About the presenter: John Paskievich is a documentary film maker and photographer and also a person who stutters. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada. His last film was Unspeakable, a 90 minute National Film Board of Canada documentary on the history, nature and treatment of stuttering. Unspeakable has won critical acclaim at numerous film festivals and has been screened at conferences of the British Stuttering Association, the International Stuttering Association and the Canadian Stuttering Association. You can order and get information on Unspeakable at www.nfb.ca or by calling 1-800-542-2164.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2007.

My Brain Has A Mind Of Its Own

by John Paskievich
from Canada

From my experience the most emotionally confounding and debilitating characteristic of stuttering is it's intermittent and situational nature. Even the most severe stutterers don't stutter all the time and on all words. Some people stutter only on certain words, others only when they use the phone while others stutter with their fathers and not with their mothers. This verbal duality, of being both a fluent Dr. Jekyl and a stuttering Mr. Hyde when uttering a sentence, is confounding and discomforting for both the person who stutters and the listener.

In my case, I don't stutter when I read so, as a documentary filmmaker, I am able to narrate my own films. When I do TV and radio interviews however, much of my fluency evaporates and my interviewers, especially those who didn't know that I stutter, are often left confused and wondering as to how they'll be able to salvage some fluent bits to put on the air.

After a series of such incidents I decided to make a film on the history, nature and treatment of stuttering so as to educate the public, myself and other stutterers on this peculiar and emotionally devastating speech disorder.

I am usually behind the camera, but this time I decided with much trepidation that I would put myself and my own experiences in front of the lens. I grew up thinking that stuttering was my "bad self" something that filled me with shame, frustration and anger, something that I felt I had to conceal or minimize at all times. Speech is what distinguishes us most from animals and my stuttering made me feel that I had devolved to the level of a chimpanzee.

As I began to research my film, I sought out other stutterers who might be possible subjects in my film. My sense of shame began to be diluted as I shared life experiences with a wide range of people who shared the same struggles as I did. For the first time in my life I felt that I was not alone with my stuttering.

I noticed that when I spoke with other stutterers my speech was more spontaneous and more representative of my personality because I had no fear of being rejected by my listeners. At the same time I noticed that I stuttered with more repetitions, but with much less struggle and blocking behaviour because I wasn't trying to pass as being fluent.

It began to slowly dawn on me that, after 50 years of stuttering and avoidance, I must somehow allow myself to be who I really am, someone who stutters. But how could I do that when stuttering can be such a humiliating and frightening ordeal?

I sought out speech therapy but, even in my city of 700,000 people, good speech therapy wasn't readily available so I decided that I would embark on a program of self-therapy.

Until recently, information on stuttering was difficult to obtain, but with the introduction of the computer and internet there is now a wealth of information for those who want to learn. I emptied mounds of ink cartridges as I printed material from websites, listservs, chat groups, books and periodicals.

I learned that I had to make the decision to bring my stuttering, my evil twin, out into the open. I began to "advertise" my stutter without regard to what people thought of my speech. I made countless phone calls and engaged in conversations with strangers and others as a way of exposing my stuttered speech. I even took out a license plate that said STUTTER which inevitably initiated questions to which I was forced to respond.

Coming out of the stuttering closet was emotionally draining. Not only were the reactions that I got from my listeners often not pleasant, these incidents also released a flood of emotional memories, both real and perceived, of how I let my avoidance of stuttering control my life in so many ways.

In school I usually sat at the back of the class and never asked questions. When called upon I often pretended that I didn't know the answer or I would give the wrong answer even though I knew the right one because I knew could say the wrong answer more fluently.

During my adolescent years I rarely went out on dates with girls I fancied because I couldn't imagine anyone enjoying themselves with me while I struggled with my speech the entire evening.

After completing university I doubted my ability to do work that involved verbal communication and for several years I settled into a series of manual jobs while I worried about my future.

In school, work, friendship, romance and play I allowed myself to be marginalized by my stutter. My speech disorder became a life disorder.

While these and other dank and dark memories surfaced I nevertheless also felt a surge of liberation and euphoria knowing that I had survived those times and that I could use my past to inform my present.

After bringing my stuttering bogeyman out of the dark and into the sunlight I began to try to modify my stuttering to make it more acceptable and less severe.

I tailored a program of self therapy using a combination of Stuttering Modification and Fluency Shaping as well insights from other stuttering therapies. Using a mirror, a tape recorder and note pad I would make numerous phone calls to airports, shops and government offices so as to identify and monitor what I did when I stuttered. Like peeling the proverbial onion, accompanied by the proverbial tears, I set about trying to slowly remove all those secondary behaviours that I had accumulated over a life time of stuttering- shallow breathing, rapid speech, head movements, no eye contact, and the like, all of which were misguided attempts to flee my stuttering and force my way into fluency.

My self- therapy was a laborious and frustrating process and I often relapsed back to my old patterns.

Darrell Dodge and his web site The Veils of Stuttering provided me with an understanding of why stuttering may be such a difficult disorder to treat in older children and adults. Dodge believes that stutterered speech traumatizes the speaker and these traumatic moments are stored as emotional memory in the brain's amygdala and the surrounding limbic area. These memories and the conditioned responses to them can be managed, but they can never be entirely eradicated. Stuttering according to this theory is, in large part, a reactive disorder and stutterers must learn to identify and cognitively manage their emotionally conditioned reactions. This is hard to do. Research has shown that the neurological circuits that send messages from the emotional area of the brain to the cerebral cortex are much more numerous and faster than the circuitry that goes the other way. This is why humans initially react to situations emotionally before they do rationally.

Dodge's theoretical model provided me with an explanation for what I regarded as my divided self, my two halves, one fluent and other not, constantly vying with each other as to which half would win or lose whenever I spoke. My brain really had a mind of it's own. Although my rational brain knew what should be done to speak fluently, my efforts would easily be sabotaged by the emotional part of my brain.

Realizing that stuttering in adulthood can never be completely eradicated, but that my reactions to it could be modified, has taken a tremendous weight off of me. I no longer hope for a miraculous cure nor do I beat myself up over my relapses. Neither do I fight with my stuttering, but rather I try to play with it, often stuttering on purpose and in different ways with different people and in different situations to see how well I can control it.

I still stutter and I always will, but it has ceased to be the monster that I so unwillingly and unknowingly helped to create.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2007.

July 15, 2007
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