December 2022-January 2023 | Features

Finding my voice

Finding my voice

Rotary has given a platform to Craig Thomas to conquer his stammer to speak confidently in public.

DISCLAIMER: This story contains descriptions of drug-use and self-harm which may be upsetting for some readers.

I grew up in the mining village of South Elmsall near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. When I was eight-years-old, I found myself on stage in a school play. I had three lines to speak, and it was my turn to narrate this part of the play. The teachers, parents and students were all staring at the stage.

I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. My body started jerking and doing movements which I had not experienced. I had stammered before this moment, but this was the first time I had been conscious of being different, not being able to speak like everyone else.

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My life changed dramatically after this experience. Around this time, I also had an experience that would trouble me for many years to come.

To cut a long story short, my mum used me as a pawn. Whilst having an affair, my mum would take me to her ‘bit on the side’s’ house and leave me in the darkly lit living room whilst they spent time in the bedroom. My dad had no clue that this was happening. Why would he?

There is no way of telling if this further affected my speech. I can’t recall which of the two experiences came first, but what I can tell you is that both were a lethal cocktail of torment, suffering and pain for many years to come.

To me this was my Mount Everest – to read my little boy a bedtime story without stammering.”

From eight-years old, I would be punched, kicked, and spat on. I was laughed at, ridiculed, and bullied because I could not speak properly, or at times not at all.

I was also working through that fact that I was a horrible son for hiding a dirty little secret from my dad – a man who many times had to walk a 20-mile round trip to Great Houghton Main Pit where he worked to put food on our table. The guilt was overwhelming, even as a young boy.

When I graduated to High School in Minsthorpe, as soon as I awoke every morning, I would be full of dread about having to say “15 pence please” when I got on the school bus. The students on the bus and even the bus driver on occasions would laugh at me.

The next ordeal was register where I could not always say “here sir” which would get some laughs.

It was not long after starting High School that I started cutting myself. I had a Stanley knife blade hid under my bed which I would use to cut myself.

This one day was particularly difficult. I had been ridiculed and spat on, and after school I went to my bedroom got the Stanley knife blade and put it to my wrist whilst tears were streaming down my face.

I did not want to die but I could not see a way out of my situation and my stammer and body movements were getting more and more out of control.

This happened several times but seeing as I am writing this article, I did not go through with it. Hence the name of my new venture called ‘I’m Glad I Stuck Around’ aimed at supporting people who are contemplating suicide.

After leaving high school and trying to make my own way in the world things took a further nosedive.

I had already started drinking heavily and using Class B drugs at school, however it wasn’t long before the drugs turned to Class A and I spent time in jail.

I took menial jobs which did not stimulate me, but what else could I do?

I could hardly speak at a job interview and made involuntary head and body movements when trying to answer questions.

When I was 24, I had a son and this little beating life gave meaning to my life. I slowly started making positive changes in my life.

I had failed at everything in life up to this point, but I was determined not to fail at being a father. This meant to me at least that I had to be able to read my little boy a bedtime story, something which 99% of people take for granted.

I was laughed at, ridiculed, and bullied because I could not speak properly, or at times not at all.”

To me this was my Mount Everest – to read my little boy a bedtime story without stammering. I came across a course which helps people who stammer called The Starfish Project. It is not a cure, but it can improve how a stammerer speaks and thinks.

It was on The Starfish Project that I first heard of Rotary. The Rotary Club of Hailsham in East Sussex which sponsored and paid for people who stammer who needed financial support to go on The Starfish Project. The course lasted for three days and I made improvements.

The first thing I did when I got home was read my son a bedtime story without stammering. With tears streaming down my proud face, that moment has been my greatest achievement and it will take something miraculous to beat it.

With my confidence at an all-time high I contacted my local Rotary club in Wakefield and asked if they would like to hear my story. I am happy to inform you that I gave the speech of my life and received a standing ovation from the Rotary delegates.

I was later invited to speak at a Rotary District Conference in Bournemouth with The Starfish Project and the write up said that “Craig stole the show”.

I was fortunate enough to meet David Ellis, last year’s Chairman of the Executive for Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland. David has lifted me to become a highly respected motivational speaker and author. I have spoken at several Rotary conferences in the last 15 years.

Thank you to David and Denise Ellis, and Rotary, for your grace, encouragement and kindness in taking a chance on a council estate kid with a stammer who was lost in a life of drugs, alcohol and anger.


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