About the presenter: Hannah Laday grew up in rural Maine. After graduating from college, she worked for 15 years for the largest North American seaweed company which supplies wildcrafted edible seaweed to the natural foods industry. In 2006, Hannah married and relocated to New Jersey. She now works as a direct support person to two young women with developmental disabilities. She is the Chapter Leader of the Central NJ Chapter of the NSA which she helped start in 2008.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2010.

Lightening the Load of Covert Stuttering

by Hannah Laday
from New Jersey, USA

My name is Hannah Laday. I grew up in rural Maine, the youngest of six children in a very competitive family. I have stuttered since I began talking. Until just a few years ago, I thought I was the only person in my family who stuttered. When I began asking some hard questions at that time, I learned that my mother had stuttered as a young girl but outgrew it.

Growing up, I excelled at just about everything I did. But my stuttering ate away at any self-confidence I might have developed from my achievements. My stuttering was never discussed in my family. There was one brief moment when it was discussed. That was when I was evaluated at school and speech therapy was recommended but my mother said no. She didn't explain why and this caused great confusion for me. Because my stuttering was a very heavy weight to me and I knew I needed help. I desperately wanted help.

Apparently I was a very sensitive child because it just devastated me and confused me that my family didn't see that I obviously needed help. I took their silence to mean that I was to pretend that life for me was normal. I characterize the atmosphere in my family as stoic. So I learned to just go on. And I believe this is where I learned to be covert. Because my family didn't acknowledge my stuttering, I began to hide it and bury its affect on me. I just couldn't believe that having trouble talking wouldn't be understood to be a hurdle that I needed help with. By junior high and high school, I was a mess. This is the period of my life when I did anything to hide my stuttering. Word substitution, rearranging phrases, word fillers all made my head so crazy that when I was done talking in conversations, I didn't have a clue whether or not I made sense. I remember this one day with some friends. It was an ordinary day, nothing special, but that's the point. An ordinary conversation can be an extraordinary, mentally acrobatic speech experience for a covert stutterer. I just wanted to participate in the conversations but I did it by hiding my stutter, which left my head spinning. A photograph of me was taken that day. That's probably why it stands out to me. To me, I looked sad and confused in the photo. At least I knew that's how I felt at the time.

By the time I was sixteen, my mother could no longer avoid the toll stuttering was taking on me. I was withdrawing more and more. She took me to speech therapy but again, we never had any real, open discussion about it.

I'm going to be very honest here. I am an adult who was nearly defeated by my stuttering. I never believed I could set goals and pursue my interests. I survived. I had heavy emotional baggage with it and I believe that is the biggest hurdle in covert stuttering. Getting out from under the shame.

I worked low-wage jobs despite having achieved excellent grades and completing a Bachelor's Degree in Anthropology and Geography. I withdrew, and I mean withdrew, deep into the Maine woods. I had to hike a half hour to my cabin and I lived without utilities for five years.

By the time I was 35, I was bottoming out emotionally. I had an acquaintance who I discovered was an SLP. She invited me to attend a meeting of SLP's. I don't remember it happening but Marybeth Allan was there and she must have given me her contact info. It still took me about another year and a half, but I finally moved onto a road, got a laptop computer, and e-mailed my friend Valerie and Marybeth. I said I wanted help and asked if they knew an SLP who worked with adults. Well, Marybeth herself worked with adults.

To condense the story here, meeting and working with Marybeth changed my life. She began acknowledging and addressing my emotional baggage immediately but simultaneously embarked on rather simple therapy strategies with me. I've always been a task oriented person and I think that coupled with the fact I had bottomed out, made me putty in her hands, and I took to her assignments right away. I would write down my goals for every day. They might be 2 voluntary stutters with Tina, a co-worker, or 3 easy-onsets with Mary Ellen, another co-worker. Don't get me wrong, sometimes I avoided my goals, but then I'd do the other part. I'd write out why I avoided, the feelings I had, the negative self-talk I had, and then how I could approach it more effectively next time and I'd even write out a positive statement to replace my negative self-talk.

The other major part of my therapy with Marybeth was to go out into the business community and voluntarily stutter. She told me this was primarily to allow me to observe peoples' reactions to stuttering, to desensitize me. This was incredibly liberating. People listened and responded with the information I was requesting. I communicated effectively with stuttering.

I then picked one person at my job, the UPS guy, who I interacted with daily, always hiding my stutter. Little by little I let myself stutter in front of him, and when I was preparing to attend my first NSA Conference in Chicago, I actually told him where I was going for my vacation. These were just small steps to becoming more open about my stutter.

So through Marybeth I got involved with the NSA, by attending the Eastern Maine Chapter Meetings of which she is the Leader, and as I mentioned, I attended my first Conference in Chicago. And that led to the next huge leap, the biggest leap of my life. I met George Laday, a longtime NSA member, and I married him and moved to New Jersey to be with him. This major transition, surprisingly, allowed me to become more and more open about my stutter. Perhaps for me, it was as simple as having a clean slate so to speak, but I don't recommend marriage and geographic relocation for covert therapy! Not that these things aren't good, but all those changes at once were a lot to bear and I definitely took a few steps backward in my attitude for a while. After some initial setbacks, I've really been pushing myself to expand my comfort zones. I started and became Chapter Leader for the Central NJ Chapter of the NSA and Co-Leader of the Central NJ TWST Chapter. Recently I introduced individual panel members for a panel on stuttering that I co-presented. I also emceed a challenging game I created for a workshop on stuttering. I now talk in front of groups, sometimes stuttering, after beginning by cautiously letting one UPS man hear me stutter. I have been able to use organizational and leadership skills in the stuttering community which I then slowly test and expand out into the "fluent" world, stuttering more and more openly and avoiding less and less. I have stuttered with a microphone addressing the Mayor and Borough Council in my town. I became a member of my Condo Association's Board and I told them upfront that I stutter.

Being more willing to stutter openly has allowed me to participate in life more. From viewing it worthwhile to learn new skills because I feel more willing to attempt to use them in my life, to actually having goals and believing I can reach them, I am slowly pursuing activities that I previously never considered. Perhaps most beneficial, being willing to stutter openly has reduced the amount of internal mental strain that hiding stuttering creates.

I have discovered another benefit of giving up covert behaviors. Accepting myself as a PWS allows me to develop a clearer self-identity. Contrary to denying my stuttering, owning it as a part of me, allows me to define my life better which includes acknowledging and respecting that it is a challenge that I cope with every day. Hiding or denying a part of myself that impacts my life sets up another hurdle by preventing me from coping with it directly. It also prevents others from understanding this part of my life. Society doesn't deny how other conditions impact peoples' lives. Why should I enable society to deny how stuttering impacts my life?

I do still pull out my old tricks now and then and it happens so quickly. One morning I was out walking and I ran into someone I know. I was telling them that I walk 3-4 days a week and then I said, "Five miles," which isn't true. I walk three miles when I walk, so I exaggerated my physical fitness for no good reason except to avoid the word "three." This may not seem like much but every time I misrepresent myself, my self-esteem takes a hit and I'm sure others can relate to that.

I want to conclude by saying that accepting myself, my stutter, and lightening the covert load is a journey, one step at a time. I am a person with some heavy baggage and some days it still takes me to the self-acceptance mat. And then I work at getting back up. Foremost, I am committed to telling the truth about stuttering.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2010.

SUBMITTED: August 5, 2010
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