Everyone who stutters has his or her own stuttering story to tell. In this reflection of my history with stuttering, I hope to help others come to terms with their own situations and experiences and possibly put a few things in perspective. I have stuttered since I can remember talking, however two situations vividly stand out to me as the moments I began feeling “different” because of my stuttering. Going in chronological order, the first was when I was four at preschool. I was asking other kids if I could play in a water box, similar to an elevated sandbox. I said wa, wa, waterbox. They looked at me with questioning and confused stares, but then let me play with them and shortly after playing became the main focus. The next situation that stands out was in kindergarten. I was going through the every day routine of the lunch line and wanted a slice of peperoni pizza. The lunch lady smiled, as she typically did, and I started to say I’d like p,p,…pep, (this went on for a decade, in my mind at least). As the time went on, her smile turned into grave concern and she frantically pointed to items and asked me if this is what I wanted. The girls and one boy in line behind me stood there aghast, mouths gapping open wide eyed, not knowing what to do. I finally changed my word and said pizza then pointed to the slice of peperoni. What was going on? The other kids could say what they wanted to when they wanted to say it! Why couldn’t I?
Shortly after that I started going to speech therapy at the elementary school. My clinician was sweet, caring and nice, but also told me that I was the first person who stutters that she had treated, so we’d have to learn together. I commend her for her honesty, but that comment made the feeling of isolation overwhelming. However, I had fortune on my side, in that I came from a family with other people who stutter, so there was always an unsaid understanding. Even if we rarely talked about stuttering during the early years, I felt the support. Therapy consisted of the typical turtle talk, easy on-sets, diaphragmatic breathing etc. I would lie on the ground and apply pressure to my stomach while breathing to “strengthen my deficient breathing muscles,” or so I was told. We also listened to tapes, yes cassette tapes, – it wasn’t to overly long ago when we still had those – about methods of relaxation. When my clinician and I would talk in the therapy room, I remember playing the game of talking like how she wanted me to talk, however I wouldn’t dare use this funny, unnatural sounding stuff outside of the room. I already felt different – I didn’t need to make it any more obvious!
This continued throughout my schooling for quite some time. To my luck, fortune once again shined upon me. I had the same group of friends from early elementary school throughout high school. They were supportive, accepting and really didn’t mind my stuttering. Although I hated it with a passion, my friends, family, teachers, etc. didn’t seem to make a big deal out of it. Even though I thought about it every time I had to say anything at all and it consumed every thought of my life, I played along, as it didn’t bother me. In late elementary school when my stuttering did not improve, my mom began taking me to a university clinic twice a week, which was an hour and a half drive each way. Although I knew I was being taken there to “improve” my speech, I never truly appreciated the time and effort my mom was putting in, nor did I understand specifically what I was supposed to get out of going there. So without knowing what the long-term goal was, I would play their game, speaking in their unnatural “fluent” way while I was there and driving home after, being told I was doing great. When we would get home I would talk in my voice, not that stranger’s voice, until the next trip.
I don’t want to make it seem like I didn’t benefit from therapy. Going to the university clinics showed me what I wanted to do with my life, it showed me that if I wanted to talk unnatural I could control some of the involuntary disruptions, but most of all there was someone who cared about me and provided me with a safe place to talk about my stuttering. The last point is the most meaningful by far; it did help me cope with something terrifying and unknown. I will forever be indebted to them for their kindness and support.
Fast-forwarding quite a few years, I was still going to speech therapy in school once or twice a week, and occasionally to other university clinics, hypnotherapists, psychologists for medication and much more, never knowing the true goal of why I was going. I didn’t seem bothered by my stuttering so why did other people? I liked my clinicians; they were nice and would play cards and games with me, so I would play their “pretend fluency” game with them. In middle school, I still had the same great group of friends and became very open with talking to my mom, friends and everyone about stuttering. My friends and I were in the same sports, activities, organizations, and we excelled. Even though I thought about stuttering and my fluency constantly, I tried my best to ignore it and not let it impact me. However I could not be prepared for the reality check I was about to have. One day sitting on a bench in our mall, a girl, in the typical middle school style, came up to me to tell me that her friend thought I was cute. With an air of confidence and a bit of ignorance, I went with her to meet her friend. She said her name, and with a smug smile on my face I said, ”Hi I’m … D, D, D,” thinking to myself SHIT, let me say this! The three girls laughed and asked if I had forgotten my name. I said, “No I’m George,” and walked away, traumatized. I never had a difficult time finding a date or dating girls. Why was this happening to me?
As time continued throughout high school, my friends and I became the captains for all of our sports teams, were on executive boards for various student governments and organizations, we supported each other, I dated and had girlfriends often. I was in my comfort zone and would prove to myself that stuttering would not hold me back from anything. Little did I know that I was overcompensating all along the way. I guess it’s about time for another reality check. Toward the end of high school my friend and I were driving, too quickly, down a gravel road back from one of our usual hangouts. The car careened out of control, rolled over four times, and ended up on its roof up against a telephone pole. Luckily we both had on our seatbelts, but we had to crawl out of the back window to get out. I didn’t appear to have any injuries, but my friend had a large cut on his head behind his ear. I tore my shirt and tied it around his head to stop the bleeding, then called emergency services at 911. “Hel, hel,” then a block… followed by a dial tone. SHIT, they hung up on me and my friend is blacking out. I tried again and was hung up on again. I stood my friend up, got him conscious and had him tell them that I stutter. From then I relayed the information and shortly enough after the ambulance arrived and he was taken to the hospital. My friend ended up being okay after stitches and some time. This is not the last time I’ve been hung up on by 911, but I’ll leave the story at that for now. By the end of high school I was thinking about how to pay for college and tried to enlist in the National Guards then the Army Reserves, but was denied due to my stuttering.
In college, as my plan from elementary school, I majored in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD). Even though this was a new place with new people I thrived. I became involved in a fraternity, the rugby team, student government and pretty much everything else you could think of. Knowing how I felt that I had to overcompensate for my stuttering, I was on the executive boards of most organizations, became a co-captain for our rugby team, and dated when I wanted. On request of my CSD instructors I was going to speech therapy twice a week, where I would play their “fluency game” once again with sweet, nice, usually attractive co-eds that generally cared about me. When my instructors informed me that I might not be accepted to graduate school due to my fluency, I took the advice from my current clinician, who was a male who stuttered. He told me about the Hollins Communications Research Institute at Hollins College in Virgina, based on the Precision Fluency Shaping Program, which he had attended. Shortly after, I attended their twelve-day program, where clients were expected to drone their speech throughout their time there. After the fact, I was actually using their techniques and found myself much more “fluent” but highly unnatural sounding. More so, I was exhausted at the end of every day of trying to maintain the persona of a fluent speaker. Then within a few months, I was stuttering more than I had been when I attended. I was taught to be fluent and to start over again if I was not. So instead of my usual blocks and slight repetitions, I would repeat entire sentences 10-15 times and was lost in my spiral downward.
I started applying to graduate programs. The first of the eight programs I applied to responded, my backup school, my own undergraduate university, said DENIED because “communication skills are not sufficient”. What, can they do this? Who would have the audacity to sign their name to this piece of discrimination? I thought about fighting the denial and suing, but a bit later on I had finally received a letter of acceptance from a school. At the time, the school was nowhere near my first choice, but in hindsight it’s by far the best thing that could have happened to me and has dramatically changed my life for the better.
I started graduate school and all was well once again. I was making friends, getting involved in student government, softball and of course dating! Over the next year I had started a masters thesis, become the Graduate and Professional Student Senate Treasurer – I maintained this position as the treasurer for the entire graduate student population during four of my six years in my graduate programs. During the second year of my Master’s program I was told from the clinical director that I was not going to be assigned anymore clients until “I got my stuttering under control”. My mentor got me in touch with Vocational Rehabilitation, which paid 100% for a SpeechEasy device, and under the advisement of my mentor I also signed up for the Successful Stuttering Management Program in Cheney, Washington, which was a life changing experience. There, I was told that stuttering is okay and that we can be effective communicators and still stutter. After coming back from the program I spent several more years jumping through the hoops that my graduate department imposed on me, and even had the opportunity to be on MTV’s True Life – I stutter, but was strongly advised not to from our department, due to how it would make the school look. Many experts in the field of Fluency Disorders were advising me and helping me along the way, and then finally during the end of my doctoral program I had finished my clinical requirements and accepted a part-time job as a Private Practice Speech-Language Pathologist. I recently accepted a job at Idaho State University (ISU), who has supported me in completing my clinical requirements for national certification in Speech-Language Pathology.
As I sit here in my office at ISU with several diplomas, Idaho State Licensure in Speech-Language Pathology and my National Certificate of Clinical Competence of Speech-Language Pathology, I remember the past and reflect on some of the supports and roadblocks throughout my years. All of us have different roads we must take, different interests and goals that we seek, but determination and perseverance help us achieve all of our goals. I have a job that I love, in a place I’m happy to call my home with friends, family, and a wonderful wife, who all combine to make life more than I could have ever imagined. Things can and will get better. It may take a lifetime, but don’t give up, your life is worth fighting for. One final thought; it’s okay to stutter. Accepting that fact, along with teaching others, that is something I will strive for throughout my career.
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