Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

Overcoming: a blog about stuttering and the healing power of nature

A FEW WEEKS ago I made an appearance on a podcast: The Mind Fit Method, hosted by author, entrepreneur and podcaster, Michael Fancher. (Available HERE.)

As you might guess from the title, one of the podcast’s main themes (from among many) is an exploration of ‘mindset’, and in this instance the focus was on my mindset before, during, and after my 7,000-mile walk across Europe. At one time, the idea of doing such an interview would have sent me, quite literally, fleeing for the hills. In fact, thanks to the persistent stutter I grew up with, I was once so fearful of speaking in public (and even of everyday speaking) that to the hills I did indeed often flee.

(And yes, there were many other reasons why I was called to nature. But for the purpose of this blog I’m going to focus on this one.)

Safely alone in the hills, winter 1991.

For most of my life, stuttering ruled my choices and limited my options. But these days (and I still can’t quite believe that I can write this) my stutter and my fear of public speaking have almost completely gone. Although I’m not entirely happy with all my answers in The Mind Fit Method podcast (it’s perfectly reasonable to be self-critical in such endeavours!) I still enjoyed the discussion immensely. For one thing, meeting and talking with Michael Fancher had value in itself – he has inspiring motives for running a podcast and there’s a good reason why it’s now ranked in the top one per cent of global podcasts. I also appreciated the probing intensity of Michael’s questions for how they pushed me to really think, and I appreciated his thoughtful and insightful responses for what I learnt from him. But perhaps most of all I enjoyed the interview because of what it represented: an overcoming – a victory over the affliction that dominated a great stretch of my life. We even touched on this ‘overcoming’ during the podcast, and thinking about it since helped me realise that a blog about my stutter might be worth writing and sharing. It might, perhaps, have use to a fellow stutterer. It might even have value to non stutterers – to someone, to anyone – who currently struggles and suffers from comparable personal challenges or from low self-esteem and self-belief.

And a blog about stuttering was also worth writing, I finally decided, because stuttering IS relevant to the subject I normally write about: my ongoing journey within nature. After all, my stutter played a pivotal role in sending me into nature, and it did make a brief appearance in my two books, The Earth Beneath My Feet and On Sacred Ground. Indeed, looking back now, and understanding my stutter even more clearly than I did when my books were published, I can see that I didn’t explore my stutter within the books anywhere close to deeply enough.

So, let’s skip back to my childhood which, undeniably privileged and frequently happy though it was, also involved this major character-defining aspect: my stutter.

(It’s worth noting, of course, that as afflictions go in a world of all possible afflictions, a stutter is arguably a mild handicap to suffer. Then again, this doesn’t lessen the impact it had on my life, or the impact it has on the lives of other stutterers. My stutter played a foundational role in shaping my personality and behaviour. It became hugely influential in the choices I made, or avoided making. To reach for an analogy: it was like a fierce wind pushing along a sailboat, a wind that couldn’t be fought against. My stutter blew hard and incessantly. I couldn’t face up to it, or head into it, only travel sideways at best. The truth is my stutter dictated and dominated the trajectory of my life.)

andrew & philip in a tree
An idyllic early childhood moment from an idyllic childhood. Or was it quite so idyllic?

From my earliest memory onwards, talking to anyone other than my immediate family was a prospect to fear and, when it couldn’t be avoided, an experience of genuine mental trauma. Because of the difficulties I had speaking – the repeated letters and drawn out sounds and complete blockages – I went to great lengths to avoid speaking. I altered my behaviour daily, hourly, and even by the minute. I gave up on many things, retreated endlessly from conversations and situations – all to hide my stutter. The affliction was omnipresent, a continuous threat – making anxiety and tension constant companions throughout my waking life, and even within my nightmares. On the rare occasions when I had to speak I often took the safe path, selecting easy words and short answers, even if they weren’t what I really wanted to say, and even if I knew they were the ‘wrong’ answers and made me look stupid. And the reason? Because stuttering crushed me. It wasn’t only embarrassing – it was mortifying. No, it was soul-destroying, primarily because, as I saw it, stuttering was entirely my fault. I believed it to be a great personal failing, a sign of feebleness and weakness, evidence of my own abject ‘lesserness’. When I stuttered, people judged me. I saw it clearly in their expressions of amusement and (worse) of sympathy, and heard it in their laughter and mockery, and felt it in their dismissiveness and impatience, and even in their patience and attempted support. All of it, combined, demonstrated (from my perception of it) that I was inferior, defective, to be tolerated at best, considered irrelevant at worst; that I was of low intelligence, if not mentally retarded; that I was of lesser value or use as a person.

(I feel great empathy for anyone who, deep down, currently feels that way. I wish you knew that you are none of these things.)

I was safe at home, and VERY happy, but even here never free from stuttering.

During my childhood and teenage years, then far into adulthood, my stutter made me a societal outsider, someone who didn’t fit in. This was how I saw myself: an outcast, not really belonging. And tragically, this is what I believed I deserved, that being an outsider was the natural consequence and just deserts for my failure to speak normally. This, understandably, ship-wrecked my self-confidence and self-esteem. The damage to my psychological health lasted far into adulthood.

For decades, the only defense I had against my stutter was avoidance: to hide it (and myself) from sight and sound. And so I hid, even when I desperately wanted to take part. I couldn’t overcome it. I couldn’t simply choose to not stutter just as people suffering from clinical depression can’t simply choose to be happy. The power of choice, of positive thinking, doesn’t stretch that far. Ordinary aspects of daily life that most people take for granted, like everyday single-sentence exchanges, were for me unattainable. I cannot overstate the impact of this. So much of normal life was utterly beyond my reach. To survive, I had to create my own ‘normal’ life, and the majority of it was hung upon solitary pursuits.

I ran for many reasons. Towards some things, away from others.

The situation wasn’t helped, either, by certain adults and teachers in my life who frequently dismissed my ideas whenever I plucked up the rare courage to attempt to share them. Or, they unhelpfully ‘finished’ my thoughts for me, overriding whatever I wanted to say. (Please, never complete a stutterer’s sentences for them, unless they indicate that they want this help. Usually, it is the opposite of helpful.) These adults and so-called teachers always knew better than me. My own ideas were forever waved away as silly, or naïve, or of no value whatsoever – they were never explored or given space for development. Throughout my teenage years, and then well into my twenties, and even into my first job, this devaluing continued. I was taught to not think for myself. I was taught to not trust myself. I was taught to not value myself.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that as I grew into a young adult a sense of self-worth didn’t grow with me. (In fact, it shrank.) It shouldn’t be a surprise that I saw myself and my ideas as invalid. And it certainly shouldn’t be a surprise that my stutter continued… and worsened.

Data on stuttering suggests that seventy-five percent of childhood stutterers grow out of it long before adulthood. Those that don’t typically remain stutterers their entire lives. Experts in stuttering appear to agree: there is no cure, only partially successful ways to ‘manage’ the stuttering. For me then, as an adult stutterer, my future was apparently set. I was destined to be a stutterer and a social outcast for the rest of my life.

andrew 1988
At eighteen, I was hiding it well. All smiles on the surface, but inside… another story.

I vaguely remember my parents taking me to speech therapy when I was a child, and I vaguely remember hating it with absolute passion, but never raising my objections, knowing they didn’t count. I wish I could remember more of those sessions, but I’ve blanked them out. But clearly, they didn’t help! On the other hand, I do have starkly clear memories of school teachers trying to do their bit: of standing me up front before a classroom of expectant kids to read aloud, perhaps believing that forcing the issue would help me overcome. But goodness, to say it did the opposite would be an understatement! Instead of helping it caused me to collapse inwardly into a spiraling black-hole singularity of humiliation. The scars from these episodes remain.

(Oh how I wish I could step back in time with all that I now know and politely give those teachers a talking too. Okay, a real good old-fashioned bollocksing! But, ahem, I digress.)

What arguably would have helped would have been if someone had patiently explained to me the basic facts of stuttering. Firstly, that I wasn’t alone, that an estimated one per cent of the global population experiences serious stuttering at some point in their lives. Repeatedly reassuring me that I wasn’t subnormal until I believed it would have been hugely beneficial.

(If YOU have a stutter, and if you are trying to hide it, please know: YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Untold millions or people understand!)

cub scouts
I found safety in groups, especially groups where I knew I’d never be called upon to speak. One of the greatest joys from my childhood, Cub Scouts, was one such safe place.

Secondly, I wish I’d been told that It Wasn’t My Fault, that it wasn’t A Personal Character Flaw or Failing. Exactly what causes stuttering still isn’t fully understood, but it’s known that genetics can play a part (I had a great grandparent who was meanly nicknamed ‘Stammers’); that males are four times more likely to stutter than females; that emotional, situational and environmental factors can amplify it; that it might sometimes have physiological causes, and sometimes neurological causes – that certain parts of a stutterer’s brain responsible for language production (and also sometimes for auditory processing) function slightly differently than in a non stutterer’s brain. If I’d been told this, that all the causes were outside of my control – that it wasn’t me personally failing when I stuttered – then raised self esteem and self-confidence might have given me a fighting chance.

(It is essential that all stutterers understand this: IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT! Parents of children who stutter should know this, too. It’s neither your fault, nor your child’s. Reassure a young stutterer with this fact as many times as you need to. And when they stutter, show them it doesn’t matter one bit. Remove the pressure. Slow down. Make listening to them the most important thing in the world. And really, really listen. Give a stutterer that sense of value and validity and self-worth that I lacked. It could change a life.)

Alas, so far as I can remember, no-one shared any of these potentially helpful details with me. Although, to be fair, I didn’t go seeking them either. Into my twenties, I could barely face my stutter. Honestly, it was so personally stigmatising that I didn’t want to think about it. Basically, I even tried hiding it from myself! I grew so proficient at hiding it – at essentially letting it rule my life – that most people I met probably didn’t even know I was a stutterer. Instead, they probably thought me exceptionally quiet, abnormally shy, or just downright anti-social… which is what I eventually became to survive, not merely anti-social but full-on socially dysfunctional. By my mid twenties I had very few friends. I never went out. A romantic relationship, no matter how much I wanted one, was about as achievable as a hitched ride to Mars. (And I would have loved to have gone to Mars! A bloody great place to hide it would have been!)

Fortunately, I eventually found nature – and within it my future ‘cure’. As I discovered during my longest walk, and as I wrote in The Earth Beneath My Feet: nature can cure more ills than we even have names for.

And that’s the truth: it really can! Nature is a miracle cure, a wonder drug, in ways that modern medicine has only just scratched the surface of understanding. And this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, especially to frequent readers of this blog! After all, we were Made In Nature. Just think about that! Nature shaped us. No wonder that immersing ourselves within it can heal.


So anyway, I found nature, and within nature found solace and rewards and fulfilment that I didn’t fully understand until many decades had passed. In an attempt to keep this long story short (although I can see it’s already too late for that!), my lone outings into nature gave me the freedom to relax and be myself – the freedom to live away from the anxieties and fears that were inescapable back in society. Nature, in a very real sense, gave me space and time to heal. And, perhaps even more critically, it gave me a laboratory within which I could test my own validity and worth. Over time and miles (and especially over a specific set of 7,000-miles) the Nature Lab allowed me to subconsciously conduct a string of life-altering experiments on myself and on the world that I inhabited, ultimately revealing answers – or truths – most of which were learnt without me even knowing it. These truths were imparted almost accidentally, osmotically, but also inevitably (as I now understand it), gifted to me the way forest plants gift forest visitors health- and mood-enhancing chemical compounds to breathe. (Take note: we all benefit immensely from nature’s many gifts when we visit, regardless of whether or not we are aware of it. Such is the miracle nature cure.)

paradise glade
Paradise Glade, Calabria, May 1997. A place to heal.

It’s clear to me now, and backed by evidential science across numerous studies, that spending time in nature positively impacts our neurology, physiology, and even our psychology. For example, it is now well known (and understood) that nature therapy can decrease anxiety, boost moods, and increase happiness. (For one quick example, look up the benefits of Vitamin D – of simple sunlight!) It’s well known that experiencing awe can have immensely beneficial effects on mental health and – understatement alert – nature does ‘awe’ exceptionally well! And it’s well known that exercise, especially in nature, makes us physically stronger and healthier. Arguably, the more time we spend in nature the more pronounced the benefits. Studies show that even short doses – even fifteen minutes – can deliver a huge range of benefits. And as I discovered, the benefits from EIGHTEEN MONTHS alone in nature can be considerable! (Consider that another epic understatement!)

central apennines july 1997
In the Abruzzo, July 1998.

But perhaps the greatest benefits from my nature journeys were psychological: the way that my journeys, and the way that wild nature – often through its harsh indifference – frequently tested my emotions and my mind. This testing forced me to see clearly and assess accurately, and to then act accordingly, and ultimately, through the positive results experienced – through my continued existence and ongoing forward progress and growing happiness – through all this, to learn to trust myself on all fronts; to trust my judgement, my ideas, and ultimately my own self-worth.

Nature, to put it more simply, showed me that my ideas and solutions worked. Even if they only worked for me, they still worked. This made them valid, one hundred per cent valid, no matter what anyone else said. And this clearly demonstrated that I must be valid, too, that I had worth exactly as I was, that I needn’t hide any of myself away, that I could share with anyone I met (and the entire world if needed) who I was and what I’d learnt with absolute unshakeable confidence.

Nature, to put it even more simply, gave me the self-belief to begin talking in public. It gave me a route away from ‘outcast’ and back towards ‘normal functioning member of society’. It gave me the self-confidence to finally face up to my stutter and say to it (if you’ll pardon my language): “F*** YOU! YOU are the one that is F****** irrelevant!”

(Sorry. I couldn’t resist it. But honestly, writing that felt good!)

The Norwegian Arctic – there are few places better than this to experience the nature cure.

This brings us back full circle to where we started, to The Mind Fit Method podcast. It brings me back to public speaking engagements that I would once have fled to the hills to avoid but that I now actively seek… and hugely enjoy, if not LOVE. And all because of the personal validity that I found in the hills.

I am valid, I now know And my thoughts are valid. My emotional responses are valid. And yours are, too. Trust them. Believe in them. Stand up for them!

My stutter will always be there, waiting to interrupt speech, but even when it rears up it no longer has any real power over me. It’s nothing more now than a minor inconvenience. I’m not ashamed of it. I no longer fear it. I know it’s not my fault. It’s simply a barely significant part of me, no more relevant to who I really am than my slightly oversized nose, large ears, or reprehensibly oversized delight in ‘Dad jokes’.

Or, perhaps, it IS more significant than that, but significant in a positive way. I’ve started to see my stutter as a special gift – even a blessing – an affliction to be treasured for how it has shaped me into who I now am.

Because of my stutter, I’m far stronger, and hopefully kinder, than I would have been without it.


The Alps, December 1997.


To learn more about stuttering, or to learn how to help others, the following two websites are great places to start – in the USA: and in the UK:

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