Until she was 23 Jennifer Vaughan couldn’t even say her own name. But on the biggest day of her life, she composed her own heartfelt wedding vows and made an emotional speech at the reception. She tells Lucy Richardson how an intensive speech therapy course has changed her life.
THERE is a pivotal memory from Jennifer Vaughan’s schooldays which encapsulates her early struggle to control her stammer. When her teacher went round the class asking people to read aloud, she got stuck when it got to her turn, prompting sniggers from pupils and humiliation for Jennifer.
She used to recoil at the prospect of having to speak in public, but she has found her voice after going on the McGuire Programme and, five years after enrolling, she’s going back as its newest instructor on April 13, ready to inspire and change the lives of others.
Jennifer, from Middlesbrough, thinks her stammer started when she was five and her father left home, but she doesn’t remember being affected by it until she reached secondary school, a time when she realised she was ‘different’ and retreated into her own introverted world.
— McGuire Programme DE (@stutterDE) April 15, 2016
Jennifer refused to put up her hand in class and used to stay behind with understanding teachers who were willing to give up their time to help their able, but inhibited, pupil. She went on to graduate with a degree in Psychology and then achieved an MSc in Occupational Therapy, both from Teesside University.
Student life can be daunting as well as exciting, but for Jennifer it was terrifying. “It was hard meeting new people. Every day I would feel sick to my stomach in case I was asked to say something and every day I would block and struggle through,” she says. “I would feel so small, so embarrassed and ashamed. I was an adult and yet I couldn’t even say my own name. It was humiliating. Inside I used to get so angry. I was frustrated that I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be. I didn’t think I could get married or have children and I didn’t know how I was going to get a job. I thought ‘who’s going to hire me over all these other people on my course?’. I felt completely trapped.”
One night Jennifer went out with friends and in the taxi home couldn’t say her address. “When I finally got home, I cried,” she says. “I picked up a pair of scissors and thought about slitting my wrists. That was my lowest point.”
Jennifer tried other speech therapies, along with hypnotherapy, but when her mum found out about the McGuire Programme, she encouraged Jennifer to sign up for its next course.
“By the end of the first day I was able to stand up and say my name, something I’d never been able to do before. It felt amazing,” beams Jennifer, who wells up with tears at the memory. “My family said afterwards that I looked so much happier and more confident and when I sent a message out to my friends, they were all really proud of me as it was something I’d never been able to speak about with them before.”
Jennifer still attends courses to develop breathing methods, assertive skills and self-acceptance tools and she has a phone list of experienced ‘graduates’ worldwide who have also been through the McGuire Programme themselves and are on hand for practice or advice at any time.
“Going on the McGuire Programme has completely changed my life in so many ways. The sound of the telephone used to make my stomach churn, but it doesn’t any more,” she says. “I’ve no fear saying my name any more and I can order drinks at the bar or food on a menu that I want to eat rather than what I can say.”
She admits she didn’t think she would have a relationship, and thought who would love someone with a stammer? If she couldn’t even say her name, she reasoned, how could she say her wedding vows?
“But at my wedding to Ashley a year ago I wrote my own, I made a speech and I was thrilled to be asked to do a reading at my sister’s wedding which reduced my family to tears,” smiles Jennifer, an NHS Occupational Therapist.
Jennifer Vaughan speaking at her wedding
“It feels surreal that about five years after my first course I am going to be teaching it to others. When you’ve been on a course and had an instructor who is inspirational, it stays with you. I always wanted to instruct, but I thought it would be when I was old and grey and really wise.”
Jennifer, who regularly runs the McGuire Programme’s twice-monthly support group in Middlesbrough, is urging anyone who feels trapped by their stammer to get in touch and take the first step to changing their own lives.
“It not only gives you control of your stammer, but you get to meet people who under-stand exactly what you are feeling, who push you to reach your full potential. You get to do things you never would have dreamed possible before.
“I am so grateful now that I have a stammer, otherwise I would not have met such fantastic people and my life would have been a lot less interesting. Now I’m the person I always wanted to be.”