Another Path Toward Recovery

by Russ Hicks

There are two fundamental things that you need to know about me:
  1. I stutter, and if you talk with me for 30 seconds there will be no question in anyone's mind that I do, indeed, stutter by anyone's definition.
  2. I lead the life of a fluent person in that my disfluencies have little to no effect on my life style.
That tends to indicate that I am a "recovered" stutterer - DESPITE THE FACT THAT I STILL STUTTER. A genuine paradox...

In my youth I was a severe stutterer, again by anyone's standards. Forget the 5 and 10 second blocks. Forget the 30 second or 1 minute blocks. I got into what I called the "forever" blocks: eye blinking, foot stomping, jaw dropping, running totally out of air blocks that I simply could NOT break no matter what I did. Those of you who have never had such blocks don't know what you've missed! I remember vividly getting stuck on the word "heavy" once. I thought I should just remove that word from my vocabulary, because I could absolutely NEVER say it.

I prayed to God to relieve me of that agony. If He would just let me stutter like every other stutterer did, I wouldn't ask for more. And very slowly over the years that prayer has been answered. Be it age, speech therapy, the NSP, Toastmasters, or a genuine supernatural miracle, I don't have those "forever" blocks any more. And for that I'm so grateful I cannot express it. I'll never forget how those blocks felt, the frustration, the misery of not being able to utter a sound... I know how severe stutterers feel. Been there, done that...

I had been to various forms of speech therapy before (in the ancient days) and I was totally frustrated. My folks were totally supportive of me but that didn't make any difference. Therapy simply didn't work for me.

When I was 17, they wanted me to try once more, before I went to college where my speech would have spelled certain disaster, so we all fervently believed. My thoughts...


Okay, this time I'm gonna make this work. I've got the best therapists in the world, with the best program in the world. If I just do what they say and really - REALLY - work at it, I can cure myself of this damn stuttering. If I don't, I'm doomed. Before I do ANYTHING else in this world, I've GOT to cure my stuttering because that's the thing that's holding me back. I know, I tried hard the first three years at camp (Shady Trails in Michigan), but I know I really didn't try hard enough. This summer will be different. I'm gonna work on my speech like a mad fiend, clearing everything else from my mind and concentrate on my stuttering like I've never concentrated on anything in my life. My dad said he cured his stuttering with hard work and concentration, and so will I!

I know that once you set a goal for yourself, you can achieve anything by hard work with the right techniques. Look at all the Olympic athletes, the champion sports heroes, the successful people in the world. They've worked hard - VERY hard - and succeeded. That's the American Way. I can do the same, be a role model and a hero to others. I'm ready. I know I can do this. This is the summer when I'm going to cure my stuttering.


Well, I guess I don't need to tell you what happened. I did exactly what I said I would do, working my tail off on my speech all summer, and sure enough by end of the summer I - w-a-s- -t-o-t-a-l-l-y- -f-l-u-e-n-t- -a-n-d- -s-p-e-a-k-i-n-g- -l-i-k-e- -a- -r-o-b-o-t- -l-i-k-e- -t-h-i-s-. And sure enough after a few of weeks of that nonsense, my stuttering came back full force. Needless to say I was devastated. So were my folks who I had tried SO HARD to please. Now I was going to have to go to college and face certain failure and humiliation because I was just unable to work hard or long enough.

My last hope was that I would finally "outgrow it" as my folks always promised me I would. Just wait it out and it would go away by itself. (Now many decades later, I still cling to that hope because I know dead people don't stutter!)


Looking back on everything I can see things a LOT better in 20/20 hindsight. The "work hard and succeed" philosophy is 99% good. In recent days just look at the US Women's Soccer Team and all the hard work they did and dedication they had. They worked unbelievably hard and kept their focus on the right activities (techniques, training, etc.), and sure enough they are now on top of the world! Every little girl (and admittedly lots of little boys) look up to them as role models. Hooray for them!

The one little item I missed - at least for me - was the 1% exception to that rule. Back then I never heard the expression "We stutter when we try not to stutter" and that is one of the most important sayings there is to a stutterer - especially ones like me. I tried to apply that 99% rule to the 1% exception and got badly burned. Let me tell you, I was a fighter, but I didn't realize that the harder I fought, the deeper the hole I was digging for myself.

I remember thinking about my future, all the cool things that I wanted to do in my life. And they ALL, every one of them, were followed by the statement "...but first I've got to cure my stuttering." My stuttering was the NUMBER ONE issue in my life, dominating everything else. It seemed totally logical to solve problems from the top down, the important ones first (stuttering, staying alive), then working down the list to the minor ones like school work, girl friends, and what the hell did I want to do with my life. But FIRST I had to cure my stuttering...

If I had known then what I know now I would have turned that problem list upside down. Partying would probably be number one (as witnessed most recently in Seattle), then at the BOTTOM of the list would be to cure my stuttering. I had NO CONCEPT that I was doing the exact opposite of what I should have been doing. By concentrating so hard on my speech, I was ADDING immeasurably to my problem.

Does therapy work? Yes, BUT... If you attack your stuttering in order to conquer it, you're feeding it the fuel it needs to continue to be a major problem in your life. A good therapist (and we didn't really have too many of those when I was a teenager) realizes that and will help her (or his) client attack his WHOLE LIFE rather than just the stuttering. The more he becomes involved with being a part of OTHER PEOPLE'S solutions, the less he will become involved with his own problems.

If I am an expert at anything it's because I've made more mistakes than anyone else. I tell you all this, all my mistakes trying to fight my stuttering as a teenager, so that maybe someone else won't fall into the same pot holes I fell into.

Fast forward the tape...

Just to complete this mini-autobiography, I graduated from both Purdue and Indiana Universities, married my high school sweetheart, became the father of two unbelievable kids (for which I can claim neither credit nor blame), and recently retired from a very successful 35 year career at Texas Instruments where a significant part of my work was speaking, training, consulting, managing, etc. I joined Toastmasters (of all things) where I have had more than my share of successes. And oh yeah, I still stutter. Maybe one day I'll outgrow it.

And today my life is so much different. I no longer have any fear of speaking, no matter what the circumstances. (Everyone has normal butterflies though.) My mental processes no longer view each moment in my life as a speaking challenge that I must weave my stuttering way through. I have no words or sounds that I must avoid. I can even say the word "heavy" again. (Praise the Lord!) I am an accomplished - and certifiably successful - public speaker. And yes, I do take great pride in that. Time - not modesty - forbids me from expanding on that here, but if you're interested in a mind-numbing essay of unabashed raw braggadocio, email me privately. :-)

The question has been asked many times in stuttering circles "If you could take the magic 'pink pill' to really cure your stuttering, would you do it?" I've taken a lot of heat over the years by answering that question "no." I know I'm in the extreme minority here, even among the most enlightened stuttering community. Stuttering is WHO I AM. It is so much a part of me that I would be such a different person if I didn't stutter. And I like who I am, and I honestly don't want to change. Grow? Certainly. Change just for sake of change? No.

Several of my close friends and I have discussed "self improvement" over the years. (Has anyone NOT ever discussed that topic?) If you had the power to improve yourself, don't you have the RESPONSIBILITY to do it? A lot of very good people think so. Maybe it's just laziness on my part, but FOR ME, I don't think so.

Despite my thinning gray hair, the "Hair Club for Men" has no appeal for me. Why shouldn't I get a Burt Reynolds wig or undergo hair implants? Wouldn't I look better with a full head of jet black hair? Ha, ha! Lissen here young'uns, I think I'm handsome enough as I am. (See my picture !) But you may honestly disagree. And honest disagreement is wonderful. I don't disparage those who wear wigs or get hair implants. That's okay for them - but just not for me, thanks.

Same for my stuttering. While some people would urge me to take additional therapy to rid myself of the last of my disfluencies. I respectfully decline. I don't knock those who do, but that's not for me, thanks. I've got things in my life that are a million times more important than that.

Stuttering has opened doors for me and given me more opportunities in life than I can possibly express. Living my life WITH MY STUTTERING has been an inspiration to other people - and yes, I am proud of that. Without my stuttering, I could not do some of the important speaking engagements I do today.

Am I proud of my coping skills? Yes, certainly. (And I know a LOT of people out there should be just as proud of their skills as I am of mine.) Is that pride preventing me from becoming fluent? Hmmmm... Maybe... I know that's just not for me.

That's my opinion.

added with permission, October 20, 1997. Additional information added July 15, 1999