MY LIFE - as a Stutterer


A couple of years ago, someone asked me what is the one thing I want most in life. I did not say it aloud, but to me the answer was crystal clear. Something you all take for granted - fluent speech. I do not want to be a stutterer! So even though there was a lot more to me than just being a stutterer, it sure was a big big part of my life. Last month when I read John Albach's comment on the lack of therapy experiences type articles in Letting Go, it prompted me to put it all down on paper. It went from just being the therapy experiences to encompass all the other stages of my life, in fact my whole life, as it was affected by my stuttering. It ended being a lot longer than I intended, but I had to do it. This was like a catharsis for me and hopefully someone else might gain something from my experiences. What I went through in my life maybe a lot less frustrating and painful than what many of you have endured. For me it hurt the most because this was MY pain. I lived it every day. This was my life - My life as a stutterer.

I was born 25 years ago in Pakistan. From what my mother tells me, I started to stutter around 4 or so. My father used to stutter too, so it was probably hereditary, but looking back at it now, my stuttering might have been triggered by some traumatic experiences, I went thorough at that time.

There was no concept of speech therapy in Pakistan, at least when I was growing up. Actually, I don't really remember stuttering all that severely in those early years. There were quite a few occasions, when I forgot that I stutter and did not stutter until the realization came back. Of course there was the childhood teasing and all but that was OK. What was not OK was, when once in fifth grade my teacher imitated my stuttering in responding to my question.

Grown ups around me usually ignored my stuttering but felt it their duty to reprimand me on my fast rate all the time. Distinctly remember running to an adult all pumped up about something, telling them excitedly what had happened and getting the response "Why can't you just slow down. Gosh, what's the rush. You sound like a record set at a wrong speed". It got to a point, when I got so frustrated with these comments that I decided that I won't speak at all, unless I had to. All in all, I was an unhappy child. Low self esteem, full of inferiority complexes. I was too thin, too tall, too dark and on top of everything I could not even speak properly! The saving grace was my academic record. I was always among the top students in my classes.

Most people at NSP tell me about the feeling of alienation they felt growing up as the only stutterer around. I knew at least 4 other people who stuttered but we never ever talked about it. As a matter of fact, in all of my 19 years in Pakistan, stuttering was something I never talked to anyone about.- not friends, not family, nobody. It was all inside of me and other than wishing and praying that the next morning I would wake up completely fluent, there was nothing I could do about it.

Around the age of 12, I vividly remember telling myself that I can't go on like this. I have a lot of potential, which I won 't ever be able to realize, if I keep myself shut off like that. To desensitize myself, I just tried to speak in almost every situation. It helped that my teachers always gave me a lot of prominence in the class. I was the star pupil and I had to speak, if I wanted to live up to my image. My mother used to encourage me a lot to participate in extra circular activities. So I started participating in debates, speeches and other such activities. That definitely helped me in overcoming my fear of speaking and just becoming more social and outgoing. However the fluctuations were still mind boggling. I could pass off as a fluent speaker with strangers by word substitutions and other crutches but stuttered a lot with friends and family. That perhaps was the most frustrating part. Since I had the luxury of being fluent at some times, so the dysfluency in others bothered me all the more. It was still however a completely personal battle. A sorrow which remained unspoken.

Give sorrow words.  The grief that does not speak, 
whispers the over-burdened heart and bids it break.                 

In August 1988, I came to the states and started my bachelors in Electrical Engineering at the university of Texas at Austin. Once I was studying in the library, it was the summer of 89, and accidentally came across some books on stuttering. One of them was "Self therapy for a stutterer". Therapy? Hmm that was a totally novel idea to me. So there was something which can be done about IT. There is a cure after all! I was totally excited by this discovery. The book recommended seeking professional help, if possible. This is how I landed at UT speech and hearing clinic. in fall of 89 and was characterized as a mild to moderate stutterer.

That was like the opening of a whole new world to me. Finally I could talk to someone about my frustrations, my problems - my stuttering life. They started the therapy with block correction techniques. Cancellation (Post Block correction) where you say the word again, fluently, after you have stuttered on it, was the most difficult one. Once I had struggled through a word and managed to get it out finally, there was no way I was going back and saying it again! Pull out ( In block corrections, where you take control of the repetitions by doing a few voluntary repetitions and ease out of the block) and Pre block correction (where you use try to relax your speech mechanism on anticipating a block before saying the word) came more easily. We also worked on a lot of problem solving for difficult situations and relaxation techniques. They all worked fine but the problem was that I did not stutter much in the clinic atmosphere any way. So there was not an opportunity for me to test or practice the techniques in actual difficult situations, and in real life they did not work all that well. My clinician had to rely on my reporting my successes in real world and I had this big idea that once therapy is over, all my problems are over so I was reporting a lot more successes than I was actually seeing. To cut a long story short, I was released from therapy in Fall of 90 with the understanding that I have completed my therapy successfully and now I could go out and conquer the world!

The next year was the realization of the cruel reality that things had not really changed all that much. I still was helpless in many situations, in fact I had started to stutter a lot more in some situations than I did earlier. What made things worse was that now I would analyze each and every stuttering episode to death and come out blaming myself entirely for the failure of not using my techniques. I was just overly self critical. I had techniques which were supposed to make me fluent. Why could I not use them effectively now, when they were so easy in the clinic? One positive aspect of therapy was that now I could at least share my stuttering with some close friends. I just could not bring myself to advertise it as much as my clinician wanted me too, but at least now there were some people I could talk to stuttering

After a long period of repeated failures and inconsistent fluency, I went back to therapy in January of 92 at the UT speech center once again. This time I was being completely honest in reporting my successes or rather my failures in transferring my techniques to the real world. We went back to slow rate, the block correction techniques and all the other stuff, we had done before. But nothing really helped. My fluency was still very sporadic. The problem with block correction technique was they only applied when I started having a block and by that time it was just too late for me to exercise any sort of control and just like the waterfall effect, once the blocks started it was downhill from there on. I did get a lot better in advertising my stuttering, but the funny thing was even though it made me more relaxed with my audience, my stuttering intensified once the cat was out of the bag.

Something was just not right. I needed a different approach. In fall of 92, my speech pathologist Ann Thomas came to the conclusion that the focus had to be shift away from stuttering and towards maintaining my fluency. It might sound like the same thing, but for me it was a big shift. For the next couple of months, we worked on the BRAT program by Gronhovd, where the emphasis was to focus towards relaxation and using passive air flow by achieving a state of relaxation in the respiratory pathway. During the same time I read Dr. Martin Schwartz's book "Stutter no more". I also had a phone evaluation with Dr. Schwartz and thought about attending his two day workshop on passive air flow very seriously, but at $1800, it was way beyond my meager student budget. To set the record straight I don't agree with Dr. Schwartz's claims that his is the be all and end all ultimate "CURE" for stuttering. Nevertheless for me it was the perfect technique as it could be used all the time (and not just when I started having disfluencies); it would slow down my rate (a known effective strategy for me);and it would shift the focus of therapy away from my over-analysis of my stuttering episodes.

Even though it sounds like that this was the perfect technique for me, it took me 2 semesters to get to the point, where I could actually go out into the real world and use passive airflow consistently even for 10 minutes. The whole passive air flow approach was something new that our university clinic was trying and to put it bluntly the clinicians were moving on the learning curve at the same time as me. One drawback with a university clinic is that you have a different student clinician each semester. Even though I had the advantage of having a great speech pathologist like Ann as the supervisor, but trying to develop good rapport with a new clinician each semester hindered the progress to a certain extent. With the shift in focus, one good thing was that even though I did not stutter in the clinic atmosphere, now the challenge was not just being fluent but consistently using passive air flow for the full hour. In a nutshell what my technique entailed was ' Breathe in; let some air out in a passive way, at the end of which start the first word in a slow, slightly prolonged manner;continue the easy onset throughout; don't scan ahead or perform the word; if you do come to a block, pause, reinitiate your technique on that word or sound; Do not rush!

So now I knew my technique, knew exactly what I was supposed to do. However transferring it to the real world effectively was another story. At this point in my life. I had started my job search, graduated and job interviews and all had a big stress level associated with them. It was still very hard to be able to use passive air flow in tough situations but in easier situations there sure was a good progress. One thing, which really helped me there, was sharing my technique, and not just the stuttering, with people around me. Telling and demonstrating to them that I had a technique which could make me fluent, if used properly, made me all the more motivated to use it. I also made up a hierarchy of situations based on the level of difficulty of using my technique, and failure to be effective in a higher up situation on the hierarchy made it easier not be so hard on myself. Ann had always told me to be less self critical and that if I could turn the feeling of frustration and dismay with my speech to motivation to practice harder, it can do wonders for me, and as always Ann was right. Around that time, the NSP chapter of Austin was also taking off and that provided me with an excellent opportunity to practice and share. I practiced with friends, by myself, in the car - actually I practiced quite a bit.

In February 94, I landed a job in Sunnyvale, California. My speech was much better, but still everything was not all together. In march, I attended a workshop with Dr. Ted Peters at NSP San Francisco. I did not realize it then, but now in retrospect, this was like a big milestone in my life. Coming back from this workshop I started to do something new. I did not beat up on myself for using passive air flow all the time. What I started to do now was, I would start off with passive air flow, slide into spontaneous fluency naturally, and slide back to controlled passive airflow at the slightest inkling of trouble. The slow rate of the controlled speech and the easy onset carried on quite a bit during the spontaneous phase too. But, I must warn that, I could only do it after having some intense practice with passive air flow. Doing it on a premature stage can be dangerous.

It is about time, I came to the present. I have been back in Austin since June. My speech in the last 6,7 months is the greatest it has ever been this consistently all through my life. What's more is that I would like to think that my life as a stutterer is over. I still stutter every now and then (when I am laxing on my technique), but my level of fluency is very acceptable to me. I try to go to our NSP meeting quite regularly, as they provide me with a good opportunity to practice and rebrush my technique. Also, I try to maintain the same spontaneous and controlled fluency balance, I have described earlier. Sometimes in difficult situations, it is not smooth sailing all along but then who is looking for perfection!?

It just feels so heavenly to be able to say that in the past 6,7 months there has not been a single day which went bad because my speech was bad. I can pick up the phone and call up anybody , any time I want to. My friends, people who have known me for a while, come up to me and comment on the tremendous improvement they are seeing in my speech and it ... it just feels great! I have the "If you stutter you are not Alone" NSP button on my office wall. I have just come a long long way! I may have a relapse, my speech may go back to what it was before. Call me over confidant, but I would like to believe that having done it once, I can always do it again.

I don't think I hate my stuttering any more. It is a part of me, just as so many other things are. My fiancee' made an interesting comment. She said that "You are the person, you are today because you went through all these experiences in your life. The stuttering, the frustrations, the struggles, the triumphs" and not to sound corny, but most of the time I like the person I am today.

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