|About the presenter: Dale F. Williams, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is an Associate Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at Florida Atlantic University, where he serves as Director of the Fluency Clinic. He is also a consultant with Language Learning Intervention and Professional Speech Services, Inc. A person who stutters, Dr. Williams co-founded the Boca Raton chapter of the National Stuttering Association. He holds Specialty Recognition from ASHA Division 4 and was recently named as a Fluency Specialist Mentor.|
"What's the bottom line?" he asked, a slight repetition of /b/ once again revealing his stutter.
Placing my hands behind my head, I lay back in the soft leather chair and gazed at the hideous nacho cheese colored walls of the examination room.
"I suppose that's up to you," I finally answered, "After all, you've undoubtedly heard a lot of treatments and theories. Some are logical. Others make less sense than The Anna Nicole Show. Most work for some. Some work for most. None work for all. You'll decide what works for you.
"And when something works," I continued, "you'll reach a point where stuttering isn't the first thing you think about when your eyes pop open each morning. Nor will you fall asleep each night rehashing the day's failures.
"So perhaps acceptance is the bottom line. Maybe that's what it's all about -- accepting what you are. Sure, you should always try to improve, but part of improvement is understanding your limitations. That way, you can set goals that mean something.
"Listen, no matter how hard I try, I'll never beat Michael Johnson in a footrace or play the cello like Yo-Yo Ma or cuss like the Osbournes. Then again, Ozzy probably couldn't hook up an electroglottograph -- call it a hunch.
"My point is that everyone can't do everything. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses and do the best you can.
"And remember -- accepting something doesn't mean loving it. It just means living with it."
"Like Keats' Endymion?" asked a student observing the session.
I nodded. I had been planning to use the example of when Peter Parker first realized he had Spidey powers.
"You might always feel nervous when you're asked to introduce yourself or make a phone call or order that Egg McMuffin at the drive-through," I explained. "But you accept that as part of the deal. Sometimes, you even embrace these situations as challenges.
"Come to think of it, that might be a better bottom line -- the need to challenge yourself. Get outside your comfort zone and learn to confront your feared situations. Take some risks. You can't learn something without ever trying it. And you can't improve without occasionally failing. After all, even Judy Kuster makes mistakes."
"Judy Kuster?" the student asked.
"Never mind. Tell me: Why do we take risks? Courage? Desperation? I don't know, probably a little of both. All I know is that as we grow older, the phrase 'I'm not ready yet' is gradually replaced by 'Life is short.'
"And speaking of self-growth, here's a bottom line for you: Those tricks used to hide stuttering -- all that rephrasing and word substitution and pretending to be shy, those foot taps and eye blinks and armpit noises -- don't fool as many people as you think. When you realize that, you're left with the thought that maybe people like you for who you are, stuttering and all.
"Not only do the tricks not help," I continued, "they hold you back. So while I may be having some trouble finding a bottom line, I know what it's not. Let's just say that none of us will be spending our shuffleboard years saying, 'I wish I'd spent less time living and more time hiding.'
"Yes, stuttering is tough and solutions aren't easy to come by. But it's worse to avoid life, hoping things will miraculously get better. Sure, it could go away. Anything is possible. Sylvester Stallone could one day be declared U. S. Poet Laureate. But who wants to put his life on hold waiting for that particular likelihood?
"See, stuttering is as cruel as it is ironic. It doesn't really start to go away until you stop caring so much about whether it's going to go away.
"So be proactive. Avoid the avoidance. Learn to stutter in ways you can live with.
"Any way you look at it," I continued, "it all comes down to being open.
"Open with yourself, for starters. In order to get past the fear, embarrassment, nervousness, and other emotions, you have to admit they're there. Thinking of stuttering as occasional lapses of speech is like thinking that politicians really only want to be public servants. There's a lot beyond what you see and hear.
"But it's about being open with others too.
"It's about soothing the consciences of guilt-ridden parents who never truly believe they're not to blame. It's about admitting something embarrassing and seeing who your real friends are. It's about finding people who will give you more support than you ever thought possible, often without even trying.
"And, yes, it's even about dealing with listeners who aren't so accommodating.
"Just remember that the idiots who tease, laugh, and mock are actually quite rare. They just tend to stand out more than the normal folks. They're the ones who see us as vulnerable and easily molded into forms that are idiot-friendly.
"Know that life is more than a series of bullies. And realize that you're stronger for dealing with them.
"There are listeners who snicker and don't hide it well. Assume they're only one small link up the food chain from the bullies and move on.
"Some listeners take pride in how quickly they talk because they want you to think their brains are digital while yours is analog. Thus they interrupt and finish your sentences. No need to get worked up over these stiffs either. People that insecure won't benefit from you yelling at them.
"Of course, there are also the listeners who care a little too much. The ones with the condescending nods, as if everything you say is oh so precious because you stutter. The ones afraid to look away and, as a result, engage in eye contact equivalent to that of a cobra preparing to bite the face off its cornered prey.
"Then there are the ones like you who are certain what's true about them is true about you and consequently act as if they're Magellan and you're the Flat Earth Society.
"But before you write your essay Why I Hate All Listeners, remember that most would truly like to help. They simply don't know how.
"And by the way," I added, "they're not the only ones who'd benefit from helping others. You have an opportunity to do so yourself. Embrace it. Give others the support you know they need.
"I mean, think about the self-satisfaction that comes from helping people. It's the closest you or I will ever get to hitting a forehand like Serena, singing an aria like Pavarotti, or punching that kid in the Dell Computer ads.
"Dude, you're gettin' a welt!
"So anyway, maybe that's the bottom line -- helping yourself by helping others. In this way, we learn compassion through empathy. And, sometimes, the other way around.
"My guess is that the compassion is already there, that you have a lot of patience with other people's struggles.
"Remember too, to have some with your own.
"Develop a sense of humor about the one thing you're conditioned to both loathe and fear. It's OK to have fun with it.
"Of course, sometimes a sense of humor isn't enough, given that some listeners are about as cheery as projectile vomit. My solution? Arrogance. Assume that what you have to say is more important than any squirming your listener feels the need to do. Like all of us, you have to patiently listen to a lot of stupid things. They can take the time to listen to you.
"So I suppose what it all comes down to is this: Say what you want to say, when you want to say it, even if you sometimes stutter." I snapped my fingers and sat forward. "That's it right there! When all is said and done, that, my friend, is the bottom line!"
I leaned back with the satisfaction of a question well answered.
After a lengthy pause, my ophthalmologist spoke again.
"Perhaps I should rephrase my request," he said with a sigh. "Please look at the chart and read the bottom line."
"Oh," I said, moving forward in the chair. "Let's see: A, backwards E, the Greek symbol for nitrate, a P with a ponytail. . . ."