A servant to stuttering

Vivienne Mills of Baywater Retirement Village.

Vivienne loved her name. She just couldn’t say it. She stuttered.

And it would take 40 years and input and help from speech language therapy, drama teachers and psychologists, to name a few, before she would beat her affliction.

Today there’s not as much as a falter in her speech. “I don’t stutter any more. It’s left home, I gave it up.” She can laugh about it now.

Vivienne is in illustrious company. George VI stuttered, a king with a speech impediment, the stuff movies are made of. American vice-president Joe Biden was teased by his Catholic school teacher – “B-B-B-Biden” - they would taunt him with his own name. There was Marilyn Munroe, Winston Churchill and perhaps even Moses. “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” he is quoted in Exodus. Then there was Lewis Carroll and Claudius. And there was an amusement factor – Hollywood gave animated cartoon character Porky Pig a stammer, and Ronnie Barker in ‘Open All Hours’ had one too.

When Vivienne was aged nine and in Standard 3, the teacher asked the class for the name of a New Zealand export. She put up her hand, tried to answer but tripped on the word. It wouldn’t come out.

“She…., she…., she…. I got stuck on the word sheep….” Vivienne was flooded with a whole lot of emotions. “Panic, anxiety, shame – dreadful shame. I remember that moment explicitly, it has stuck with me.”

After that it affected her ability to speak out, especially in her school years. Roll calls were agony as the wait to give her name resulted in anxiety with wet hands, increased heart rate, fear and embarrassment. “I withdrew from everything that required talking.” There was no value in her speech. At home she was brought up to be seen but not heard. “I wasn’t asked things, I wasn’t told things. Some people talked at me. I felt I was an object.” She says ridicule and being told to stop stuttering didn’t help and probably contributed to the problem.

The telephone was greatly feared and as an adult she would drive kilometres to speak to someone rather than pick up a phone. And all the time she quietly dealt with her demon she became introverted and scared.

“Your larynx clamps up, creating a block. Then you try to push your words through that block with an ah-ah-ah and it doesn’t work. Sometimes you close your eyes, scrunch your face, and hold your breath which makes the situation worse. Everything is out of kilter, brought on by anxiety. You are all to hell and so it goes on.”

Vivienne says stuttering controls your life. “When you wake up, before you have lifted your head off the pillow, you are worrying about what you have to do that day that involves talking. Your day is crashing before you get up. And by the end of the day you are exhausted through physically and emotionally having to deal with your affliction.”

Now 40 years on from that point of desperation, Vivienne has dealt to her problem with quiet resolve and dignity. “I was driven by the fact I cared about how I talked, how I appeared and how I behaved so I didn’t embarrass people or make them look away.”

That involved psychological help at 28 and a live-in hospital speech therapy course at 45. “I had to learn to talk all over again. This involved learning to relax, breath properly and speak on an outgoing breath. It involved speaking out, intonation and deepening of the voice. Also to express emotions, especially anger. All my life I have worked on it.” Weekly support from the Auckland Speak Easy Association (a support group of people who stutter) increased confidence, social skills and speech practice over a number of years.

Now she is drawing back her veil of privacy and secrecy in the hope her story will lure others with a stutter or stammer to tell their stories.

In 1995 she, along with a number of professionals and people who stutter, set up the organisation START – an acronym for Stuttering Treatment and Research Trust, in Auckland. START plans to publish a book of artwork, poetry and other written pieces by the children of this country who stutter. It’s part of International Stuttering Awareness Day on Sunday, October 22.

“Art is a great way to express yourself,” says Vivienne. “It could be a tall insurmountable wall or a dark cloud descending over you. I once drew a picture of myself with a blanket drawn up over my mouth. I was hiding my problem.

“Wouldn’t it be great if kids who stutter could come out and express themselves in some form or another? I have had some beautiful letters from kids with stuttering issues telling me exactly how they feel. They can’t say it but they can write it. How awful that feels, how embarrassed, fearful and anxious you are. I am sure there are kids like that out there.” There are in fact 40,000 New Zealanders who stutter – one per cent of the population.

And START would like to hear from youth who would like to contribute before October 15. Email support@start.org.nz

In Vivienne young people with stutters can find inspiration and hope …and a voice. “We are not stutterers. We are people who stutter. It does not define us. We are not labelled.”

Vivienne spent years developing her fluency skills, learning how to stop and relax, to take a breath, and then start to talk again. Then she took those skills out into the big wide world. Aged 47 she did a degree in occupational therapy and aged 50, on the back of a lifetime of stuttering, Vivienne went out to work full-time. The woman who called herself Mrs Mills for many years because she couldn’t say her given name was again Vivienne. “It was quite cool.”

Vivienne also has some advice. Always maintain eye contact with someone who stutters. Make sure they feel what they are trying to say is important to you, and you are prepared to wait as long as it takes for them to get their message across.

Listen, listen, listen – don’t fill in the gaps. Be patient, tolerant, and listen. Draw the chat out, value the person and what they have to say. And if you stutter, explain that to people up front.

“That always made me feel better. I only ever had positive reactions.”