It’s been recognised in stuttering circles that ‘many a stutter starts in the mother’s ear’ and that was no doubt true for me but not completely. Now, let me be clear, I no longer blame my mother for my stutter, she was ‘doing the best she could at the time’ but the point is relevant as you will find out in due course.
Many children stutter when they are learning to speak and most get over it fairly quickly. Fewer than 3% continue to stutter in adulthood. So it’s best that a parent support their stuttering child with understanding and patience and definitely no criticism, especially not criticism about the way a stammering child pronounces their words!
I must have been five or six years old when I was first taken to a speech therapist to address what was probably no more than a mild stammer; it was much too early for any child. I don’t recall how many times I visited the speech therapist but I do know that it did no good.
But my life became a hell when I was about nine years old and, in many respects, it was my own doing!
On a family trip through the Karoo we visited a family friend who stuttered terribly. I remember being fascinated by his explosive style of stuttering; normal speech periodically interrupted by a long pause as he desperately tried to get the offending word out followed by an explosion as the word escaped his lips. The nine year old Shaun found it extremely funny; at least someone else stuttered worse than me.
My amusement wasn’t to last very long. On my return to boarding school a few weeks later, I demonstrated this funny stutter to my friends and we all had a good laugh. A good laugh until one day, without intending to, I faltered on a word, my throat locked tight. I struggled and struggled to get the word out until, eventually, it exploded out of my mouth. Exactly the way my father’s friend had done it! I can’t describe the level of terror that followed.
Condemned to a life-sentence of stuttering!
That incident became a defining moment in my life. The experience, combined with terror, burned a new image into my subconscious mind. I was now a stutterer, an explosive stutterer, and it was terrifying.
I continued to stutter for the next 40-something years; some times were worse than others but the stutter was always lurking in the background, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
But I never stuttered when writing and I loved to express myself in writing; mostly in my personal journals. And then, when personal computers arrived on the scene, I began to type albeit not very well.
Frustrated by my slow rate of typing, in 2001 I purchased an early version Dragon Speak, a voice-recognition software that converted speech to text. That didn’t turn out too well! I stuttered so much that I couldn’t teach the program to recognise my speech.
The Key to a Cure!
Fast-forward a few years to 2009 when I purchased an updated version of Dragon Speak and made another attempt at teaching it to understand my speech.
I failed again but I learnt a valuable lesson. In the peace and quiet of my office, I could speak fluently when the microphone was off but as soon as I turned the microphone on, I stuttered and could hardly put two words together. I tried switching the microphone on and off repeatedly so that I lost track of whether it was off or on but somehow my subconscious mind always knew when the microphone was live!
That experience was telling me something.
1. My stuttering wasn’t a speech problem; I was fluent one minute and stuttering the next ... on exactly the same phrases and in exactly the same situation.
2. An almost imperceptible increase in stress must be tipping me from fluency to stuttering. What was it?
My office became a laboratory that eliminated two key factors, ‘situation’ and ‘general state’, as causal factors.
Before that time, I had always related my stutter to different situations or my general state. Some situations were more stressful than others and, if I was tired or drunk, I stuttered more. I couldn’t avoid stressful situations but I could avoid being tired most of the time and the last time I was drunk was on the 1st of January 1980.
What was causing that tiny, but significant, amount of stress in the quiet of my office?
I was reminded of that phrase ‘many a stutter starts in the mother’s ear’, and realised that the microphone was like a ‘listening ear’ ready to catch and punish every mistake; If Dragoon Speak didn't recognise a word, I had to repeat it ... over and over again until I got it right!. I was transported back to my childhood and my mother’s criticisms for mispronouncing words, “It’s not milk, it’s milk! Now say it correctly, milk!” And if that doesn’t make sense to you now, it definitely didn’t make sense to a five year-old kid either.
But at 54, that insight was the key to my breakthrough.
I realised that the live microphone was triggering a “fear of being watched and humiliated” and that fear was triggering the stutter. At 54 years old, in the quiet of my office, that fear was barely perceptible but it was enough to tip me from fluency into stuttering.
If I could get a handle on my fear, maybe I could conquer my stutter!
What an insight! It seemed that simple, and it was!
Healing was almost instantaneous.
Fortunately, I had a few tools near at hand to help me conquer this fear, the main one being Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) designed by Gary Craig (emofree.com).
Within a month, I was ‘functionally fluent’ in all sorts of situations that would otherwise have been a nightmare.
“Functionally fluent” meant that the days of being “fearful of being watched and humiliated” were over. Although I stammered occasionally, the fear was gone and I was winning the game and, more importantly, I knew that I was winning.
I was cured ... practically speaking!
And, even though I stammered occasionally, I no longer considered myself a stutterer.
But 40-something years of stuttering terror and humiliation had left a legacy of persistent subconscious programs (like a fear of the telephone) and a cocktail of toxic chemicals throughout my body (the residue of large doses of adrenalin and cortisol in particular).
The ‘fear of being watched and humiliated’ still raises its ugly head from time to time but it's and old lion and its teeth have been drawn.
Thus, clearing my system of these subconscious programs and toxic chemical cocktails has been an ongoing exercise. Like mopping up operations after a war has been won.
The battle against stuttering has been won but it's not over, yet.
I am a teacher at heart and love to share what I learn, so in 2010 I collected my notes together and prepared an assessment and a 30-day course to help other stutterers. Unfortunately, with a few stunning exceptions, that’s as far as it got.
In the hope that it might help a stutterer in these super-stressful times, I will include the assessment with this blog.