A few months ago, I briefly glanced at a summary that was written about this panel entitled: "Recovered Stutterers" and want to start by stating that I won't be sharing my story of becoming recovered. The term recovered means to get over something. It seemed too dichotomous; either you are or you aren't. I 'm not sure if I will arrive at a place of completely "getting over " my stuttering. Recovery, however, is defined as the act of recovering. In terms of stuttering, I view recovery as an ongoing process. One that will continue to evolve with the passage of time. It is not a destination, nor a place I am striving for. It is something that unfolds as I am engaged in the process of learning how to manage my stuttering more successfully. It is a journey that has involved pieces of my past, present, as well as, the future.
Looking back, memories of my childhood are painted with colors of happiness and joy, as well as, hues of sadness and pain. I remember growing up in a close knit Illinois neighborhood; having a loving family, rich friendships, and anticipating each school year with excitement. However, strong feelings of isolation and loneliness shade many of my memories. Often I felt like I just wasn't exactly a part of the crowd, that I was somehow different. And I was different. I could not communicate as well as other children did. As a very young child, I was on the path of becoming an internalized person who stutters. I manipulated my class participation to avoid getting caught in an uncomfortable moment of stuttering. I remember doing whatever I could muster in order not to talk, acting as though I was lost. Feigning incompetence, I would act like I forgot or just plain didn't know the answer. I certainly appeared well adjusted. As I grew older, I began to create opportunities to make things look good on the outside, as the sadness, loneliness, isolation, and fears grew on the inside. For many reasons, including family dynamics and the way I interpreted the world around me, I learned early on to perceive stuttering as something that was bad, very wrong, and something I shouldn't be doing. Stuttering, in my family, was a topic that I remember being discussed openly when I had been teased. When a speech was assigned in school, I recall crying to my mother, insisting that it just wasn't possible for me to speak in front of a group. She would go to school to get me out of it, informing the teachers, much to their surprise, that I actually had a stuttering problem. The general guidance concerning coping with such a disorder was that "everyone has a problem and this one is yours."
At the age of five my parents had begun seeking help for me. I would meet the Speech- Language Pathologist at the initiation of each school year; however, I carefully hid my stuttering. No consideration was ever given to parent reports that in the home environment I was unable to communicate at times. I attended speech therapy for a short time during high school, whereby I remember reading numbers out of a phone book. In retrospect, this did little to help me. I made it through those teen years in spite of tremendous speech avoidances and achieved success as a jazz dancer in a semi-professional dance company. Subsequently, I decided that dance was a safe career route because no talking was involved. At that time in my life I was terrified of my stuttering. The only gift I asked for when I graduated high school was a necklace with my name on it, which relieved some of the anxiety I felt regarding saying my name when meeting new acquaintances. Believe it or not, I chose a college whose name I could fluently say.
The first real turning point in my process of recovery was the surgery I was forced to have during my Freshman year of college which ended my dancing career. I now realize then how much I had let stuttering control all of my decisions, dreams, actions, and relationships. I remember describing the avoidance behaviors that left me the size of a mouse in a very large room surrounded by the "stuttering monster." My first college roommate was a lifesaver, making my phone calls and often talking for me wherever we went. "I can't" was a common part of my vocabulary. By great fortune, I ended up in treatment with Carolyn and Hugo Gregory. I began learning about the disorder of stuttering and ways to modify speech. While the treatment approach advocated the two sides of the coin, working on both attitudes and speech modification, I was concerned with fluency shaping. This is where I put my energy. I was definitely not interested in facing that stuttering monster, doing negative practice, and above all, using voluntary disfluency.
The next turning point for me in the process of recovery happened during a summer school English class at the local community college. I remember recognizing the hold fear had on me when, upon asked to introduce ourselves on the first day of class, I fled from the room and drove the thirty miles home. I went back to face the teacher and told her that I stuttered. She informed me that the entire grade for the class was based on class participation and a speech. She was willing, as teachers were all my life, to rescue me and support my avoidances.
But something began to change in that class. I became angry at the hold fear had on me and the inappropriateness of my social behavior, such as not introducing myself to others, that I would engage in, for fear I might stutter. I sat in class after class looking as if I had nothing to contribute; suddenly it was no longer Okay. On the final day of class, the teacher took me in the hallway and asked me if I really wanted to give my speech, assuring me that it was possible to back out. I replied: "If I don't do this today I will never do it." Standing in front of the class, I couldn't start my speech. With encouragement from the teacher I was able to ask the class for their support in getting through that speech because (at my first admission) "I had a stuttering problem". Oh, what a sigh of relief when I finally could say those words. This first personal triumph felt like a climb up a mountain that had become much too big. What followed was many small triumphs which sent me down a different path in terms of learning to manage my stuttering. For the next ten years I became proficient at speech modification. I viewed fluency as my biggest success and the only factor in good communication. I expended tremendous energy, anxiety, and anger in order to speak fluently. I recall, in my early twenties, believing that I had already worked through the process of my stuttering problem. I had become a successful SpeechLanguage Pathologist, although I really continued to miss the big picture of stuttering.
A significant turning point in the process of recovery happened when a variety of life circumstances began to change and, at the age of thirty, I experienced a speech relapse. I was petrified that I could no longer uphold the fluency I had worked for so diligently. I began withdrawing from situations in order not to be caught stuttering. Public speaking was a large part of my job and I remember asking myself: "Why am I continuing to make these speeches when it is so hard?" At one point, I remember my self expectations for how I should be communicating were so high that I considered leaving the profession to go into the flower business! Then I began having those "aha" moments, or times in our lives where things click when we gain new insight into an old problem or a conditioned way of reacting. I knew I had to make changes. I was absolutely exhausted from engaging in endless unhealthy behaviors to keep my stuttering where I thought it had to be. I began taking risks, choosing to do things that I would never have done. At my first ASHA presentation I decided not to modify my speech. I made the choice to lose control and stutter. There were opportunities to experience once again the pain of stuttering but I began looking and reacting to these in different ways. I began taking risks in other areas of my life, sharing fears with close colleague friends, and cautiously reaching out for support. I remember the gentle confrontation from another who said: "You really don't let your stuttering show, do you?" Another "aha" moment came when viewing a videotape segment of a little boy saying in his loudest voice to his mother, "It's not my fault that I stutter." I started giving myself permission to make mistakes, in speech as well as other areas, and to let go of being perfect.
I was, for the first time, able to let that protective wall down long enough to recognize and name the shame surrounding stuttering as well as myself. My reactions to others and my stuttering began to make sense. Once I named this shame, I began revisiting childhood experiences and found myself in shame spirals, or moments in the present that brought me back to the same emotions I had buried long ago.
I stayed with these emotions, became aware of them, and tried not to fix them. Instead of choosing to respond in old familiar patterns, I allowed myself to be in the great moments of uncomfortableness. This provided the opportunity to identify, confront, and disclose the bad feelings I had always felt about my stuttering. I increased my understanding of why I behaved in certain situations and what responsibility my thoughts about stuttering played in it's maintenance. Slowly, I began to move out of the shame I had experienced all my life.
I further explored and developed a greater understanding of the role that anxiety played in my life. I no longer blamed my fears and reactions on just stuttering. I was able to look at stuttering as a piece of a much bigger picture. Increasing my understanding of contributing factors within myself allowed me to start explaining my behaviors in more logical consequences. I became open and willing to change my belief system about stuttering and myself as a person who stutters. I looked at stuttering as something I did with my mouth sometimes, not something that defined me or my worth. I made the choice to learn the types of cognitive distortions I was engaging in and how to reframe them. .
My personal journey with stuttering has contributed to the following views:
There are many different ways to manage stuttering and a variety of ways to define recovery. Recovering from stuttering for me has not been about fluency. It has been about arriving at the realization that stuttering is not a failure and that fluency is not a success. It has been about learning to accept myself and my stuttering unconditionally. Recovery is about continuing to take risks, and giving myself the opportunity to be flexible with speech modification. It has been about eliminating "shoulds", "musts" or "have to's", letting go of judging, and learning to talk and even laugh about stuttering. It has meant continuing to respond differently in the face of fear and moving through the shame surrounding my stuttering.
I am incredibly grateful to my faith, clinicians, colleague friends, and mentors for being significant influences during my process of recovering from stuttering, To the children I have worked with, I thank them for the opportunity to observe their determination and courage when facing their own stuttering. Because of this, I was able to face mine.