My Journey Towards Overcoming Stuttering
By Hazel Percy
The question “how did the traffic light turn green?” could well be the first line of a joke! However, I find the traffic light a very apt metaphor to use when relating my journey towards overcoming stuttering. My hope is that, as I tell my story, other people who stutter (PWS) will in some way find help and encouragement through what I share.
I am 40 years old, married, live in the UK and have blocked and stuttered since early childhood. Although mild to begin with, the problem grew in severity during my teenage years. From that time on, I increasingly felt stuck on ‘red’ in many areas of my life, unable to move forward because of my fears around speaking. As I stuttered in every speaking situation I was in (except when on my own, although that wasn’t always a totally block-free zone), I felt very restricted when considering my life choices. For example, my choice of jobs was based not on my abilities or interests, but on how much speaking would be involved. I chose the easy route of avoidance and consequently remained in jobs I often found boring, unfulfilling and ‘not really me’. Whilst at work I would sometimes avoid making business phone calls and when I did pluck up the courage to do so, I found it embarrassing, humiliating and a considerable physical struggle to speak.
Social situations were difficult too, even in the comfort zone of my own home with close family and friends. Many a time I would stay quiet when I had something to say, because I knew that as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, the physical struggle would begin, leaving me feeling emotionally and physically drained. If I saw our next door neighbours out in their garden, I would often avoid speaking to them. Either I would wait until they had gone back in, before going outside myself; or I might pretend that I hadn’t seen them, or that I was just too busy to speak. What must they have thought! It wasn’t that I wanted to be unfriendly; I just felt too embarrassed and scared to speak and stutter in front of them.
Soon after our first daughter was born, in June 1999, I clearly remember saying to my husband that he would have to read all the bedtime stories. There was no way I could envisage myself being able to do it. All in all, because of my stuttering, I saw myself as being ‘less than’ other people and inadequate as a person. As a result of this, I would always push myself harder than necessary in other ways, to try to compensate for my lack of speaking ability.
Being an overt and relatively severe PWS did however have its advantages. It mean’t that only on the odd occasion would I substitute a ‘difficult’ word for an ‘easier’ one. To me, all words could be difficult to say, so most of the time I saw no point in trying to change them! The only exception to that being our wedding day, when the fear of stuttering in front of so many people was so high. On that occasion, the marriage ceremony was re-worded in such a way that all I had to say on my own was ‘I do’, then repeat some words in unison with my husband to be, which of course I had no difficulty in doing.
Being this way in the world gave me great motivation to try and change the way things were. In my teens I had several sessions of traditional speech therapy, but these proved to be unhelpful. Also, in my twenties I attended several courses in the UK run by someone who had overcome his own stuttering problem. Although this was of some help, in that it allowed me to converse more easily with close family and friends, the speaking method I was taught was so abnormally slow that it was often impractical and difficult to use in real life outside situations. Over time, I gradually let go of it and returned to my old ways.
However, in September 2000 when I was 34 years old, my life took a dramatic turn. I heard about the McGuire Programme; a programme that addresses both physical and psychological aspects of stuttering, and felt that I should give it a go. After all, I had absolutely nothing to lose. It was during my first course that I believe I changed from ‘Red to ‘Amber’.
For me, the ‘Amber’ stage lasted nearly 5 years and was a time of change in many ways. It was also a time of preparation, to enable me to change further and move on to ‘Green,’ or ‘Go’; but more about that later. Joining the McGuire Programme gave me the first taster I had had in years, of what life could be like without blocking and stuttering. During the four day course I heard myself speaking with a freedom I had only dream’t about; not only in the ‘classroom setting’, but out on the streets with the general public and even public speaking in the town square! For the first time since early childhood, I knew that I was physically able to say the exact words I wanted to say whilst in the presence of another person; and that was a strange and wonderful experience for me! From that point on, I knew my life would never be the same again; and it wasn’t.
On returning home, I found that I was able to maintain my newly found freedom in a fair number of speaking situations. However, at the same time I found it physically and mentally tiring to do so, and sometimes I would look at other ‘normal fluent speakers’ and wonder; “why do I have to use all this physical effort to speak, when others can speak so easily?” Furthermore, despite my best efforts, I sometimes found it hard to maintain my newly learn’t technique in certain situations; and I didn’t understand why!
At the time, I believed that stuttering was caused by some sort of physical brain malfunction, and that controlling the physical behaviour was the only way forward. Also I was pretty much oblivious to any thoughts I had prior to blocking. Over the years, they had grown outside my conscious awareness. Furthermore, although I always felt anxious and tense before and during blocking/stuttering, I in no way equated these as being contributory factors to the cause of the behaviour. However, my eyes were soon to be well and truly opened when in 2003, I read John Harrison’s book ‘How to Conquer Your Fears of Speaking Before People’.
For me, John’s book answered a lot of questions about the nature of blocking and stuttering; and for the first time in my life, I changed the belief that my speech problem was being caused by some incurable brain disorder. Instead, I came to believe that it was a self-supporting system (‘stuttering hexagon’) which I had created and sustained over many years. John’s story of his own recovery and his unique insight into the problem, brought real hope to me that one day I could be completely free too!
Having been very inspired by John’s book, it also threw a spanner in the works for me. Knowing what I now knew, what course of action should I now take? Should I change direction in my recovery? After all, I was going along the road of controlling the blocking symptoms, but what if that wasn’t the right way forward for me? And so began several months of inner conflict and turmoil as, with John’s support and help, I began to think this issue through. Although I remained loosely connected to the McGuire Programme, I was very unsure of the right path to take. Things came to a head in June 2004, whilst having a meal in a large room of 100 people or more. Everyone seemed to be chatting away and having a good time; all except me. There was I, sat at the table, feeling frustrated and trapped; so afraid to be seen openly stuttering in front of people. Something had to change – and soon!
Around that time I started looking on the internet, to see what else was ‘out there’ to help PWS and came across the Neuro-Semantic’s web-site (Neuro-Semantics for PWS). I started reading the articles there about blocking/stuttering and was soon addicted to reading everything I could on the subject! What I read made so much sense to me and furthered my understanding of blocking.
Tim Mackesey’s testimony particularly caught my attention and during the summer of 2004, I arranged to have several telephone consultations with him. It was during these that I first started applying Neuro-Semantic/NLP patterns to my speech problem. Tim led me through various patterns including the Drop Down Through and the Meta Yes/Meta No. However, what I found most helpful at that time was Time-Line Re-imprinting. Using this pattern I spent considerable time alone at home, reframing past hurtful memories of blocking. I also gave any hurt I still felt in relation to these, to my highest spiritual resource, and forgave the other people involved for any hurt they had inadvertently caused me. Of course I also needed to forgive myself; for I realised that more often than not, through my ‘mind-reading’, I had judged my listener far too harshly!
As a consequence of doing this, and with Tim’s help, I gradually began to change my perceptions of other people and in particular, of their reactions if I stuttered. Also I decided to do an experiment. Over several weeks, I telephoned numerous shops and businesses; making general and fairly short enquiries, whilst deliberately allowing myself to openly stutter. The aim was to observe how my listeners reacted to my non-fluency. I have to admit that I was amazed at the result! Nine times out of ten, there was no reaction whatsoever. People listened and appeared to be more interested in what I had to say, rather than how I was saying it! The only reaction I did notice was the occasional ‘‘pardon’’, if they hadn’t quite caught what I’d said. Similarly, I made several enquiries in local shops. I always maintained eye contact throughout, smiled, looked as confident as I could, and said what I wanted to say. Again I allowed myself to openly stutter, and again people seemed to respect me and listened to what I had to say.
Also around this time, I enrolled on a public speaking course at my local college, which consisted of 30 evening classes held over a year. My aim was to further desensitise myself to stuttering in front of a group of people. As the course progressed, I discovered from the feedback I received, that I could come across as confident, relaxed and sound interesting, even though I stuttered. My prior judgement of other people’s reactions to my stuttering had been totally wrong, and as a result, my perceptions changed. Other people were simply other people, just like me, no doubt with their own worries and problems. Of course, I know there is a minority of people in this world who aren’t so patient and understanding when faced with PWS (maybe through their own lack of knowledge about stuttering), but how they react is totally their responsibility.
When the sessions with Tim ended, I was again faced with the dilemma of what to do next. I was still very much interested in Neuro-Semantics but was also very aware that I needed to uncover the negative thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and emotions that were underlying my blocking. For at that time, I had very little idea what they were. In due course I contacted John Harrison again, and via e-mail he helped to steer my thinking in such a way that I began to get a glimpse of what was really going on under the surface. John also suggested that I join the ‘neurosemanticsofstuttering’ e-mail list. So in December 2004 I subscribed; and wasn’t that the right decision!
And so began six months of very deep thinking! I had so many questions to ask, and found that the answers I got from various people on the list were really insightful, helpful and very thought provoking. Then came the night of January 8th 2005! Lying in bed, it was as if the floodgates of my mind suddenly opened! It felt as if a torrent of buried negative beliefs and perceptions about myself came rushing to the surface all at once. Among other things, it became clear that I was always craving for other people’s approval of me (a sign of low self-esteem). Also, I feared social rejection and felt inadequate as a person because I stuttered. This process continued on and off throughout the night. Of course I had to write it all down, so by the morning I felt a bit of a wreck! I also felt quite overwhelmed by it all. Here in front of me, was a huge mountain of negative ‘stuff’ relating to myself and my blocking that needed to be dealt with. For a few moments I thought I was going to ‘lose it!’ But I managed to keep my sanity (I think J). I realised that I needed to work through all of this with a therapist, and because Bob Bodenhamer and myself share the same Christian faith, I felt that I should approach him.
In due course I had several telephone consultations with Bob, over a period of five months. I realised that I had intertwined my identity as a person with my blocking and stuttering behaviour, and they needed separating. During the sessions, Bob would often have me associate into a memory relating to blocking (sometimes from childhood), then lead me through the Drop Down Through Pattern. I was utterly amazed at the negative thoughts, feelings and identity statements that came to mind, as I dropped down through each layer. Some I didn’t even believe, until Bob explained that they were coming from the child part of me. Then I applied my highest spiritual resource to each of the negative thoughts, feelings and identity statements. As I did so, the latter disappeared and were replaced with positive and more powerful ones. I continued this process at home also, working through other memories as and when they came to mind. In this way, my identity as a person gradually became separated from my blocking behaviour. As a result of this, I realised that I was a person of worth no matter how I talked, and that I no longer needed other people’s approval of me.
Following on from the sessions with Bob, I continued to spend more time mentally in the presence of my highest resource. As I did so, this new perception of myself was reinforced, and my self-esteem increased further. But then I reached a point yet again when I wasn’t sure what the next stage was. I now felt OK as a person and had positive beliefs about myself, even though I stuttered. But I was still stuttering on most words, although by this stage, the blocks were short and with very little tension. Perhaps being a bit of a sceptic, I wasn’t convinced that the blocking behaviour would naturally fade away that easily! I also began to miss hearing myself speaking relatively fluently at least some of the time. So I decided to become more committed to the McGuire Programme again; a decision that I know was the right one for me. Gradually, with the help of friends on the programme, I started to regain more fluency but I still felt there was something missing.
In September 2005, I attended Bob’s ‘Mastering Blocking and Stuttering Workshop’ in London. It was excellent and as I listened to the teaching and took part in the group work, I realised that I had indeed changed on the inside. It confirmed the fact that I had quite radically changed the beliefs about myself over recent months, and that my identity as a person was definitely no longer related to how I spoke.
I also found being led through the Power Zone Pattern really helpful. It reinforced in my mind, the fact that I and I alone have control over what I think and feel, and how I behave and speak. I also realised how important it was to give other people permission to own their powers too, instead of trying to ‘mind-read’ what they may or may not be thinking. Although what other people thought of me was now no longer a key-issue in my life, it was good to be reminded of this.
At the workshop, I had the privilege of meeting John Harrison for the first time. Over the past couple of years or so, he had got to know ‘where I was at’ speech-wise, and as we spoke he made the observation that I was holding myself back, particularly in relation to my volume. Having had years of stuttering, I had grown accustomed to speaking in a fairly quiet voice (or not speaking at all!). I usually didn’t want to be noticed or stand out in a crowd, especially when I spoke. However, I didn’t think this had much significance. To me it sounded natural to speak that way because I had always done it. But I trusted John’s insight and so, at the end of one of the day’s sessions, I allowed him to lead me through a volume experiment, in front of a few of the other participants. This involved doubling my volume several times and then observing my, and other people’s perception of how I was coming across.
I found that experiment immensely valuable. I realised that my perception of how I sounded when I spoke was considerably different from other people’s. I thought I was coming on too strong and too loud but they thought I just sounded more confident and more alive when I spoke. I decided that after the course ended, I would start using a ‘bigger’ voice in the outside world and see what effect that would have. I also realised that I needed to practise putting more expression into my voice. Again, having stuttered for so many years, I had never developed this ‘skill’. My only concern had been; “how do I get these words out?” As a result, I had grown accustomed to talking in a rather monotone way.
Something else that John said during one of the sessions really struck a chord with me. He emphasised that blocking could also be seen as a form of holding back, of sucking in one’s energy in an attempt to blend into the background and become ‘invisible’. I recognised that this had certainly been true in my case over the years. I had always had reservations about putting the ‘real me’ on show too much, even in non-speaking situations. By this stage too, I had pretty much desensitised myself to blocking and stuttering in front of people. I no longer felt embarrassed, and didn’t particularly fear doing it in front of people; yet the behaviour was still there, and it was an inconvenient way of expressing myself!
Of course the opposite of holding back is letting go, and I realised that by speaking in a louder voice, I would be doing just that. But I now felt ready to take that next step. So as I returned home, I turned up the volume! At first it felt really strange and overly loud to me, but as I kept persevering with it over several weeks, I gradually got more used to it. I also noticed that when I did speak in a louder voice, I felt more confident and actually found it easier to speak. I then started to enjoy speaking in the new way and eventually reached the point of preferring it to the old!
With increased confidence, I decided it was now time to tackle the one and only speaking situation that I was still avoiding. Since joining the McGuire Programme, I had more or less given up the practise of avoiding situations, though sometimes I postponed going into them! However, there was one situation involving speaking in front of a particular small group of people, which I had been intending to go into for months. Yet when the time came, I always ‘chickened out’. I hadn’t been following through my intentions and I knew that this was having a negative effect on my ‘hexagon’. So one evening I took the plunge; and as I did so, it wasn’t half as scary as I’d imagined. In fact I quite enjoyed it and have been frequently entering and speaking in that situation ever since. No more situation avoidance for me! I was pleased with the progress I was making; yet just around the corner there was another surprise in store for me!
Last November, I went on my first McGuire Programme course in nearly five years. Again I realised just how much I’d changed during that time. I now felt much more comfortable speaking with people; not just people on the course, but absolutely anyone! I also took on board two more tools. During the course the instructor, Martin Coombs, emphasised the need to use ‘deliberate dysfluency’; that is, choosing to prolong the first sound of a word or words, or imitating a block, immediately releasing it and saying the word again. The point of this was to advertise ourselves as people recovering from stuttering, but in a dignified and controlled way, without genuinely blocking. As he spoke, I realised that I felt uncomfortable about doing that. It was one thing to not mind stuttering in front of other people, but it was really ‘pushing the boat out’ to put in extra pretend blocks and stutters that wouldn’t normally be there! But I realised the fact that I felt uncomfortable, indicated that I needed to do it!
Secondly, we were shown a way to deepen the tone of our voice whilst saying a word, which I found very helpful. Although I was already aware of these two tools, I had never really put them into practice. With these two extra tools now to hand, I returned home and started putting into practise what I’d learn’t. It was then that I realised that during that course, everything had come together for me. I had turned a corner and had changed from ‘Amber’ to ‘Green’, or ‘Go!’
As I started to use deliberate dysfluency in every speaking situation and became even more open about my stuttering, I discovered just how empowering that was! I was now in the driving seat. I could choose to prolong or not prolong whichever sounds I liked. Or I could imitate a block and release it, without experiencing the real, ‘out of control’ blocking. It was so liberating and fun to do! I was also outwardly demonstrating to people that I was someone who sometimes stutters, but in the way that I chose. I also discovered that I now had an insatiable desire to talk and talk and talk! J
As the days went by, I noticed that there was a consistency in the way I spoke. I went into all sorts of situations and was able to maintain my new way of speaking most of the time. Furthermore, I no longer found it the great physical and mental effort that I had five years ago. This time round it felt a lot more natural and easier to me; I think, because of the internal changes that had taken place in my mind.
I started going along to Toastmasters and on the second occasion, was invited to take part in the table topics session. I jumped at the chance! I got up and spoke in front of 30 or so people I hardly knew, using deliberate dysfluency, and gave a short humorous talk. My speaking was absolutely fine. In fact I was even voted the best table topics speaker of the evening! In December, I read out a poem in front of some 400 people at church. Again, everything went great and I loved every minute of it! And so it has continued.
Sometimes I have the occasional minor ‘hiccup’ here and there, but nothing serious and it in no way affects my everyday life. If I do notice myself starting to hold back for whatever reason, I either reframe the situation while I’m in it, or analyse afterwards what was going on in my mind. I always find that some slight approach/avoidance conflict had been going on. Sometimes it has merely been the fact that as I’ve started to present myself differently in a speaking situation, I’ve been aware of displaying the ‘real Hazel’ like never before; and because that’s a fairly new experience for me, it’s felt uncomfortable. As a result, I’ve sometimes had the slight tendency to try and block out those feelings by holding myself back. However, I realise that I need to allow myself to feel uncomfortable; it is only a feeling! Also, I know that the more I do this, the easier it will get. Whatever the reason for holding back, I learn from the experience and then take whatever action is necessary the next time I’m in a similar situation.
As I look back over the past five years, I realise that at different stages, I’ve been addressing each point of my ‘stuttering hexagon’ and making each one more positive. Neurosemantics in particular has played a key role in helping me to change my beliefs about myself, and my perceptions of other people. At this point, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Bob and Tim for all their help and for all that they do to help PWS. I’d also like to thank John too, whose unique insight has tremendously influenced and helped me, particularly in the area of my perceptions and emotions. And of course all my colleagues and friends on the McGuire Programme, who have helped, supported and inspired me in so many ways.
I’m very aware that this new way of speaking and presenting myself to the world continually needs to be reinforced day by day, so that eventually it becomes habituated and second nature. Which is why I now enjoy pushing out my comfort zone and making the most of every speaking opportunity. For example, whenever I’m in a shop I will usually start chatting with the shop assistant (providing there isn’t a long queue behind me!). If I’m in a queue waiting to pay for something, I will often pass the time of day with the person in front or behind me. And I love chatting with the parents at the school gate, when I pick my children up each day.
How different life is now! Instead of waking up each morning with a sense of heaviness, wondering how I’m going to get through each speaking situation, I now wake up looking forward to enjoying speaking as much as possible. At last, I am able to show other people my true colours!