Iıve Got a Secret and Itıs Scaring Me to Death:
The Story of a Covert Stutterer
Chris J. Roach Stephen B. Hood
Dallas, Texas USA Mobile, Alabama USA
It is always interesting to discuss the concept of ³severity.² Everyone thinks they know what it means, but nobody can agree with the other personıs definition. Some people define severity in terms of the presence or absence of stuttering, but in the paper we will argue to the contrary. Indeed, fluency is more than the absence of stuttering.
Severity has two major components. On the behavioral side of the coin, we can talk in terms of the frequency with which moments of stuttering occur, the duration of how long they last, the degree of associated effort or struggle that is involved, and the types of disfluencies that occur (sound/syllable repetitions, sound prolongations, hard contact, silent blocks, etc.) On the behavioral side we also have the things the person does in an attempt to postpone or avoid stuttering, and the things the person does while stuttering in an attempt to escape from it. On the emotional side of the coin, we can talk about feelings (nervous, anxious, fearful, frustration, shame, guilt,) and we can talk about the attitudes we have about stuttering (that stuttering is bad, terrible, wrong, and a sign of weakness and failure.)
Severity is the sum total of all of the behavioral and emotional factors that exist for any one person, and as such, severity is a highly personal conclusion that a person draws in terms of these attitudes, feelings and behaviors.
But what about the person whose stuttering is covert? What about the person who is able to hide, conceal, repress, avoid and interiorize stuttering through such tricks and crutches as substituting one word for another work or by paraphrasing, or by answering incorrectly, saying ³I donıt know² or refusing to order at all. These persons are ³successful² in passing as fluent speakers, and yet the price they pay for keeping their secret hidden is an insufferable one. There is the nearly constant risk of being exposed and detected. Because of prior ³successes² with avoidances, the risks of being detected are extreme.
Those who think that covert stuttering is a ³mild problem² are greatly mistaken. Indeed, the problems associated with the constant vigilance necessary to ³pass as a fluent speaker² are formidable. Most covert stutterers can vividly recall stuttering overtly at some point in the past, and recall earlier horrible experiences. These terrible experiences (e.g., being teased, humiliated, bullied, ridiculed) resulted in feelings of shame and denial that fueled the fires of avoidance. Many covert stutterers develop maladaptive coping strategies where they allow the prospect of overt stuttering to rule their lives. They make decisions based upon the possibility of stuttering, and they allow themselves to be ³verbally handicapped² and ³verbally disabled² by the possibility that they will stutter and be discovered. To them, this old adage is ever true: ³It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool – then to open your mouth and erase all doubt.²
What follows is a conversation between the two authors of the paper. The clinicianıs comments (Hood) will be in regular type, and the comments from the person who stutters (Roach) will be in italics.
SBH: Can you give me any examples of some of the experiences you have had as a covert stutterer?
CJR: ³Oh, no! He wants me to introduce a guest to the audience -- Manuel Washington. I canıt say that name! Why couldn't he be Bill Smith? Why did I ever accept the stupid position? A bank president who can't say Manuel Washington.ı What a loser. Please, God, help me. They'll all know my secret. Itıll embarrass the bank. They'll never look at me the same. A fraud, a liar. Iım so sick. THAT'S it. I'm sick.ı I'll simply leave. They'll never know. Someone else can introduce him. Run! Before itıs too lateAhhh, what relief. No one found out. My secret's still safe. .... but why do I suddenly feel so diminished? So ashamed? Like I always do...."
This true story demonstrates the constant chaos that secretly terrorized my life, struggling every waking minute to meet societyıs expectations while fearing its rejection by exposing my stuttering.
Considered ³normal² by those who witness our uninterrupted words and intelligent contributions, weıre rewarded because we meet societyıs requirements for acceptance. Considered ³flawed² by those who witness our chopped speech and tense struggles, weıre penalized and stereotyped – but oddly for a different reason than experienced by overt stutterers. Blame. Let me explain.
I was born into a loving family in the rural Texas Panhandle, exhibiting a gifted potential – scholastically, athletically and socially. Expectations ran high. Conformity was required. Only the best from me was acceptable – grades, behavior and participation. My speech reflected my ambition. Rapid and incessant. Inevitably, the blocks arrived. Advice followed. ³Slow downspeak more clearlythink before you speaktry harder. You can do better. Your future is counting on it.² A lifelong pattern had begun. My fluency was rewarded; the stuttering was stigmatized.
Into adulthood, the signals continued. ³Stop the stuttering or consequences will follow.² ³Work harder, longer, smarter. You CAN overcome the stuttering. Weıve seen you do it.² Logically, I couldnıt disagree, for my fluency capabilities implied I had a choice. ³If I donıt beat this, Iım to blame,² I believed. After all, Iıd perceived this message for almost forty years -- ³Stuttering is MY fault.²
Was I truly penalized for stuttering? Yes! Rejected jobs, declined dates, embarrassed friends, nervous co-workers. Yet, did I tap that special potential? Yes! Leadership roles, senior positions and peer recognition. Wow! How did that happen? Simple – I mastered the art of deception. I manipulated every passing moment to hide the stuttering – that horrible ³weakness² that so many warned would ruin my future. I acted fluent. I was a verbal ventriloquist, able to deceive most, able to impress many.
But what did it cost to hobble the truth within me? Constant terror! Fear, panic and anxiety lived with me every waking minute and even into sleep. Thoughts of discovery paralyzed me.
SBH: I have noticed that covert stutterers often feel uncomfortable in group situations with overt stutterers. They seem to feel awkward and ill at ease, as if maybe they donıt belong. I wonder why this is?
CJR: Since weıve devoted so much energy to be seen as fluent, we tend to follow the same ³rules of the jungle² like anybody else. Instinctively, we disassociate ourselves from the flawed and challenged, in order to feel more normal about ourselves. Since most people donıt define us as stutterers, why should we see ourselves otherwise? That invites pain.
Ironically, weıre viewed suspiciously in the stuttering community for being fluent just as weıre ostracized in the fluent community for stuttering. Any disfluency is ³too much² to be considered a ³normal fluent speaker.² Any fluency is ³too much² to be considered ³a regular stutterer.² Nobody sees the lurking severe blocks and secondary characteristics hidden by our ³successful² tricks. When we stutter in public, we get ³the look²-- that all-so-familiar glance of surprise, questioning our mental capacity. When we speak fluently among other stutterers, we get ³the look² -- that all-so-familiar glance of mistrust, questioning our understanding.
Coverts dread associating publicly with confident overt stutterers who proudly proclaim their marquis slogans, ³Celebrate your stuttering! Donıt chase fluency.²For struggling covert stutterers, this message is repulsive. Since our capacity to integrate socially is more resourceful than for overt stutterers, itıs uncomfortable to openly promote our stuttering when weıve been otherwise successful hiding it.
SBH: From what you are saying, I suspect that there must be a lot of guilt about the actual behavioral act of ³stuttering,² and a lot of shame and denial attached to the label of ³being a stutterer.² Have any of these been a factor for you?
CJR: Yes. Iıve felt tremendous shame but ironically not for the act of stuttering itself, but rather for the cowardly manner in which I fled from it. My effective ³tricks² were not intended to disguise my stuttering, but instead to neutralize its ugly image. I schemed to maintain ³control² over my speaking situations to not only ensure that my capabilities were recognized, but also to avoid the humiliation I feared would result from exposing my stutteringıs potential severity. These tricks grew so absurd and demeaning at times, Iıd privately collapse in shame and humiliation.
When asked why I ³talked funny,² Iıd focus positively on my achievements, emphasizing how ³my speech² had never deterred me. However, I felt diminished that Iıd been considered so abnormal even to warrant such a discussion. Why solicit the ³stutterer² label and face rejection when I had the capability to avoid that shame? Denial led me to continue honing my tricks and developing new ones to disguise the stuttering, both from others and myself. I believed that instead of a ³stuttering problem,² I had a ³tricks problem² – I simply needed better ones!
When my fluency was grand, I was applauded. When I stumbled, I was criticized. And by no greater critic than myself, with no greater punishment than guilt. Work harder. Keep trying. Overcome it. When I couldnıt, I was guilty of failure -- failure to control my weaknesses.
SBH: Can you tell me some of the things that caused you to work so hard, for so long, in order to hide your stuttering?
CJR: Many experiences motivated me to hide my stuttering, especially during my formative years. As a new college graduate, one job interviewer scowled when my stuttering surfaced. He openly doubted my ability to speak potentially to a board of directors as a bank examiner and declined my job application. My college girlfriendıs mother denounced me, citing my ²failure to do something about my stuttering.² In my first professional year, my boss summoned me after overhearing a routine telephone call. ³Do something about that speech,² he warned, ³or it will kill your career. You wonıt go far.²
In my career, image is crucial and the spoken message is critically judged. Consequently, Iıve felt compelled to keep the stuttering beast imprisoned, again, to conform to othersı expectations.
SBH: After working as a covert stutterer in a demanding and perfectionist work environment, where overt stuttering could appear to be a serious flaw, I guess there were lots of risks involved in becoming more open about stuttering.
CJR: Yes, the risks are real and alive! I am an independent consultant. Without the tangibles of a company history, impressive office structure and staff resources, my client must instead rely upon the intangibles of trust, word-of-mouth reputation and gut instinct to engage my services. The decision to hire me is often influenced by a single impression – image. Disfluency can erode that clientıs confidence, especially when millions of his dollars are at stake.
An illustration from my early career involved an infamous mid-Western U.S. bank failure that nearly created a national economic crisis. Under intense media scrutiny and with billions of dollars at risk in hundreds of financial institutions, tensions ran high as a result of its collapse. On a scorching summer day, thousands stood in line over twelve hours to collect their insured funds. Eventually a mob packed the bankıs lobby. As federal bank liquidators, we commonly encountered angry voices and flared tempers among frustrated depositors. Like ³Itıs A Wonderful Lifeıs² George Bailey, I jumped atop a chair. To the packed lobby, I bellowed out calming – but forcefully fluent -- instructions to ease the tension. The crowd instantly quieted. All eyes focused on me. It worked! At that critical moment, anything other than confident control could have been disastrous. How ironic that one of real-life stutterer Jimmy Stewartıs beloved characters became one of my most effective tricks!²
More recently, I shared a conference table with a team of independent consultants vying for a lucrative contract on a billion-dollar trial. Our collective chance to secure the contract was contingent upon our individual ability to promote our talents. The deciding officials listened to our presentations cautiously. When it came my turn, I noticed several colleagues inhaled slowly. With tricks in hand, I pulled out all stops to sound fluent, while I choked inside with fear – the fear of causing economic harm to all the others if I stuttered. We won the contractbut now I felt worse! Iıd have to live with this fear everyday!
SBH: What are some of the unique "tricks" you use to hide your stuttering?
All stutterers use similar techniques to avoid or escape stuttering, but because covert stutterers have fluency capabilities, weıve utilized additional circumvention schemes, with word substitutions and paraphrasing being our favorite. Weıre a walking Thesaurus, able to sound fluent for hours, days and even years, using synonyms we can pronounce in place of so many words we canıt. Many coverts simply lie, using different names and occupations – anything fluent. Weıre commonly extroverted because we find more acceptance through ³ fluent² personalities -- familiarity, using a listenerıs first name (because we canıt pronounce their last); affable humor (to distract attention from our words); and a casual attitude (to avoid inflexible formality.) Paradoxically, many covert stutterers are incessant talkers. Weıve convinced ourselves a string of intelligent fluent words can mask the disfluencies sprinkled throughout, hoping the listener thinks, ³He speaks oddly -- but heıs not dumb!² Although such behaviors risk annoyance and violate social protocol, coverts prefer those penalties rather than alternatively being labeled a ³stutterer.²
SBH: Can you tell me what finally got you to the point where you wanted to become more open, tolerant and accepting of your stuttering?
CJR: Fatigue. I was tired of always running scared. Reaching my mid-forties, I finally understood that my own expectations didnıt have to always take a back seat to othersı expectations. Iıd become disgusted with not being in control of my life, always been shackled by fear of my stutteringıs discovery. This manifested itself during the billion-dollar contract I described earlier. I realized Iıd felt anxious every day for two years! Scared of harming the case, scared of losing respect in the eyes of valued peers, scared of profile public humiliation. My fear of stuttering had paralyzed me to the point that I didnıt know how far I would go to flee the fear of humiliation.
³Enough!² I said. ³Itıs time to change – finally.² Time to honor my expectations – not everyone elseıs.
SBH: Knowing what you now know about the liberation of self-acceptance and openness, how would you counsel young covert stutterers?
CJR: Even if I had known in my youth what Iıve learned in adulthood, I cannot honestly say that Iıd respond differently. We must remember in counseling our youth that we speak from a perspective of life experiences many years later compared to younger people just beginning to chart their future. For them, peer recognition, social inclusion, and competitive gain matters. These motivations naturally wane as we mature and focus on our private realms rather than our social posture. Expecting young covert stutterersı total openness, when they encounter the same risks and consequences we once experienced, may not be realistic. Nevertheless, it is important for young stutterers to understand that the interiorized fear, guilt, shame and denial can be liberated through openness, advocacy, and acceptance; and that affiliation with others in the self-help community gives them support and opportunities that few of us ever had.
Integrate and educate. These are my guidewords. Mainstream your life without limitation. My most valuable resource is the love of my precious wife who has nurtured and supported me over eighteen years without any regard for how fluently my words were spoken. Pursue friends abundantly. They, too, will care only about what you say, not how fluently you say it. Educate others about the truths of stuttering and the normalcy of the stutterer. Although healthy choices and proven tools are important, self-acceptance will only occur when that individual is ready – on his terms, not ours. Remember – what caused my fear of stuttering was pressure to meet othersı expectations. In the stuttering community, letıs not repeat that same dilemma for our youth.
SBH & CJR: There are at least four factors that help perpetuate stuttering.
FEAR of stuttering, fear that you might stutter, fear of looking or sounding different, and fear that the secret of your stuttering will be discovered.
GUILT for stuttering, guilt for making your listeners feel uncomfortable, guilt for using tricks, and sometimes even guilt for having ³false fluency² because of using these tricks.
SHAME for who you are -- a person who stutters.
DENIAL of having a stuttering problem in the first place -- denial of the need to work on resolving the stuttering.
These negative emotions of fear, guilt, shame and denial must be reduced. Maybe they cannot be totally eliminated, but you should try to reduce them to the point where you can tolerate them.
Positive changes can be facilitated by:
DESENSITIZATION to the emotions of fear, guilt, shame and denial is important. Desensitization does not mean that you will end up liking these feelings, but rather, desensitization can help you to tolerate and cope with them. Steps that will help along the road to recovery include acceptance. Work to be more open, honest, tolerant and acceptant of stuttering. Increased acceptance can be helpful in reducing the shame, guilt and denial.
ACCEPTANCE can be fostered by gradually being willing to talk more openly and honestly about stuttering. Be willing to mention your stuttering, in socially acceptable ways, to family, friends and colleagues. Emphasizing your advocacy activities in a self-help organization is an effective icebreaker. Be willing to ³advertise² stuttering. Be willing to voluntarily stuttering on non-feared words. Try making some phone calls to strangers, and do some purposeful stuttering. (Check the classified advertisementıs section of the newspaper, and call to ask questions from someone who is trying to sell something.) Call some toll-free ³800² numbers to inquire about something.
Recognize and accept the real fluency you have, and the ³controlled fluency² or ³modified stuttering² or ³good talking² you earn, but do not worship the ³false fluency² achieved through postponement and avoidances, or use of tricks, crutches, and other artificial means.
We wish for you a successful journey.