I’d like to take you back, back to your early teen years, maybe 13, 14 or 15 which are, in fact, your early teen years. Do you remember the first time you fell in love? When you saw the most beautiful girl or guy walk past you in school. Music seemed to play from the walls as they walked by in slow motion. Ah, total bliss. You want desperately to say, “Hi,” and finally summons the courage to do so. You walk up bravely, ready to deliver eloquent words of introduction but instead you begin to stammer, stutter and stumble over your words. Perhaps you dribbled, spit or sprayed on them. With each failed attempt to communicate, you feel yourself growing smaller and smaller.
If you remember the kind of nervousness you felt with your first romance (and for some of you that was just last week) then you understand what it feels like for those of us who stutter. Even the simple act of answering the phone can create such fear that when the phone rings I sometimes say, “That must be for you. You answer it.” Worst of all is when the phone rings and I’m all alone. [ring] Alone, [ring] just the phone and me [ring].
Hhhhhhh hhhhhhh hhhhh [click] Hello! Hung up again! Some people have hang-ups in life but I have real hang-ups.
I'd like to share my story of stuttering as a lifelong challenge and break down some myths about it. I’d like to help you overcome your fear of listening to stutterers by giving you some ideas to better deal with us.
I can’t remember the first time I stuttered. I can’t remember what caused it. As far back as I can remember, it was there. I suppose I suffered some childhood trauma like losing a pet or worse, a favorite kite. Perhaps I tried to be perfect and couldn’t deal with failure.
Eventually I forgot my childhood trauma and my fear changed, through habit, into the fear of stuttering. You see, failure to speak fluently, or stuttering, causes a fear of speaking which, in turn, causes a failure to speak fluently, which causes a fear of speaking which causes stuttering which causes fear which causes stuttering, fear causes stuttering.... The greatest cause of stuttering is the fear of stuttering itself. We sabotage our own speech. Stuttering from medical causes is actually quite rare.
So I stuttered and sprayed my way through high school and people thought I was less intelligent because I had trouble expressing myself.
In fact, the most common myth about stutterers is we are less intelligent. In his book entitled, What to Do About Your Brain-Injured Child, Glenn Doman said, “...when man loses the ability to express himself by speech...The world feels… if he can't say his name…he doesn't know his name.”
Many people think stutterers are less intelligent but stutterers are just as intelligent and maybe even a little more. A 1996 study into the brain of stutterers demonstrated that stutterers actually experience an overactivity of the creative right brain and a slight underactivity of the auditory portion of the logical left brain. The stutterer’s right brain is overactive because we search forward in our speech to identify words over which we stumble and automatically substitute safe words. We process massive amounts of information simultaneously across several mental conversations to resolve one conversation without stuttering. If we resolve one in time, we speak words. If we fail, we stutter.
So stutterers are roving Thesauruses with excellent vocabularies. I play a mean game of Scrabble.
In addition to word substitution, we also try other avoidance techniques. Stutters use sounds such as “uh” before the word we trip over. You couldn’t imagine the stress I suffered when I joined Toastmasters and found out I couldn’t say, “Uh!” Oh, it was unbelievable! What do you mean you’re going to count my “uhs” and we’ll eliminate them together? I like them! That’s like a painter without a paint brush or a writer without a pen. Stutterers make art with, “Uh!” Toastmasters took away that brush so, over the three years of my membership, I’ve learned to paint a different picture!
Another myth is stutterers are lazy but we use many tricks to avoid stuttering. We blink and jerk our heads, we make faces, we exhaust our breath and speak without air. We wwwwind up. Lazy? Are you kidding? We work hard! A simple conversation can represent for me a full cardiovascular workout complete with sweat and all the wonderful smells that go along with that.
When people see and hear us going through our gyrations they might easily think of stuttering as a handicap but stuttering has many hidden benefits.
The other guys in school worried not about getting rejected for a date but getting accepted. Yeah! They didn’t know what they would do if they got a date. They worried about whether they would kiss properly but it seemed so simple to me. As a stutterer I was an expert at kissing.
Stuttering is also a great way to get rid of pesky door-to-door salespeople. You open the door, they start their schpiel and you go “Aye, oh uh,” and they won’t be there long. Works like a charm everytime.
DEALING WITH A STUTTERER
Even if you’re not a door-to-door saleperson, listening to a stutterer can be very stressful. Never mind my stress level in answering that phone a few moments ago. Remember the poor soul on the other end! Here are some ideas to help you lower our stress level when I stutter:
- If I stutter, tell me in your own way, “It’s all right to stutter.” Lie to me. Tell me you have a brother in Calgary who stutters and you know all about it so I can relax. When I relax with you I will stutter a little less and when I stutter a little less, we will communicate a little more and you know, I’m always amazed at the number of people with a brother who stutters in Calgary!
Listen to me actively by feeding back what I say in your own words instead of just nodding politely as you think about dinner plans that night. Let me participate equally in our conversation.
Never interrupt me. If you do, you are like that person on the phone who couldn’t be bothered and hung up. Don’t hang up on me. Keep the line open.
So if you do your part to help, perhaps stutterers can find a way to overcome it..The challenge in overcoming stuttering is to change the habit of failure to a habit success. Stutterers need to forget that they stutter, focus on fluent speech patterns instead of concentrating on trying to avoid stuttering. It’s like a smoker trying to quit, “I will not smoke. I will not smoke.”
In my case, I do quite well if I relax, breath more deeply and slow down to allow my mouth to catch up with my mind. It’s kind of funny that I speak in front of larger groups with greater ease than I do in a one-on-one conversation over coffee. Maybe it’s the coffee!!! There are organizations and speech pathologistics available to help. One opinion to which I subscribe is that many stutterers will receive greater permanency through a self-help than with external programs.
Because of the myths surrounding stuttering and the inability of many people to deal with us, many stutterers lead unfulfilled lives. Some turn a trauma into triumph. Recently, I came across Drew Lynch, whose vocal cords were injured in a softball accident. He is working on becoming a comedian and in 2015 appeared on America's Got Talent. Watch his story and performance:
Al Komaroff said, “If you can't communicate well, you'll never participate fully in society... overall your career and relationships will be below your potential.” and as Dr. Leo Buscaglia said, “The greatest loss in the world is the loss of human potential.”
I wonder what human potential is lost in this world by stutterers afraid to express themselves. Now that you understand a little more about stutterers, can you help us reach our potential? Can you take the time to listen? We have a lot to say and you might find we hold well-considered opinions because more of our time thinking about our ideas and less talking about them. Be our friend, buy yourself a set of goggles, and we’ll be your friend as we learn to communicate and grow together.
Here's a little more Drew...