Healing the Stuttering Self

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It’s a question so simple, so common, yet so terrifying to someone who stutters:

“What’s your name?”

It’s the first chance to make an impression on someone, and you’re forced to perform the most difficult of tasks because there are no words to switch. Your name is your name. And sometimes it can be hard to say.

The “D” sound was problematic in my name because it began with a plosive. I blocked on the D, and built up so much muscular tension in my tongue tip that the word would get stuck. The more nervous I was, the more tension would develop. This happened hundreds of times throughout my life, each instance chipping away at my self-esteem and adding to my anxiety in social situations.

Facing that question is difficult for me even now, at the age of 44, long free of the burden of caring what others think of me. Even though I am a fully-licensed speech-language pathologist, the question,“What is your name?” still triggers an immediate response of fear, paralyzing my throat and stopping my breath. Sometimes, if I’m caught in the moment, unaware that my name will be asked, I can get it out easily, without thinking twice about it. My fluency is automatic now. However, it’s different when I’m anticipating that I will have to say my name—when my fear of speaking has the time to surface.

Stuttering runs in my family. I began to stutter at around four years of age.

At first, I don’t recall having any difficulty with my speech. I remember sharing a thought with my first-grade teacher one day, the content of which was not significant enough to recall. But I remember the feeling of spontaneously talking because it was one of the last times I would speak freely at school, or anywhere. My stuttering got progressively worse as I began to struggle against it.

The teasing started in second grade, when I was mimicked by classmates, and even my own friends. I would hear laughter when I struggled to get the words out when reading aloud in class. One time in third grade, I was teased about my stuttering by a girl in my class. I cried so hard that other kids came over to see what was wrong with me, thinking that I must be physically hurt because I was wringing my hands in anger.

On the first day of home economics class in my first year of high school, I was unable to say my name during the usual introductions. Every day after that, the table of football players mockingly chanted my name every time I walked into class. By my third year in high school, I spoke so infrequently that I was often asked, “Do you ever talk?”

I had gone through the Precision Fluency Shaping Program when I was 12. I remember the machine I had to speak into to learn gentle onset of voicing. A green light would illuminate when I got it correct. I did hundreds of drills with that machine. I also learned how to take a diaphragmatic breath and to prolong the first sound or syllable of a word. All these techniques finally gave me the tools to speak fluently, but they never dealt with the underlying fear of speaking that had built up over the years. Saying my name was always difficult.

As a graduate student in speech-language pathology, I was mostly fluent, but I still had episodes of stuttering. My fluency disorders professor told the others that I had “exquisite gentle onsets.” I was offered the job of answering the telephone in the department office as a way to practice my fluency techniques. Unfortunately, I had to say “department of communication disorders” when I picked up the phone. I blocked on the D sound, and soon realized that accepting the job was a huge mistake. There were professors and students in and out of the office, so it was hard to concentrate on my fluency techniques.

I had so much difficulty that I began having anxiety attacks. I was made to go into speech therapy, but not allowed to discontinue the job if I wanted to remain in the program. The pressure was too great, the stakes too high. Somehow I got through the semester, but I developed such a fear of the ringing phone that it was three years before I was able to answer the phone even in my own home.

As I learned about the causes and mechanics of stuttering in my course of study, I became aware of the feeling of discoordination between my breath and the muscles in my mouth. I increasingly gained control over my speech with the knowledge of the disorder, but the fear never went away. Since I never processed the fear, I suppressed it.

Now, when the fear grips me, it’s not fear of certain sounds or words, as it was when I was a child. It’s the fear of speaking itself. It’s not a simple discoordination that needs to come under conscious control by employing fluency techniques. The fear goes straight to my vocal chords and locks them.

What I’m finding helpful in those instances, is to take a diaphragmatic breath through my nostrils and exhale gently, then begin vocalizing. If I can do this, the words come out more easily. Another tactic I employ when I know I will be asked to say my name is visualizing myself doing it easily and successfully, over and over, before I actually go into the situation.

To process the feelings that have built up about stuttering, I have begun to examine some of the more damaging experiences from my past and think about them. I replay the situation in my mind, feeling the emotions that were present, then I imagine what I would say to my younger self in that moment. By reframing memories in this way, I can begin to heal them and let them go.

Most importantly, when entering a speaking situation that I suspect may be challenging, I tell myself, “I can do this.” This is what people who struggle with their fluency need to hear. They need to know that stuttering need not define them, and that the ability to gain control over their speech is within their grasp.

Donna L Marland, MS, CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist who spent many years providing services in public schools. She specializes in language and fluency disorders in her private practice.