It's become a modern cliché that people now change careers an average of three times in a lifetime. Over the past three years, I've sometimes used this idea to explain to myself why I left a 20-year career with a wind energy research program to become a speech-language pathologist. Sometimes, at 1 AM with 3 more hours of work to do, that practical thought hasn't been very reassuring. At those times, I've had to return to other evidence: like the moment I suddenly understood the process of my own stuttering therapy, which made it possible to consider being a therapist myself. Or the joy of having an entire weekend to spend immersed in a thick stack of research articles on stuttering. Or the experience of being a part of meetings where the participants were actually helping each other and didn't feel they had to "one-up" everyone else at the table. Also, like many other people who stutter, the first time I had been through school I was anxious and uncertain about what I would do with my life. It was exciting to know what I wanted to do and to be working toward that.
Lately, I've been able to turn for an explanation to moments in my clinical practica, working with a person with a stuttering problem, or dyslexia, or aphasia, or traumatic brain injury, who I realized I saw as a hero. In my new career, I think it will be important to focus on these realizations, not because I question my decision to change careers (I am way past that, no matter what happens), but because providing stuttering therapy can sometimes be a source of considerable frustration. And because speech-language pathology is one of the least understood - and least tangibly rewarded - of the helping professions, requiring a great amount of perseverance for second-career people to enter. In fact, just getting in to a good graduate school can be a major hurdle - particularly for those who may have some low grades lurking on their ancient transcripts.
The emotional rewards of this work are more intense, but very different than I thought they would be. Somehow, I thought that my experience as a person who stutters would have greater importance than it does - both to myself and others. While it does help give me greater credibility in some circles, my stuttering could be a liability because it could color my view of, and prevent me from accurately perceiving, a client's issues and needs. In fact, the stuttering therapist's job is really to be him/herself while forgetting personal anecdotes. The years of stuttering throughout my childhood and adult years don't give me the right to regale my clients with "insight." Nor does my own personal therapy story. Rather, they are valuable for me only when I can cast them off and see the client clearly as him/herself. By now, I have had first hand experience with the dangers of thinking I am solely responsible for the success or failure of therapy. And I had also not really understood how utterly dependent success is on the client's motivation to make changes. Or how difficult it is for anyone to make the kind of significant changes one really needs to confront stuttering. And that facilitating this motivation can sometimes be the toughest part of therapy.
The real rewards of providing therapy are often little things: seeing the client do some small thing he has never done before (like asking for a specific type of ice cream), or making a barely perceptible speech modification that indicates the subtle and sometimes halting process of recovery is proceeding. The payoff for the continuing struggle to keep my own mouth shut comes from seeing someone else work through an explanation or task made difficult by a language or speech disorder. And, in the case of stuttering, it is sometimes in hearing a client say that he hardly thought about stuttering for a full day or afternoon or an entire vacation - even though the topic continues to be endlessly fascinating to me. I've had to learn that what's important is not the feeling that I've "helped" someone, but struggling to know what is probably "real" therapy and what is probably not. It's often not as easy to figure that out as I had supposed. But then, I hadn't realized how much fun therapy could be either.
Finally, when I embarked upon this career change, I downplayed to myself the fact that I would still be stuttering and would still have to deal with the old challenges and fears - though these are much less severe of course. It's much easier advertising my stuttering to clients who stutter and their parents than it is to a roomful of restless high school students or a person to whom I'm administering a language test. But it still must be done. And that brings up the most difficult explanation of all: why a person who has had difficulty speaking for most of his 50-plus years would continue to choose a profession in which speaking is so essential. But then, that tendency - seen in so many of us - is one of the little mysteries of stuttering itself.