Disclosing and Desensitizing Stuttering
Words . . .
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The words have been lodged in my throat since age six. Sometimes they make it as far as my mouth, but then my tongue or jaw lock them into a frozen state again. Some people assume that I have a brain disorder, and that I just can't think of what I want to say. Others just wonder what's wrong with me, as they stand patiently, or not so patiently, waiting for the next syllable to emerge from my clenched teeth or pursed lips. In particularly pressing situations, my top lip will begin to lightly perspire and my face will flush as my brain races with critical thoughts: "Come on! Just relax your vocal muscles, like you've practiced! You could have avoided this! They're waiting for you!" On days when my self esteem is particularly rock bottom, the critical thoughts become the dreaded Master Self Critic hurtling wounding spears like, "Why don't you just quit now? What you say doesn't have value anyway. They're not listening anymore. You're not worth listening to, so stop struggling." I usually avoid eye contact to focus on synchronizing the dozen simultaneous processes it takes to speak (breathing, relaxing, forming words, coordinating thoughts, etc.), but the Master Self Critic has the ability to turn this concentration mechanism into a defense against embarrassment and shame. I can't bear to see the look of puzzlement or pity in my audience's faces. Worse, I can't bear the thought of them seeing the shame and humiliation in mine.
Speaking isn't always this difficult or traumatizing for me, especially not since I found this wonderful miracle pill that cures stuttering! Just kidding. No such pill exists, much to the disappointment of stutterers everywhere. There are anti-anxiety medications, which I haven't tried yet, mostly because I'm stubborn and want to attain a workable level of fluency through my own sweat, tears, and vocal chord-breaking work. Increased anxiety is a big part of my worst stuttering moments, and other parts are generally attributed to genetics, learned habits, and environment. I used to enter into 80% of my daily conversations with increased heart rate, muscle tension, and my brain in "flight" mode. I learned to tolerate this heightened level of physiological existence. I've heard it said that a good number of people fear public speaking more than they fear death. A few would actually confess that they'd rather die than speak in public. I used to feel that way about speaking on the phone, going to an interview, or speaking in a group. Thanks to my work over the past couple years, I don't feel so intensely adverse about
those tasks anymore.
Even during college, I'd known that I would eventually apply to graduate school to study art therapy. Since graduating with my BA, I had been trying to coordinate my application process for grad school with the moment my stuttering decided to disappear. As in, Poof! Now my life can begin! Again, no such spontaneous healing. I sensed that graduate school would require a higher level of regular verbal contribution than I'd committed to thus far in my life. This, and the anxiety of having to present as "professional," all but short circuited my dreams. I soon became enlightened enough to realize that this perfect moment of ease may not come, and I didn't want to waste my life waiting. I resented my stuttering and anxiety enough in my daily life without it ruining my chance at a normal, awesome future life. So I gathered the courage to apply to the one school I wanted to attend. I survived the interview, and got in.
I have an excellent academic record, which I've maintained partly to make up for the fact that my verbal class participation through out the years has been abysmal. Speaking in classes in the past would cause a wave of anxiety that often scrambled my thoughts. Even when I got the courage to raise my hand, I sometimes forgot what I wanted to say in the wash of pressure and classmate eyes boring into my skull. Making myself force something out anyway was important. Even if my statement wasn't completely what I had wanted it to be, I needed my voice to be heard. I needed the people in the room to know that I had something to say and that I wasn't afraid to contribute in my own unique way. My victory was a cocktail of feelings of embarrassment and triumph. The embarrassment I was used to, and the triumph was like a drug. It meant I had won against my anxiety. The score was still ridiculously weighted, but every point I earned showed me what I was capable of.
This pattern continued in my classes at graduate school until I realized that I needed to take the extra step and go back to speech therapy. I wanted to be seen as a professional. Whether or not my stuttering affected how other people saw me, I needed to be able to live with myself knowing I'd done everything I could do to achieve fluency. I couldn't keep blaming my condition on intense anxiety and claim helplessness, and I'd seen enough TedTalks given by stutterers to know that I didn't have any more excuses. So I endured the grueling speech evaluation to prove to the experts that I needed help and started attending regular bi-weekly sessions at a Speech, Language, and Hearing Center.
My grad student clinicians reviewed the techniques I'd already learned a handful of times before: easing into words, stretching out the first sounds, "bouncing" the first sounds, stuttering on purpose. The game changer for me was this facility's emphasis on desensitization. At this point, stuttering still had a profound emotional effect on me. Feelings of worthlessness, shame, and failure threatened to pound me into the ground almost every time I spoke. My anxiety was less about people's reactions than it was about having to experience these traumatic emotions that chipped away at my confidence. In these therapy sessions, I stretched out my stutters to almost intolerable lengths, forcing myself to hear them. I looked at myself in the mirror while I stuttered so that I could actually see what everyone else saw--so I could "face" it, literally. My loving classmates gave me the opportunity to practice these techniques in the real world, where my anxiety was significantly higher than in the therapy room.
I practiced disclosure--another element of desensitization. This included telling people that I stutter rather than just waiting for them to figure it out by default. It also took away any chance for me to ignore the stuttering and "fake normal," which pretty much just confused everybody anyway. Later on I found the gumption to tell people how to respond when I stuttered. By doing this, I acknowledged the elephant in the room, which wasn't always just the obvious fact that I stuttered. It was the fact that my audience usually didn't know what to do. Anxiety pervaded these situations. Should they help me? Say something? Distract me? Or just listen? With this realization, I learned a pivotal lesson: my own reaction to my stuttering informed my audience as to how they should react. In other words, the way I handled myself acted as a mirror for my audience. If I stuttered with an overwhelming sense of shame and anxiety, my audience could sense that, and they usually felt as uncomfortable as I did. If I stuttered with awareness and confidence, they could sense that too. My comfortability gave them permission to be more comfortable, too.
Meeting New People
Whenever I meet a new person, the scenario usually goes like this: I stutter on the first thing I say to them, then I finish the comment, and observe their reaction. If they are at all uneasy, I give them my spiel. I tell them I stutter and that it's all going to be ok and that the best thing they can do is just wait for me. This is usually met with some version of, "Oh yeah, it's cool, no problem!" This way, we both know what to expect and the joint anxiety can settle down to a more mutually tolerable level. They have permission to listen to what I'm saying as opposed to trying to figure out how I'm saying it.
The combination of disclosure and desensitization has gifted me with not having to go through this struggle alone. Anxiety prevented me from speaking about many things to people, particularly about how feeling anxious and having a stutter made parts of my everyday life exceedingly difficult. During my grad school career, I ended up giving a speech to four sections of my Social and Cultural Foundations class about what it's like to live with a stutter. I can also proudly tell you that I graduated with my master's after giving a 30 minute long presentation, which included a disclosure at the beginning. Talking about my experience with getting rid of anxiety doesn't always make it go away, but it has allowed me to release the energy I'd been spending hiding it. By not hiding it, my anxiety has taken on a gentler, less debilitating form, which often results in fewer stuttering moments.
By being brave and tackling my stuttering in a proactive way over the past few years, I've accumulated a portfolio of experiences that remind me of how capable I am. When those days of high anxiety and doubt come around, and I wonder if I'll ever be able to take on the dreams I've set for myself, I can remember how I've tackled each one of those challenges and emerged victorious. I can remember that in a world where everything seems to move at breakneck speed, a person who speaks like I do can bring a much-needed change of pace into people's lives. We could all afford to take a breath and slow down a little. This is part of the gift I can give to people and, I've concluded, part of my purpose in this life. It's hard to imagine how something that has been so anxiety provoking for me in life could be turned into something beneficial. As much as I have fought this perspective in the past, it is the one that has emerged and the one that continues to provide me with healing and drive towards the future.
Author: Jessica Sabo, MA