VERONICA Lynch was very young when she first became aware of her stammer. "I was about three or four years old,'' she says. "I still have the memory of going in to my mother in the kitchen and wanting to tell her something. But nothing would come out – and I didn't know why.
"I was looking at her and she was looking at me – curiously. I just walked away.
"That was the first time I realised there was something different about the way I talked. I didn't know there was a name for it. I didn't know what a stammer was."
Nothing much was made of it – for a time.
"I continued to stammer. I don't remember being sad about it, but I do remember being frustrated, and my older brother and sister teasing me – as brothers and sisters do."
But as she got older, Veronica started to become very aware of other people's reactions to the way she spoke.
"From when I was eight or nine, I began to do everything I could to not stutter. I built up all these tricks and things so that it would appear that I didn't stutter."
Veronica would plan every sentence before speaking. She would avoid certain words, switch the order of words and say "um" and "ah" a lot. In school, she would pretend she didn't know the answer to a question rather than risk stuttering in front of the class. Veronica continued using these tricks through primary school and into secondary school. She did such a good job of hiding her stammer that even her mother thought she'd lost it.
"I never spoke to anyone about it. I felt it was something I had to deal with on my own. And because of the reaction I got from people when I was small, I had decided that, somehow, this was something people were uncomfortable with. So, I had to do my best not to stutter in front of them."
According to the Irish Stammering Association (ISA), stammering – also known as stuttering – is "the term used to describe difficulty in the timing and even flow of speech".
It's a speech problem characterised by the repetition of sounds, prolonging of syllables, and large pauses between words.
But this really doesn't explain what it means to have a stammer. Because living with a stammer can mean living a life of anxiety and shame; a life half-lived for fear of ridicule and embarrassment.
Veronica continued to hide her stammer in adulthood. In restaurants, she would pretend that she couldn't decide what to have, while frantically trying to find something on the menu she could say without stuttering.
When Veronica took a job that required her to make presentations and speak at conferences, she adopted a persona to help her cope.
"I was constantly in this role and I was constantly on stage," she says. "I used to call it my show time. I couldn't be who I was. I had to be the person I thought other people wanted me to be.
"It never occurred to me that there was something I could do about this."
Veronica achieved much, but the persona made her feel like a fraud, and she struggled to enjoy her success. She found it hard to enjoy her family life too.
"I was on tenterhooks. I was waiting and waiting and waiting to see if one of my children stammered. That would have been the worst thing in the world for me."
Neither of her first two children stammered. Then along came her daughter Bevin. Bevin began to stammer as soon as she began to talk – and that changed everything.
"I knew I didn't want her growing up hiding this, or feeling ashamed or fearful or anxious. I didn't want her to build up all the stupid tricks that I had built up. I didn't want her to have all that crap going on in her head."
But helping her daughter encouraged Veronica to make changes. She did something that had previously been unthinkable: she joined a speech and language group therapy course. "To walk into a room of people who stammered was one of the most frightening things," she remembers. "But I had made a decision to change myself. I didn't want to be hiding anymore."
The group provided an environment where Veronica could finally be herself. "I had never spoken about stammering before. To be able to tell my story, and talk about the impact stammering had on my life, was a huge relief."
Like Veronica, James McCormack has very early memories of his stammer and the difficult and confusing feelings it created.
He recalls when he first tried talking to his mother about it. "I didn't know how to start the conversation. I just started crying and I said, 'Mammy, I'm bad'. "I thought I was cursed, I thought it was wrong," he says.
But James was unable to hide his speech problem, and both children and adults mocked his stammer. An incident on his first day of secondary school is etched on James's memory.
"You had to stand up in turn and say your name. I was dreading my turn. I thought people could see the beating of my heart.
"I was terrified that I would stammer. And the thing about stammering is, the more you try not to stammer the more you do stammer. I got more and more self-conscious."
With the pressure building, James's turn came. "That was the first time I stammered so badly that I couldn't say my own name."
James remembers the sniggering – vividly, but it was far from over. "After the class I went outside. But they all followed me. And they all began to imitate me."
James's mother took him to a speech therapist. But shortly after the first session began, James realised that the therapist wasn't going to be able to 'fix' him. If anything, James feared she was going to make things worse, as the method employed by the therapist involved James learning to speak unnaturally slowly and in a monosyllabic way.
"I thought, 'that's going to attract more attention', and that wasn't an option," he recalls. "I ran out, and that was the end of speech therapy."
James endured many more difficult days at school. When he got to college, his stammer induced lack of confidence and low self-esteem forced him to drop out. He moved to London for a time and worked on the building sites.
"They could be cruel – the English and the Irish. I was always getting it in the neck, and I was always close to getting into fights."
When he returned home he tried college again. But, unable to fully participate in his classes, and feeling inferior to his peers, he dropped out again and fell into depression.
James's life continued as a constant struggle. But a couple of events helped move him towards recovery. One of which was happening upon a book called 'Awareness' by Anthony De Mello.
"De Mello talks about observing yourself. To stand back and observe what's happening within you and around you as if it's happening to someone else. So, I started to practice this with my stammering."
James experimented with allowing himself to stammer, and found he could speak more easily when he didn't try so hard. His success led him to try speech therapy again, and in 2009 he joined the 'Free to Stutter, Free to Speak' course.
The course employed many of the techniques that James had been experimenting with, but it also provided structure, support from therapists, and – more importantly – the company of others who stammered.
Today, James is a successful Galway based psychotherapist, helping teenagers and adults who stammer.
"For years, I never thought I could do the things I'm doing now. A lot of what I thought wasn't the truth. Stammering can convince you that it's in control, and always will be."
Currently, there is no cure for stammering. But treatments can be very effective, especially for the young. Importantly, there's a greater understanding of the psychological effects of stammering.
"In the early stages we try not to draw too much attention to the child's stammer, but try to build a positive environment," says speech and language therapist Jonathon Linklater.
"We look to give parents the skills to handle their child's stammering. For example, parents should keep eye contact with their child and let them finish their sentences. They shouldn't tell their child to slow down, or anything like that."
For parents who are concerned about their child's speech, Jonathon advises getting in touch with their health centre and making a speech and language therapy appointment as soon as possible."Early intervention is key. The sooner parents get in touch with professionals the better."
For adults, a HSE course called 'Free to Stutter, Free to Speak' is available. The ISA also run a number of adult support groups. For teenagers, the ISA is about to launch online support groups. Details will be available on their website (stammeringireland.ie).
"I think it's important to know that there's always the possibility of change," says Jonathon. "And that it's never too late to do something about it."