|About the presenter: Ellen-Marie Silverman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP has been a speech-language pathologist for almost 40 years and is an ASHA Fellow. She is trained in transactional analysis. Ellen-Marie has worked in a private school, inpatient and outpatient centers, skilled nursing facilities, and home health. She has addressed her own stuttering through Eastern psychology theory and methods, including meditation. A member of several university faculties, Ellen-Marie has authored or co-authored more than 40 professional publications. She wrote Jason's Secret, a middle reader novel, to address the alienation, isolation, anger, and hurt that can accompany stuttering problems. She is founder and CEO of TSS-The Speech Source, Inc.|
In October of 2003, I will be 61 years old. On that day, I will have had a stuttering problem for 58 years! But, for 22 of those years, I didn't realize I did! I first recognized I had a problem when I was 36. And, ironically, I am a speech therapist who researched, wrote about, and provided therapy and counseling to help others deal with stuttering since I was 21. This is, perhaps, the truly unique aspect of my story.
For 33 years, I was shy, terrified to speak one-to-one and in small and large groups unless I was teaching or providing therapy or counseling. In those settings, I prepared carefully and felt emboldened, perhaps, a bit self-righteous. My only concern was to share appropriate knowledge and experience. In other settings, I felt totally inept and terrified to talk. My years of experience speaking only when I had to, and, then, mostly in classrooms left me without speech skills needed for effective discussion, argumentation, and every day conversation. By 27, having the responsibilities of developing a career, maintaining a marriage, and parenting my daughter, I was unwilling to take time to learn skills I lacked. I resigned myself to remaining in the tight little circle in which I felt comfortable and avoided other arenas. And I was afraid to admit I wasn't perfect and needed help of such a basic sort. But I had no idea underneath it all was an unresolved stuttering problem!
In my 36th year, my world changed radically. I was awarded academic tenure. No longer concentrating on achieving tenure, I suddenly had a clearer vision of my whole life. Who I was. Where I was. What I needed to do to express myself. And, importantly, I recognized I had the time and resources to develop my individuality. My over-whelming desire was to paint, a core impulse repressed until then. I soon became a Sunday painter and have not been the same since. I began to see more deeply, as is necessary to draw and paint convincingly. I began developing more synergistic impressions of life than the behavioristic outlook, that had been my exclusive window on the world since beginning graduate studies, allowed. In short, I was discovering my right-brain and accessing it more and more. Much later, in fact in my 60th year, I discovered my right hemisphere probably is dominant, when I serendipitously noticed I easily signed American Sign Language with my left hand and struggled signing with my right! Previously I thought I was ambidextrous, right hand dominant.
I began to have opinions about life and a desire to talk about them. And, in a short while, I suddenly began stuttering severely! Part-word repetitions of 5 or more units on the first or first several words launched utterances that fizzled out from my bewilderment, embarrassment, and physical discomfort with my inexplicable, loud, conspicuous stuttering. I would experience this for days at a time and then revert to limited speech to stop stuttering. I was frightened.
I continue to stutter as I did then, particularly when I am unable to verbalize thought forms exciting to me as quickly as I would like. But I have learned to make bodily adjustments in breathing, phonating, and articulating, and to modify my self-perception so that these episodes are mildly irritating and even instructive rather than catastrophic. During a chance encounter with an aunt and uncle I had not seen for 12 years, I learned, that although I spoke early and well, I had had a "bad" stuttering problem when I was three, just months before my mother died. They were no more specific than that. Although, I wasn't able to consciously recall the sensation of stuttering, I was able to remember some feelings and thoughts immediately following my mother's shocking death at 36. Intense psychic body aches from that abrupt, wrenching separation. Feeling alone and terrified. Then I recalled a key thought: I would have to take care of myself. When my mother died, I had yet to learn to ask for what I wanted. She anticipated my every need. That seems strangely over-protective for an elementary school teacher. Perhaps, she was trying to shield me from the discomfort and anxiety of stuttering I was showing at the time. Taking care of myself meant I would have to ask for what I wanted. I panicked. I didn't know how. I entered a state of shock, which I have only recently exited.
As I relived thoughts and feelings immediately following my mother's death, I remembered her death. Late, her first night home after giving birth to my sister, she began vomiting. The sounds terrified me. I wanted them to stop. More than that; I wanted her to be OK. I ran into my parents' bedroom, and shouted at my mother, "Shut up! Shut up!" I still can remember the look on her face when she realized how frightened I was and knowing she was incapable of comforting me. She died that night. She had had a stroke. Later on, thinking as a child thinks, I believed my words killed her.
At 38, I initiated divorce proceedings from my husband and colleague of 13 years. Some of you know him. He has had a severe stuttering problem for more than 50 years. Yet, he is quite at ease talking with others and even was a college debate champion. Ironically, I had depended on him to speak for me at work and in the world at large, which he was more than happy to do, to my detriment in many ways. For the first time, I was on my own, relating to colleagues, service personnel, my daughter's teachers, and so forth. I was terrified but didn't shirk what I thought were my responsibilities. I did not anticipate stuttering, nor attend to it when it materialized. I was intent solely on meeting my responsibilities. Several years after our divorce, I left academia , the kindest and most welcome home I had known, to re-experience the satisfaction of being a full-time therapist.
Two years before, while studying to be a transactional analysis therapist, I recognized my life-long speech anxiety stemmed, in part, from believing I had nothing of value to say. My immediate family heaped verbal abuse on me daily to which I was forbidden to respond without risk of severe physical abuse. When I answered questions about friends or activities or offered information or opinions, what I said was ridiculed. By first grade, I was selectively mute. I rarely spoke at home or in class. I was a good student and caused no trouble. By high school, other students called me "the quiet one."
No one, including me, referred to me as a stutterer. Nevertheless, my subconscious memory of early childhood stuttering was contributing to personal choices and shaping my self-concept. When I encountered people labeled stutterers, including my ex-husband, I wanted to provide relief for them. But I did not make the connection between their difficulty speaking and a probable root cause of my own speech anxiety.
No one referred me for speech therapy although I lived in a large metropolitan area. Ironically, when I entered college, I was excited to major in speech correction, as speech therapy was then called. I looked forward to sparing children difficulty communicating with others, without being consciously aware that, by doing so, I might be helping myself.
By graduation, I had discovered the joy of writing, through which I could express my thoughts and feelings without anxiety. Writing continues to be my preferred mode of interpersonal communication. But, having built a successful business during the last seven and one-half years, I have learned effective business communication skills and have lost all limiting apprehensions about negotiations and discussions.
Studying and applying Transactional Analysis first convinced me I could learn to communicate successfully, although learning to ask for what I wanted was so difficult at first that I almost quit half-way into my first class. Blushing, sweating, looking at the floor but not seeing it, hearing my heart thumping while stating what I wanted from training group members was excruciating. I did not stutter, but I was extremely hesitant. Unlike other communication situations, this one required me to associate thoughts and feelings with my behavior and work them out. My usual complaining and self-pity were unacceptable. Despite the intense anxiety this process provoked, I knew this training was right for me. I continued, practiced, learned, changed, and changed some more. I learned rules for communicating clearly and concisely. It helped that our trainer had been born in Australia and was educated in England and valued precise speech! And she tolerated no excuses and did not credit anyone with trying, only with changing. A very good environment for me!
We were a diverse group consisting of nurses, social workers, clergy, classroom teachers, counselors, and therapists. Through my contact with individual members, I learned of meditation. Initially, I learned the value of visualization. I was convinced as I witnessed thoughts relax my body and induce rhythmic, deep breathing that the mind affects the body. At this point, I was not attending to my stuttering in a direct manner. My attention was more encompassing. I was addressing my need to become a competent communicator and to use my mind to positively influence my body.
Experience with visualization led to the practice of transcendental meditation, a meditation technique popular in the early 1970's, although considered somewhat exotic. I did not find sufficient benefit for the time required and practiced only sporadically.
Not until the mid-1980's when I immersed myself in the study of spirituality and religion and established a practice of daily prayer, did I re-visit meditation as a disciplined personal practice. A friend offered me a primer on Buddhism. I read the slim volume, impressed by the assertion that life is difficult but that we can free ourselves from suffering by actions. But I was more than a little frightened by a practice arising from an Eastern culture. I somehow over-looked the Eastern genesis of Judaism and Christianity! Because I desired to not suffer and be happy, I soon began daily study and practice of Theravadan and Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques and yoga. I continue to do so.
Not then, nor since, have I directly addressed my stuttering. But it is no longer a problem. Why? Daily study and meditation practices help me calm and strengthen my mind and modify my outlook and behavior. I have accumulated the following benefits, all of which are known to reduce the frequency and severity of stuttering:
I still talk little but no longer because I'm afraid. I prefer to think and do rather than talk. I embrace the biblical admonition to avoid idle speech and the Buddhist practice of "right speech."
What I have learned is that "locus of control" is key. When we accept we can either consciously control ourselves or be controlled by subconscious influences, we can constructively live our lives, despite any difficult childhood experiences we may have had.
A March, 2003 article by Pema Chödröm, a Buddhist nun, published in Shambhala Sun, provides insight and direction into one method of overcoming urges, i.e., shempa, especially habitual ones. She likens shempa to a fish hook and identifies tensing as the first sign we are hooked. Chödröm describes the stages involved in working with shempa as four R's: "... recognizing the shempa, refraining from scratching, relaxing into the underlying urge to scratch, and then resolving to continue to interrupt our habitual patterns like this for the rest of our lives."