About the presenter: Dale Sander is a person who stutters. His stuttering often ruled his life when he was younger but now he enjoys challenging speaking situations. He lives in Dallas, Texas. He joined the National Stuttering Association in 2001 and is a past president of the Dallas NSA Chapter. Dale enjoys building telescopes and leads the Texas Astronomical Society Amateur Telescope Making Group. He also enjoys music and volunteers as a sound tech at the local Uncle Calvin's Coffeehouse. Both the Dallas NSA Chapter and Uncle Calvin's are having their thirtieth anniversary this year!

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2011.

Understanding My Stuttering by Unlocking the Secrets Deep Inside Me

by Dale Sander
from Texas, USA

I was born in Kansas in 1951 and started stuttering after beginning first grade. Understanding how everything in world works has always been a powerful force in my life. Stuttering seemed to have no answers and only in the last few years have I been able to even ask the fearful question, "Why was I that boy in first grade who stutter?" This is my personal journey looking back to an earlier time to explore that crucial question.

In the year 2000 I started exploring some of my childhood memories that related to my stuttering. The therapeutic process I used allowed me to target recent events in my life when my stuttering was most troublesome. After exploring an adult stuttering event, the process sometimes allowed me to see what childhood events were linked to that starting target.

This short list of only four events is representative of many more similar episodes I have explored from my early childhood:

  1. I am about seven years old, running outside by my back door of my house, trying to talk to Grandpa, I am stuttering on "I". . . until I'm completely out of breath, I stop running and I start trying to breathe. In this event my speech is stuttered, ends with a block and that momentarily blocks my breathing.
  2. I am in first grade and my teacher says, "Dale, could you tell us your last name?" I try to speak but I'm unable to make a sound. My head moves down on to my hands pressing hard on my arms that are resting on top my desk. I have no memory of making any sound and it feels like I am trying to hide. This event from age six was an early speech block.
  3. I am five years old in kindergarten class at school and we are forming a line before we go out for recess. Our class is told that everyone must be completely quiet, I kiss a girl I know to say hello very quietly. My classmates start making lots of noise. I feel frozen in time, my head moves down, I'm unable to move and I am very afraid. This event was a nonverbal communication, i.e. saying hello with a kiss, ending with what feels like a block.
  4. At about two years old, I am alone in bed, the room is dark, I am having trouble breathing, lying on my back pushing my head up and I keep trying to cry out for help. My voice is blocked and I remember being unable to make a sound. This is the earliest event I have remembered so far and is by far the most emotionally powerfully. I view this as an unsuccessful attempt with preverbal communication, i.e. crying. My voice is completely blocked!
For several years through this exploration the kissing the girl in kindergarten and my infant trouble breathing events did not seem to fit with the stuttering events from when I was older. I thought of stuttering as just a speech disorder. The very similar emotions I explored with these four events have felt powerfully linked together though. All four of these blocked communication memories also have very similar body motions, with my head moving towards my chest and my airway feeling blocked.

Soon I started believing these four key events in my childhood pointed to my stuttering as being much more than just a speech disorder. When I now have a speech block, it often feels to me as if I am revisiting the emotions of an unsuccessful preverbal attempt to communicate. So simply put, I just keep feeling the same fear of the being unable to cry out for help whenever my speech now blocks as an adult!

Twelve years ago before I started looking through my childhood, my frequent adult speech blocks seemed only related to the fearful speech of the moment. The first sound of that feared word was my primary focus in the world! My early communication fears have now lost much of their power over me. When I now have a speech block, I believe the emotional energy is linked to blocked communication before I learned to talk. It is hard to explain how a speech block feels, but because I understand my speech fears were from so long ago, it seem mostly unimportant to my adult conversation.

When the subject of childhood emotional trauma is discussed, it often seems framed in the context of what someone has done to a child. My newly explored memories do not appear to be related to any abusive treatment. Before I was able to make contact with this early overpowering fear, I did come accept the idea that whatever I might discovered about my very early childhood would be okay. What I found was that my young struggle to communicate was very frightening when it was unsuccessful. As an infant and as an adult my voice just sometimes blocks.

My first three years of life were filled with more than the usual childhood illnesses of the time and I did not start talking until I was near the age four. My mother tells me I was generally unable to keep my infant formula down and our doctor was unable to help. For many months when I was three years old I had an undiagnosed ear infection. My mom says I cried most of the time but she did not know why. In the 1950's doctors did not have the resources they have today. With my infant health issues it would not be surprising that my world was a very scary place my first few years.

I found traditional speech therapies of little help with when I was in school. As an adult at age thirty speech therapy was again unsuccessful. I Read the new stuttering research through the years and it just seemed to be a rework of many old ideas. This did not did not offer me much hope for the future. So when I went looking again for something to help improve my fluency a few years ago, I started looking outside of the speech therapy that had failed me so many times before.

I did not think stuttering was caused by a childhood trauma but stuttering itself did feel to me like a life filled with many very small traumas. A trusted friend told me about a new type of trauma therapy that was said to work much faster than the traditional therapies. I did some research on this new therapy approach call Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Its most tested use was for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At the time I could find no use of EMDR as stuttering therapy. I thought simply, it's untested for stuttering and works fast, so I would just give it a try!

And so started this very detailed look at my stuttering. An exploration much farther back in time than I would have ever thought possible when I started. At first I explored some childhood memories about my stuttering that seemed complete before I started EMDR. These first therapy sessions became very intense with a rush of newly discovered emotions linked these starting EMDR targets. As I explored deeper through my childhood my adult stuttering became worse. So I was thinking about giving up on this untested and very powerful therapy just shortly after I started. My key to my moving forward I believe was a shift in focus I made from working to improve my fluency to just trying to understanding my stuttering.

This project started as something I thought might last a few weeks and now I'm twelve years into it with no end in site. EMDR has helped me to understand how my memories where linked together over my lifetime. With careful exploration of my past, I found these old memories started lose their powerful control over me. I believe the subconscious linking of emotional memories is why my stuttering is so difficult to overcome. Only a few years ago my stuttering seemed to just come out of nowhere. Now almost everything about my stuttering makes perfect sense to me. I still sometimes stutter but I now believe my stuttering at its core is not really about speech.

One idea that seems inescapable to me, is that some of my secondary body motions in both my adult and childhood stuttering feel exactly the same as when I was stuck in communication blocks from about age two. If this is true then these "secondary behaviors" became integrated into my struggle to communicate more than a year before I began talking!

I don't know what the causes of stuttering are for the many thousands of people all over the world who stutter. This personal essay is my own case study of only one person who stutters. My speech has dramatically improved over the last few years. As important as that is, it feels insignificant when compared to what I achieved with understanding how my stuttering developed over my lifetime. Many fearful memories of my unsuccessful attempts with preverbal communication have always been with me I feel and will always stay with me. These frightening memories now have a place of origin and don't seem to just come out of nowhere. Now I'm able to put this early emotional energy into perspective even when it's overpowering my speech.

The many people who stutter I've met over years are all so different and I also believe we share many commonalities with our stuttering. Although I am having great success with EMDR, I do not believe this powerful therapy would often be successful if used as just a general speech therapy tool! That said, I also believe EMDR therapy could hold great promise with helping to better understand what causes stuttering. With a better understanding, I see a great possibility of much more effective treatments for stuttering being developed in the future.

A closing thought for all of us who stutter: If you believed it might be possible in travel back in time to explore how your stuttering first developed, would you be willing to take that journey?

These three submissions from past International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conferences (ISAD) have especially help me to better understand my own personal journey as a person who stutters.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2012.

SUBMITTED: August 4, 2012
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