|About the presenter: Mike Lefko, aside from being a person who stutters, is husband to Susan for almost 20 years, and a father of 2 beautiful girls named Abbey and Molly. Mike has been an educator for over 20 years both in the classroom and as an administrator, and enjoys immensely making a positive impact upon the lives of others. Aside from career and family, Mike enjoys to reads, loves good food, and loves to run. Having completed 4 half- marathons in the past several years, his next big aspiration is to train for and run a full marathon, not for time, but to complete the entire race without walking.|
Breaking the Chains of Silence I have aspired to many things in my life, one to be a writer, and another to be a songwriter. I write about things of which I am passionate. To date I have written a pretty good song entitled "Breaking the Chains of Silence", expressing the pain that only one who stutters would know. I have yet to write the book but certainly haven't crossed it off my list, at least until I actually do it. This short autobiography will have to suffice for now.
Living as a person who stutters hasn't really squelched any of my hopes and dreams though at times it has made attaining them a bit more challenging. As a kid, my elementary school years consisted of being teased about my stuttering, getting frustrated, punching the offending party in the stomach and earning a chair with my name on it in the principal's office. I was eventually able to find a more suitable space among a group of friends who accepted me for who I was, stutter or not. From 5th grade on, I had friends.
Throughout junior high and high school, I had friends, girlfriends, was involved in sports, music and theatre. I was ok with my stuttering, because then people who cared about me were ok with it.
When it came time to think about college, there wasn't much question that I wanted to pursue teaching, not because I loved school, or had an special fondness for academia, my reason was much more cliche', I loved working with kids. Additionally, I had a few special teachers who inspired me to do for others as they had done for me. I was met with a degree of skepticism from my grandfather. For a Jew, he certainly used Jesus's name an awful lot.
"Jesus Christ, Michael, be sensible! How do you expect to teach when you can't even talk?" Use of anyone's Lord's name in vain aside, you must know my grandfather said what he said out of love. This was his sensitive side coming through. I realize now, that he was trying to spare me from what he perceived would be a lifetime of pain and frustration. "Why don't you get a nice desk job, something in computers perhaps, that doesn't rely so much on verbal communication?"
Despite my grandfather's career counseling, I pursued a degree in special education and taught successfully for 12 years in the first phase of my career. Did I stutter? You bet I did, and there were times during those 12 years that were so painful, I believe only someone who stutters could understand. I did pretty well talking to and teaching the kids. Talking to my colleagues, supervisors, and student's parents was another story altogether. There were moments that seemed like hours facilitating parent- teacher conferences where I struggled to get every word out. During this phase of my life, starting at around year 3 of my teaching career, I lived what I referred to as a self- fulfilling prophecy. I thought I would fail therefore I did . . . just about every time. So I would be pushing the words out, substituting all over the place, rushing to get my thoughts out before the next block, sweating profusely, sensing others extreme discomfort, wishing the nightmare would end or that I could just run out of the room and not come back. You can't run away from your life when you are a grown up. I certainly didn't feel like a grown up. I was 23.
During those years, I feared the phone. I feared answering the phone. I feared ordering a pizza, and I feared the drive-through. I feared meeting new people who would ask me my name, or God forbid ask me what I did for a living. During these years, I was often paralyzed by fear and anxiety about failing. It was so much easier not to even try. Fortunately, I had a loving wife, who in retrospect, may have enabled me, but helped me to survive what were some of the toughest years in the history of my speech. Things I aspired to during these years that I achieved: Becoming a husband, and a father of two beautiful girls, and maintaining a career requiring quite a bit of verbal communication, in spite of my stuttering.
Around the mid to late 90's, after a short stint at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro speech clinic, I aspired to become a speech-language pathologist. During my time working at that clinic with the clinicians, and participating in a few studies, we touched upon the subject of my returning to graduate school to become a speech therapist. One of the therapists commented to me that she didn't know how parents would respond to a therapist who stuttered working with their children. Though that didn't completely crush my dreams of working in a field I was passionate about, the rejection letter from the university did. Apparently my GRE scores weren't high enough. One aspiration postponed perhaps if not crushed. I rule nothing out.
I was referred to a therapist in Durham, North Carolina who was convinced that I had been looking at my stuttering all wrong. His approach, his theory was that traditional speech therapy focused too much on the avoidance of stuttering, rather than learning how to speak well. His contention was that because of my stuttering, I had never learned how to speak properly. Stuttering rather severely at the time, I was hard-pressed to argue with that point. Through relaxation and hypnosis, combined with what he coined "performance speaking" and using natural gestures to "drive" my speech mechanism, I was able to achieve fluency and some measure of comfort and success. The problem was, like all the other therapies I had experienced in my life, there was little successful transfer outside of the therapy session.
Still battling with stuttering both personally, and professionally, I continued to pursue new challenges career-wise and was successful in my endeavors, in the face of my stuttering. My career moves and decisions soon let me to the pursuit of a graduate degree in school leadership as a North Carolina Principal Fellow. School leadership, or leadership of any kind was never anything I had remotely considered previously. For years, my grandmother would say to me in her New York accent,
"Michael deeya. It's wondaful that you want to teach, but if you're going to make any money in education, you've got to pursue administration."
For years, I had no interest. For one, I didn't see the power of what a great and effective leader could do, having worked with so few great and effective leaders. Second, I simply had no desire to lead. To pursue leadership as a person who stuttered was putting yourself out there for the whole world to see. It was not first on my list of aspirations. My career eventually evolved to the point where I did become a school leader, a support and advocate for teachers, in their endeavors to reach and teach children.
Fast forward about 9 years. I completed my Master's degree, and had worked as a successful school leader for about 5 years. Even though I've had some twists and turns in my career path, I'd never lost sight of my goals and what I wanted to accomplish, and not once did my stuttering get in the way of my career aspirations.
By the summer of 2011, my career was going great, and my life was pretty good, but my speech was in the toilet. The stresses of everyday life, combined with a long-standing diagnosis of generalized anxiety, which I believe is directly correlated with my stuttering had left me again speechless. There were moments that summer that I struggled to get a word out. I knew it was time for a speech tune-up.
I did my research. Having tried a very early version of the SpeechEasy years ago, that was the first thing I turned to. Delayed Auditory Feedback had been around in the speech pathology circles since the beginnings of those circles. I figured perhaps they had perfected it, and it was what I was looking for. I never got to that point. Once I got over the sticker shock of the cost of the device, and the fact that most insurances won't even look at it, I did some research, that was less than inspiring. I decided the Speecheasy wasn't for me, though it was the closest thing to a "magic pill" that I had ever seen, if it worked long term.
So I started searching on the internet. Working in the mountains of North Carolina, I found the name of a professor and therapist at one of the local universities. Aside from his credentials, this guy was a stutterer himself, something I had never experienced in a speech therapist. What most impressed me about this therapist initially, the perception that we shared a life's experience, while significant, in the end, was one of the least important things about working with him.
I would be leaving this tale as a cliff-hanger if I didn't at least try to describe to you some of the things that have worked for me in my work with this speech pathologist. We are trying to identify, together, what specifically it is about his therapy that has made it so effective, both in the therapy session and outside in the real world, when others have failed to do so.
This therapist wasn't interested in what type of insurance I had, and he wasn't anxious to sign me up to work with one or more of his graduate students. This therapist and professor was legitimately interested in me, getting to know me, and learning what he could do for me.
He asked me what my goals were, and what my definition of success was as a person who stuttered. He made no assumptions that he understood what it was I hoped to accomplish in therapy. Nor did he try to push any ideas or methodologies on me. Though we didn't know each other, I felt as though I was sitting down with an old friend, as opposed to being sized up or evaluated.
He told me that if I decided to work with him, that it would be hard work, and that I would have to be committed to doing what it takes to speak well, but that I already had a lot of the right stuff. He saw that in me. He told me to do some research, and read up on him, and decide if he was the right guy for me. He said, "Don't take my word on anything."
As we began working together, I felt more and more that this man was interested not in simply "treating" me, but invested in knowing me, and I him. As we conversed, he would suggest that I try speaking a certain way, and introduced me to what he referred to as "controls". He would help me to develop imagery or metaphors to visualize fluent speech, but it was never simply about fixing the stuttering. He was dedicated to knowing me. The therapy and conversation was so integrated into our evolving relationship that it didn't really feel like therapy at all. The best part about it was I didn't feel as though I was "on the clock". I never felt that at the end of my session I was shoved out of the door of a contrived atmosphere of fluency and success, only to be left on my own back in the real world. Because we were forming a relationship, I felt that my therapist was with me all the way.
In my life, I have aspired to, and aspire to be and accomplish many things, but none comes close to the desire I have, working with this therapist, to one day be a person who "once stuttered". I feel I have never been more close to that goal than I am today.
It was not merely in a day that I went from acceptance of stuttering, to a determination that while it has been a part of me, it doesn't have to be a part of my everyday existence anymore. It was actually about 6 or 7 months, plus or minus the 42 years prior to meeting this therapist that prepared me for this experience.
We're still working together to both improve my speaking, and collectively figure out what it is about his therapy that has not only worked, but has allowed me to transfer my "in therapy" successes to the real world. Finally, I am in control of my speech rather than it controlling me. Freedom, liberation and empowerment are just a few words that come to mind.