Woman who suddenly developed a stammer shares the worst thing people do to 'help'

·4-min read
Ella Kelly developed a stammer in her thirties (supplied, Ella Kelly)
Ella Kelly developed a stammer in her 30s. (supplied, Ella Kelly)

When Ella Kelly caught herself stumbling over a few words one morning four years ago, she thought she was simply having "one of those mornings". But as the day wore on and her speech began to deteriorate, she began to panic.

"It got to the point where I couldn’t even string a sentence together and my mouth and throat felt really tight," says the 36-year-old hair and make-up artist from Cheshire.

"I was living at home with my mum, who is a nurse. She was also worried and drove me to A&E that afternoon. But the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong and said I was having a panic attack.

Read more: Teacher develops stammer after overcoming coronavirus

"I knew that wasn’t right. Physically I felt fine and I’d had panic attacks and anxiety since I was a teenager and this felt nothing like it.

"I simply couldn’t talk. I suspected it might be something to do with the fact I have multiple sclerosis (MS) but that made me terrified that I could be like this for the rest of my life – unable to get words out. It was really stressful."

The doctors sent Ella home and thankfully, her speech improved over the next day. But she has been left with a stammer which impacts her life every day.

Ella Kelly says developing a stammer as an adult impacts her life every day (supplied, Ella Kelly)
Ella Kelly says developing a stammer as an adult impacts her life every day. (supplied, Ella Kelly)

"My MS has meant that my immune systems has attacked my brain and central nervous system, leaving scars on my brain so certain connections are lost which is why I struggle with certain words and phrases," says Kelly.

"Usually I struggle with the letter ‘S’ but it can be more than that. Sometimes I simply can’t think of the word I need and people look at me as if I’m stupid.

"I can be in a coffee shop placing an order and can’t get out the word ‘shortbread’ and the person behind the counter will look at me as if I’m mad. That makes me panic, which makes my stammer even worse. You find yourself apologising and you shouldn’t need to apologise.

Read more: Coping with a stammer

"I hate to use the word ‘normal’ but because I look ‘normal’, people assume I’m just a bit ‘slow’ when in fact, I’m intelligent and know exactly what’s going on around me. Other people think I’m drunk, but I rarely drink alcohol because of my condition and try to be as healthy as possible.

"The worst thing is when people finish your sentences for you. I know they think they’re being helpful but it is very frustrating as I feel I’ve lost my independence when they do that."

Stammering usually starts in childhood, affecting up to 8% of children although most will go onto speak fluently. But according to a YouGov on behalf of STAMMA and Action for Stammering Children up to 3% of adults – or around 1.5 million people – will continue to stammer into adulthood. Or, like Kelly, they will develop a stammer in adult life thanks to a neurological condition, head trauma or even certain medications.

Watch: Woman's brain operation leaves her with stammer

Although Kelly is on a variety of medications and eats a completely plant-based diet to help her illness, there is nothing that can be done for her stammer, but she refuses to let it hold her back.

"Half my career is talking to people and making them feel comfortable as I do their hair and make-up and I absolutely love making people feel better about themselves," she says.

"So when I meet people I usually tell them upfront: ‘I’ve got MS and might stumble over a few words’ and that puts people at ease.

Read more: Christine McGuinness says autistic daughter developed stutter in lockdown

"What’s really fascinating is that when I’m talking about make-up, I rarely stammer. I’m launching my own cosmetics brand soon and was being interviewed on a talk show and I barely stammered at all.

"I used to scoff at people like Gareth Gates who only stammered when he spoke and not when he was singing because I thought he was doing it for publicity. 

"But now I understand that it’s perfectly possible to not stammer when you’re passionate about something – a different part of my brain must light up when I’m talking about something I love.

"I’m not going to let it stop me. I’m going to be giving talks and demonstrations to show people that no matter what obstacles are put in front of you mentally or physically, you can achieve confidence."

Watch: Amanda Gorman says her speech impediment is one of her "greatest strengths"

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