About the presenter:Cindy Spillers is an associate professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders Dept. at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She has been on the Duluth faculty for 22 years. Her primary areas of interest include fluency, voice, and counseling. She has ASHA certification, MN license, and is a Board Recognized Fluency Specialist/Mentor. She was on sabbatical during the 05-06 academic year working on a project about bringing spirituality into the clinical practice of speech-langauge pathology.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2006.

What People Who Stutter Have Taught Me About Demons and Freedom

by Cindy Spillers
from Minnesota, USA

While a graduate student in the 1970's, a professor and mentor rooted within me two invaluable lessons: 1) During a therapy session, the client in front of me is the most important person in my life. 2) Do not ask a client to do something that I, myself, am unwilling to do. I took both of these lessons to heart and held them at the core of my clinical practice. Later, these lessons helped to shape my teaching and supervision, and I have tried to instill them in my students, as well. This paper is about what people who stutter have taught me regarding the second lesson.

For years I assumed that the instruction of willingness to do what I ask of clients referred to speech behaviors and therapy activities. With people who stutter, I diligently practiced the treatment strategies so that I could model them freely with clients. When we worked on slow speech, I slowed my speaking rate during my contact with clients from the moment we met in the waiting room until the moment they walked out the clinic door. When we worked on pullouts, I used them frequently. When we worked on desensitization, I stuttered in public with clients and peppered my speech with voluntary stuttering. Willingness to model fluency management strategies without self-consciousness turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. At a much deeper level, this injunction to do willingly what I ask of clients is about facing one's demons and freeing oneself from the suffering that those demons engender. It is about the slow, laborious process of personal change with all of its daunting fear, painful loneliness, and galvanizing courage.

I knew intellectually that stuttering therapy could impose difficult expectations on clients because it involved changing more than speech behaviors. I did not truly fathom the depth of the challenge that I presented to clients, however, until a life crisis forced me to face the demons that I had tried to ignore and minimize, and to undergo the arduous process of inner change. The call to growth and change is universal and arrives in many forms -- physical illness, disability, addiction, mental health issues, spiritual crisis. The circumstances of any one person's invitation into the darkness matter less than her/his response to that invitation. The manner in which we face our darkness can spur us to growth or shrink us into retreat.

We know intellectually that change is inevitable. My 90 year old neighbor tells me that in life, "You're either going forward or you're going backward, but you're not standing still. There's no standing still in this life." Knowing the constancy of change does not make the task any easier when life throws the gauntlet before us, challenging us to take it up. When our demons come to call they mock us with the naked truth of our imperfection and our need to grow. This kind of need for change feels like an intrusion from the outside, an intrusion that we oppose with great strength and resolve.

When life with our demons becomes unbearable to us, something must give way (Young-Eisendrath, 1996). Adults who seek treatment for stuttering usually do so because the current situation with their stuttering has become unbearable for them. Something must give way, and most of my clients have assumed that the stuttering is the thing that must, and will, relent. The demons of stuttering must be vanquished in order for them to be free of their suffering. I addressed my own situation believing that my demons must succumb if I was to find any peace and joy in life. I adopted an adversarial attitude toward my own growth and development. I dug in my heels, steeled for a fight to the finish against myself. In truth, the individual must change and give way, too. Our demons have found a receptive host, and unless the host changes, they will continue to find a hospitable home in us and we will continue our futile quest for freedom from the suffering that they bring us.

I think the attitude of adversarial confrontation causes people to seek quick and decisive resolution to pain and suffering (Yalom, 1986). If something hurts we want to eliminate the pain as soon as possible. If something is not acceptable about ourselves, we want to make changes quickly and get on with our lives. Better yet, we want somebody else to make the changes for us. I have seen many people who stutter approach therapy looking for and expecting quick, effortless change. Some clients have shown exasperation when their stuttering persisted after four therapy sessions. Others seemed amazed to learn that they must practice new behaviors during their routine days outside of therapy. I have received many inquiries over the years about suitable drugs to treat stuttering. These examples illustrate people's expectation for a quick, effortless and decisive end to their suffering with stuttering. I approached my own treatment with this same attitude of wanting relief from my suffering as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Although I knew intellectually that a quick, painless fix was not possible nor very desirable in the long run, I still wanted it to be so.

When we seek freedom from the circumstances and conditions in life that cause us suffering, we really want relief from the suffering. Freedom from the condition is not always possible, nor is it always within our control. Freedom from the suffering is possible, however, and is within our control. The attitude we bring to our situation carries enormous weight in this regard (Frankl, 1959). We create our own heaven or hell through our relationship with our circumstances and the attitude with which we face them (Frankl, 1959; Young-Eisendrath, 1996). Suffering, as it turns out, is more a matter of attitude and belief than of circumstances.

Polly Young-Eisendrath (1996) tells the story of Roshi Kapleau, a Zen Master who developed Parkinson's disease. Kapleau began coping with the disease while keeping it at arms length. He saw it as something isolated and separate from himself. He invested his energy into fighting against and escaping from the disease. Kapleau ultimately discovered that the only way to deal with a chronic disease was to "accept it as part of you, as part of your life, not something....that you just have a marginal relationship with" (Young-Eisendrath, 1996, p. 107). Rather than escaping from his disease, he began to approach it and learn from it. His disease remained with him, yet his suffering with it diminished greatly.

Our language reflects the distance we put between ourselves and our condition, and I often see this distance in my clients who stutter. Carol, a woman in her late 20's, described her stuttering as the annoying neighbor kid who is always hanging around, getting in the way, and who doesn't know when to go home. Wayne, a man in his mid 30's, described his stuttering as the bully who torments him, steals his lunch money, and beats him up on the way home from school. Both of these people held their stuttering at arms length and sought to escape it. Their marginalized relationships prevented them from learning and inhibited their growth. I, too, saw my demons as something to escape. If I could not escape them, at least I could keep a large distance between myself and them. My demons were not me; I was neither responsible for their presence, nor for doing anything with them. And god forbid that they could teach me anything. As long as I held these attitudes and beliefs, I remained caught in a battle with myself and mired in my own suffering.

Ray, a young man in his late teens, called stuttering his brother. "I hate him and I love him. We fight a lot. We also are inseparable. I wouldn't be who I am without him." Ray, like Roshi Kapleau, formed a close relationship with his stuttering. He stopped wishing for his stuttering to go away because, if it did, part of himself would disappear -- a part that had helped him grow and taught him that he is more than his stuttering. Although Ray did not particularly like it when he stuttered, he no longer berated himself when he did so. He no longer battled with himself. Most of all, Ray found compassion and learned to forgive himself for not being perfect.

Both Ray's and Roshi Kapleau's experiences remind me of the story of Tushana. Tushana was an elder nun who realized that she had lost the passion for freedom and awakening that she had felt as a youth. To renew her passion for freedom she went to live alone in a mountain cave. One morning after gathering firewood, Tushana returned to her cave and found it filled with demons. The demons laughed at Tushana and taunted her. Some shouted at her with anger and rage. Others threw her meager belongings out of the cave, trying to evict her.

At first Tushana was overcome with fear and doubt. She wondered what egregious error she had committed that would cause such terror to visit her. She was determined not to be evicted from her peaceful home, however, so she faced her demons to try to evict them. The first bunch of demons left when she flattered them by acknowledging their power and magnificence. Next Tushana called on the authority and protection of her teachers and mentors, banishing another group. After two successful attempts to rid her tranquil cave of these horrible creatures, Tushana became emboldened. She raised up an imperious voice and railed at the remaining demons to leave immediately. Several more left, but three demons remained. Tushana was exhausted by now and begged the remaining three demons not to harm her. She acknowledged her errors and promised to serve them, if only they did not harm her. This satisfied two of the demons and they left.

The last, most vicious and frightening demon remained in the cave, undaunted and unswayed by anything Tushana had done thus far. Tushana had no strategies left to fight this demon. It would not be placated, rejected, nor surrendered to. Out of ammunition, Tushana stood up and faced this demon. Slowly she walked toward it and, as she approached, she felt her fear slip away and compassion begin to fill her. When she reached the demon, Tushana bravely placed herself into its mouth. Remarkably, it did not devour her, nor did it harm her in any way. Upon seeing her courage and compassion, it simply vanished. In that moment, Tushana realized that there was no difference between the demons she fought and the freedom she sought.

Roshi Kapleau and Ray have faced their demons with courage and compassion, freeing themselves from their suffering. The original conditions of Parkinson's disease and stuttering remained with them, and they cultivated attitudes of self-acceptance that included these conditions. I am sure their attitude shifts did not happen over night. I imagine that Ray and the Roshi still push their stuttering and Parkinson's disease away and revert to their adversarial struggle with those parts of themselves. Carol, Wayne, and I are learning that battling with our conditions and our demons will not give us the freedom and peace that we seek. We will learn to have compassion for ourselves instead of fear and enmity. We will learn to forgive ourselves for not being perfect. We will learn to put ourselves into the mouths of our most fearsome demons.


Frankl, V. (1959). Man's search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

Yalom, I. (1986). Love's executioner. NY: Basic Books.

Young-Eisendrath, P. (1996). The gifts of suffering. NY: Addison-Wesley.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2006.

August 9, 2006
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