Isn't it funny how life works?
If you bruise a finger or a toe, you can be sure that you'll bump that sore spot three or four times before it heals. Wake up to a severe stuttering day, and you'll be called on to do twice as much speaking as normal. Have one of those "dropsy" days, and your supervisor is right there to observe your every mistake. That's life!
Stutterers often have a list of feared words or sounds. This list is not carved in stone -- it seems subject to revision every other day. The fact that we do have a fear list is not too difficult to understand. If we experience failure 7 out of every 10 times over several months when we attempt to say "Hello," we soon learn to substitute with "Hi." Apprehension leads to substitution. When the feared word can not be substituted for -- such as saying our name or a specific number -- we become vulnerable to our most severe stuttering.
While attending university, I worked several years as a summer student for an electrical distribution utility. My position as a "gopher" required me to perform a range of duties, some in the office, some on the road. Due to the nature of the business, most of the company vehicles were equipped with a mobile radio. Of course, this was a source of fear for a young stutterer.
Since I worked in the branch office, we used the company vehicle assigned to the branch manager whenever it was available. Its vehicle number, and call number, was 696. If I was in the office and needed to communicate with the person currently using this vehicle, I would have to use the office radio to broadcast: "XOB92 Saint John calling mobile 696. XOB92 Saint John calling mobile 696. Do you read?" If I was using the vehicle and needed to speak to someone in the office, I would use the car radio to broadcast: "Mobile 696 calling XOB92 Saint John. Mobile 696 calling XOB92 Saint John. Do you read?" Guess what number caused me to stumble, stutter, and eventually fear? That's right, number 6-9-6. The fact that I was required to use the mobile radio almost daily, and frequently to mobile 696, served to imprint the apprehension about saying 6-9-6.
After I left university and joined the utility, I was transferred to Fredericton for about eight months. An opportunity for advancement came up and I transferred to Moncton. Meanwhile, the Saint John branch manager was promoted to manage the Moncton branch. Since he was familiar with his vehicle and comfortable with its drive, he took vehicle 696 to Moncton with him. The vehicle and I were, of course, assigned to the same office and I was back to the routine of using the mobile radio either to or from vehicle 696. It must have been fate!
My difficulty with the number 696 was reinforced by repeated use and repeated failure. Soon I was having difficulty with any situation requiring me to say "696" or "69" or "96" or "6" or "9" or any combination thereof. The more I came to fear these numbers, the more frequently they came up in conversation. Life does get difficult, don't it?
Life goes on...and, after several moves and several decisions, I arrived at this location with the phone number 696-6799. Come on, now! If there is a God, he certainly must have a warped sense of humor! I can't say my name, can't say "6," can't say "9," -- and now I have to leave a message on a telephone answering machine saying: "Please call Mike Hughes at 696-6799."! Life gets real difficult sometimes.
Fortunately, and I do attribute it to my involvement with Speak Easy, life improved. I can usually say my name. I can usually say "6" or "9" or "696." I can even say it on the telephone, which is extremely helpful since I am called upon to leave my name and number countless times every day. It may be Fate that has allowed me to overcome this obstacle, or it may have been the desensitization effects of repeated use. Whatever the reason, I'm happy with the results.
Isn't it funny how life works?
As I left the university, the hallways were foggy. And as clichÈd as it sounds -- and felt that night -- people seemed to be moving in slow motion. A television eternally stuck on CNN was silent. Or at least I thought it was. I was clutching a stack of disorganized papers, my black bag dangled off my shoulder, my winter coat, on an icy Minnesota evening, was open. And burning deep in the pit of my stomach was a fire that was sparked months ago, all the way back to when I was asked to do this. It smoldered for a while in that way that, if you don't think about why it's there, you don't notice it. But during the last few weeks it had spread. How could it not? As the day drew closer, the thought consumed more of my time. Work suffered. Daddy wasn't the same. The smoldering, flickering, self-imposed campfire had become an uncontrollable, raging inferno of pain, all because of tonight, all because of what I had to do, what I chose to do.
By now the actual task was over, but the pain wasn't subsiding. It persisted. With my hand caressing my abdomen I sped home, making a five-minute drive in what seemed like a half hour. It was early, my wife didn't expect me this soon. But here I was. She knew everything, thwarted my declarations that I simply wouldn't do it. I couldn't. How could I? It's not possible. I'm not an orator. I don't do well in crowds. Sure as hell not with an audience. And a big one, too. Especially for me. Eighty people? Are you kidding me? I'm a guy who has never spoken up for groups larger than a handful. Not just because I'm shy. I've got a good enough reason. Most people don't know. Why should they? I've spent a lifetime doing what I could to keep them from knowing. But tonight there wasn't an option. I was it. With 80 people staring, just like I knew they would be, I was supposed to be good at this, supposed to be smooth, comfortable, in control, not tripping over the Ds and Ts, not sounding like a cartoon. They expected a professional. Deserved to understand. Needed clarity.
I got in the door, plopped my black bag on the floor and turned the corner. The fire in my belly was at its most intense now. I considered making a trip to the ER but realize I know exactly what's happening and why. Such a trip would be silly and unnecessary. It'll go away. Has to. The threat is over.
My wife, knowing how hard this was for me, looks into my eyes and asks me -- in a tone different than usual, a tone that genuinely is concerned and probably a little bit worried about my answer -- "How'd it go?"
And with a stomach burning like a Fourth of July barbecue, I smile and say, "Good."
Because it was. I, Robb Murray, the kid who took an F in 9th-grade English instead of giving a speech, the kid who didn't ask a girl out because the words wouldn't come, had just successfully taught my first night of Intro to Mass Communications, a 100-level night class at Minnesota State University in Mankato, MN.
From a teaching perspective, the night went horribly. The VCR didn't work. Neither did the CD player. So I didn't get to address either of the topics I'd hoped to. But that was irrelevant. What mattered was that my speech, the way I spoke, was ACCEPTABLE. I'm not a gifted speaker and there are a lot of things I need to work on. But there I was, in front of 80 apathetic kids, holding their attention. So even as fire raged in my belly, I did it. I had successfully confronted my absolute worst fear: public speaking.
The pain was real. The stress of thinking about the first night of my teaching job built up gradually until, on the night of my first class, it was almost unbearable. I am a stutterer. Have been since birth. I got help when I was in high school. A wonderful speech pathologist named Dr. John Penino helped me with a speech technique that combined speed, air flow and inflection or something -- I don't know. All I know is that with his help and a little maturity, I've arrived at a place in my life where I can hold normal conversations with just about everybody without stuttering.
The wild card in all of this is, of course, getting up in front of a group. Which is exactly what went through my mind when I was approached about becoming an adjunct instructor at MSU. As a journalist, I'm often asked to speak to journalism classes. I'm happy to do it. I've always looked at it as a chance to talk about what I do to young people who, one day, would like to do what I do. In the back of my mind I always said, "Wow, wouldn't it be neat to teach." The very next thought was always, "But that will never happen. THERE'S NO WAY I COULD TEACH TO A ROOMFUL OF STUDENTS."
After speaking to one of these classes one day, the professor asked me if I'd consider teaching on an adjunct basis. I said "sure, yeah, great, you know me, I'd love to." I applied and was hired. That's when the panic set in, the same panic melodramatically described above. It was easy at first to say, "Oh, I'll be fine." But as the day drew near, I seriously considered backing out. My wife offered encouragement me and ultimately prevented me from backing out. And I'm so grateful she did. The satisfaction of getting through that first night -- and the next 15 -- was enormously powerful and uplifting. It was a true case of someone confronting his single worst fear.
Yes, there were times when, even though I've basically solved my stuttering problem, that I was stuck. And there were nights when I just wasn't on, speech wise. But there were also nights when I surprised myself with my smoothness, almost impressed myself with my ability to think on my feet. Each night I improved a little bit. By the end of the semester, the only thing I had to worry about was the evaluations the students fill out about the course and the instructor. I worried that they'd seen through me from the start, that they never really considered me a "real" instructor, that they couldn't understand me because I mumbled, that they didn't like the way I taught.
Again, to my surprise, the evaluations came back overwhelmingly positive. I know most do, for every instructor and every class. And I know you shouldn't put a lot of stock in them because they aren't scientific and blah blah blah. But I needed this. I needed to hear it. And a lot of the comments, I thought, were genuinely positive.
I've felt all my life like my stuttering was something that didn't draw a lot of sympathy from the people around me, not that I wanted a lot. But I think that is because I have done a pretty good job of hiding it. Inside, though, as any stutterer knows, it is and will always be devastating.
I guess, for me, this was like winning a battle against a longtime foe. When I stepped into that classroom and began to speak, I'd beaten it. The menace that kept me from doing so many things in my life and bludgeoned my self-esteem via the laughter of schoolmates, couldn't take this away from me. I'd won.
The epilogue to this story took place last week, the first night of classes for my second-ever semester as a mass communications instructor. The first night this semester was as non-eventful -- stress-wise -- as anything. I didn't worry, didn't get too nervous and sure as heck didn't buckle over in pain.
I've stuttered pretty much as long as I've talked, as long as I can remember -- my father still has a tape I did when I was 3 or 4 years old, me just hamming it up with a microphone, and there I am, with a bit of a stutter. In spite of speech therapy all through elementary school, middle and junior high school, and a summer-long intensive therapy program where I learned the principles of "Easy Relaxed Approach with Smooth Movements," I still stuttered.
Flash forward to a little more than 3 years ago. I had moved to Austin to live with my girlfriend. I was establishing myself as an activist, and I was getting more and more frustrated at my hesitancy in doing public speaking. This was a contradiction -- I was doing public action, but avoiding, at all costs, public speaking. I had things to say, and I was frustrated that I would not put myself in situations that would prove to be in the slightest bit uncomfortable.
Then, one night I saw a local cable access show of a kid with severe cerebral palsy, talking to the local city council through an interpreter. This kid strained, this kid gyrated, but he was able to communicate because he really wanted to, regardless of how he looked or how others viewed him.
I think this was the real eye-opener for me -- with tears streaming down my face as I watched with my girlfriend, I realised that, all my life, I had seen fluency as something to be sought after, that my dysfluency was something to be corrected. Here was this kid, in relative terms worse off than me, and he was doing fine communicating with others. I felt shame, and I felt anger.
I noticed a change almost overnight. My dysfluency was still a constant companion, but my attitude towards it was less viewing it as an albatross and more just a way of life. I stopped feeling shame about it -- I had important things to say, I needed to communicate, and I could not let myself be my only obstacle to that. My attitude shift went from "I don't want to put others through having to watch me talk" to "If I have to stand and stutter through a speech or prepared statement, the crowd has to stand and listen!"
Pushing the envelope -- that's what it has become. Pushing my own comfort level, understanding that many fluents have just as much anxiety about public speaking as I do, they feel just as sick before they do a presentation or a speech. But I have allowed my stuttering to be a crutch.
I realised that most of the fear and anxiety I had when it came to public speaking revolved around what others thought of my stutter. This is self-defeating -- I have no control over other peoples' thoughts, and no amount of heckling (typically, this never happened, I just let myself get carried away by the possibility) or support from them will make me any more fluent. Once I realised this, it was a liberating thing, it released me from the majority of the stress I felt about talking in front of others.
Fluency is still elusive, but I have found that by pushing the envelope, by putting myself in the most uncomfortable situations imaginable for a stutterer -- public speaking -- I can at least rid myself of the anxiety. With each speech, with each event, I realise I am still alive after all is said and done, I realise that no one has thrown tomatoes. And often, I find that people are interested in what I have to say, and often I find that I have changed peoples' minds or informed them on a particular issue.
My goal now has been to change not only my view on stuttering, but the view of others around me. We can be just as active and happy as fluents, by pushing that envelope. Granted, most of us are not ready for public speaking gigs, but we can push the envelope in other ways -- we can view ourselves as whole people, we can view our stuttering not as a disability but as another facet of ourselves that forces us to approach speaking in different, and positive, ways.
We must reject the stigma of victimisation -- that we are victims of our stutters, that we are less than whole, that we are incomplete but for that elusive fluency. Setting impossible goals is self-defeating, and our failure to meet and surpass impossible goals sends us into a downward spiral of isolation and depression.
The most important thing for me is the realisation that stuttering itself is nothing to be corrected or treated -- more than anything, it is how we view ourselves that is more important. Focusing on fluency has proven hazardous to my own fluency, and I have found more success fluency-wise by realising that what works for some won't work for all, that we all have our own holy grail that we must find on our own. Mine has been to stop viewing stuttering as an albatross.
Pushing the envelope -- realising that the majority of the people I come in contact do not care if I stutter or not, has proven empowering in more ways than therapy itself ever did. This change has proven to be more help to my fluency, though I imagine I have synthesised all that I have learned in therapy and used it to assist me.
I am still convinced that the worst enemy of the stutterer is not the stutter itself, but the stutterer's own perceptions, both of the effect of the stutter on the listener, and on the all-consuming power of the stutter on the stutterer. Pushing the envelope, realising that the stutter is not all-consuming, realising that I am bigger than my stutter, realising that people do not reject what I have to say even if it looks funny while I'm saying it or takes longer to say it, this has been my holy grail.
I know some will say I am experiencing classic denial, that I am deceiving myself, but I know from my own experience that I have changed -- my own perceptions, my own reactions to my stutter, and for some, most importantly, I have seen a dramatic rise in fluency. Most important for me is fully acknowledging that I am a stutterer, and not hiding it by remaining silent.
Simply, I found the edge of the envelope, and I pushed.
Being a person who stutters had always kept me from fulfilling some of my dreams. As a child, I dreamed I would someday be able to get up in class and give a speech or read a passage. Because of my stuttering, I never even tried. As an adult, I continued to think that I "couldn't" get up and speak because of my stuttering. I didn't think people wanted to listen to someone who stuttered!
When I turned 50, I took my first step toward attaining some of my dreams I decided to try speech therapy one more time. My SLP in Buffalo, Gary Rentschler, pushed me to do some things I never dreamed I could do, including starting the Buffalo Chapter of the NSA in 1994, and then chairing the NSA convention in Buffalo in 1997. These experiences helped to to get past some of my fears of speaking in public, and gain some confidence in myself.
After the 1997 convention, I was asked to speak to classes of students studying to be speech pathologists in Western New York. I also was invited to speak to speech pathologists groups in the Buffalo area and in Southern Ontario, Canada. I've also had the opportunity to speak to Sertoma Clubs in the area. Though I enjoyed the experiences of sharing my story about my stuttering, I felt very uncomfortable in front of an audience. I knew that I was invited to be a guest speaker because I stuttered, and was pleased about it. But I wasn't happy with my "performance".
Before the convention, I had attended a few meetings of a local toastmasters club but didn't feel comfortable enough to really get involved. In early 2000, I checked the Toastmasters web site and found that the Grand Pioneer Club was still meeting, and that it was thriving. I got in touch with the President, who remembered me and encouraged me to return to the meetings. Joining Toastmasters and becoming more involved in the club has been a real godsend for me. Not only have I learned leadership skills and made new friends, I'm becoming more and more comfortable just getting up and speaking. In fact, it's getting to be FUN! There are 35 members in my club, and we are one of the most active groups in the area. We meet the first, second, and fourth Mondays of each month and always have great meetings.
The Grand Pioneer club members meet for dinner at the restaurant where we hold our meetings. We meet at 6:15 and our meetings start at 7:00 p.m. The socializing over dinner has helped me to make a lot of good friends, and learn more about them. It surprised me that everyone who is in the club joined the group because of their fears speaking in public. I used to think that public speaking was easy for fluent people.
My first speech at Grand Pioneer was my Ice Breaker Speech. I was really nervous about giving it, and almost stayed home. My speech was my introduction to the club. I talked some about growing up as a person who stutters. I was very dysfulent, but the feedback from the club members was wonderful. They were so encouraging, and several of them asked me to keep educating them about stuttering! I have always had the feeling that they want me to succeed, and I know that they look past my speech blocks and listen carefully to what I am presenting.
There are several roles that are filled by members at each meeting. One of the roles is being the toastmaster of the evening. As toastmaster you pick a topic and plan the meeting around the topic. I filled this role last year just after school started for everyone. The topic I chose was "Back to School", and I brought props to enhance the topic such as crayons and drawing paper. And then there are other roles that need to be filled such as the grammarian, word master, table topics master, jester, "ah" counter, etc. When I was the word master, I chose the word "dysfluent", which no one seemed to have heard.
In the last few months, I've attained some goals that I never thought I would. At one meeting, I was picked to give a "table topics" speech. These are impromptu speeches and we don't know the topic until the table topics master assigns it. The topic for that night was "Tell us about the first time you did something". I went way back into my teen years and told about the first time I baby sat for a family with 10 children. Since I have 3 younger sisters and 1 brother, that didn't seem like such a big job. Not until I got to meet them. Their names were: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul and the girls were all named "Mary-something". (Mary Jo, Mary Ann, etc). "M's" had always been a fear sound for me and having 7 out of 10 kids names start with "M" was quite a challenge. While I was doing the 2 minute table topics speech, I managed to joke about my stuttering. Was I ever surprised and pleased when I won the "Best Table Topics" vote!
Another fun night happened recently. I gave my 8th speech out of the beginners' manual in which I had to use props. The only prop I could muster up was my talking Porky Pig doll. I had done a speech using Porky at the Toastmasters Workshop at the NSA Convention in Boston in June, and I used some of that material and added more. The title of my speech was "What I've Learned from a Pig". The title alone got everyone's attention. It was so much fun to do this speech, talking mainly about stuttering in the media, as well as myself. Everyone in the audience laughed as I was able to tell some funny experiences that I have had as a person who stutters. At the end of the meeting, I was awarded the "best speaker" ribbon. I never dreamed that this would happen to me.
Toastmasters has helped me to continue to grow as a person. Not only am I learning how to prepare speeches, I am also learning to relax, have fun, and get my message across. Not all of my speeches are about stuttering, but I do feel comfortable enough to talk about stuttering from time to time. The members not only encourage me, but tell me about things they have seen in the news media, or heard on TV, or just found out about stuttering or people who stutter. Participation in Toastmasters has helped me to believe that dreams do come true!