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A Stutterer Moves From Shame to Acceptance

His family never spoke of it, but now he’s talking more easily

Now that I’m pushing 60, you’d think I’d have gotten the hang of talking. You see, I stutter. I’ve stuttered, in fact, for as long as I can remember. It’s no secret if you’ve talked to me long enough, yet by simply writing these words for Next Avenue readers, I’m actually admitting it to more people than I ever have face-to-face, which would probably number less than five.

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Whenever I meet someone new, I think I can fool them. I’ll speak in short sentences with one-syllable words, for instance. This usually doesn’t work, however, if I have to introduce myself. My first and last names begin with K, which for me is akin to facing a brick wall while driving an out of control 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.

My parents, you see, didn’t talk about my stuttering, so I never did, either. Like every imperfection in our family, it was to be ignored, kept secret. Then one day during first grade, I was yanked out of class without warning and told to go to the basement, where I began a weekly speech therapy class for the next three years. The only advice I can remember getting was “Slow down.” I “graduated” no more fluent than when I began.

Popular Perceptions About Stuttering

Unless you or someone you know stutters, the last time you thought of it might have been when you saw The King’s Speech. That was when stuttering suddenly became the disease of the week. News outlets from CBS to The New York Times decided to pull out their magnifying glasses and study the “afflicted,” as they tend to put it, before moving on to the next cultural phenomena — angry cats, Korean pop stars, twerking teenagers. Stuttering? That’s so 2010!

At least The King’s Speech was the first movie I ever saw where having a stutter wasn’t treated as comedy, a mental defect, or both. In fact, stutterers by and large have higher than average IQs. Apart from King George VI, my brethren include Winston Churchill and Alan Turing, the subject of the movie hit The Imitation Game. Yes, the two guys who helped to win World War II. Not too shabby for people who would otherwise be the object of ridicule.

I’m no war hero, but there are other things stutterers have in common. We tend to be perfectly fluent when alone or when we sing. We can anticipate when we’re going to have trouble on a particular word several sentences away. There are times when we wake up and know that we’re going to be more fluent than normal that day, and even for the next several weeks. Then, just as we think we’ve turned a corner, we’ll wake up and know that we’re headed for a bad stretch. If we could use our powers of prognostication to play the stock market, we’d be richer than Bill Gates.

Finding The Right Approach

Shortly before I got married, my fiancée strongly advised me to see a speech therapist who had been getting good results. And, for quite a while, it worked for me. His technique was, in a way, quite simple. He took the “slow down” admonition from my childhood, but added one word to the mix: “Breathe.”

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Every few words, stop, inhale, exhale, talk slowly. Staccato on multi-syllabic words. Why do you think Howard Cosell spoke the way he did? He was a stutterer! But he worked around it by developing one of the most distinctive speaking patterns in broadcasting history.
My physical reaction to the tension I felt when speaking, I learned, was my vocal cords tightening. In allowing myself to breathe, I would become fluent. Every few words, stop, inhale, exhale, talk slowly. And that tension, I can assure you, is quite real. I would go so far as to call it fear.

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Support From Fellow Stutterers

I attended bi-weekly support group/speech practice with my therapy classmates for several years. Gradually, I drifted away, believing that I could do it on my own. As I now enter a new year, I realize I was wrong. The slow pace of our speech practice that, over time, drove me crazy was what I needed.

You see, I can practice on my own until the cows come home. But now I know I need the support of others who are going through the same thing — and who won’t let me slide when we meet. It’s like AA, only our crutch isn’t booze.

And so, this year I find myself talking more to people I normally wouldn’t — cashiers, the mailman, bank tellers. The more I talk, the less afraid I become. According to official statistics, as an American male I’ve got another 16 years left. It would be pretty cool if I could be fluent more than not during that time. I don’t even have to be a King or win a war.

Tips On How To Help A Stutterer 
Perhaps the only people more uncomfortable in speaking situations than stutterers are fluent people talking to them for the first time. We can see it in your expression: “What do I do? What do I say?” Sometimes, when we’re blocked on a very obvious word, your first urge is to jump in and say it for us. Oddly, this will often immediately unblock us, as if we perceive you giving us permission to say it.  
Unfortunately, we tend not to like it when you do that — it gets us mad. Not at you, but us, for not being able to say a simple word or name. Perhaps a better approach might be to say, in a very matter-of-fact way, “No hurry.” That not only takes pressure off us, but reminds us to slow down and breathe. 
Another approach would be to say, “You know, I had a friend who stuttered” — even if it isn’t true. That takes the pressure off us also, as if we’re no longer trying to keep a secret that, in the end, can’t be kept.  
At the risk of leaving myself wide open for a joke, I admit I can’t speak for all stutterers. While we share the same problem, we don’t necessarily think the same way about it. Ultimately, when talking to a stutterer, you have to go with your gut feeling. Just don’t feel sorry for us: remember, we’re most likely smarter than you. 
As you can see, there’s room for humor. I was once asked what letters gave me the most difficulty. I gave a thoughtful pause before replying, “Vowels and consonants.”  
The person’s response was silent confusion until I smiled. Then he laughed. It was nice giving someone else permission to reply for a change. 

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