Laura Ludmany was scared of being found out, she says.
When her phone rang, she’d run out to the street so her former boyfriend couldn’t hear her talk. If a client called at work, her stomach would clench. Sometimes she’d crinkle a piece of paper next to the receiver and pretend the line was bad.
Ludmany grew up in Hungary, and when she was a teenager, her best friend made calls for her – to the GP, the bank – pretending to be her. Her friend knew everything about her. PIN numbers, too.
When she moved to Budapest for college, she came up with new tricks. If someone asked for her number, she’d show it to them on her phone. At restaurants, she’d hold up the menu and point to what she wanted.
“I really built up this whole world where I didn’t have to speak, and I was actually really good at it,” she said, sitting outside a cafe on Middle Abbey Street on a recent Friday evening.
The problem was, the more she hid, the worse it got.
Ludmany’s secret was that, since she was three years old, she’s had a stammer. “I was always really afraid that people would learn that I stammered. So whenever I stammered, I felt all these bad feelings, like isolation, guilt, and shame,” she says.
And now, every day, she uses a new set of tools, to keep it out in the open.
On a recent Wednesday evening, Ludmany is in a large room in the Carmelite Community Centre on Aungier Street.
There are twelve people – two rows of six – sitting in chairs, facing each other. They stare into each other’s eyes and breathe.
Patrick Hanlon paces around them, wearing a black band around the middle of his chest. “Let’s do hands on ribs. Let’s kick off this meeting with discipline. One, two, three, breathe,” he says.
The sound of 12 people inhaling and exhaling, forcefully, mouths open, temporarily drowns out the noise of two Dublin Buses stopped outside the windows.
“Have a think about why you’re here tonight,” Hanlon says. “Why do we do the work to be disciplined in here, so it holds up for the next two weeks?”
Right now, they’re practising costal breathing, the kind of deep, belly breathing that opera singers use. Some wear black belts around their chests that remind them to breathe this way.
When non-stutterers talk – Hanlon calls them “fluent” people – they use the upper diaphragm. The costal diaphragm is larger and deeper, and there’s more power there, Hanlon says. “And it isn’t trained to respond to fear like our upper diaphragm reacts to fear.”
So, Hanlon says, stammerers are taught to use this new, lower part of the diaphragm when they speak “to go around that fear”.
They use other tactics, too. They call them “weapons”. One of them is drawing out the first sound of a word. Hanlon goes first.
“Puh.” Breath. “Patrick Hanlon.”
“The first sound is usually the most fearful sound, so you’re hitting and drawing it out to demonstrate to yourself that you have control over the sound,” Hanlon says.
Next, they play a kind of game. They take turns standing up and choosing the “weapon” the next person will use.
Brian Dempsey stands up and breathes in. “Centre and clarify,” he says, then takes another breath. “Before entering a speaking situation.” Breath.“We must decide.” Breath. “How we’re going to approach it.” Breath.“If fear is high and confidence low.” Breath. “We use our weapons.”
The room erupts into a kind of rhythmic talking. Everyone repeats Dempsey’s words, at full volume, taking quick, deep breaths between pops of sound. It’s kind of like a Greek chorus, except no one is in sync.
They take it in turns, each leader saying a slogan like, “We look the listener in the eye. Looking away is like running away.”
The meetings at the Carmelite Centre are every other Wednesday. They’re all about “discipline, breathing, eye contact, and pausing as we speak”, Hanlon says. “All of that is our arsenal against fear.”
Your Name, Please?
Ludmany has an old video of herself. When the camera starts rolling, it’s trained on an empty chair at the front of a hotel conference room.
The title pops up: “Laura Ludmany – First Day”. She strides into the frame, sits down, and faces the camera.
“Can we have your name?” a man’s voice asks. She smiles a little and says, “Yeah.”
Then she tries, for two minutes and 24 seconds, to say the word “Laura”.
She manages to get some sounds out: a few “uhs” and, after a while, “My name is.” She clasps and re-clasps her hands in her lap. She tenses her arms. She bobs her head as if trying to push the words out, as she looks down at the blue-and-white patterned carpet.
She gets to the “L” sound, drawing it out, but she can’t get past it.
She makes the sound for a full breath, then she sighs, laughs a little, and looks up. “Sorry, too stressed,” she says.
Eventually, she looks up and shrugs. Her shoulders sink.
The man says, off camera: “No problem, we’ll come back to that. What’s your address?”
The video is from the first day of a course called the McGuire Programme, which aims to teach people to control their stuttering with a new way of breathing and a different approach to speaking.
Ludmany found the course while googling, after a brutal, hourlong meeting with her boss, in which she was only able to say a few sentences.
She found a video like the one she eventually recorded. In it, a man struggles to say his own name. Two days later, he’s able to speak.
Ludmany moved to London to do the three-day course, and for a fresh start.
The courses are run by fellow stammerers. It’s a worldwide programme. There are courses in different parts of Ireland three times per year.
On the first evening of the course they filmed the video. On the second day, after learning a new way to breathe, Ludmany stood in front of the class again, she says.
“That was actually the first time in my life I could say my name,” she says. “I was 27 years old almost, and I was crying my eyes out after.”
After 45 minutes of practicing at the Carmelite Centre meeting, Brian Dempsey walks over to the front of the room. “Well done, everyone,” he says. “Can we get into a semicircle facing the screen?”
They’re done with the physical stuff. For the next 45 minutes, it’s all about the mind.
Today’s topic is turbulence. As Hanlon explains it, turbulence in speech is similar to turbulence on a flight.
“If there’s a blip here and there on a two-hour flight, you’re not going to say, ‘Wow, that was a turbulent flight.’” But if it’s half an hour of rocky skies, that’s turbulence, Hanlon says.
Dempsey, who has a stammer himself, has led these meetings for five years. He’s a “coach” – each new student is paired with one.
“How can we help each other dealing with turbulence? Hands up anyone who’s going through turbulence at the moment,” he says.
A few hands go up.
One of the hands is Niall Berrington’s. He’s had three job interviews recently, but the third one didn’t go so well, speech-wise, he says. “It’s kind of rocked my confidence a little bit.”
From then on, it’s a support-group meeting. People chime in with stories of their own, tips, tricks. Another young man says he’s also here tonight because of a job interview.
A few days after the meeting, Berrington talks about how one negative experience can overshadow positive ones. That’s what happened with his interviews, he says. Two “went really well”, but the third did not.
“I wasn’t happy with my performance, and I felt like my stutter was dictating what I was saying,” he says. He was shortening his answers and, generally, “looking to get out of the situation”.
“I was sweating loads; I was getting self-conscious; I was looking across at the interviewers and wondering if they were noticing,” says Berrington.
Talking to the group about the interview helped him process it. “There are so many common things we’ve all gone through,” he says.
One of the guys at the meeting offered to do a mock interview with him.
That might give him “a chance to scratch out that negative interview”, says Berrington. A chance to move past it.
What Time Do You Close?
Ludmany lives in Dublin now with her boyfriend. She works from home as an IT engineer, and takes lots of calls for her job.
But she doesn’t hide like she used to.
“The more you avoid saying sounds or words, the higher your fear is going to be,” she said, at the cafe. “We stammer because we are afraid of stammering, so it’s like performance fear.”
Sometimes, when she’s trying to tell a story and is talking too fast, tripping up over sounds, Ludmany stops herself. “Sorry, I need to slow down,” she says. She takes deep breaths and tries to say only three or four words per breath.
When she was a kid, Ludmany used to worry that she’d never be able to get a job. So when she did, or when she got into a relationship, she’d stick with them even if they weren’t right for her.
“That’s the life of a stammerer. My whole life used to be full of these small compromises. Everything, all of my life, was based on my stammer,” she says. It’s not like that anymore, though.
In April, she gave a presentation at work. For almost two months beforehand, she prepared – putting slides together, memorising the presentation, and practising in front of people.
“I didn’t even have one block. Everyone was applauding, and I was almost crying,” she says. “It was a big achievement.”
Ludmany works on her speech every day, she says. She asks the woman behind the till what time the cafe closes, even though the opening hours are listed on the door.
She makes herself stay at the cafe for the 30 minutes before closing, rather than moving to another one, even though the time pressure stresses her out.
“Overcoming a stammer is really a lifelong thing,” she says.