My name is Craig Stephenson. This is a story about my stuttering and how it has affected my life. I spent a very long time trying to become fluent only to realize it was the acceptance of my stuttering I needed to come to terms with. Successful therapy is two fold. Fluency without acceptance really never helped me. It takes both in equal measures, I believe.
My stuttering started in the second grade. My father can't recall the time but he told me I went somewhere and when I returned I was stuttering. He also told me, "he thought I was playing games with him."
The summer after I had completed second grade we moved from Boise to Idaho Falls. I remember my mother taking me to what should have been my first day in third grade. We walked into a room where several people were waiting and I remember being asked if I would like to repeat the second grade. All I really remember is everyone felt it would be better for me if I did. It was where I belonged anyway, because of my late birthday, but I always wondered if I had to take that grade over again because of stuttering.
I don't know how or why but this is where the stuttering story begins. The older I got the worse the stuttering became. My dad used to say, "Stop that" whenever I stuttered. By the time I entered junior high there were times I could not even say my own name, tell what street I lived on or answer the phone without stuttering uncontrollably. Because I could not say hello I used to answer the phone with, "what" or "yes". If dad called home and I answered the phone with "what," was I, ever in trouble. I finally realized I could substitute the word "yellow" for "hello" if it was done right. It is so strange to be able to say one word and not another. The hardest words for me to say started with, "S's and C's" which just happened to be my initials. Any word that started with an "S" or "C" drove me crazy.
I think my father thought I stuttered for attention. It upset him to hear me stutter. The more upset he got the more I stuttered. The more I stuttered the more upset he got, on and on it went.
I remember sitting with my dad in the family room watching TV, just the two of us. I just wanted to have a conversation with him. I had learned if I thought about what I wanted to say and went over it again and again in my mind; sometimes I could say it without stuttering. Because I knew it made him upset when I stuttered I thought if I could say something, anything without stuttering no matter what it was, he would talk to me. After I had run what I wanted to say through my mind a thousand times, I got it to come out. It was perfect and I was so pleased and looking forward to the conversation I thought was about to follow. He looked at me and said, "What did you say." I died inside. No way could I ever say it again now that I knew he was listening. All I wanted was to start a conversation with my dad. One more missed opportunity. I think that's when I stopped trying. I don't think dad ever had a clue, even to this day.
Learning to read in grade school each student would read a paragraph. As my turn approached and I could tell what paragraph I was going to have to read to the class, I would read ahead to find any words I knew I could not say. If I found one of those words in my paragraph it would just devastate me. The anticipation of knowing what was coming was unbearable. It got so bad I remember rubbing the top of my legs to take my mind off what I knew was going to happen. A crutch I continued to use later in life. I had two choices -- not say the word and have everyone think I was stupid or try to say it and have everyone laugh. I experienced both and can't say I liked one response any more than the other. This was my first experience of having someone complete a sentence or say a word for me.
So many times in school the teacher would ask the class a question. I experienced the frustration of knowing the answer and not raising my hand because I knew I could not say the words. The worst for me was when I knew the answer, knew I could say the words, and was not called on to give the answer. Young people seek so much group and peer acceptance and approval. Being denied that acceptance simply because you can't control your speech is a very isolating experience. Acceptance has the same effect on a child that water has on a plant.
I had a newspaper route when I was twelve. It was a great job except when end of the month collections came around. I had seventy-one houses to collect funds from each month. If I could not say the amount sometimes I just tried to show them how much they owed from the route book. For some this was acceptable. Others tried to help me get through the process, which usually made it worse and made me dread the next month's contact with them.
The very worst experience I had in school was when the Speech Therapist would come to class to get me. They always approached the teacher after class had started. Two adults talking while the whole class focused on them and wondering what the conversation was about. I already knew. Then the teacher would announce in front of the whole class, "the speech therapist would like to see" and my name was called. I tried so hard to keep my problem low profile and it was just made public information. I always wondered what everyone said about me after I had left the room. Then, of course, there was the return to class. The long walk back to my desk in front of everyone. It is a mystery to me how someone trying to help could do so much damage. I know it was not intentional, but it did not ease the pain. I remember telling my mother how much I disliked being taken out of class for Speech Therapy. She talked with the school, had me taken out of therapy and it spared me further humiliation of being taken out of class. Please understand, I am not trying to put down speech therapy. In the Idaho, in the 1960's, Speech Therapy was not a well-established program. If I would have stayed with it, well, who knows?
I attended ten years of school in a small town with the same kids year after year. Every year we had a tradition of standing and telling the class about our summer vacation, a tradition I grew to despise more and more with each passing year. Would this be the year I could stand and start off fresh or would I reaffirm for everyone on this first day of school I was still the same strange stuttering person.
My family moved to Denver my senior year. I tried to stay in Idaho and graduate. I was working nights and trying to attend school during the day. Realizing I could not keep up the pace I moved to Denver. If I had known what was waiting for me there I would have stayed in Idaho. Colorado at that time had much higher standards for graduation than Idaho did. My Idaho transcripts were not in the best shape. I was told I would have to take a speech class to graduate. I was not given any option.
For ten years I went to school with the same kids. For ten years I provided them with something to laugh at. Now it looked like I was going to be presented with the same opportunity, only in a different school, with different kids, with kids who didn't know me. At least in Idaho I could find one or two friendly faces in the crowd.
I gave one speech in that class. I tried to read a sports report. You would have thought I was doing stand up comedy. I never returned to class or high school.
Stuttering taught me many things about life, some good and some bad. It taught me that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger. Most of the positive qualities I have are a direct result of the experiences derived from stuttering. My only regret from the experience was realizing at the tender age of eighteen that I was socially very handicapped. I had very few friends in school; I did not participate in any clubs or after school activities. I was too busy learning how to talk or hide the way I talked. I passed up the opportunity to learn and practice the social and communication skills that everyone else was acquiring.
I built the highest, widest, toughest wall around me you can imagine. This wall could keep anything or anyone out. I did not realize until it was too late that this wall, which was keeping everything out, was also keeping me in. Now that I wanted out, I found myself a prisoner of my own making. I have been working on tearing this most excellent wall down for the last thirty years.
Even though I no longer "stuttered", the effects stuttering has had on my life are far reaching. It has been extremely hard for me to initiate a relationship of any meaning or substance because of the isolation I have felt over the years. If I could go back in time and have the opportunity to choose between a life-time of stuttering accompanied by a loving, meaningful, long term relationship or the promise of never stuttering again with the condition my life would be spent in solitude, I would choose stuttering hands down. The pain and humiliation of stuttering was far less than the feelings of emptiness and of being alone.
I have overcome the symptoms only to realize I still have the disease.
In 1999 I changed from a couch potato to a mouse potato after finding the Internet.
For some reason I typed Stuttering in my URL one night and found the Stuttering Home Page, a creation of Judy Kuster. I could not believe what I was reading. I found other people who shared the same feelings of hurt and loneliness that I had. I emailed Judy and asked if I could add my story to the collection. She accepted the offer. One day she mentioned the National Stuttering Association and recommended I check it out. I did just that. I met Annie Bradberry, the Executive Director of the NSA. I talked with her on the phone. It was the first time I remember talking to a woman who stuttered. I almost wanted to hang up the phone, but I could tell we had a bond, a similar shared experience. Annie became a beacon for me. One day she mentioned a conference the NSA sponsored. She said they had one every year and this year's conference was in Boston. To make a long story short, I attended, along with over five hundred other stutterers.
The Boston NSA convention started a new chapter in my life. Attending was hard decision to make. I felt so isolated. I tried for thirty years not to stutter. I had overcome stuttering, "I thought," now I was going to a place where I knew stutterers would be.
I have never felt so much affection from a group of total strangers in my life. The wall I tried for so long and so hard to tear down seemed to just crumble away. I had a great roommate, Randy Hoover. We talked way into the night, like two best friends would do. He gave me the courage to face another day. The first few days were hard, but on Sunday the day the convention ended, something changed. I was supposed to go on a tour of Old Salem, which left the hotel at 800 A.M. I was so busy chatting with new-found friends I totally forgot about the tour and missed the bus. Just a few days before I was hoping the convention would end so I could leave.
The NSA convention opened my eyes to a whole new world. I learned I was a covert stutter, I am over-sensitive, which is a good trait to have but, can come at a high price. My stuttering is not gone by any means; I have just learned to cover it up with learned avoidance techniques. These techniques are much harder to deal with than the stuttering. I have been doing them for so long, that they just seem natural to me. Bottom line is, I stuttered for the better part of thirty years and I learned more about MY stuttering during those four days in Boston than I did in the past thirty years that I have struggled with stuttering. There are so many new therapies now. Parents are involved with their children, which was not usually the case with my generation.
When I thought my stuttering had stopped I turned my back on the problem and others with the problem. It was too painful of a reminder to hear someone stutter. The memories it brought back I had buried very deep and I wanted them to stay there. The NSA Boston Convention brought back all those painful feelings. The difference was, this time I had a support group of friends to help me deal with and expel them. Strangers one second, life long friends the next.
My father came to visit right before I left for Boston. He asked about Boston and if I was excited. I told him one of the things I had learned from the Stuttering Home Page was, stuttering is not so bad, and the key is how you deal with it. His response was, " I never let you deal with it, and I was so stupid." I told him he was not stupid, we just did not know any better. The point is, he got to say something he really needed to say, and I got to hear something I needed to hear. A thousand years of pain just melted away for both of us. I thought he did not like me because I stuttered and he thought I was doing it on purpose. So much pain could have been avoided if we knew then what we know now. It was a conversation, which might have never taken place. My father is seventy-eight and I am forty-eight. We had spoken very little about my stuttering before that day. It is my hope we are able to talk about it more in the future.
I built a wall around myself to keep all the pain out; trouble is it was keeping me in. The wall was too big for me to tear down by myself. I was too proud to ask for help. While attending the Boston NSA convention I learned a very simple truth. A truth I had been searching for all my life. I did not need to tear the wall down at all; I just needed to learn how to stop hiding behind it.
Although the wall I have spoken of is still intact it no longer seems so insurmountable, especially with all the new therapy now being practiced and the many friendships I have made along the way. Just five months ago I was lost in my job. I had lost sight of the future and was dwelling on my past. My stuttering had caused me to pass up on so many opportunities.
As of this writing I am attending relationship therapy, involved in what I feel is the first healthy relationship in years and stuttering. Yes stuttering, something I thought I would never ever do again. I am being myself for the first time in my life, letting others see who I really am, and letting myself see who I really am. It is such a total relief.
My goal is to start a NSA chapter in Idaho with the help of a SLP who teaches at Idaho State University. The sole purpose of this chapter would be to make available information to help people who stutter get the help which is now being offered, to anyone, stutterer or not.
In conclusion, the reason I wanted to participate in the on-line conference is to testify that things can change. A special stuttering friend closes her e-mails with a quote from George Eliot, "It's never to late to be what you might have been."
I may have continued to hide my stuttering for the rest of my life. It took me all these years and the help of "The National Stuttering Association" and "The Stuttering Home Page" to realize hiding something does not make it go away. Learning to deal with it on your own terms, in your own way with or with out help is the key. The way I learned to break the wall down was to simply quit hiding behind it. I think I could have learned this simple secret much faster had I availed myself of the current resources at hand. Instead I was hurt, stubborn, and proud and it took me a long time to find the light. It's been shining for a long time now. All I had to do was take advantage of it.
The light is shining right now for anyone who is really searching. When the student is ready a teacher will be provided.