About the presenter: Joe Mirly is currently working for the Microsoft Corporation as a software engineer. Joe resides in Marysville Washington, a town about 30 miles North of Seattle, with his wife Theresa and son Spencer. Joe enjoys spending his free time with his family, but may also be found hacking up the fairways of the local golf courses around the north Puget Sound. Volunteering with the National Stuttering Association, Joe currently serves on the board, co-chairing Adult Programs.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

Finding the pieces of my puzzle

by Joe Mirly
from Washington, USA

There are many puzzles in life. You can argue that life itself is a puzzle, but what kind? Is it a jigsaw puzzle that you won't know the complete picture until the end? Or is it a brain teaser, one that you must ponder for awhile to solve. My life is many puzzles, each one completed representing a personal triumph, and all - taken as a whole - fitting together harmoniously to create my masterpiece. Stuttering is one of my puzzles, and a difficult one to solve, because many of the pieces are elusive and difficult to find. This is not so much an essay as it is a story about finding pieces and gaining insights on my own personal stuttering puzzle.

It is not immediately apparent how to solve some puzzles. Take this for instance:

The goal is to draw lines through all 9 dots. You cannot lift the pencil from the paper. You can only draw 4 straight lines. At times you need to change the way you look at a problem before you can see the solution. More on this puzzle later, first my story.

Youth is grand! The long days of summer spent riding bikes and playing cowboys in the dirt. Going places with the family, seeing things for the first time. Imagination. Ah, but there is another side as well. Confusion. Contradiction. Paradox. I'm beginning to find out that there are going to be puzzles to be solved.

I enjoy going to school, and I do well. At the same time I dread it! I dread it because I can't talk right. I don't get it. It's not fair since I love to talk, sing, and shout. I start going to the speech therapist but the only thing that does for me is cement the notion that I am different. Yet there is another student who stutters, and I think to myself that I am not alone. At least I'm not like him! What a mess. Am I like him? Good grief.

I find relief when the speech therapist leaves our school. No more speech! Hooray! I celebrate by ignoring my stuttering for the remainder of my primary school days. Maybe it'll just go away. This is a puzzle that I don't want to work on - ever.

Adolescence. I think at times this is just another way to spell "pressure cooker". All is not bad, far from it. I have friends and keep busy with many different activities. However things are getting more tenuous. As I progress through my teens the padding that I've built up between my life and my stuttering is wearing thin. I'm definitely not going to think about stuttering. I hate stuttering. Why on earth would I ever want to acknowledge that?! This "puzzle" that I've been dealt is no good. I want another one.

My stuttering puzzle was chaos. Nobody was going to know that I stuttered, yet everybody did. I began to realize that I needed to do something, but I'd do so in private. This was way too personal to advertise. The hurt is bad and it runs deep. This was the lowest point, the nadir of my struggle with stuttering. This was the time when I could no longer ignore it. I had bound it with chains but it had broken loose, and was terrorizing me.

This was when I found the first piece of my puzzle. I admitted to myself that I stuttered. Yuck. Reluctant acceptance is still better than no acceptance. I didn't like it, but found I had no other choice. I figured that if I was going to find any balance in my life I was going to have to find a way to deal with the counterweight that I'd been avoiding for so long. It wasn't until later that I would realize that accepting of my stuttering wasn't the same as facing my stuttering. I still had not embraced "that" part of "me". Ok, so now what? You guessed it, more avoidance. Some lessons are just harder to learn. I still didn't want to work on my puzzle, but I felt better admitting that I had stuttering puzzle. That improvement was enough to carry me for now.

Entering my twenties my attitude began to improve again. I was on the cusp of solving another piece of my stuttering puzzle. Stuttering was affecting the choices I was making in life, and I was increasingly aware of it. I still stuttered and still hated it, but deep inside me the ember of acceptance was growing. Rather than run away I started to look inward and realized the power that I had given stuttering. Why was I letting stuttering have so much influence in my life? While I didn't like stuttering the thought of stuttering holding so much sway was worse. I decided that I was going to do what I wanted, not what stuttering would let me. Thus another piece of the puzzle was found.

Then, between my late 20's and mid-30's, I realized another important piece of my own puzzle - that it was ok to stutter. While I had already decided that stuttering was not going to affect the choices that I made I still wasn't ok with it. However the events of life (work, family, etc) increasingly forced the time I spent worrying about stuttering ever-lower on my priority list. I realized that I was spending hardly any time thinking about my speech. Maybe it was ok to stutter, after all I was doing what I wanted to do - stuttering or not.

For the time being I quit working on my stuttering puzzle. It had taken a pretty good shape, and I could look back and appreciate what I went through to get this far. I'd found acceptance, realized it was ok to stutter, and had gone on with my life. Another factor was also at work - I was gaining fluency. It seems ironic that I'd find what I was looking for, at least to some degree, once I stopped looking for it. That is puzzling in itself. Fluency was never an outwardly expressed goal of mine, sure I'd daydreamed along the way about what would happen if I could talk "normally', but given I wasn't pursuing any sort of therapy I knew it wasn't a realistic goal. Just in that I was not so focused on stuttering in itself brought increased fluency.

Stuttering, or rather acceptance of it is an elusive and ever-changing puzzle. You focus on one point only to see the surrounding points changing - seemingly at random. It is almost like an illusion.

Pick a point on the following puzzle and focus on it. What happens? Do the neighboring points change colors at random times, from black to white? It is difficult to catch such an elusive target.

More about my puzzle...

I did not know anybody else who stuttered since I left elementary school, except for my uncle who lived far away. I was not in speech therapy - hadn't been since around 4th grade. I came to terms with stuttering on my own. I found somewhat of a balance in my life and had solved some important pieces of my puzzle. However there were still some very important parts missing for me - as far as stuttering was concerned. One of which was that I still felt very much alone in this world. One of the others, I would find out later, was that I still needed to face my stuttering. Some times you don't know what you don't know, until you know it.

Life continuesŠ and sometimes you stumble upon something that you never knew was there. I found support, quite unexpectedly, and that led to more missing pieces. The National Stuttering Association. I couldn't believe what I stumbled across. This was like the long-lost family I never knew I had!

There are two, no make that three, concepts that I've learned since finding stuttering support nearly 5 years ago. Not so much learned, more like these ideas encapsulate some of the work I'd done for myself over the previous 20 years or so. These were the Iceberg Analogy and the idea of Chasing the Fluency God. The third will become apparent shortly. These concepts brought with them more puzzle pieces.

The first is the Iceberg Analogy. Like stuttering, the part of the iceberg lying beneath the water is considerably bigger than the part you see above the surface. With stuttering it is all the underlying emotions that lie beneath the surface. You are never going to make real progress in your efforts to deal with stuttering unless you address the emotional part. Granted this is not new, but it was to me. I'd never heard it put in such a clear and concise manner until I'd been shown this analogy. This really mirrored what I'd done on my own. I'd gained a higher level of fluency and confidence not by modifying my stuttering - after all I'd had little therapy - but rather by changing my attitudes and cutting loose much of the emotional baggage that constituted the majority of my iceberg.

The second concept is that the goal that people who stutter should strive for may not be fluency, but rather to become an effective speaker. Wait a minute, that's not exactly what I meant to say. The ultimate goal of some stutterers may indeed be fluency, but the idea that many people who stutter simply seek to become effective communicators was fascinating for me. There is no cure for stuttering - if there were we'd all be cured by now, wouldn't we? So why then are so many of us chasing an impossible goal? Most will never attain it, and therefore may feel failure in not achieving fluency. This was indeed the conclusion that I'd also come to, that my goal was not fluency, rather to be able to say what I wanted, when I wanted, to whom I wanted. I didn't feel like a failure because I wasn't fluent - far from it. I felt really good about myself regardless of my stuttering.

Next the third important piece that I alluded to earlier. The fact that as a person who stutters, I am not alone. Far from it. There are support organizations, resources, and most importantly people that I can talk to, interact with, and gain support from. In doing so I've found that I can also give support in many ways. I've made faster progress solving the pieces of my stuttering puzzle in the past 5 years being involved with a stuttering support group than I would have ever imagined. It is the people have made the difference for me.

Facing your stuttering is not easy, but embracing yourself is important. Learning about your own stuttering, as well as stuttering in general is important. It is the latest piece of the puzzle that I've found. Everybody's battle is different, as everybody's stuttering is different. Everybody carries different baggage around as a result of their stuttering. Even with all of these differences we still have so very much in common. Common fears and feelings. Common experiences. Stuttering does not have to dominate your life. And importantly, remember that you are not alone.

Thinking outside of the box is necessary to solve many of life's puzzles. Remember that puzzle with the 9 dots that you needed to draw lines through? Not so easy is it? Thinking outside the box will help you solve it. Go beyond the boundaries that you created for it and the puzzle solves itself.

Looking at things differently is important. Gain a different perspective. Ask yourself what boundaries you've set against achieving what you want in life, and if maybe these boundaries really need to be where you've placed them. And like solving puzzles, sometimes finding the pieces is half the battle. I can't tell you if my stuttering puzzle is completely solved or not. I doubt it is, but now I enjoy working on it.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

August 29, 2005
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