A letter to myself and fellow Stutterers:
Stuttering is a very individualized experience. Its impact on me and fellow stutterers cannot adequately be measured over a lifetime. Nor can it be universalized by causation, severity, age of onset, duration, or best strategies to mitigate the negative effects of our stuttering and movement towards confident communication skills and maximum fluency.
As such, it could be a very lonely and debilitating handicap in life if not handled with care, commitment, and dedication. Despite it feeling this way, stutterers are indeed not alone – 70 million people worldwide are with us. They share our histories of pain, disappointments, shame, fears, and failures. More importantly, they share our transformation stories of healing, hope, strength, perseverance, self-acceptance, and compassion (no matter how we speak), speech therapy skill sets, self-help fellowships, and success stories, large and small.
This piece is on recovery and living with stuttering from my experience. I will not focus on the early years of avoidance, shame, and willful self-defiance to force my way through painful experiences and situations. As fellow stutterers, we know what they are and how devastating they can be. This piece is about finding peace with myself while still working hard to improve my communication skills.
Three pillars of “Know thyself”
Pillar One: I had to come to understand the exact nature of my stutter, its physiological expression, emotional toll, frequency, and most common circumstances of appearance. I had to become aware of secondary features I had adapted for survival like word substitution, avoiding speaking situations, silence, or other speech nuances that infiltrated my speech patterns. After labeling and defining these quirks and consequences of my speech, I had to go one step further before anything else was to be accomplished. Stuttering is not my identity. It is not my essence. I needed to define and believe myself to be worthy of being present in any situation regardless of how I speak. I had to develop a healthy sense of self and who I am. Stuttering may be a small part of that – but it will not and may not be an outsized definition of my identity. A bad speaking event is just that – not a condemnation of me or you as a worthy human being. Finding PWSs (People Who Stutter) is an excellent place to explore and share your healthy identity. Some of us may even need professional mental health counseling, but studies show we will not need professional help any more than the rest of the non-stuttering world. Resource: National Stuttering Association to find PWS like you for fellowship.
Pillar Two: I had to take ownership of stuttering. This Pillar will be very confusing as it consists of two opposing textures in one spiral column, ever evolving. I had to accept my stutter may appear at any given time and that I do and may stutter the rest of my life. This acceptance is not giving up efforts to be a better communicator. It is an acceptance that I do not know the degree or upper limits of my potential to be a great communicator and preferably free of any form of stuttering. Self-acceptance is one texture of the column’s swirl. The second is, yes you have guessed it, am I willing to go to any lengths to improve my communication skills – shy of self-self-flagellation and martyrdom!
Pursuing improved communication skills can be a life long journey that should be enjoyed and celebrated. It is the pursuit of perfection, the same as an athlete or artist pursues their crafts. This involves researching and making commitments to self-improvement to learn skills to improve speech with an SLP Speech-Language Pathologist) and perhaps other self-improvement strategies (ancillary self-care strategies that improve overall health and reduce anxiety and stress). What lengths am I willing to go to in my effort to address speech dysfluencies. I cannot count the times I have said to myself if only I did not stutter I would or could or should have done this or that activity or goal. I hate to say it, but in hindsight most of the time it was a cop out – not all the time as sometimes it was prudent to not put my stutter on display.
Pillar Three: Having reviewed the first two pillars we have a sense of our identifies as a valued human being, a keen of understanding of stuttering and its impact in our life, and what if anything we are willing to do about it. Pillar three is about our character. Do you have the courage to commit to action and persevere in your actions, including a healthy dose of humility as it will involve asking and using others for help? This may not just be finding an SLP. It may be finding a self-help group or asking family members or friends to be of help for you to practice specific speech goals.
Perhaps contact knowledgeable people to find a stuttering intensive program and immerse yourself in foundational skills related to your speech patterns and vocal apparatus. It may involve significant monies dependent on your treatment targets. Improving speech is about identifying barriers – large and small, and removing them one by one to obtain your goal. Note when I say it is about character – it is not about successfully being free of stuttering – it is about pursuing improving our communication skills to our fullest potential by taking actions steps, by trial and error, and keeping what works and moving on, ever growing and contributing to the art of actualizing our fullest communication potential in every circumstance. You get to be the hero in your own story no matter the result as our effort will stand tall and our identities intact.
Hard Skills: Programs and Techniques
In hindsight, I tend to minimize today the efforts I have put into speaking fluently. That is a disservice to you if I do not provide a brief view of my journey. Here are some of the things I have tried over 20 to 30 years:
Types of Programs:
- Three-week intensive speech therapy program. Everyone slowed speech down to a really slow rate of speech and slowly over three weeks raised the rate of speech while learning specific skills to work with consonants, vowels, sentence structure, breath, and total awareness of the body. Specific teaching on vocal cords, vibration, articulators, etc. I did not get help until my young adulthood. The sooner, the better in my book. (Rating: must do at least once in a lifetime if you have a significant stutter.)
- One-week refresher program with an SLP and once a week after that: built on skills learned above.
- Attended self-help groups National Stuttering Association and Stuttering Foundation of America. NSA closer to my core beliefs than Stuttering Foundation. Attend at least one NSA function if you stutter.
- McGuire Program or some variant in D.C. (don’t remember and not impressed), not knocking it as I don’t even remember its name! My memory is the exposure aspect, and principles were similar to McGuire. It is listed here as this has worked for some and not for me. I had to check it out – it may have been worth the time, you never know.
- Individual SLP follow up many years later – slipping into bad speech form without realizing it and added stress.
- Apps: Speech for good app S4G (play with delayed feedback – can use with smartphone and wireless earplugs). There are many cheap apps that can be fun to play with and practice. Do get something that you can record and listen to your speech and share with SLP.
- Speak-easy devises – very costly. My impression is if you don’t have to get this, it would be better to learn skills without this device dollar for dollar.
- Toastmasters: I did Toastmasters when speaking to groups was a greater demand in my life. It is not aimed at stutterers. Get some confidence under your belt before trying this group.
- Psychotherapy: An awesome counselor who helped me work with my outlook on life integration of a healthy self despite my discomfort with stuttering and the nature of anxiety and depression as it relates to stuttering including generalized fear and anxiety. I have learned in life to use experts when I can – it just makes everything easier.
- Experimentation: There is so much out there in public presenting and singing world that you can play with your voice and experiment with to just have fun. I have used many different apps to just vary my speech practice and keep it interesting.
As you can see from the above, I tried many things and avenues over the years, and I also have had to date a successful career with many promotions in a field that is totally dependent on oral communication. That is not to say I have not had dysfluencies and still do to this day. In truth, I recently re-engaged an SLP to refresh my “in the moment awareness” of my speech and to brush up on skills due to a pending promotion.
Here are techniques labeled hard-skills (HT) and soft-skills (SS). Hard skills are direct speech applications and soft-skills adaptations to the environment, self-care, or other strategies. Some may seem silly. Of course, working with an SLP is ideal. Like golf, ideally you want to learn base skills correctly the first time, so a qualified SLP can model and provide resources. You can also find videos on the web of specific skills mentioned.
- Find a role model (SS): James Earl Jones is my role model and sometimes reach for my James Earl Jones voice which for me means abdominal breathing, deep voice, very clear enunciations, and good posture. You can hear him breathing and preparing his entrance into new phrases when he narrates the bible (audiobook on Audible). What makes him a great voice on TV is his vocal clarity and focus on each syllable and deep voice.
- Easy On-set (HT): I can hit vowel sounds at the beginning of words with too much force in my vocal cords causing a “hard attack,” and the vocal cords lock up. Practicing utilizing an h sound before the onset of the vowel, at first exaggerated and then less so, gives you the muscle memory to avoid hard attacks with vowels when you see or feel them coming you can use this skill (long or very short h sound). https://www.sltinfo.com/easy-onset/
- Soft-contact (HT): Mostly used when encountering consonants (sometimes called plosives such as /b/, /d/ and /g/ – an SLP will coach and model light articular contact to soften and be gentler with the word being pronounced. https://www.sltinfo.com/fluency-shaping/
- Pro-longed speech and slow speech (HT): Both of these fluency shaping techniques I learned in the emotionally hard three-week intensive way back when. To this day, my rate of speech and breath management can affect my communication clarity. When I rely on these today, it is not apparent that I am using prolonged speech or slow speech – though I purposefully am focusing on the slightly exaggerated enunciation of every syllable, slightly slower rate of speech, and overall better breath management. For me, speaking to quickly is a negative habit trying to get in all I have to say in one stream (why risk starting and stopping!). Biologically and psychologically it is an anxiety ticking bomb that alerts the body to danger (lack of air) and is setting up a psychological fear paradox: speaking too fast to avoid dysfluency creates an increase in tension as my oxygen is depleted. Not to mention the thought processes of trying to stay on target with the content of my thoughts. The goal here for me is not to be super monotone or dragged out – it is to speak within the range that my body can support with diaphragmatic breathing and great vocal clarity. Yes, sometimes it is just easier to speak without good vocal hygiene – the question is, can I afford to do that as a person whose stutter can vacillate greatly?
- Diaphragmatic breathing (HT): There is plenty of evidence to support that most of us breathe the wrong way! Practicing diaphragmatic breathing first and then adding sound formulation on the exhale can be an awesome way to prepare to always speak with proper support from your full vocal apparatus. http://tedxmanhattanbeach.com/speakers-2016/belisa-vranich/, https://www.sltinfo.com/ssv-breathing-exercises/ Having a speech-language pathologist model and observe your practice this would be helpful. My error is shallow breathing and over-utilization and tension in the chest and neck area. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9445-diaphragmatic-breathing
- Meditation (SS): I am a fan of relaxing the whole body. If you can do this and incorporate diaphragmatic breathing as well – awesome. Like it or not, anxiety and tension can amplify stuttering and hurt performance (speech or otherwise). This skill cannot be used only in a crisis – it is a way of life. I recommend mindfulness-based meditations and guided meditations. This is not only good for your speech but for your general health and well-being. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DTmGtznab4: This is a 30-minute meditation that may be too hard to do initially without sleeping from John Kabat Zinn. I use an app called headspace for shorter meditation, and my apple watch has a one minute “breathe” exercise.
- One-item practice (HT): This is a little annoying – but practice one skill at a time at designated speaking opportunities. Develop the confidence that you can call on these techniques on demand.
- Exercise, nutrition, hydration, and sleep (SS): Like anything else, if you are tired, weak, sick, beat up, and otherwise not at your peak your performance may suffer at your most vulnerable point. For stutterers, that is utilizing your maximized voice. Each of these offers you an opportunity to network and speak with non-stutterers while pursuing great health. You could even throw in a hobby here – anything that gets you out and lessens stress.
- Cancellations or pull outs (HT): As I become aware of repeated words or sounds, I can choose to stop and recognize what is going on, take a cleansing breath, and then continue with the work correctly.
- I have not mentioned MHP yet (Everything technique): It is my higher power. For me, it is spiritual. I give to my God what is his to handle, and I do everything I can to handle what is my responsibility. There are things and events that we do not control – some of which may throw our speech for a loop. That is okay – my identity, and my reality is not defined solely by my speech (Second Pillar). If you do not have a higher power get one (Only kidding, sort of). Seriously if you have a faith use your faith it to support your journey – if you don’t ignore this paragraph! If you do not consider a mantra to re-enforce your daily positive approach to every speaking engagement.
- Good posture! This one almost slipped past me. It not only allows you to sue your full diaphragmatic breathing skills; it can also boost confidence. I was never a fan of “fake it to you make it,” but let me give you this resource: Your body may shape who you are Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy: https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare&fbclid=IwAR19SHAZIYknBKx2FmwkKwOyiRMvyD4oQwKoLRJuRFqXJAnvUVpcRwmzzBs
- I might also add here that stuttering can be very traumatic and train our bodies to act neurologically, making fluent speech very challenging. We expect progress, not perfection! This loops back again to self-acceptance.
Check out these coping tips for people who have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome). I firmly believe they apply to cope with a history of stuttering and future speaking engagements:
- Self-regulate your nervous system
No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself. Not only will it help relieve the anxiety associated with trauma, but it will also engender a greater sense of control.
Mindful breathing. If you are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, practicing mindful breathing is a quick way to calm yourself. Simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each ‘out’ breath.
Sensory input. Does a specific sight, smell or taste quickly make you feel calm? Or maybe petting an animal or listening to music works to quickly soothe you? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment with different quick stress relief techniques to find what works best for you.
Staying grounded. To feel in the present and more grounded, sit on a chair. Feel your feet on the ground and your back against the chair. Look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue in them. Notice how your breathing gets deeper and calmer.
Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it. Acknowledge your feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them. HelpGuide’s Emotional Intelligence Toolkit can help.