That's not what I wanted to hear as I approached mid-life. Speech therapy had helped me to speak somewhat fluently by age 30. But my fear of stuttering was undiminished.
From earliest childhood, my goal was to NOT be a stutterer. I wanted to stop worrying about stuttering and walk around speaking freely like everyone else in the world.
I was lucky because my stuttering wasn't severe. Because I was fluent much of the time, I became expert at hiding my stuttering and working around it. Substituting more pronounceable words gave me a tremendous vocabulary (and a livelihood as a writer). But when I did stutter, it was devastating. So I avoided difficult situations, or forced myself into them until they became manageable, in the hope that eventually I would outgrow my stuttering.
In college my well-written term papers compensated for lack of class participation. As a newspaper reporter I conducted halting interviews but wrote hard-hitting stories. And during my hitch as an officer in the Navy, I caused some anxious moments while I struggled to blurt out the orders needed to keep the ship from colliding or running aground.
It may be no accident that I gave myself more than the usual incentive to hide my stuttering by pursuing occupations in which people are presumed to be well-spoken: journalist, naval officer and telephone company public relations.
In those days many people may not have been aware that I stuttered. Instead, they probably figured that I was unusually nervous, slightly retarded or on the verge of a seizure.
When it became obvious that I wasn't outgrowing my stuttering, I entered the adult stuttering program at Northwestern University. Speech therapy helped me improve my fluency, at least for a while.
Near-perfect fluency was a high! Nobody could shut me up. During a business presentation I got a rush of elation when I suddenly realized that I wasn't worried about stuttering. I was worried -- justifiably-- that the vice president would cut my budget.
But I soon learned that speech therapy wasn't a cure. Even though I stuttered less, I still agonized about it. My blocks were less frequent but painful as ever. (Worse, I could no longer blame the stuttering poltergeist because therapy had taught me that blocks were MY fault for not practicing fluency techniques every day!)
Speech therapy didn't change my life because fluency skills were only part of what I needed. The rest of the puzzle didn't fall into place for many years, until -- with the help of a little psychotherapy and a lot of life experience -- I learned to accept myself, stutter and all. That's when things finally began to get easier.
I've learned that my success at living with stuttering has a great deal to do with what's happening in the rest of my life. Maturity helps. Stuttering is traumatic at age 15 and painful at age 30. But by age 50, fluency blocks rank lower on the list of potential middle- aged worries such as cholesterol levels, proctoscopic examinations and other reminders of mortality.
What's more important is the way I feel about myself and how I interact with the rest of the world. If the rest of my life is in order, stuttering becomes a smaller problem.
I also stumbled across a happy side effect: When I do things that help me feel good about myself, my fluency tends to improve. Probably the single event that yielded the most dramatic improvement in my speech was leaving a stressful corporate job to start my own business.
Not that I don't have stuttering episodes. My blocks pop up with the same frustrating randomness as ever, and some of them are doozies. The difference is that I'm getting better at NOT letting a stuttering block ruin my entire day.
Participating in stuttering self-help groups also gives me a boost. Being in a room full of people who stutter makes me proud to be who I am. After years of hiding my stuttering, I'm awed by the people for whom even severe stuttering isn't a handicap -- who speak disfluently, freely and fearlessly in any situation.
I haven't abandoned speech therapy. But today it fits into a larger context. Several therapy "retreads" over the years have helped me stay reasonably fluent. Meanwhile, the self-esteem I've gained helps me get through the disfluent moments with my psyche intact.
In fact, my next round of speech therapy will focus on stuttering MORE instead of chasing Dan Rather-style fluency. I figure my life will be easier if I can swap my customary silent block for a repetition or prolongation. That way people will know that I stutter and won't worry that I'm having a heart attack.
After nearly five decades of stuttering, I'm close to my childhood goal of speaking freely without worrying about my speech. I am still a person who stutters, even though I speak fluently most of the time. Whatever vulnerability caused me to stutter in the first place is still there. My speech still is subject to good days and bad days -- and good years and bad years. But a bad speech day, like a bad hair day, really isn't a big deal any more.
And those old guys were right: it does get easier.