At thirteen-years old, I attended a month long intensive fluency clinic to fix my severe stutter. If I didn’t do well, I would stutter forever.
I didn’t do well.
Fast forward eighteen years to a moment when I was answering questions as part of a talk I gave at the National Stuttering Association’s (NSA) annual conference. “Why do most people who stutter that find peace with their stuttering leave the community altogether without turning back to helps others just like them?” This question came from a founding member of the stuttering self-help community, and lodged itself in the forefront of my mind. Its powerful message still resonates through me as I write five years later.
These two stories from two very different moments in my life came to mind as I tried to recreate the hopelessness that I felt as a teenager looking forward into my uncertain future if I continued to stutter. The questions that paralyzed my life and thoughts in childhood:
How would I survive?
Who could I become?
What could I do for a living?
Who would marry me?
No thirteen-year-old should be worrying about these questions. Did I have a choice? No. I did not have the emotional and cognitive maturity to see beyond the immediate anxiety. Although my parents did all they could to ensure I had the best help, it failed in accordance with the available and trending options of the 1990s, many of which are still impeding those who seek to change. But, it’s not constructive to place blame or wallow in regret over what could have been.
Yet, I wonder, what was different about my confrontation with stuttering at 27 years old than all of my previous failed attempts to change, aside from not pursing fluency? Part of me believes it may have been simply growing up and experiencing life while another is not comfortable without a deeper exploration.
For this analysis, I am writing with the belief that speech therapy and speech-language pathologists (SLP) were critical catalysts to my eventual success. However, a more nuanced review of their role in my journey will come later.
With feet firmly planted in my shoes at thirteen years old, let’s march forward. The existence is unimaginable unless you have lived through it. I couldn’t envision my future beyond the present moment, and only tried to make it to the next day. Navigating school, friendships, speech therapy, sports, and all the demands of life coming of age as a teenager who stuttered made me question whether life would ever get better. Stuttering and its side effects influenced every waking moment of my life.
After the intensive clinic, I relapsed—though I was merely passing as fluent with a voice that was never mine. My bouts with speech therapy were fits and starts of private and clinical fluency-shaping sessions, coupled with the Speech Easy delayed auditory feedback band aide. This brief description encapsulates my high school and most of college years in which I only devolved further into the loneliness and despair of my experience of stuttering. I gave up on speech therapy at 19 years old and would not return for eight long years.
Why did I return and under what circumstances?
During the hiatus, I graduated from college, moved out of my safety bubble to a new state for work, settled for a marriage that quickly ended in divorce, and, at 26, arrived at rock bottom—divorced and disabled. Stuttering had taken a backseat during this whirlwind but once I cleared away all the distractions it returned to the forefront of my life again.
I started with my biggest fear, dating. I went on many first dates where I began to pull together the story of who I had become. I was telling the same story, to include my experience of stuttering, so often that I gradually gained both self-confidence and self-acceptance, and began to build some momentum, even though I never made it to a second date.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these first dates were setting me up for what was to come. When I was about to give up on dating, I took my first step towards getting help by attending an NSA support group meeting. It was the best decision I ever made not only because of the wonderful people I met, but because the chapter leader had the courage to hand me a business card for an SLP that had changed his life. But, I wasn’t ready for therapy, yet.
A few short months later, I met my soulmate on the dance floor of a grungy bar. She pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone—which didn’t take much at the time—that I had no choice but to learn social skills that stuttering denied me in childhood. Skills that everyone must practice, like how to have one-on-one conversations, storytelling, small talk, interjecting in group settings, and others pertaining to emotional intelligence. I kept up with her for six months before I realized that it had been too much too soon. The side effects of stuttering roared back and I knew I couldn’t go at it alone any longer.
While this was unfolding, I also had begun to work out again to improve my overall health. I taught myself how to swim, and also started biking and running, all of which led me to endurance sports and triathlon as a challenging hobby. The consistency of the workouts and increased health—like the first dates—quietly cultivated its own confidence boosting benefits that translated into the other parts of my life.
With the momentum and self-confidence building, I finally emailed the SLP to start therapy, again. It was the first time I willingly sought it out.
It was group therapy, which made it different from any I had before, and it didn’t focus on fluency, but rather saying what I wanted, when and how I wanted to. It was refreshing because the others in the group held me accountable and served as mentors just far enough ahead in the therapy that I wanted to work hard to catch up. I used it as an opportunity to focus on stuttering openly and quieting its inner life, or, in other words, the side effects that had silenced my voice.
Through a couple years of focused speech work and thriving off of the amazing energy of the NSA community, I found my version of enough in my relationship with stuttering. I stutter freely with very little fear, thought, or reactivity, and now have the life that made the difficult journey worth it. But, never could I have foreseen who I have become during my formative years facing my hopeless future. It was about eight years from rock bottom to enough, and to when I sat on the stage to receive the question about turning back to help others who stutter.
As I’ve written recently, I don’t buy that everyone experiences stuttering differently, and to believe so is as self-limiting as the sole pursuit of fluency itself. At the same time, we who stutter do have unique perspectives on stuttering based on our individual circumstances. Taken together, then, there are tangible actions that I took to take back my life from stuttering that can be universally applied by others to change the impact of it on our daily lives.
In this way, the brief analysis of my journey illuminated some key choices that I made that helps to show others they can become who they want to be, do that job that seems out of reach, find a spouse who loves their stutter and all, and live fulfilling lives while still stuttering. Directly addressing these existential questions is critical to demystifying the what could be wonder that young people who stutter face as they come of age.
What were some of the tangible actions from the analysis of my journey that can be universally applied to help others?
Falling Forward on Familiarity was returning to something I loved doing, working out, while I clawed my way out of rock bottom back to the questions from my childhood. I played sports as a kid where I developed a strong interest in lifting weights. Following the divorce, I started obsessively working out, got in shape, and eventually found triathlon as a means to create healthy habits.
Habit Building began with my workout regimen and triathlon training. It taught me how to build momentum by consistently showing up every day. I have since applied the principles of process oriented habit development to every aspect of my life, and would have benefited from learning the principles of habit change earlier in my journey.
Storytelling was the unsung hero of my journey. Being able to craft and tell the story of your life is not intuitive. Dating accelerated my ability to understand how stuttering shaped my life out loud as I recounted and refined my story across the many first dates. In time, I stuttered freely through it and often led the conversations which felt empowering. Telling an accurate story of my life single-handedly started my journey towards self-acceptance.
Cultivating Social Skills arose after gaining some momentum in the gym and through dating, and became how I learned to connect with others. I spent most of my stuttering journey just trying to say the bare minimum and then suddenly I was dating my social opposite who showed me the extrovert way. This experience demonstrated how important it is to focus on minimizing social anxiety enough to allow me to work on social skills that I did not pick up as a child because of the side effects of stuttering.
Fear and Shame Busting is an acquired skill, and to willingly confront both had an outsized impact on navigating change. When leveraged safely and appropriately—and under professional supervision at times—I was able to transcend every notch on my fear and shame hierarchies, such as dating, growing a healthy relationship, openly stuttering at work, open water swimming in an Ironman race, and, my lifelong nemesis, making phone calls, among many others. Identifying the notches and feeling the fear and shame yet doing them anyways allowed me to see what actually happened when I did rather than be debilitated by the imagined outcomes—a key side effect that I had to overcome.
Embracing the Stuttering Community was life-changing. For me, this meant both the NSA combined with group therapy which connected me to people who stutter that were on similar journeys. I knew then I was not alone and I belonged—two realities that had paralyzed my life for too long. Through support group meetings, the NSA annual conferences, and therapy sessions, I saw myself in others and their courage fundamentally changed my perspective on living openly as a person who stutters at all times.
Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) as the primary foundation of speech therapy addressed the inner life of stuttering that had been missing from all of my previous attempts. In full disclosure, I view stuttering as a behavioral affliction vice a disorder of speech. All of the above tangible actions have some element of CBT principles which shows its importance to achieving lasting change. To quote my speech therapist, “we are changed by what we do.” I hope that comes across in my journey—what I did changed me in ways I never thought possible.
Finding an Anchor, or a few, to travel alongside me through my final confrontation with stuttering kept me grounded and motivated to stay the course through the inevitable obstacles. My extroverted soulmate became my anchor. She was there to discuss my failures, celebrate my successes, and observe the progress that I could not see. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to endure the inner life of stuttering and repeatedly show up to life with such a strong opposition to it.
Awareness of Unexpected Outcomes that revealed themselves after traversing the process of change that no one, at any point in my journey, had told me about. Beyond fluency, what else was there for me to pursue to alleviate the daily impact of stuttering? CBT, communicative endurance, physiological and cognitive recovery after moments of stuttering—which I call resolution—thought to word processing, and many others. Accept myself as a person who stutters and stutter openly…then what? I never knew what other outcomes existed or why it would be important that I worked on them.
Mentorship with those who have a through-life perspective of stuttering is one tangible action that was not part of my journey. Finding a mentor is different than embracing stuttering community. To have someone who has experienced the vicissitudes of living with stuttering is an invaluable resource that could have had a significant impact on my journey. Mentor retention is a problem that challenges the stuttering community. Few who transcend the afflicted state of stuttering stay in the community to pull others like myself forward. The journey is hard and I don’t blame them. But, those who do, are heroes and, with little effort, can alter the lives of many just by sharing their perspectives.
Why did I choose to stay?
I am but one person and by no means a hero. There was an energy that I couldn’t still inside that compelled me to document my journey to help others look forward into their futures with hope, no matter their age or relationship with stuttering. It is the thing I just can’t not do.
My story and traumatic experience of stuttering would have been quite different if I would have known what was possible for me on the other side of fluency, fear, and shame. If seized upon, these ten tangible actions are only a few that can change the answers to the questions above for young people who stutter.They were what I needed as a child facing repeated relapse in therapy.
Please, just this once was the plea I said to myself almost daily while growing up haunted by uncertain future with stuttering. It meant, please just let me be fluent just this once to make it through this one moment, phone call, restaurant order, class presentation, date, or job interview. Please let them see me for who I am on the inside. They can now and I share the above actions as the means for how I made the impossible more possible.
I need my thirteen-year-old self to know I have more than made it through. And, I need young people who stutter to know this reality is within their reach, which is why I’ll be sticking around to share this perspective for as long as the stuttering community will allow. It is my small debt of gratitude and appreciation for its support to my journey through healing.
*In the coming weeks and months, I will write individual articles on each of the ten tangible actions with stories of how I applied them to my life.