Toastmasters club with a twist

He didn’t fit in at school. He was teased because he stuttered. Teased because he had big lips. And teased because he didn’t learn as well as the other kids in his class.

Vince Beyer

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. — He didn’t fit in at school.

He was teased because he stuttered. Teased because he had big lips. And teased because he didn’t learn as well as the other kids in his class.

He’s 51 now. And for most of his years, low self-esteem has followed Vince Beyer of St. Catharines through life. He’s a husband. A father. A grandfather. And up until a couple months ago when he was laid off, he worked as a mechanical designer at a Toronto firm.

He also has social anxiety.

It used to consume his life. He once had to quit a job because he was so uncomfortable around people. So uncomfortable in his own skin.

“For me, life was a facade,” he says.

He tried. He pretended to feel at ease around people. But when life got stressful, he could no longer play the part.

He believes the low self-esteem began in his childhood.

He remembers moments like the time in Grade 2 all the other students in his class had stars beside their name because they had perfect spelling tests.

Beyer had no stars. He was crushed.

In Grade 3, he was asked to write a word on the blackboard. He had it spelled almost right, but made a mistake at the end. Instead of just erasing the mistake, he rubbed out the entire word and had to start from the beginning. His teacher heaved a very noticeable sigh of frustration. Beyer still remembers that.

In high school, he never had a best friend.

“I hung out with the nerds,” he says. “I wasn’t smart like them, but they were the only kind people at school.”

In Grade 10, the football coach once pulled him aside and asked him why he didn’t talk to the other guys in gym class.

“If I don’t bug them, they won’t bug me,” he answered back.

He took a mechanical design draftsman course at Niagara College. Near the end of the second year, he had to do a presentation on ball bearings. He’d done all the research. Had it all written up.

But when he stood in front of the class, he could barely get out the first sentence. He was so anxious that he had to abandon the presentation and sit down.

“I wasn’t comfortable with myself. I took on a persona of what I thought a speaker should be,” he says.

“And I crumbled after the first line.”

He suffered from emotional breakdowns. He once worked as a junior tool designer at Dofasco. One day, he walked into work with a half-page letter explaining to his boss why he had to quit. “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I have to leave,” he said. So he quit.

“All I knew, I was so broken up on the inside, I couldn’t continue.”

He’s tried to kill himself. Five times. He’s spent time in the psychiatric units of the St. Catharines General Hospital and St. Joseph’s in Hamilton.

These days he’s better. Much better.

He’s at peace. Happy. He even likes himself. And he wants to help others who are on a similar life journey.

He’s created a group called Peer Support Niagara. He has visions of one day having peers who have recovered from mental-health problems help others who are just beginning their journey.

For now, he’s done a couple things. He’s set up a website (www.peersupportniagara.org) which includes a list of mental-health services in the Niagara area.

And he’s set up the Rebounders Toastmasters Club. In most ways, it’s exactly like a regular Toastmasters, an international club that helps members become more competent and confident in front of an audience.

The difference is in its members. They are all dealing with a mood disorder. Anxiety. Social fears. Bipolar. Depression. And everything in between.

The idea is to build confidence. Self-esteem.

When people get up to tell their personal story, many things happen. They get a self-esteem boost. Toastmaster members are always gracious, says Beyer. Even if a speaker stumbles through a speech, they always applaud and give praise and encouragement at the end.

A Toastmasters club is like a family. Everyone supports everyone, he says.

“It’s not you against the world anymore,” he says.

“We’ll be there to clap at the end and push you on to the next speech.”

There’s also a freedom that comes from sharing. Talking about a mental illness somehow takes away the stigma, he says.

And there’s much insight to be gained from listening to someone share their story.

“You win by speaking. And you win by hearing others speak,” he says.

A Toastmasters membership runs about $100 per year. Beyer hopes to find funding so the cost won’t prevent people from joining.

His overall hope is that with renewed self-confidence, people will be able to market themselves and find employment.

In addition to public speaking, members take on other roles during the meeting. There’s a timer who keeps speakers on track. A quote master who shares a positive quotation. A humour master, who tells a joke. An ah counter, who counts a speaker’s filler words (Beyer’s favourite is “And, so …”). A grammarian who presents the word of the day. And even impromptu speakers.

“Everyone gets a chance to say something,” he says.

When someone has suffered from depression for a long time, they often can’t see themselves any other way, says Beyer.

“It’s like you believe in your head that this is who I am,” he says. “That I can never get well.”

“You think some people are emotionally healthy, and some people are not. And you are one of the nots.”

He encourages people to develop a hunger for mental wellness. And he hopes that if people see real-life people who are well, they will have hope for mental health themselves, he says.

“You can take your pain and make it work for you,” he says.

It’s not about denying or forgetting your past. “The right approach is to learn from your past and share it with other people.”

He’s learned an important lesson in wellness. When you realize life is not working, take a pit stop and reassess.

“You have to be willing to stop long enough to do stuff to get well,” he says.

Being busy is good. “But if business is stopping you from addressing your core issues, you’re just running away from your problems.”

When Beyer learned to be at peace with himself, happiness followed.

“If you have no peace in your life, you won’t have solid happiness.”

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