|About the presenter: Joe Klein is a person who stutters and an assistant professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders at The College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. Joe supervises therapy for people who stutter and teaches classes in fluency disorders. Joe has presented nationally at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Friends: The Association of Young People who Stutter, and The National Stuttering Association conventions. He has also published articles in Contemporary Issues in Communication Sciences and Disorders, The Journal of Fluency Disorders, and The Journal of Stuttering Therapy, Advocacy, and Research. Joe lives in Albany, NY with his wife, Holly, and two children, Zachary and Greta.|
Almost exactly ten years ago I woke up early in the morning, started writing, and posted what I wrote to the Stutt-l Listserv, a listserv for people who stutter and professionals interested in stuttering. Here is what I wrote:
I feel like I'm alone in the woods. I feel as if I've lost my map. Everything looks the same. All the trees, the ground, it's all the same. I have no compass. If I were to walk for miles, I would look up, and the same things would be around me. The trees, the dirt, the leaves. Are they different ones, or have I been going in circles? And does it matter? It's so nice to say that the journey is what is important. But what if I'm going in circles? And what if I meet no one along my journey? I'm not sure how much longer I can walk all this by myself. It's not worth walking alone, I don't think. I might as well just lie down and go to sleep. In the past year, I felt as if I was finally going somewhere, as if the path that I was on was finally the right one. It was difficult at times, at times I wanted to stop, but I kept going, because I liked where it was taking me.
But now... I think I've gone off the path. All the markers, all the signs, are gone. I look down and it seems as though no one has been here before. There are no tracks, no sign of anyone or anything. And the leaves are turning, it's getting dark earlier, colder. I feel like if I don't get back on the path soon, it will begin to snow, and everything will be covered, lost for winter.
Where am I? I mean, I almost feel as if I can't even trust myself. I'm all alone, and I don't even know myself, don't know what I'm capable of. I've walked all this way, and now I just feel weak, tired and lost. I have to watch myself now.
But maybe I'm just getting scared. Maybe it is time to set off on my own, and I'm just too afraid to know that yet. I've never really pushed myself before. I've always taken the safe paths, the ones that felt comfortable, the ones that seemed easy. Paths that were well marked and well traveled on are the only ones that I've ever known. I've never strayed. And in fact, if a path got too difficult, I would always just turn around and find an easier way, even if it was going in the wrong direction....
What am I doing? What are my goals? Where do I want to go? I feel like I don't know myself at all. Like I woke up this morning, and I was a stranger.
A few months after graduation, I had my mother call my former speech therapist to make an appointment, because I wasnıt about to pick up the phone unless someone was on fire. That was July, 1995. At that first appointment, I announced that I had recently heard about a fluency program where you go for three weeks and you come home fluent. I was ready to go. My speech therapist sat back in his chair. ³Well, thatıs an option, but itıs usually not that simple. In fact, I am working with two people right now who have been through the program you are talking about.²
So, there it was. As he continued talking, it started to become clear that I wasnıt going to be ³fixed.² Stuttering was not a bacterial infection nor was it something that could be cut out of me. Like almost every other condition known to man, it could only be managed, not cured.
I left the appointment with mixed feelings. I was saddened to learn that I wouldnıt be a fluent speaker within the month, but I also had great hopes because I had tremendous confidence in my speech therapist. That confidence was the beginning of my change. Over the next two years I would participate in individual and group stuttering therapy. I also joined the National Stuttering Project (which became the National Stuttering Association), and became very involved with the local (and wonderful) Philadelphia chapter of NSP/NSA. I logged onto Stutt-l, which I read daily, incessantly, and where I posted a message of my own at least once a week for a period of two years. In short, I began to be very involved in the stuttering community in my own little way.
But all of this change took place within the context of stuttering and the stuttering community. On that morning, in September, 1997, I realized that I had to take the next step. I knew that what I needed most was to challenge myself in the real world, to become a whole person. I was like a little boy standing at the edge of the lake in Maine, knowing I wanted to jump in, to take the leap, but also knowing that it would be cold at first, cold enough to take my breath away.
Now, when I speak to my own classes and speak to other groups about stuttering, inevitably I am asked, "What is the one thing that was the most important for change?" Unfortunately, I tell people, there was no One Thing. Students of speech pathology often have the idea that change is wonderful and good. And it is. But change is also lousy, messy, and painful. Even if where you are is terrible, at least you know where you are.
Manning (2007) described the "cyclical" process of change in stuttering. Change does not move from one stage to another leading to recovery, acceptance or normalcy (whatever that is). Rather, stages are often revisited. Making matters more complicated, change in stuttering involves change in the domains of speech, feelings/emotions, and attitudes/cognitions, all in multiple environments (Bloom & Cooperman, 1999). It is very easy to get someone's speech fluent in the environment of the therapy room where there is zero negative emotion and little cognitive demand, but as soon as that person leaves that safe environment, there are numerous other environments (home, school, work, social, etc.), each with their own thoughts and feelings associated. Not to mention that each environment has within it individuals who may be fluency enhancing or otherwise.
Following college, my own stuttering was severe, and there were no environments in which I was fluent, without word changing, silence, or other methods of avoidance. I had to start at the beginning, which for me was talking about stuttering with other people who stutter, then with my parents, and close friends. Generally, my fluency would improve in any environment as my thoughts and feelings about stuttering in that environment improved. Once it became "okay" to talk about stuttering and to stutter in front of people who stuttered, my stuttering would become less severe. Not only was I able to have some spontaneous fluency, but I was able to use some fluency shaping techniques with success for the first time, because I was no longer so tense in fear of stuttering. Gradually, I became a very successful communicator in my own little world, a world that was slowly expanding.
On the morning of my post to Stutt-l, I had come to realize that it was time to take another leap, to enter the environment of the "real world" for the first time. I had made it through grade school and college avoiding as many people and situations as I possibly could, and I now realized that I could not live that way any longer. I had to "come out of the closet," not only as a person who stuttered, but as a real person. I was going to have to think about having a career, having a social life, and living a true, meaningful life, all of which I had avoided, using my stuttering as an excuse.
Manning (2001) discussed the price that people who stutter pay for their avoidance of stuttering. Every activity that we participate in leads to another activity; every thought that we express leads to another thought to express, which leads to a statement from a friend, which leads to another thought. Like many people who stutter, I didn't participate in many of those activities that would have led to more activities and I didn't have those conversations that would have led to more thoughts and more conversations. Not only did I now have to give up all of my tricks and enter the world, but I knew that I would be behind my peers for a long time before I would catch-up - it's awfully dark in that closet.
So, here I was. I had made many changes in my life for the better, but those changes were mainly within the confines of the stuttering community. It was time for me to break out, to DO something more. I loved talking about stuttering. I loved examining it, reading about it, and writing about it. What I wasn't so thrilled about was actually doing something, and I had reached a point in my therapy where it was time to do something big. I had put my toe in the water before, but there were better things ahead, if I was to make the effort.
I quit my manual labor job and joined a Temp agency. For someone who stutters, this was a scary proposition: knowing that I would have a job for a week (or more, or less) and then move to a different job, repeating the process of introducing myself again and again to different people in different places. On my application and my interview, I told the person that I stuttered, and that I could do anything, but that I would rather not be answering the phone. The first job I had lasted four days, and I made a point to tell as many people as I could that I stuttered. On the fourth morning, which everyone knew would be the last, because the task I was hired to do was almost finished, one of the secretaries came over to me and said, "Theyıre hiring for someone in Customer Service. You should interview for the job."
"Oh, I don't think I could do that," I said. "I stutter."
The secretary turned to me and said, "Don't ever tell yourself that you can't do something. If they think you can't do the job, you make them tell you to your face."
I have never forgotten her or that advice. But I just wasn't ready yet, and the next Monday I started my new temporary job at a company that had a contract to handle a portion of coverage for a large insurance company. This turned out to be a longer job. I did filing and copying and mailings and all the work in an office one can do without answering the phone. Three weeks later, I was approached by the supervisor for customer service. They had an opening, and she wanted to know if I would be interested.
"Well, do you know that I stutter?" I asked.
She smiled and said, "Yes."
Just a quick note here: Over the last three weeks, not only did I tell as many people in this large office as I could that I stuttered but I also stuttered, and stuttered A LOT. I didn't sort of stutter, or kind of stutter, I stuttered, and I stuttered on every sentence. It would have been impossible for someone in that office NOT to know that I stuttered, but I had spent the last 20 years pretending to myself and others that I didn't stutter, that I was still surprised that she knew.... Behold the power of denial. This time, I said yes, and I spent the next nine months on the phone for forty hours a week. It was some of the best speech therapy I have ever had.
Now, here I am, ten years later. One goal that I have not achieved is speech fluency, but during these ten years, I have achieved many of my goals. I have an amazingly beautiful family - a great marriage and two wonderful children. I have a Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) and am a faculty member at The College of Saint Rose, a place where they truly care about stuttering, something that is rare in CSD departments these days. I get to work with and teach about stuttering, people who stutter, and their families.
I can hardly wait for the next ten years.
Bloom, C., & Cooperman, D. K. (1999). Synergistic Stuttering Therapy: A holistic approach. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Manning, W. H. (2001). Clinical decision making in fluency disorders, second edition. San Diego, CA: Singular.
Manning, W. H. (2007). "Therapeutic change and the nature of our evidence: Improving our ability to help". In N. Bernstein Ratner & J. Tetnowski (Eds.), Current issues in stuttering research and practice (pp. 125-158). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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