‘Inolonger try to hide my stutter’
When Ollie Gleeson finally found a way to cope with his speech impediment, it changed his life. Here, he tells Arlene Harris how breathing techniques and being upfront have been vital tools
OLLIE Gleeson still remembers the day he was asked to give the answer to a maths question in class — and although he knew the solution, he couldn’t say the word, due to a crippling speech impediment. The letter ‘h’ was often impossible for him to say and he could not utter the word ‘hundred’.
After what seemed like an eternity, under the critical gaze of his classmates, he came up with a way round the problem. “One, zero, zero,” he said, before sitting down.
It was one of the toughest moments of his young life.
“As far as I know, I’ve had a stutter for my whole life,” says the 22-year-old Clare man. “It isn’t something that runs in the family, so I don’t know where I got it from, but it started getting really bad when I was a young child and I developed a coping mechanism of making really long sentences in order to avoid words that I couldn’t say.
“Over the years, my parents tried so many different treatments for me, including speech therapy, acupuncture, craniosacral therapy and even hypnosis — but none of it worked. It was very difficult at school and, of course, I got a fair bit of stick for it.
“That day in my maths class stands out as one of the worst days of my life. Also, I got a job in my local McDonald’s when I was 15 and was put on the ‘drive-thru’, so there were times when the customer would be sitting for up to a minute waiting for me to say something as I couldn’t get the words out — it was tough, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it.”
Ollie, who is the middle child of three, admits to changing his name when he was on holiday or with strangers as his own name was often too difficult to pronounce — but on one occasion, having to be ‘David’ for an entire vacation saw him own up to his new friends about his condition, and this was the first step towards gaining some control over his problem.
“I realised that it was probably good to let people know that I had a stutter rather than trying to hide it, as the stress of that made the whole thing worse,” he says.
“Then, when I was 16, my parents signed me up to a course on costal breathing in Galway, and this was when everything started to change. It was a four-day programme — we had to get up at 6am and go to bed at 10pm and the entire day was spent learning how to breathe and speak as if it was the first time.
“We had to wear a belt on our chests which would determine whether or not we were breathing properly and had to endure some of the toughest situations I have ever been through — which included speaking in a really slow, drawn-out fashion to 100 people on the street, telling 10 strangers each day that I had a stutter, and standing on a soap box in the middle of Shop Street and shouting out that fact to everyone passing by.
“It was absolutely mortifying and I was so grateful that I didn’t know anyone. But it was a means of overcoming a huge fear, so it would be like taking someone who is afraid of heights on to the top of the Empire State Building.”
Since this four-day course seven years ago, Ollie says he has learnt how to confront the issue and ‘take control of the fear’.
“The experience in Galway was pretty embarrassing, but it was worth it as it taught me so much,” he says. “I learned how to laugh at myself and that some people have it a lot worse than I do. I also realised that the best way forward was to tell people that I have a stutter rather than desperately trying to hide it.
“In fact, when I gave my first presentation in college, I began by putting up a photo of