuttering experience.
I found an instant connection with a woman named Lisa who lives in Milton Keyes, England. She is a covert stutterer, working daily on becoming more open. We found we had a lot in common and spoke via Skype almost weekly. One day we joked about how great it would be if we actually met. We had been chatting with an aspiring SLP from Norway as well, so we talked about a potential meet-up with all three of us.
I suggested we just do it. I would have the farthest way to come and I would be taking the biggest risk. But it seemed exciting and one of those once-in-a lifetime opportunities and a great way to see another country. Lisa offered to let us stay with her for a week. She lives outside of London, and planned to "farm" her two kids out to make room for us foreigners. Wow!
I applied for my passport and got it very quickly. I started searching for flights. I began to think this would actually work. I was planning to fly overseas for the first time ever to stay with people that I had not yet met. I ignored the questions in my head and from friends. "Are you crazy?" "What if you arrive in London and they don't show up?" "What if they are really part of an international sex slave ring?" "What if you lose your passport and can't get back to the US?"
I was convinced none of that would happen. I was going way out of my comfort zone, and it would be an adventure. Plus, I was going to meet a woman who stutters who is covert just like I was. We would have fun and I would get to see London.
When I got off the plane in London's Heathrow Airport, I did have a moment of utter terror. Customs was packed as we shuffled through the lines. I kept thinking, "What if she's not here?" "What will I do?"
After grabbing my bag and walking to the arrival area, my mind froze. There were so many people waving and yelling. I kept walking, wondering how I would find Lisa. Then I saw her, waving with one hand and recording my entrance with the other. We ran to each other and hugged, and pulled back and looked at each other, and then hugged again. We both had tears in our eyes. It was exciting, anxious and surreal all at once.
I was the first person Lisa had ever met, in person, that stuttered. It was a huge departure from her comfort zone too. We would talk about that all week and on the last night. It had actually been really hard for Lisa to meet me, as I put it right in her face what she sounded like when she stuttered. It was uncomfortable, as I made no attempts to hide my stuttering.
Before my trip, I had let people know on the stuttering chat list-serv group that I would be visiting England. A person from London mentioned that the BSA (British Stammering Association) support meeting was scheduled when I was in town and invited us to attend. I jumped at it and said yes, certain that my two friends would be just as excited. He sent me Tube (subway) directions, which I tucked away for just the right moment when I would tell Lisa, "Oh, by the way, I have arranged for you to meet 10 other people who stutter".
Lisa and Norwegian friend Tone agreed and off we went, to find this meeting on our first Monday night. We were all nervous, especially when we realized it was in a remote part of North London, but I was not allowing us to back out.
The meeting was held upstairs in a traditional old English pub. Members were down in the pub section, enjoying libation before the meeting. (There was also to be a break at the mid-way point for re-fills, which I rather liked).
After a few anxious moments, we introduced ourselves and nerves disappeared. I was asked the obvious question: "Why would an American want to visit a BSA meeting while on vacation"? I explained that it was empowering to meet people who stutter from all over the world who sounded like me. Even though we are different, we share stuttering in a similar way. I wanted to feel that first hand. It seemed a no-brainer.
I was thrilled to meet three women who stammer, one of whom chaired the meeting. Everyone was nice, friendly and pleased to have visitors. One woman, Christine, particularly affected me. She stutters and blocks significantly, but it did not keep her from talking. I was actually a bit intimidated. It never occurred to me that one stutterer could be intimidated by another stutterer. I remember thinking, "Thank goodness my stuttering is not that bad." Then I immediately felt horrible and guilty.
Out of respect and kindred spirit, I eventually shared this with Christine. We agreed that we cannot raise awareness about stuttering generally if we can't even talk honestly about difficult feelings ourselves. Christine taught me a lot that day, and in subsequent chats we have had, about how much I didn't know about stuttering, even after all these years stuttering. We have stayed in touch and chatted via Skype.
Visiting England, meeting other people who stutter and putting myself out there was one of the most valuable experiences I have ever had. I can't wait until its my turn to host these friends in New York. They will come with me to a NSA meeting!
However I hadn't quite understood that we were to have a star joining us. I am ashamed to say I hadn't found Pam's excellent blog Make room for the stuttering at that time. I have now and it is so good to have it, as a brilliant resource for people who stutter. We also welcomed Tone, a teacher who wants to be a speech and language therapist from Norway and Lisa from the UK. It was the first time Lisa had met a group of people who stammer, so an important evening for us all.
The meeting was led by one of our members Liz. She organised it so that we split into smaller groups to discuss what we would like to do at future meetings. This proved very useful, the most popular idea was sharing a range of experiences of stammering, what has helped etc.
As always happens at meetings, we also chatted a lot about various topics to do with stuttering. Pam and I spoke about our own experiences and, as so often happens, discovered how much these had in common. I think we recognised in each other a kindred spirit, another feisty woman!!! Since the meeting I have also enjoyed getting to know Lisa.
Pam talked to me about the difficulty she found in being with someone who stutters more severely. Our group aims to provide a supportive non-judgemental environment where it is OK to stutter and it is equally OK not to stutter. I am aware it can be challenging for PWS to listen to other people whose stutter is more severe. However I'm really glad Pam started the conversation, as we need to discuss it, whilst not for a moment making any member feel uncomfortable about talking in the group with a severe stutter. The self help group is the one place that someone who stutters can speak without fear, judgement or having to explain. Also our group understands that there will be some people who want to become more fluent, some who have accepted their stutter as it is or are working towards this, and some who come to the group to find out about others' experiences before deciding on the sort of therapy they would like to do or taking their own path.
What I liked best about Pam's visit was that other members of the group got a chance to meet a PWS from another country and find out about her experiences, her blog and her experience of self help groups. I have had the pleasure of attending 3 World Congresses for PWS in South Africa, Ghent and Australia. They all made me feel inspired and part of a global group, very empowering. I really hope that some of our members will be inspired to make contact with PWS in other countries as a result of this meeting. We are lucky that now we have many ways, Skype, Facebook etc. to make contact with PWS in other countries. However I don't think meeting like this quite replaces meeting face to face. Which leads me on to the female experience.
It was also great to meet more women who stammer. In the UK we have had workshops for women at our national conferences since 1995, some courses specifically for women who stammer and also some articles in Speaking Out (the British Stammering Association magazine) focussing on women's issues. However it has sometimes felt as if the female experience is often left out of the stuttering community. Pam and I shared our experience of groups of PWS and agreed that there have been times when we were the only women there, and on occasion felt isolated by this. This is being addressed by Pam and all who have taken part in one of her podcasts. It means so much to hear another woman actually stuttering - something I didn't hear until I was 18, a very long time ago.
I'd like to thank Pam, Tone and Lisa for being brave enough to make the trip across a strange city. (It can be difficult to find our venue, but we do have a very good map on the BSA website) I'm so glad you did, it brought a lot to our group and I hope some of us can visit Pam in the future.