To Dad, thank you for all you have
done, and I'm sorry I didn't do this earlier.
To Mom, thank you for making me who I
am, and now I hope you understand.
Non-Copyright 2003. Copy it, distribute it, quote it, edit it, help yourself. If it can help one person vault over the Wall it will all have been more than worth it.
Table of Contents:
Chapter1: Stuttering: One Person's Perception
Chapter 2: My Particular Type of Stuttering
Chapter 3: The Problem With Current Speech Therapy Techniques
Chapter 4: The Mental Gymnastics
Chapter 5: The Payoff
Chapter 6: Beyond the Wall
Appendix I: Recent Medical Studies Regarding Stuttering
Appendix II: Famous Stutterers
My name is Drew and I'm a stutterer. I was going to name this document" "How I Conquered Stuttering" but I realized that you can never truly conquer stuttering, any more than you can grow back an amputated arm. The best you can do is hold it at bayÉ or cage it. Stuttering is a physical condition and can not be reversed. However, a one-armed person can lead a normal life by utilizing the natural tendency for the human body to compensate for the loss of function that arm represented. You also can rewire your mind to compensate for the physical condition of stuttering that I was and, to some extent am, afflicted with.
I'm a stutterer. I'm also a Vice President, Consulting for a firm that does sales and marketing consulting for accounting firms across the country. My profession is based around communication. To some extent it is communication. Who'd a thunk it?
I know that that there are many forms of stuttering so I apologize that the only empirical evidence that I have are my own experiences. The following paper describes the mental technique that allowed me to cage my particular type of stuttering. I have had success with this technique to the extent that I have known people for years who are not even aware I'm a stutterer. I talk to persons of authority, talk on the phone, speak in front of groups of people and give presentations to key influencers of my future. All without any indication that, unless you knew what to look for, not fifteen years ago I couldn't get a sentence out to my best friend without having to struggle at least once to get over a stumbling block or "Wall" as I refer to the stuttering points in the spoken sentence.
If you are reading this you are probably a stutterer, the relation of a stutterer or a someone that works to help stutterers with their impediment. For the stutterers, I hope that you can use my mental tool to vault over the Wall the same way I did. For those related to stutterers I hope that you come away with a better understanding of what your loved one is going through, and for those that help stutterers I hope this gives you another tool to succeed.
Stuttering: One Person's Perception
I once heard a statistic that 1 in 10 people have some form of speech impediment. Of all of these the most debilitating is stuttering. Non-stutterers have no idea what a blessing it is to be able to communicate smoothly and easily. They have no idea what it is like to know what you want to say, to want nothing more in the world to say it, to get your mouth and tongue in the position to make the soundsÉ and hit the Wall, literally a mental wall that locks up the speaking mechanism as tight as a rusted bolt.
For the loved ones of stutterers and those who try to help them let me give you an analogy that might give you a hint of what stutterers experience. Look at speech as you would a long flight of steps. Each word is a step. Now, as a non-stutterer, or as one not handicapped in any way, you just flow up the steps, you slow and quicken as the conversation takes you. You see the steps as they approach but you don't give the physical act of lifting one leg after another a second thought any more you do the forming of your mouth into words. You are more concerned with how you will scale the steps, what inflection, impact, finesse. How you will climb the stairs with the audience watching (listening) is all that concerns you.
Now, imagine that you are scaling the stairs and all the sudden, as you go to take the next step your leg won't raise. Just as simple as that. You look at the stair, look at your leg, concentrate on raising your leg and taking the next step and it WON'T raise. It moves a little bit. It acts like it is going to do what you tell it but only gets about an inch off the step and stops there, vibrating with the strain of trying to follow your brain's electrical command. It is as if an invisible hand has reached up through the step and has grabbed hold of your foot and you are struggling to break its grip. This continues until you either break the grip or just give up and put your foot down and try the other leg and pray that it will actually do what you tell it to this time. Maybe it will or maybe the same thing will occur with that foot as well.
Now imagine that this happens all the time. You look at every set of stairs as a certain challenge and opportunity for embarrassment and the waking world is one flight of stairs after another.
With a stutterer, what is more important is will you be able to climb stairs not how will you do it best. Don't forget, you are never alone on the steps. There is always at least one other person climbing the steps with you and they don't have any invisible hands grabbing their feet. They have to stop with you and watch you wrestle with an invisible force that they can't see or understand.
I call that invisible grip on our speech mechanism the Wall and all stutterers battle against the Wall in one way or another. While our face turns red with embarrassment and we want nothing more than a hole to open in the earth and swallow us up, we sputter, strain, try the first letter or syllable of the word over and over again and then either finally succeed and gasp out the rest of the word or quit and try a different approach that we hope will succeed without hitting another wall. An example of this that most people will recognize is when Warner Brothers' famous Porky Pig character tries to say "Bye" at the end of their cartoons and after struggling for time finally gets out "That's all folks."
Meanwhile the embarrassment is not only ours. While this horrific pause in the continuum of the conversation lengthens, the listener(s) either politely wait with their expressions frozen on their faces or, even worse, try to complete the words for us. If you do this, stop. The stutterer is not playing speech impediment charades with you. At least give them the consideration of breaking the invisible grip themselves. We are already forced to publicly humiliate ourselves, don't smack us in the face with how natural and easy it is for you.
Society's Perception of the Stutterer
To compound the injury, thanks to the television and cinema mediums, the stutterer is perceived as mentally challenged. The opposite could be not be more true, but the sadistic tendency for humans to find any weakness a source for merriment has added to our burden immeasurably.
The truth of the matter is that intelligence has no bearing on stuttering. As a matter of fact, stutterers have better than average vocabularies due to developing a variety of ways to communicate the same concept in order to try to avoid or circumvent the Wall.
Triggers Part of what makes stuttering so frustrating is when it happens. When you are comfortable; with your friends, family or spouse, the stuttering is far less pronounced than when you are in a situation that causes tension. Stress is a trigger, even the slightest amount. When you are on the phone, talking to strangers, speaking to authority figures or people whose opinion you value like your teachers or your boss and God forbid speaking in front of groups of people. The times when you most want to speak fluidly are the very ones where you stutter the worst. The tragic thing is that wanting to not stutter causes the very stress that exacerbates it.
My Particular Type of Stuttering
I have never encountered a more sever stutterer than I was. One of the worst experiences of my life was when I was required to stand up in front of the congregation of my church, about five hundred people strong, and recite a prayer into a microphone at about age twelve. It was absolutely nightmarish, my voice booming down the auditorium through the PA system, strange to my ears, listening to this stranger's voice struggling its way through the text like a paraplegic dragging itself through a boulder strewn wilderness. I couldn't change the text to mitigate my dilemma. You can't very well take poetic license with a biblical prayer. Everybody looking at me, everybody thinking "what a shame." The ordeal seemed like it took an eternity but it probably only took me five minutes to fight my way through what should have been a three minute one-page prayer.
I'm a consonant stutterer. I expect most of us are, and with a name like Drew Crowder you can imagine how much fun it was growing up. The term "children can be so cruel" barely describes it. If I never hear the term "stutterbrain" or am subjugated to that abhorrent Porky Pig character again it will be too soon.
Only recently have I heard about vowel stutterers but what I have to show you may be adapted to that condition. For me sharp consonants; p's, d's, k's, sharp c's, even ch's were, and occasionally still are, a trial. I remember a "shining moment" as a child when I lay on my parent's bed and watched a James Bond movie on the black-and-white TV in their bedroom and burst into deep and intense tears because I knew that I could never be a secret agent. I could never be James Bond because I couldn't talk. I could never deceive an enemy because I would stutter out of nervousness and fail the mission. This was an avenue of life, a dream, that I could never live because I was handicapped. As trivial as it may seem it sticks out, as often the most unusual things will upon retrospect, to make up the person that I was and define the trial I was to overcome.
The Problem With Current Speech Therapy Techniques
The way I describe the mental process of stuttering is that your brain puts stumbling blocks or "walls" at certain key words you are preparing to say like you would punctuation in a sentence. The commas go here, here and here and I am going to stutter on this "p," this "g," and that "sh."
Like many if not most stutterers my parents took me to a number of speech therapists to try to get help. I recently did an Internet search to see if the same inefficient - if not downright counterproductive - tactics were being used today as they were when I was a child and regrettably they are. Let's look at some of the basic tenets of speech therapy as it pertains to stuttering and the their ramifications.
The idea behind the "slow down" recommendation is that the impediment is a product of the stutterer being exited and trying to say too much too fast. In fact, the human brain is cable of allowing us to talk at approximately 150 words per minute, listen and comprehend at around 450 words per minute and accumulate thoughts and words for communication many times faster even than that.
Slowing down actually gives you much better and many more opportunities to stutter because you don't build up a head of steam to pass a wall before it can form or break through it with sheer momentum.
Think About What You are Going to Say
"Take a deep breath and think very hard about what it is that you are going to say." In case you had not already erected the walls in anticipation of what you were going to try to communicate now is the perfect time to do so.
From the mentality of a non-stutterer this makes perfect sense. If you breathe deeply, talk slowly, and think about what you say before you speak even a hysterical disaster victim can regain their ability to communicate. Why wouldn't the same be true for stutterers?
Because we are stutterers. It is like telling a blind man if you turn up the lights, put on glasses and squint you should be able to read the newspaper. Stuttering is a physical condition, not a behavioral or attitudinal disorder. The way to keep stuttering at bay is not to adopt the tactics that work for non-stutterers but to understand why and when you stutter and make a "work-around" that will make it seem as though you don't stutter at all. Like a blind woman who memorizes every inch and obstacle of her house so that, to an unaware observer, she does not appear blind at all.
The Mental Gymnastics
I remember the day, the moment, I figured out the answer to my stuttering. I was about 14 years old, laying in bed and reading a magazine when my subconscious finally calculated all the various permutations, assessed the factors and ramifications and spit out the answer to my conscious. Sort of like when you try to remember the name of some obscure actor or film, give up and all the sudden it bubbles up out of nowhere when you are mowing the grass the following week.
All of the questions like "Why don't you stutter when you sing?" and "Why do I stutter more when I'm on the phone than when I am face to face with someone?" and "Why does that deep breath, talk slow business work in the calm of the therapist's office but not in real life?" finally took shape like seeing the hidden picture in an optical illusion.
Think about it. When do you stutter the worst? When you are uncomfortable, stressed, want to impress someone, essentially when you are most afraid that you are going to stutter. When do you stutter the least? When you are comfortable, relaxed, least afraid of stuttering. It would appear that stuttering is a self-propagating phenomenon. The more you don't want to stutter the more you do, the less you worry about it the less you stutter. HmmmÉ
That's all good and fine you might say, but how do you not worry about stuttering when you stutter? The answer is in the walls. As you think about what you are going to say your brain puts the walls in place. For example take the following sentence:
"The boy walks the dog across the plaza."
O.K., imagine addressing your favorite supermodel, U.S. Congress, or a jury of your peers and saying this sentence. Breathe deeply, think very hard and say this sentence very slowly.
If you are like me your mind would immediately fix on the "b," "d," and "p" and place the walls there. As you approach the "b" your heart races, your face turns red and you begin the battle against the wall. No way to avoid it as you can't say "young man," "adolescent," "youth," or any of the other words that could describe "boy" without facing that accursed abrupt consonant "b."
Therein lies the answer. The very act of stuttering propagates itself. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy. How do you conquer (or at least cage) it? You use its strengths, the very factors that cause you to stutter, to vault over the walls.
Let's take our example from before.
"The boy walks the dog across the plaza."
Alright. Let's say that there was no "b," "d," or "p." Lets say that instead there was a soft consonant in its place. For me "m's" and "n's" worked best.
What if you said this:
"The mmboy walks the nndog across the mmplaza."
As odd as this may appear, think about it. Your stuttering beast within has placed very well established walls at the sharp consonants "b," "d," and "p." All the sudden, completely unexpected, there is no "b," "d," and "p." Only soft "n's" or "m's." Trust me, your stuttering beast is not very bright and when it has got itself set to stutter on a certain letter at beginning of a word and all the sudden that letter is not there it gets confused.
You stutter because you have the pause before the word, the opportunity, to stutter. If you are already talking by the time the wall is supposed to go up you take away that opportunity.
Have you ever watched professional football players on the line of scrimmage. Look sometime and you will notice that before the ball is snapped they have to be very still (or they get penalized) but if you look close you will notice that they are shaking their hand. What experts have found is that it is easier to leap into action if you are already moving, even if it is just a small shake of the hand, than if you are completely still.
The same is true with stuttering. If you are already speaking, even if it is only a light hum, when it is time to leap into action in the saying of a difficult word it is easier.
Fortunately many non-stutterers say "mmmÉ" as they gather their thoughts. You can also make the ramps, the "pre-consonants" very quiet. So It is more like:
"The mmboy walks the nndog across the mmplaza."
Also, keep in mind the human brain's tendency towards closure. The listener will hear mmplaza but the listener's brain will toss out mplaza as not being a word and backfill in the word plaza as being correct and in context.
Now, instead of just an inevitable obstacle in your path, you have put a subtle though efficient ramp over the Wall. You still have to climb over the wall, but now you have a small, light-weight portable tool to lay against the wall that allows you to climb over while barely breaking your stride.
Another important part of the caging process is momentum. Contrary to popular therapeutic techniques talk fast and don't give a second thought about what you are going to say next. That is when you stutter the least anyway. When you are comfortable, at ease and with friends you don't think about what you are going to say. Don't give your brain the chance to punctuate your sentences with walls.
I know that this is easy enough to recommend but very difficult to execute. However, it will greatly help your using the Ramp because even today, if I have to read something to a group, if I slow down and think about the words the walls spring up like weeds. Whereas if I speak the words as fast as I read them I'm gone before my brain has the chance to lay the first brick.
You may be thinking, "So I'm trading a stutter for a slur. Rather than stalling I'm sounding like I'm mentally challenged by putting nonsensical letters in front of what I'm really to say." Nope. What makes this "work-around" so useful is that after a while you no longer even have to use the soft consonants, the ramps. The results will no doubt vary, but eventually your brain gets conditioned to the point where you no longer put the "n" or "m" in front of your sharp consonants. Your brain gets conditioned to you laying down the ramp to vault over the wall and what began as a physical action on your part becomes a subconscious action.
Now, when I talk I have many pauses in my speech. It actually serves to be perceived that I am placing emphasis at certain points in the conversation where, in reality, my brain is performing the mental gymnastics of laying down the ramp, vaulting the wall and moving on in a microsecond. Now when I run into a wall it appears as a delay, a pause. But I don't worry about it, and that is the key. The stress that you will stutter causes you to stutter. Once you take that away the amount that you stutter decreases dramatically. It is the self-propagating solution to a self propagating problem.
Now don't get me wrong. This is not a silver bullet that will cure your impediment instantly. Like picking up the guitar for the first time and trying to make your fingers form the chords or running at a line of hurdles for the first time the start isÉ ungainly. You have to stretch your fingers in a most unnatural way to make the chords and at first you hike a leg and climb over a hurdle, but after a while the chords form without thinking and you jump the hurdles without breaking stride. It takes that sort of stick-to-itedness to make this system work.
Just to put this into perspective, I figured out the "ramp" over the "wall" at age 13, in 8th grade. By my freshman year in high school I was still stuttering but at a much reduced intensity. By college, 4 years later, I only stuttered in highly tense situations or at random times that were, for some reason, unpredictable. People could still tell I was a stutterer but it was so slight they only took note when I inquired. By the end of graduate school, ten years later, people only knew I stuttered if I pointed out the symptoms. Now, twenty years later, I stalled today, to no small amount of consternation on my part. You will always be a stutterer. It is a physical condition that cannot be cured. But you can speak. And that is heaven.
Beyond the Wall
I recently ran into two situations where the slumbering beast that is my stuttering reached across the years and reared its ugly head to give me a dose of perspective and humility.
One was when I was asked to speak (into a microphone, no less) to an auditorium full of people on the subject of my employer's book. I was positively mortified. To make it worse I had made comprehensive notes on exactly what I was going to say. A big mistake.
You remember being in school and the teacher was having the students go around the room and read passages of a book or a poem and as your turn approached your anxiety grew and grew until, when it was your turn you were a complete basket case? That's just the way it was. We were doing a "round robin," each of the three of us took our turn reviewing a chapter, so I had plenty of time and plenty of opportunity to place major roadblocks in my carefully prepared mini-speeches.
The stuttering came back in force (in the form of uncomfortably long pauses) while my brain frantically tried to work its mental gymnastics in the most stressful situation a stutterer can imagine. Actually, a stutterers nightmare unfolding in real life. It was horrific.
After the public speaking fiasco my boss suggested (which means instructed) that I join a local club of Toastmasters International. It was, hands down, the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my speech development.
Toastmasters is an international organization of clubs that is focused on helping you improve your communication and leadership skills. Their e-mail address is www.toastmasters.org It is a positive forum where you give speeches, evaluate speakers, facilitate the meetings and give short impromptu speeches. In two short years I've gone from terrified to get up and speak in front of an audience (a remnant of my stuttering past) to where I feel a sense of loss if I have attended a club meeting and did not get the opportunity.
It literally takes the fear that you have of speaking and turns it into an adrenaline rush. This seems unbelievable to the average stutterer but it is nonetheless so. For about $40 per year and one hour twice a month you can be involved in an organization that is built on the precept that people dread public speaking and wish to improve their communication skills.
I am constantly reminded of the Seinfeld television show episode where in his opening dialog he points out that when surveyed, people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. So logically they would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
This is not far off the mark, and the fear is multiplied when you are a stutterer and the stuttering is multiplied by the fear.
The second occasion was a similar situation. I was giving a portion of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech to my Toastmasters club on the day after MLK's birthday. Because of the nature of the speech I was required to read from a script, as with the prayer I couldn't very well take artistic license with one of the most famous speeches in history. Once again I had very noticeable (and long and embarrassing) pauses and a few stalls in reading the script. But no stuttering in the literal sense of the word. The slight pauses that normally happen now while my brain lays down the non-verbal ramp became more pronounced, but I did not stutter like I once would have.
If you think about it there are similarities between these two relapses. Both times I was under stress. I was forced to think about exactly what I was going to say, I had no alternative route to circumvent the wall and I was out of practice in using the verbal ramp. Needless to say, I won't be doing any more scripted speeches.
My father is my inspiration for writing this paper. He is gifted with more natural talent than anybody deserves to get. He is an artist (in fact a commercial artist by trade prior to his retirement), a musician, even tempered, good at math and a hard worker. He is loyal to his friends and tolerant of his more than aggravating family. He is also a stutterer. Like me. There is no way to know how different his life would have been had he not been.
As a stutterer you know what I'm talking about. My life was irreparably altered by my inability to communicate. I could never be James Bond. The modern world is called the Information Age. That is exactly what it is and the primary way to exchange information - even more than e-mail - is the spoken word. If you can't exchange information via speech you are severely limited in life options. You have to adjust your ambitions, dreams, employment, even your social circle around your impediment.
If you can make this system work for you as it has for me, than there will come a time when rather than dreading such daily activities as answering the phone or meeting people you will be able to speak fluidly in situations that range from one-on-one interactions to presentations to large groups. You will be free. Good luck and stick with it.
Appendix I: Recent Medical Studies Regarding Stuttering
The following is an excerpt from a segment the National Public Radio ran on drug studies related to stuttering:
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Gerald Maguire, Ph.D. used to avoid the telephone and struggled with pronouncing his own name. He stuttered, and even ordering a fast-food meal was difficult.
He stutters less today, largely because of olanzapine, a medication that shows promise as a treatment for the disorder. Gerald Maguire, who is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Irvine, joins us now. Thanks for being with us, Dr. Maguire.
Dr. GERALD MAGUIRE (University of California-Irvine): And thank you, John.
YDSTIE: Tell us about this medication olanzapine.
Dr. MAGUIRE: This is a medication that's actually utilized in the United States and around the world for the treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It lowers the brain chemical dopamine, and we believe that dopamine may be abnormally elevated in the brain's of individuals who stutter. But we're not to say that stuttering is like schizophrenia or manic depressive illness. Those disorders likely have that brain chemical elevated in different parts of the brain.
YDSTIE: And you're doing a study on this now, or you just completed a study on this now, right?
Dr. MAGUIRE: Correct. Half the patients in the study were taking a fake pill and the other half were taking the real medication, and neither the patients nor I knew what they were on at the time. And we followed adults who stutter for a period of three months and measured them on, say, the frequency of their stuttering and the duration of their stuttering blocks.
YDSTIE: What were the results of this study? And how much...
Dr. MAGUIRE: Yeah.
YDSTIE: ...was stuttering reduced among people who took olanzapine?
Dr. MAGUIRE: Those individuals who took the olanzapine compared to those who took the fake pill, the average reduction in symptoms was about 40 percent. On the fake pill, the reduction in symptoms was about 15 percent.
YDSTIE: And you've been a guinea pig in your own experiment, I understand.
Dr. MAGUIRE: I wasn't part of the formal trial itself. But one nice thing about having a disorder is you can empathize with your patients with it, and you can try out the different treatments beforehand. And I actually started taking olanzapine over four years ago.
YDSTIE: And what has it done for you?
Dr. MAGUIRE: Well, I remember as a child that every New Year's, I would make a resolution when that ball would drop that, "Next year, I'm not going to stutter anymore." And that would last till around 12:02 AM, at the very most, I think it was, until I started to talk again. I said, "Well, I gotta wait till next year."
Dr. MAGUIRE: It's changed me in that as a person who stutters, we oft may live in a shell, so to speak. And even though I was always an outgoing person, deep down I tend to avoid certain situations in my life from a social standpoint, dating and so forth, as a boy and young man, and allows for one to kind of come out of the shell and to become your own person, more free of the disorder itself, which is really the goal of any sort of therapy for stuttering, is to not allow the stuttering to dictate that person's life.
YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. How common is stuttering? What percentage of the population is afflicted with it?
Dr. MAGUIRE: Yeah, it's about 1 percent of the adult population, and about 3 percent of all children will stutter. And about 60 percent of the children who stutter will, at puberty or some time around then, will outgrow it, so to speak. Yeah.
YDSTIE: Why's it taken so long to come up with a pharmaceutical treatment?
Dr. MAGUIRE: I think because stuttering has largely been viewed just as a learned disorder, or a disorder that could be manipulated just by learning to relax and so forth. And medical science really has not dedicated its focus on stuttering in any way. And when I was in medical school, I learned absolutely nothing about stuttering, and I believe the majority of physicians know very little about stuttering. So the people who are trained to really understand this really didn't have any background in this, they didn't even think that this is something that you could actually study and try to help solve.
YDSTIE: Thanks very much, Dr. Maguire.
Dr. MAGUIRE: And thank you, John.
YDSTIE: Gerald Maguire is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Irvine.
Appendix II: Famous Stutterers Just a short list of famous stutterers taken from the web site of the Plano/North Dallas Chapter of the National Stuttering Association:
Vladmimir Ilyich Lenin
Sir Issac Newton
James Earl Jones
See the full list with descriptions at the Plano/North Dallas NSA Homepage!
Not bad company eh?