January 25, 2014
Life challenges us in many different ways. These can come from anywhere and anytime, some people refer to them as curve-balls others call them lemons. Some people make the proverbial lemonade and others are crushed unable to overcome those challenges.
Many people are born with challenges. Such challenges could lead to vilification and ostracization by society and even loved ones. People born with certain physical challenges are picked on at school and to succeed in life they need to expend far more energy, effort and dedication. To 'never give up' is their motto, to battle on in their lone struggle until they prevail and overcome their adversities.
A fellow Toastmaster at The Canary Wharf Communicators in London inspired me to write this story about his own challenge. A challenge that he was born with, a challenge that he was not aware of until he was aware of himself interacting with others during his high school years. A challenge that he overcame through sheer grit and determination.
This story is about Sergei Romanov a fellow Toastmaster I had the honor of listening to from his first speech through to his ribbon winning impromptu speeches. Speaking for Sergei in English and particularly in a Toastmaster environment was a doubly hard challenge let alone in his native tongue. This was because Sergei was afflicted with a speech impediment, namely a severe case of stuttering.
Sergei is from the city of Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine. A city in southeast of the country and a place that I was not too far from when I was working in Ukraine in 2007. During early spring of that year I was on a project in an iron ore mining plant in the city of Komsomolsk which is approximately 150 miles northwest of Sergei's home city.
Sergei does not remember exactly when he realized he had a stutter, but it was during his high school years that he noticed something was seriously wrong. So aged fifteen he started to research about this affliction, reading every book, article and information he could get his hand on. His stuttering was so strong that even though he knew the words he could not say them. The more he wanted to speak the greater the resistance he encountered within. He felt there was a shadow inside that prevented him from speaking. He was gripped by a further fear that people would find out about his 'shadow'. He kept his 'shadow' hidden and a secret not telling others about it for fear of being bullied.
He saw numerous doctors and specialists for many years, but nothing worked. Official sources told him that stuttering could not be treated. However, he did not give up, he had a strong belief that he could overcome his impediment no matter what.
During his university years he continued to search for a solution until he came across a therapist in Moscow, Russia. Being a student in Zaporizhzhya meant that he could not afford such an expense and making the trip was unrealistic. As a student he worked at several jobs to put himself through his studies, therefore he did not have the airfare and therapists fees needed to fly to Moscow and get treated.
Not one to give up he began applying for jobs in Moscow and with lady luck favoring his persistence he was offered a job in the city. Without thinking twice he took the opportunity and moved to Russia. Two months into his job he had saved enough to pay for the therapist. The therapy was tough and it required him to learn a new way of speaking using a holistic approach to change not only his speech but also his whole personality.
The root of the problem for Sergei was the fear that others would find out that he had a speech impediment. Throughout his whole life he has been trying to hide it and pretend the be 'normal'. His biggest challenge was to be open about his secret, to tell people about his 'shadow'. He was advised by his therapist to tell everyone, literally anyone he knew or met for the first time. He had to state "I'm being treated for stuttering".
For Sergei this was the hardest thing he had ever done, causing panic attacks and anxiety that almost caused him to have a psychological breakdown. However, he knew this was his only chance of overcoming the problem of stuttering. So for one year he took on the therapist's advice and put to practice all of her suggestions and ideas. Apart from speaking slowly he also had to practice two to four hours every day for six months. This involved relaxation, breathing, voice training, reading and tongue twisters among others. He also had to practice speaking in every possible situation; he had to ask ten random people in the street ten random questions, had to call ten random people on the phone from adverts or placements in newspapers. He was asked to speak to as many people as possible in public and the more random the better. He went into shops to buy products only to return them in order to engage in conversation. He went for job interviews without ever intending to take the job. All of this was to help him speak without stuttering and overcome primarily his fear of what others might say or think.
After one year of therapy he had reached a point where he was able to speak without fear, having beaten his internal demons and banished the 'shadow' to the dark recesses of his mind. His life changed forever and he felt a freedom he had not experienced. This divided his life in two, the Sergei before and the Sergei after. He really thought his stuttering had gone for good and he was normal just like any other person who spoke unimpeded. How wrong was he?
In 2009 Sergei moved to England and it all came crashing down. A crack appeared in the dungeon of his mind where the 'shadow' still lurked. He struggled to speak in English without stuttering, all the while his confidence got knocked as people laughed and made jokes of his affliction. At the same time the 'shadow' got stronger and stronger and over the two years since arriving into England it was back in its entirety, beating the drums of doubt and fear inside Sergei's mind.
He visited several London therapists and was told stuttering was officially incurable in Europe. He did not believe them and refused to give in, whilst continually fighting the 'shadow'. He returned back to his Moscow therapist and began another course of speech rehabilitation. This time the psychological battles were easier but vocally harder as it was in English. Sergei flew to Moscow every month for four days of therapy. People he knew would say, "Wow! that's dedication".
The dedication was the easy bit, what knocked his confidence was people's perception of him. He was viewed like an idiot not included in conversations, being insulted and outright ignored. He nearly lost all hope of fixing his stuttering in English, but refused to accept failure. Eventually after four months of travelling back and forth from Moscow he began to see a chink of light in the 'shadow'. To get more practice of speaking in English Sergei approached schools and stuttering clinics in London, none would give him the opportunity. However, he soldiered on and found alternative solutions by joining meetup groups, going for job interviews and giving presentations at work as well as seeking other opportunities to speak in English.
Sergei then came across Toastmasters and joined The Canary Wharf Communicators in April 2013. He joined a further two more clubs. I had the opportunity to watch Sergei give his first speech and to say it was "moving" would be an understatement. He has so far completed ten speeches, five in each of the two manuals with Toastmasters, namely the Competent Communicator and the Competent Leader.
I asked Sergei what else he is doing to help himself. His words are;
"Complete dedication. There are only two rules; every time you open your mouth you practice your speech and you open your mouth as often as possible".
For Sergei his story has not finished yet and every challenge he overcomes a greater person he will become.