Case Study, age 52 - covert stuttering

My first memory of stuttering was at age 10. I don't believe I stuttered prior to that, as I had always gotten A's in reading. I remember my fourth grade teacher complimenting as I read out loud to the class with very much expression. I recall that though that in the fifth grade everytime I opened my mouth.. the words would not come and my classmates would laugh and make fun of me.

My mother took me to Ohio University in Athens for speech therapy. I remember for the next few years getting up early on Saturday mornings to make the long drive to Athens for an hour with a therapist. Some of the things they wanted my parents to do, drove me crazy. I had been playing the piano since I was 6 and loved it. We were told that children who stuttered did so because we used both hands. My piano lessons were stopped and I was not even allowed in the same room with the piano. At the same time, I played the flute at school. I was made to give up the flute, but we compromised on the trumpet, as only one hand would be moving, the other would be holding the instrument. Of course, this treatment did not work. The next treatment was to have me learn a foreign language. It seems that some folks who stutter can speak in a foreign tongue without stuttering. However, this did not work for me. There were so many things I wanted to do, and was forbidden to do, such as trying out for the local baseball team. This would require both arms moving at the same time to hold the bat and hit the ball. I am sure there were other things that I was forced to give up, but these are the ones I remember.

I had joined the Girl Scouts, and I remember having to get up in front of a huge group of children and adults to say the Girl Scout promise. I stuttered and stammered and everyone burst out laughing. I remember running to my mother's car and hiding. About that time, I withdrew and became extremely quiet. I remember being told that I was shy and shy people do not make it in this world.

By the time I was in the seventh grade, my parents decided speech therapy was not going to work for me. So I was able to go back to playing my piano. I began having extremely painful headaches and was sent to Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where it was discovered that I had a tumor on or very near the brain. So I was sent in for surgery. This was in 1959, surgical techniques were difficult at best then.., but I remember my parents and the surgeon telling me that my stuttering could be tied to the tumor, so if it could be removed or the growth stopped, then my stuttering would go away. That in itself excited me. I didn't care that I might not have any hair for a few months as long as I didn't stutter anymore. Well they couldn't remove the tumor because of where it was located, but they were able to do something to stop the growth. And of course the stuttering continued much to my dismay. By that time my mother was convinced that my problem was physical and was tied directly to this abnormal growth.

My father, who was a physician, put me into psychological counseling when I was 15. He was convinced that this was a means I had developed in order to receive attention. I was in and out of therapy for emotional disorders for the next seven to ten years, and yes I was still stuttering.

At 15, I was able to get a horse. I had always loved animals and had been especially drawn to horses. As I learned to ride, I discovered that I could talk to my horse and my speech would be fluent. This was the only time I was fluent. When my father found out, this convinced him even more that I stuttered for attention.

I got so I disliked school. No one would talk with me, everyone talked about me when I wasn't there. Teachers would force me to speak in front of the class, despite their knowing that it was extremely painful for me.. with my classmates giggling in the background.

I went away to college. My speech did not improve, but nor did it worsen. I found the college had horse stables and spend all my free time at the stables, getting to know all the horses by name. I found that I could talk fluently with the riding instructor. She was the only person that I had ever met who didn't tell me to slow down, to take deep breathes.. she didn't try to finish my sentences for me... and it was a plus.

During the late sixties, I had several jobs over a short six-month period. It seemed like everytime my employer found out I stuttered, I was terminated. I remember telling one employer up front before being hired that I was a stutterer. He said that's ok, but within two weeks I had been fired. He said.. he didn't understand exactly what a stutterer was, and would prefer not to have a "retarded" person working for him. I finally landed a job in a bank. They were going to put me in the file room, where all I did was file checks. I did not have to talk to anyone, or answer phones. It appeared it was going to work out. And it did for a few months and then supervisors changed. The new supervisor wanted me to answer the phones. I was terrified of phones. I could not answer and speak fluently. This new supervisor made it very clear if I did not answer the phones and speak fluently I would be terminated. At that point I had heard of "crutches" stutters could use to get through blocks, so I started experimenting at home on the phone. I finally ran across one that worked for me and I still use it today at age 52 with great success. However, I find if I deviate just a wee bit, I still to this day have a block. I was supposed to answer the phone "Good morning this is ABC Bank, Barbara speaking, how can I help you?" I couldn't do that, unless I added "Hello, good morning this is... etc" My supervisor initially made an issue out of it, but his supervisor realized the progress that I had made, so I was left alone.

Today, I still use "hello" before I start any conversation on any phone, before any other greeting and I am fluent. There are times though that I am so busy that when I answer the phone.. I forget and there is a hesitation on my part, and I will hear the other party say " is there anyone there?" Our switchboard operator where I work was doing that.I finally asked her just a few weeks ago, " you not give me the chance to answer?" She said, "Cause you are so slow." I said, "Who really cares? I would prefer that you not speak until I do when you dial me." She was kinda of put out and wanted more details... but I figure that is private info and she doesn't need to know.

I have always tried to steer clear of large public gatherings where I may be required to speak. However, back in the early 80's I was talked into running for public election for a local water district. I hated it when I wanted to speak at a public meeting with all these people listening. I always stuttered and stammered, speech was somewhat jerky, not fluent... but not all that bad either.. I remember one of my fellow board directors that didn't think a whole lot bout me, 'cause I always tried to vote for the peoples' rights, told a newspaper reporter that I came to the meetings drunk and high on drugs and that's why I couldn't speak in public! Gosh that made me extremely angry... but I didn't quit or resign as he had hoped... I stayed on for two full terms. During which time my speech became more fluent as I learned to use more "crutches." There are those who say crutches are only temporary and don't work forever.... well they work well for me. Most of the people around me have no idea of my speech difficulties.

Most folks think I am just extremely quiet and shy, which they assume makes me a pushover. I recently had a young man sue me after my husband/his father passed away. He thought my quiet demeanor would allow him to come in and take over. What he didn't know, was that years of stuttering had turned me into an extremely patient person and I could outwait anyone or anything. What he thought would be over in months dragged into years. I think folks who stutter are patient.. we have to be, or we wouldn't be here.

I stopped "stuttering" sometime in my mid forties, and today I am only 52.. so it hasn't really been all that long. Sometimes when I want to speak, I can feel a block coming on, so I just reword what I am going to say and its ok... it works.. Sometimes if I feel a block coming on.. I just stay quiet... I get these feelings that no matter what I try to say.. there is going to be a block so it's better not to say anything. Other times, I speak quite deliberately, and extremely slowly. I am asked why I do that. I always say "so you understand exactly what I am saying and so I will not have to repeat it." Generally this works, and I never have to repeat it.

Recently when in court during my trial for my suit, the plaintiff's attorney asked me a question. It was a very sensitive question, relating directly to my husband's death and I had a major speech block, I could not answer the question without exposing "my secret of stuttering" Instead I said "I don't understand the question" The question was repeated twice and I answered the same way twice more. The judge finally said, how the decedent died has no relevance to this suit so withdraw the question. I was so relieved.

Basically, I cannot really give anyone any specifics as to how I avoid stuttering.... to the point where no one suspects... I know I am.. cause I am so sensitive to the very nature of my problem. I would have to say using certain words for "crutches," talking extremely slow almost like trying to talk to a small child, subjects I know well... flow extremely fluently, but I must be careful not to stray from the subject material or I will have problems, avoiding situations when at all possible that will set me up for stuttering, and at 52 I almost have that down to a science. I have found that if I come across as being in control or knowing my material it is much easier to be fluent.

What bothers me though more than anything else, is the discrimination against stutterers in the work place, other handicaps are protected.... physically disabled are protected. Are we as stutters protected? I don't know, never really thought about it til just now.

added with permission, July 19, 1998