About the presenter: Mike Hughes is the executive director of Speak Easy Inc. Since 1984 this Canadian organization for people who stutter has been providing information and support to adult stutterers, parents of stuttering children, professionals in the field, and the general public. Speak Easy publishes a monthly magazine, Speaking Out, which is edited by Hughes, and is approaching its 200th issue. An electronic monthly digest of "Speaking Out," is freely available and can be requested by sending an email to list@speakeasycanada.com with only the word SUBSCRIBE in the Subject and firstname lastname in the body of the message.

STUTTERING: The Real World

by Mike Hughes
from Canada

Too many people, stutterers and nonstutterers, feel that they have a right to foster their beliefs on others. I am NOT a trained professional whose role it is to instruct stutterers on how to speak more fluently. I AM a stutterer who has learned some pretty valuable "life lessons" which others might be able to adapt to their situations. One of these important "life lessons" -- an approach to cope with stuttering with a resultant ease of stress promoting greater fluency -- is reflected in the three short biographical segments below.

Remember to Forget about Stuttering!

We stutterers seem intent on subjecting ourselves to the most difficulty we can imagine. If we are not immediately experiencing difficulty with our speech, we begin to anticipate the trouble that lies ahead. It's as if we refuse to accept a moment of fluency without reckoning that we will soon encounter "payback" time.

A while ago, I caught myself anticipating difficulty as I drove towards the drugstore. There was no reason for it, I had been going through a relatively fluent period and had no rationale for expecting trouble. I was merely going to the store to get some cough medicine and, although I knew the store, I was not sure where the cough medicine was located. I thought for a moment about asking the store clerk for directions.

That's when I began to expect trouble. I suddenly knew that I would have trouble talking to the clerk. He was over 5 miles away, and already I knew that I was going to stutter when I asked him for directions. Maybe I should revert to old habits and begin wandering around the store in hopes of finding the cough medicine by myself. Perhaps I should postpone buying the stuff and let my wife get it later in the week. Of course, the cough medicine should be stocked out in the open in the store anyway. That's what any properly organized drugstore would do. What's the matter with this store? Are they so stupid they don't know enough to place their cough medicine where it can easily be found. Boy, are they dumb; they deserve to go out of business!

Then, I caught myself. I was setting myself up for a fall - and blaming it on someone else. From past experience, I knew that if I continued thinking in this vein I would self-fulfill the prophecy. By the time that I got to the mall, parked the car, and headed for the drugstore, I'd be lucky if I could walk - let alone talk! I realized that I was headed for trouble and that it was up to me to do something about it. Giving into the anticipation and planning ways to minimize the risk had never worked in the past. It was time to try something new.

Instead, I would try to obliterate the whole anticipated drugstore scene from my mind. I turned up the radio and focused my attention on the music. When any stray thoughts of cough medicine or clerks tugged at my mind, I mentally counted the bills in my wallet and the change in my pocket to see if I needed to stop at the bank for money. Since my bank was located in the mall, perhaps I should go in and check with the automatic teller to see if it was time to make a transfer between my savings and chequing accounts. Whatever I could make myself think of.... The anticipated trouble scene at the drugstore was soon driven from my mind; not that surprising a feat, with my poor memory.

I was backing the car into my driveway at home, cough medicine safely on the seat beside me, when I realized what I had done. The trip had been successful and without incident. I had driven to the store, asked the clerk for directions to the cough medicines, discussed with her the different types and which would be most appropriate for my needs. I probably stuttered somewhat since I am never perfectly fluent, but if I had I did not remember it. The stressful situation I had begun to picture in my mind had been averted.

It is a technique I have used quite frequently since that trip. Whenever I catch myself starting to anticipate stuttering, I try to drive the thoughts from my mind. I know that my stuttering will be less severe if I come upon it unexpectedly, instead of foreseeing trouble before it starts. And I am often amazed, after using this technique, at how well it has worked. I've used it on shopping trips, doctor's appointments, meeting strangers, and making telephone calls.

I'm sure there are those who would tell me I would do better to prepare for any difficulty and use gentle onsets or soft prolongations, but I've found that it also works - if I just remember to forget about stuttering!

Living a "Fluent Lifestyle"

Glancing across the street as I left Kent Hardware and started towards the Canadian Tire store, I spotted my car being driven into one of the service bays at the muffler/brake shop. The mechanic working on my car would soon either report on what repairs were needed, or have questions about how the car had been acting. I canceled my plans to browse through the store and started across the street to meet with the mechanic.

Since it was only a short distance between stores, I was walking with my winter jacket open. It was a sunny day and spring was approaching, but the wind was chilling and I was soon wishing that I had zippered my coat. My attention was distracted from the cold as I carefully observed traffic on the busy street. Quickly I took advantage of a motorist waving me across the street. I quietly laughed at my own foolishness as I entered the repair shop. If nothing else, the chilling wind had made me fully awake that morning.

I entered the small seven-chaired waiting room and headed for the free coffee dispenser at the end of the service counter. The work done at Wonder Muffler was good and I was a regular customer. So regular, in fact, that I had gotten used to the bitter coffee with Coffee Mate instead of cream.

"That's cold out there." I announced to the three other customers in the waiting room. "Now that spring is almost here," I continued, "it's about time that it warmed up and stayed warm."

"You're right." One of the men chuckled. "But you should try using a watering hose in that cold."

"Why in God's name would you be using a water hose in freezing temperatures like this?" I asked.

"We were washing trucks at work this morning." he replied with a shudder.

Another man joined in sarcastically: "That must have been fun!"

Soon the four of us were chatting on a variety of topics. I'm sure that I must have stuttered, either then or when I was discussing my brake squeal with the mechanic. If I did stutter, I didn't notice; nor did any of the others. As I drove away from Wonder Muffler, I flashed back onto the conversation with the three strangers. "Jeez Louise," I said to myself with satisfaction, "that was nice."

Since it was Saturday morning and I had no urgent matters, I stopped in at the new billiard establishment on the way home. There were no players at that early hour of the morning, so I spent half an hour chatting with Joe, the manager, before I continued on my way.

As I drove home I thought once again of Herb Goldberg, the founder and driving force behind the Foundation For Fluency. He has often used a phrase which intrigues me, saying that stutterers who achieve some degree of fluency must "learn to live a 'fluent lifestyle'."

The events of that morning had been a perfect example of what he means. Instead of approaching the repair shop conversation with paralyzing apprehension, I had begun it naturally and carried through with the discussion. Instead of reviewing it after I left and dwelling on the negatives of my minimal stuttering, I had recalled the positive feeling of communicating. This achievement had lead me to initiate a conversation with the billiard parlor manager. I know I stuttered several times in that half-hour. Funny thing is: It bothered me very little and Joe not at all.

Living a fluent lifestyle takes work at the beginning. Sometimes you have to force yourself to think of other things as you approach a speaking situation. Walking to the store for a loaf of bread, or driving to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, you may have to consciously think of a problem at work - or mentally count the change in your pocket - just to guard your thoughts from anticipating difficulty. Program yourself for successful speaking, don't let your stutter psych you out by focusing on the negative.

It also means being kind to yourself. Don't think about your speaking mistakes or dwell on how others hear your stuttering. Remember the saying: "We would worry less about what others think of us, if we realized how seldom they do." I used to be mortified by my stuttering and would spend days recalling unpleasant experiences. Now I try to divert my attention to something else and quickly forget the trouble spots. It makes for a more fluent, and happier, lifestyle.

A Kinder, Gentler Stutter

We learn - which is of absolutely no use to the young - that our stuttering seems to diminish as we become middle-aged and older. This attribute of aging is not due to acquiring extensive knowledge of stuttering therapy and techniques. Instead, it is due to acquiring life experience and making the adjustments necessary to survive the stress of living. Knowledge of stuttering is less important than knowledge of living.

I've been playing billiards ever since I was 12. I first learned the game in a smoke-filled, upstairs dump of a poolroom called "Al's." My initial strokes were shot on the smaller 4' X 8' 8-ball table; as I improved my skill, I graduated to the larger and more difficult 6' X 12' snooker table. I spent countless hours, and every cent I had, playing pool on weekends, in the evenings, and whenever I could safely skip school. I grew to love the larger snooker table, particularly when we gathered a group and shot "pill" for money. My meager allowance did not allow me to play in the high-stakes games, which was most fortunate, since I did not have the skills to survive this feeding ground for "sharks." As a youth, I had often played for small money that was big to me. When you're playing for $2, with only $1 in your pocket, the game is played under a great deal of tension. I was a good player, but not great.

Gradually I drifted away from the game, playing only one or two games a year. A while ago, though, I rediscovered the game as the 4' X 8' tables began appearing in every club, pub, tavern, and restaurant. I started playing the occasional game, then more frequently, then as often as I could. The attraction - and addiction - was to my new level of skill. I seemed to have discovered a "feel" for the game of 8-ball, a touch that had previously been lacking. With more money in my wallet, the tension on the table was gone. I could play for nothing, a beer, or for money without too much risk. As an older player, the apprehension and self-applied pressure was gone and I could allow my talent to flow naturally into the game. The result was a much higher level of play. The pressure was off and I could play better now that I didn't care.

Now that I'm older, the pressure is off my speech and I can speak better now that I don't care. It takes a lot of living to get to the point where you are comfortable with yourself. Years of experience make you a heretic as you discover that your beliefs were false - it is astounding but true, the world does not revolve around you. Over the years, you've been involved in countless clubs and groups. You've made a difference and improved those organizations. Yet, it is unsettling to realize that the group continues to flourish after you leave. Though you thought you were invaluable in your job, the company has continued to prosper since you left. You begin to discover the truth of the expression: no one is irreplaceable.

This diminished sense of self is a blessing.

As stutterers, we have an overworked sense of our own importance. We believe that everyone is enthralled by our utterances and that every syllable is important to those around us. Therefore if we make a mistake, it is highly visible to those who must be hanging on our every word. We feel that our speech must be perfect to match our own self-image. Fluency is the Holy Grail, with no tolerance for imperfection. Our demands, particularly on ourselves, are unreasonable as we set ourselves up for inevitable failure.

Life soon brings us to reality. We win and no one notices; we lose and no one notices. Remember that incident of stuttering shame that was branded into your soul ten years ago? Your listener during the incident has no memory of it - had forgotten it 30 seconds after it happened. Your scar is self-inflicted. Your life's true accomplishments and failures have faded over time; your stutterings have disappeared entirely. You may remember some of them, but no one else does.

We learn this lesson over time. We become more comfortable with ourselves. Our mistakes don't matter so much, our stuttering matters even less. We gain perspective on life. As our joints stiffen and our waists thicken, stuttering becomes less critical. We've seen some really important things in our lifetime, but stuttering isn't one of them. The years have brought a kind of wisdom and, with it, a kind of tolerance.

We've learned to set goals that are reachable, not impossible. If the net is too high, we lower it - too low, we raise it. Missed the target twice in a row, let's make it the best out of five. Can't carry a load, get help. Not everyone loves us, well fiddle-de-de. We've learned to be kinder to ourselves. To be gentler with our self-criticism. To relax.

The result is a kinder, gentler stutter.

May 27, 1999