The Value of Internet Discussion Groups

by Alan Badmington

At various times in my life, I have experimented with different approaches in an attempt to deal with my stuttering issues. On several occasions, I experienced increased freedom (and fluency) in controlled environments but I could never hold onto those gains when I returned into the outside world.

The principal reason for this inability to maintain progress was that I focused solely upon the mechanics of my speech. I did not realise that, in order to achieve permanent advances, I needed to change my disempowering mindset.  Another contributory factor was the absence of support, which is so essential whether you are recovering from stuttering, drugs, alcohol, or whatever.

When, in 2000, I decided to make one final effort to address my stutter, I befriended an unexpected ally.   No, I’m not referring to the stuttering management program that provided me with a springboard for change; I’m talking about something that has revolutionised the manner in which we communicate, both individually and collectively – THE INTERNET.

THE INTERNET OPENED UP A WHOLE NEW WORLD

At the time, I had not read any books or meaningful material about the subject that had adversely affected my life since early childhood.  I was virtually ignorant of the various therapies that were available and knew nothing about how other people were coping with similar issues in their lives.

Everything changed overnight when I secured online access. I was astounded by the wide array of information being disseminated and became aware of the existence of several international discussion groups dedicated to the subject of stuttering.

Within days, I joined several of these groups, affording me access to written exchanges between members located in many parts of the world.  The way in which these forums operate is that once an email (or post) has been submitted by a member, it is made available to everyone within the group (either by individual circulation or via a central notice board).

Should someone decide to respond to a post, then that person’s comments are automatically communicated to the entire membership.  This may, in turn, stimulate others to participate, thereby continuing the discussion, or causing the subject to develop in a different direction.

When I first joined the forums, I was surprised and intrigued by the nature of the exchanges that were taking place.  My reaction will be better understood when I explain that, throughout my life, I had met very few people who stuttered. I was also blissfully unaware of the existence of self-help groups or other supportive organisations.

After living in virtual isolation (from other PWS) for more than 50 years, I now found myself reading intimate and moving details about the experiences of total strangers scattered around the globe. It was bizarre, yet somehow reassuring, to learn that there were so many others who had experienced (or were still experiencing) similar struggles, heartaches and disappointments.

At first, I just absorbed what I was reading without making any effort to respond. Everyone seemed to know everyone else – each forum appeared to be an established social circle. I wondered how they would react to intervention by a newcomer and questioned whether or not I had anything of value to contribute. Why should someone on the other side of the world be interested in things occurring in my life?

I JOINED IN THE DISCUSSION

It didn’t take me long to change my thinking. When someone recounted a particular incident; raised a specific issue; or asked for advice; I felt an urge to respond.  After all, they were talking about matters to which I could relate.  The circumstances may not have been identical but there were many similarities to the personal experiences that I had encountered.  I, therefore, felt qualified to offer my views.

In due course I submitted my first post; quickly followed by the second…and the third.  Within a relatively short period of time, I had become a regular subscriber to several different forums, spending several hours each day at the keyboard.  The subjects under discussion were varied and plentiful, creating daily exercise for my old grey matter.  🙂

Before long, I wasn’t content to merely respond to topics generated by other members.   There were new subjects that I wished to initiate myself.   I should explain that my introduction to the Internet (and discussion groups) coincided with the commencement of another very significant chapter in my life.  I refer to my decision to seek the assistance of a stuttering management program that encourages a holistic approach, including assertive self-acceptance, non-avoidance and expansion of one’s comfort zones.   As a result, there were so many exciting things happening to me.

Having been provided with new tools and techniques (that enabled me to combat blocking and deal with troublesome words/sounds), I devised an extensive and pro-active plan of action designed to challenge my self-limiting beliefs and widen my restrictive self-image (as outlined in the following paper that I contributed to the 2003 International Stuttering Awareness Day online conference) :

STEP OUTSIDE: Why expanding comfort zones can improve our stuttering and lead to more fulfilling lives.’

http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/isad6/papers/badmington6.html

YOU HAVE TO STICK YOUR NECK OUT

We don’t change behaviours by retaining the status quo – I knew that I needed to confront my fears and tread unfamiliar paths.  Like the turtle, we can only move forward when we stick our neck out.

My daily efforts to live a more expansive lifestyle were incredibly stimulating – I approached each day with optimism, vigour and zest. I grew progressively in confidence and stature as I fulfilled a wide range of challenges and roles.  But, although I felt considerable personal inner satisfaction, I also recognised the value of sharing those experiences with others.

So, whenever I accomplished a specific breakthrough, or completed a new venture (such as winning a public speaking contest; attending an acting school; addressing a community group; hosting a charity concert; facilitating a workshop; or undertaking a live radio interview), I didn’t keep it to myself.  I used the appropriate group as a vehicle to tell everyone else. I also drew attention to many mundane occurrences that I felt were relevant and of interest.

Relating those incidents had a very powerful impact upon me.  Each time I relived a successful incident, it reaffirmed what I had achieved.  I genuinely believe that my progress during recent years has been helped considerably by the fact that I have been able to tell myself (and others) about the positive experiences I have enjoyed.

Some people may be of the opinion (and it’s their prerogative to think whatever they choose) that speaking about one’s successes is egotistical. Well, I happen to hold an opposing view. That was certainly not my motivation for sharing.  It’s simply that re-living the successful episodes strengthened my memories of those events. (I didn’t feel too guilty because I knew that the delete button was always readily available to those who did not wish to read my posts). 🙂

ACCENTUATING THE POSITIVE

Since early childhood, my stuttering was fuelled and perpetuated by the difficulties, setbacks, pain and catalogue of lost opportunities that I encountered. For over half a century, I constantly reminded myself of what I could NOT do, or the dire consequences of attempting to speak in certain situations. I spent a lifetime accumulating, recounting and giving far too much prominence to the memories of negative speaking experiences. As a result, my stutter flourished and thrived.

The more I nourished and sustained it, the more it impacted upon my daily existence. I make no excuse for having reversed that trait. The worm has turned and, in direct contrast, I now constantly remind myself of my successes. You should never shirk from telling yourself how much you have achieved.

I recently read an interesting article that appears to justify the practice I have adopted for the past 11 years. Research indicates that when we savour and foster positive experiences, it intensifies our positive responses to them. The longer something is held in our awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it becomes.

When we focus on positive happenings, it increases our positive emotions, which correspondingly generate health benefits in relation to our immune system and stress. Other long-term advantages of positive emotions are that they lift your mood and increase optimism, resilience and resourcefulness. They also counteract the effects of painful experiences, including trauma. So, you see, it appears that I was right all along. 🙂
Another spin-off (of speaking about our successes) is that it can encourage others to emulate the challenges that we have fulfilled. I frequently receive feedback from people (both within and outside the stuttering community) who generously confide that my revelations have influenced them to confront obstacles in their own lives.

From a personal point of view, learning about a PWS who successfully embraced public speaking had a huge impact upon my self-concept. Until I heard him speak (in early 2000), I truly believed that such a role lay outside the scope of someone who stuttered. I was inspired by his activities and wanted to tread a similar path. That fortuitous occurrence sowed the seeds of an empowering belief that was to subsequently change the course of my life. After more than half a century of self-doubt and holding back, I finally allowed myself to entertain the thought that I could do something meaningful about my communication issues. The rest is history, as they say. 🙂

I cannot overemphasize the immense benefits that I have derived from participating in online discussion groups. Perusing posts submitted by my fellow members rekindled memories of earlier events that I had long forgotten.  Each time I composed a response, I continued to travel that mental journey through time, jogging additional recollections from the past. When we start thinking about one thing it can trigger a chain reaction – creating links to similar occurrences.  That’s how memories are stored in the brain. I never cease to be amazed by what the sub-conscious can unveil when it is stimulated or interrogated.

Fear and self-doubt figure prominently in the lives of many people, not just those who stutter. They can sabotage hopes and aspirations.  When left to our own devices, it is possible that we may never summon up sufficient courage to confront the issues that are impeding our progress.  However, as a member of an online forum, some people gain confidence and encouragement by leaning upon the knowledge, camaraderie and collective support that are present within that group.

I have witnessed this on many occasions, particularly in two of the forums to which I subscribe. Those who invite guidance and suggestions from others in advance of an upcoming event (maybe a job interview or public speaking engagement) report positive outcomes. But, of course, prior consultation does not always guarantee success.

Following a highly successful work presentation, one member of the Yahoo neurosemanticsofstuttering group wrote:

“Thanks for your very kind messages. Not being alone is very important. Of course, when we are in speaking situations, it’s up to us and we are the only one who can do something. But I believe in the effects of “coaching” and positive speech. You know, for this oral presentation, I feel I was prepared like an Olympic athlete! Best coaches (and champions) in the world had provided me the best advice. I have been very lucky.”

Online discussion groups represent different things to different people.  You’ve probably heard it said that we are all unique.  Well, that really is the case. We originate from different backgrounds; are subjected to different life experiences; and accumulate different degrees of emotional baggage.   We commence from different starting lines; operate in accordance with different beliefs, self-concepts and values; and possess different aspirations.

The desired aim of one person is likely to differ appreciably from the expectations of another member. While some hope to deal effectively with their stuttering issues, others may not believe that this is possible.  Those who wish to adopt a more expansive lifestyle will, undoubtedly, welcome tips on how to achieve that goal, whereas less ambitious members might be content to follow a less-risky passage.

GROUPS HAVE THEIR OWN ORIENTATIONS

I have found that online groups vary considerably in their objective, format and content of discussion, as well as the composition, age, attitude and behaviour of members. Some forums tend to fulfil the role of a support group, while others have a more specific agenda.

For example, the Yahoo neurosemanticsofstuttering group was set up for the “primary purpose of helping and working with PWS to overcome stuttering, utilizing Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Neuro-Semantic tools and other cognitive methods to help achieve that outcome.”

Another forum caters wholly for those with covert issues, while a separate group exists to assist parents of children and teens who stutter.  Some stuttering management programs also offer online support for clients, incorporating the written and spoken word.

The National Stuttering Association provides a network of online meeting places to facilitate interaction between members of its local chapters (self-help groups), as well as an additional group that allows delegates to keep in touch between annual conferences.

The websites of several forums also contain a wealth of useful reading material, together with links to podcasts, videos and other online resources.

I think it is relevant to highlight the fact that, whereas the majority of online discussion groups restrict access to its members, some allow the written exchanges to be viewed by the public. I add this cautionary note because there may be occasions when a subscriber might unwittingly furnish personal details that he/she would not wish to be read by all and sundry.

Another point to be considered is that the exchanges may, occasionally, become a little heated as members write about matters of an emotional nature.  Freed from their customary struggles with the spoken word, some PWS adopt a more assertive (or even aggressive) role and communicate, with passion, exactly what they want to say. Words are plucked from the extremities of their vocabulary without the usual anticipatory fear associated with stuttering.

For so many years, transferring my thoughts to paper was the only effective way in which I could meaningfully express myself. My past oral exchanges were littered with words that I considered to be inferior or, in some cases, totally inappropriate. I succumbed to mediocrity simply because I did not want the listener to see/hear me stutter.

Whilst it is heartening to see members letting go and giving vent to their feelings, it is important that the rules of netiquette should always be observed. We can be both assertive and respectful at the same time. Thankfully, personal attacks are infrequent and can be quickly nipped in the bud by the sensible intervention of the moderator(s).

There are forums to suit everyone – it’s simply a case of trial and error to determine which satisfy your individual needs.  If you find that a particular group is not providing what you require, then simply transfer your attention elsewhere.   That’s exactly what I’ve done.  At one time, I held simultaneous membership of no fewer than 11 groups. (No wonder my wife used to complain that I was spending too much time online.) J

Today I am far more selective and restrict my contributions to only two groups.   As stuttering has ceased to be an issue in my life, I have greatly reduced the number of posts that I now submit.  Although I no longer find it necessary to publicly reinforce the memories of my positive experiences, I still occasionally share details of such occurrences. My principal purposes are to illustrate how such challenges can be created; reiterate the value of exploring uncharted waters; or to demonstrate a particular point.

Nowadays, my limited participation is generally confined to subjects that ignite my interest, or in responding to specific questions that are posed by others.  Due to fluctuations within a group, it is not unusual for certain topics to be resurrected from time to time, as new members join.

LEARNING FROM OTHERS

I have gained varying degrees of benefit from virtually every forum to which I have subscribed.  We can all learn something (however small) from each other’s stories.  Diversity encourages different perspectives. The Internet has become such a valuable asset in enabling those who stutter to communicate with each other.  Over the years, I have developed some close friendships that now extend outside the parameters of those groups.

Reading about the lives of other PWS can provide an interesting insight into how they deal (or have dealt) with their respective difficulties, as well as offering reciprocal inspiration. It can also alert us to possibilities of which we were previously unaware – in relation to therapies, techniques and opportunities that allow us to unearth our true potential when we are prepared to expose ourselves to uncertainty and change.  In effect, it can open our eyes to possibilities that we could never have imagined.

As a result of these online interactions, and the revealing evaluations that we have retrospectively conducted in relation to past (and more recent) events, many of us now possess a far greater understanding of the issues that shape our lives.  We are also better informed about how we (and others) react to the diverse challenges that confront us, and have discovered that there are exciting and fulfilling paths available for us to tread.  But, perhaps, most importantly, we know that we need never again experience the isolation of walking those unfamiliar paths alone.

BECOMING DESENSITIZED

Many PWS find it difficult to talk about the issues that affect their lives, even with friends and family members. Yet, many who subscribe to online support groups confide that they are far more at ease when discussing such matters within that environment.  Divulging even the most intimate details to “total strangers” can sometimes be less challenging than revealing them to someone you know.

Greater openness about my life-time struggles has proved invaluable in helping me to overcome my previous embarrassment.  Revealing my “darkest secrets” (both online and in everyday situations) has greatly aided the desensitization process.

In conclusion, I have no hesitation in declaring that, without participation in Internet discussion groups, I would not now be at such a favourable position in my life.  I view my involvement as yet another important piece in this complex jigsaw that we know as stuttering.