Befriending my monster was the key to recovery
I break eye contact, abruptly exiting the realm of conversation. My mouth is wide open, but no word is coming out. As I struggle to produce a sound, I feel as if a dumb and blind force, oblivious to any reasoning, is pressing on my jaws, closing them, bringing them together. The world is frozen around me, and even though I know that my face is contorting into a horrible grimace, there is nothing I can do to stop it. For a few eternally long seconds, I am left alone, face to face with my personal monster – my stuttering.
According to my mother I started stuttering, when I was four. She believed it happened because some big dog frightened me. To me this was nonsense. I liked dogs. I never stuttered when talking to a dog. Humans were different.
No matter whether I was talking to close friends, to my family or to a total stranger, the monster was always there, gripping my throat every time I attempted to speak. I remember my speech as a constant struggle that consumed all my energy. And if in any situations I was more fluent, my memory didn’t save those moments.
Fortunately, I grew up in the Soviet Union, where medicine was free and where extensive therapy was available for those who stutter.
I had plenty of speech therapy, learning various fluency techniques, such as breathing in a special way, preceding every cluster of words with a gentle exhalation, linking words in a sentence with a barely audible humming sound and pronouncing consonants very softly, with plenty of air.
The techniques were quite efficient in controlling blocking, but the downside was that they made my speech sound “different,” “not natural” (or at least I thought so). That was precisely what I was most afraid of. Besides, it didn’t matter if I appeared fluent. While using these techniques, I felt in my heart that I still stuttered and was terrified that my horrible secret could be dragged into the open if my technique failed.
No matter what I did, my monster was always there, lurking in the back of my mind, ready to pounce, making me feel small and helpless and inferior, different from fluently speaking people. No wonder that after a while, I would abandon the techniques, falling back in my habitual way of speaking. Inevitably, this would bring back my blocking and stuttering.
Another popular approach was assertiveness training, which included acting out different social situations and developing confidence and ability to stand your ground. In addition, I had hypnosis, acupuncture, and psychotherapy. At one occasion my father took me to see some wise village woman, who dripped melted wax on my head and muttered something under her breath for some length of time. I remember walking quietly beside him secretly hoping that when I opened my mouth, my speech would be fluent. But the first word that I said came out with a struggle, so no positive effect was produced.
Even though I kept relapsing after each course of therapy, over time my speech gradually improved, so when I grew up, I was more or less able to communicate my ideas. I still had my fears, and I still stuttered severely, and I still experienced long blocks, especially when I was nervous or uncertain, but I learned to live with this.
OLD STRUGGLE AND NEW HOPE
In 2001 my husband and I came to the U.S. And here, in a matter of a few months, my fluency deteriorated to the point that I was unable to say even a few words without heavy blocking. The reason was that, since my childhood, I firmly believed that clear and grammatically correct speech is an important sign of higher intelligence and education. This was an axiom. But now I spoke with a heavy Russian accent and was painfully aware of it. I knew my speech wasn’t clear or correct anymore, that people barely understood what I was saying. Above all, my speech was different, and, therefore, unacceptable. This led to increased blocking, and increased blocking made my speech even more difficult to understand, which added stress and perpetuated the problem. This process was so deleterious to my self-esteem that all my confidence went down the drain together with my fragile fluency.
I decided to find a cure. First, I took several sessions of hypnosis and second, spent some money on a highly touted therapy course at the Handle Institute in Seattle, where I was taught various exercises to improve communication between my two cerebral hemispheres. Both approaches produced only minor effect.
Disillusioned, frustrated, I gave up, and for the next several years, I did nothing to improve my stuttering. However, eventually I got so fed up with my inability to master English accent, that in 2009, I picked up the phone and dialed a number that I found in the local newspaper under the ad “Speech therapy. Accent reduction.” In my best voice, using all available fluency techniques, I said,
-I would like to improve my accent.
There was a long silence on the other end and then a female voice said,
-Are you sure this is the only problem you want to work on?
-Oh, yes – I said – I also have stuttering, but I know this is incurable. With the accent I still have hope.
Somehow she convinced me to work with her on both problems. I was reluctant and uncertain, but I decided to give it one last try. I had no idea that by doing this I did a first step toward recovery. ”
Initially, it seemed that my feelings toward speech therapy were justified, because we started learning fluency techniques that were very similar to those that I had known since my childhood. Could it be that in four decades nothing changed in the stuttering therapy?
Then one day my speech therapist asked me if I could stutter on purpose. This was definitely something new, and of course, it sounded very bizarre to me. However, on another day when I found myself locked in the most severe and prolonged block, I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, immediately after I intentionally tensed my muscles, the block was released and the next stretch of speech came out almost fluently. This made me so curious that I decided to learn more about this technique and started gathering all available information concerning voluntary stuttering. In the course of this search, I stumbled across a very unusual book – Redefining Stuttering written by John Harrison.
This was a book that turned my life around. According to it, all that I knew and believed about stuttering appeared to be wrong.
It also appeared that all along I was trying to solve the wrong problem.
THE STUTTERING HEXAGON
All my life, I have been fighting “my stuttering” – a “thing” that burdened me from childhood and belonged to me just as sure as the nose on my face. It was one of my characteristics, a part of my self-image, my scary monster. But according to John Harrison, stuttering can be eliminated, eradicated, or as he says “dissolved.” His own example was the best proof of this. To actually be free of stuttering? I buried this dream a long time ago. But his reasoning made so much sense that I started to wonder if my hopes should be resurrected.
The most important thing that Harrison argues in his book is that stuttering is not some solid, one-piece pathological phenomenon – it is a system and should be addressed as such.
First of all, he suggested avoiding using the word “stuttering”, because he believed it obscures the real problem. Instead, he advised to talk about “blocking” or even “holding back”, focusing on all factors that evoked such reactions as tightening of vocal cords, clenching the jaws and other behaviors that were counterproductive to fluent speech.
According to Harrison this blocking behavior appears because of intertwined influences of our beliefs (such as “stuttering is unacceptable and should be avoided at all cost”), perceptions (“people judge my speech”), emotions (shame, anger etc), divided intentions (to speak or not to speak), and physiological components (such as susceptibility to stress, nervous excitability etc) Those six components – Behaviors, Beliefs, Perceptions, Intentions, Emotions and Physiological Reactions – can be represented as points on a Stuttering Hexagon, in which all points dynamically interact with and reinforce each other.
This was an entirely new approach. Instead of fighting stuttering as a single rock-solid phenomenon, Harrison suggested dismantling the stuttering system piece by piece. Another novel idea was that stuttering as such was only a part of the much broader problem that encompassed the experience of communication and my relation to other people and the surrounding world.
In some sense, I was cured from stuttering right on the spot, even before I started to apply the principles outlined in the book, because the problem that I had to “dissolve” wasn’t the same stuttering that I had dealt with before.
Although I still viewed it as “my monster,” now I could see that it was made up of diverse but quite manageable problems for which solutions already existed.
Of course, in practice it wasn’t that easy. Since my stuttering started rather early in my childhood, the tangled mess of non-productive social habits (such as avoidance of speaking situations), fears (fear of authority figures, speaking on the phone, speaking in public), limiting beliefs (“everybody thinks I am stupid”, “my speech is so tedious to listen to” etc.), and divided intentions (express or impress?) plus heightened emotional sensitivity became very difficult to untangle at my age of 40-plus.
Still, I was very willing to try and from that point on my battle with stuttering took an entirely new direction. I still attended speech therapy sessions, but the focus of my efforts had now shifted to activities outside of the speech therapy office. My therapist continued monitoring my progress with stuttering and we kept working on my English, but the fluency techniques were abandoned entirely.
TOASTMASTERS – A VALUABLE RESOURCE
Frankly, I don’t know how far I would have gotten on my own, but one day, following a mad impulse, I emailed John Harrison and expressed my deep admiration for his book. The conversation followed, and at some point he agreed to coach me over Skype. I didn’t expect him to “cure” me. In fact, I had no particular expectations and felt more like an explorer, who sails out in search of an unknown continent and is ready to take what comes to him. And after signing on with such an experienced guide, I started my explorations.
The first thing I did was to join a local Toastmasters Club and started applying the techniques of successful speaking that John included in his book. I would highly recommend to anyone who sets out to dismantle the stuttering system to find a place like Toastmasters. However, to make this experience less stressful and more enjoyable, you have to develop an individual plan and set up a realistic goal for every speech. There is no point to starting out by trying to measure up to the world’s greatest orators. This approach will lead you to failure and frustration. Instead, you focus on simple and realistic goals for each speech such as speaking in a bigger voice, or maintaining good eye contact even during blocking episodes, or you can even explore voluntary stuttering. The key is to choose only one goal, praise yourself on accomplishing it, and not worry about any flaws that you as a speaker might still have.
It is also important to make sure that any Toastmasters club you select has a warm and supportive atmosphere. To prevent yourself from accidental hurts, it is better to disclose your speech problem during your introductory speech and explain your goal as a Toastmaster member.
I used public speaking exercises from John Harrison’s book. For example, during my first speech I used elongated pauses and a slow pace. In my second speech I practiced using exaggerated gestures and maintaining eye contact, in the third, having a louder voice and varied pitch.
If I experienced a speech block during a presentation, I tried to remember not to push through it (as was my habitual way of dealing with blocks). Instead, I would intentionally prolong it, as if saying to my stuttering “Come on, buddy, let’s see who gives up first.” This “voluntary stuttering” technique produced an amazing effect of releasing tension, and, most important, emotional liberation. After a lifetime of futile attempts to blend in and be accepted, I gave myself wholehearted permission to be different. It felt so good.
These deadlock blocks were the first to go. This was a significant victory for me, because for me the episodes of silent struggle were the most painful, since I had no control over them, and also because they were accompanied by weird facial contortions. I think if I continued to have those blocks, I would have quit Toastmasters after just one or two oral presentations because I wouldn’t wish to subject myself to this humiliation anymore. But with major blocks out of the way and with my new bold and adventurous attitude I kept giving speeches and soon became known as one of the most active toastmasters in the district.
The most important thing was that I stopped getting frustrated over my failures. I stopped being afraid. In fact, I became so fascinated with my monster that I decided to befriend it. Since then, all the actions I’ve undertaken to facilitate my recovery have been driven, not only by my desire to overcome stuttering, but also out of scientific interest and deep curiosity.
GETTING TO THE ROOTS
As my knowledge and confidence grew, so did my fluency. I also began to feel myself more and more in control of my speech. And yet, I felt that there was something else lurking underneath my blocking. Something that I couldn’t quite identify, but which had the feeling of helplessness, fear and inferiority as if I were suddenly reduced to some lower level of competency. In those moments I felt small and powerless, and I didn’t know why. In those moments I didn’t want to express myself or to connect with other people. I wanted to withdraw and hide.
The answer came with the book by Bob Bodenhamer, Mastering Blocking and Stuttering. Thanks to this book I made a startling discovery. It appeared that my belief system, with which I evaluated myself and my relationship with other people, was built on logical speculations and assumptions made by a child – a much younger me, a girl between the age of four and eight.
This why I was feeling so small. This is why I felt so inferior compared to other “adult” people. And this is why I was so desperate to blend in, to be accepted and approved.
This was a revelation.
Lucky for me, there was a tool that I could use to fix this. The technique is called Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP, and it has been successfully used to treat a variety of conditions.
NLP is a form of cognitive therapy that gives people the power to revisit their past and re-evaluate it from a different perspective. This shift in perspective (called reframing) is what helps a person to arrive at a different conclusion. It is especially useful when applied to childhood experience, because we can use our mature brain, our adult knowledge and our life experience to correct the flawed logic of a small child.
Since Bob Bodenhamer was the first practitioner who started using NLP for stuttering and since I had read a fascinating story by Linda Rounds, who recovered from stuttering after having sessions with him, I decided to contact him. To my delight he agreed to several therapy sessions. In only five or six sessions we revisited my childhood, reviewed the foundation of my belief system, and replaced the faulty structure with one that was more sound and appropriate. I continued to have sessions beyond that and in total probably had about 10 to 12, but the biggest and most important change came from those first sessions.
It is interesting that all of the childhood episodes that we revisited and reframed during these sessions appeared so insignificant. It was hard to believe that they could lead to such a severe condition as stuttering. But as I understand now, they created a certain landscape, an environment, in which the stuttering monster felt right at home. After my mental landscape was changed, my speech started to flow much easier and much of the tension that accompanied speaking situations was gone for good.
As I understand it now, changing my beliefs was the most difficult part in my “Hexagon therapy” and using NLP saved me many months or even years of effort, not mentioning a great deal of frustration that would inevitably accompany my attempts at battling my childhood fears on my own.
It took me a whole year of dedicated and consistent work to reach the point at which I was able to talk spontaneously, without fear or hesitation and with stuttering well out of my mind. It was not an easy year. I had to put aside many other activities to carve myself some time from my busy life. It took me another year to fine tune my speech, and frankly, the work is still continues.
In addition to sessions with John Harrison and Bob Bodenhamer, I read everything that was somehow related to my problem. I read all the posts on the neurosemantics forum and contributed almost daily. I dutifully attended all Toastmasters meetings. I even enrolled in a clown school to become more comfortable before the audience and in a Shakespearean acting class – a big challenge for a non-native speaker of English.
In addition, I practiced my speaking skills with total strangers whenever I could, putting myself in more and more challenging situations. I learned to talk about my stuttering in an open and friendly manner, without feeling ashamed or inferior. All those efforts, though time consuming, were well worth it.
What I got from all this hard work was something that no therapy before could give me: freedom. I was free from the exhausting struggle that accompanied all my conversation before. I was liberated from fear and the feeling of inferiority. And most important, I was free from the kind of self-limiting beliefs that had previously hampered my achievements.
I always believed that I shouldn’t speak in public, because my speech was tedious and a pain to listen. Toastmasters changed this belief. In 2011, I participated in the International Speech competition in Toastmasters and won on two levels – the club and the area, as well as took second place in the third level – the division. I remember one person from the audience came to me after the competition and said, “This is the best speech I have heard in more than 10 years in Toastmasters”.
In the same year, I did something that I also believed was impossible for me – I become second in command in my Toastmasters club, accepting the position of vice-president of education. In addition I was twice recognized as “an outstanding Toastmasters member.”
I realized that I love speaking and in particular I greatly enjoy public speaking. With an old struggle long gone, I discovered that there is no speaking situation that scares me or which I would try to avoid. And this for me was far more precious that the artificial fluency that previously required me to monitor my breathing or produce the sounds in a special way and that threatened to evaporate the very moment I needed it most.
IS IT PERMANENT?
After my speech crashed so suddenly in 2001 under pressure of speaking in a new language, I should have been always concerned whether or not my newly found fluency would hold. However this time I didn’t have those fears. As soon as I realized that stuttering is not some permanently ingrained defect that I have no control over, but a system, all components of which are manageable, a possibility of relapse lost its doomsday flavor. In fact I had several relapses, when I would suddenly find myself resuming blocking in some situations. Also I still find my fluency fluctuating to some degree depending of my emotional state.
For example, it is still difficult for me to maintain an emotionally charged conversation, especially when there is a risk to offend someone. I still feel a sting when I encounter an inattentive listener, the one who can interrupt in the mid-sentence and start talking about something else. I still have my moments. But I know what to do. I am able to recognize the signs that I have started slipping into the old mindset, and I can catch myself in time and get back on the fluent track.
Those episodes do not frighten me. I understand that it may be a while until my stuttering monster vacates the premises for good. But since it has been some time since I last engaged in a long silent struggle with it, I feel that it has lost all its power.
I feel that my stuttering, as I knew it, is gone.
My stuttering mindset is gone.
My fears and self-doubt are gone.
I know how to be fluent. It is actually very easy – just open the mouth and let the words flow.
There is no way I’ll ever forget this.
Here are some selected videos of Anna’s Toastmaster speeches on YouTube.
May 15, 2009 – “Quest for Fluency” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJbKDZK6RtM
January 15, 2011– “John Harrison’s Speaking Exercises” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9PsFEg4Sx4
April 9, 2011 – “Let It Go, Let It Flow” (from the International Speech Competition) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAXJzOfnYDM