My name is Joe. I’m in my thirties, and I have a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, and I’m a Leadership Development Manager for a very large company. For as long as I can remember, I’ve stuttered when I speak. However, I have not had a “bad incident” (defined as appearing speech-disabled) in many months. I still suffer a little residual speech anxiety, but I can see the light at the end of the stuttering tunnel, and I’m moving towards it.
My mind still wants me to stutter and I still feel the triggers to stutter, but I will either use a crutch, or take back control of my mind and not allow myself to stutter. Some minor blocks still happen, but I don’t dwell on any stutter anymore,and I haven’t had a situation in which I appeared disabled in many months.
So that’s where I am today, December 8, 2019. I’d like to tell you the story of how I got here.
I stuttered since I was a small child. We all have our horror stories that are forever cemented in our minds about stuttering; those times when our speech mechanism failed us, and we were humiliated or emotionally crushed. One of my crushing memories happened when I was in 3rd grade. The teacher asked a question, and as a talkative (strange for a stutter, I know) kid, my hand shot up because I knew the answer. I don’t remember what the word was, but it started with a hard “k.” I blocked on that “k” good and hard, and as the recess bell rang, the kids got up and left the room, while I was still sitting there trying to say that first word. I never got past the first sound. Brutal.
I went through years of speech therapy as a kid. Three times per week, my parents would drive me to the speech therapist for an hour session. I also had speech therapy in school a few times each week. To the frustration of everyone involved, during therapy I was almost 100% fluent. But as soon as I would leave therapy, the hard blocks, prolongations, and facial contortions returned. This, by the way, was my first indication that there was nothing actually physically wrong with me. In other words, if I could speak fine in one location, I reasoned that my speech mechanism, biological systems, etc., must all be working fine. I reasoned that there was something in the environment that triggered stuttering, and I stuttered in response. But that thought was incompatible (then) with my observation that I wasn’t choosing to stutter, so I didn’t really know what to do with my observation that I was fluent in therapy sessions, fluent when I was alone, but stuttered with others. Very strange.
In my early teenage years, my parents found a six-week summer camp for people with speech disabilities. Before I knew it, I was off to interview for the program. I was successfully admitted for the camp, and for six weeks, I was surrounded by other kids who stuttered or were dealing with their own challenges (autism, hearing impairment, severe developmental disabilities, etc.) For seven hours a day, spread out in creative ways, we were doing therapy. We focused on easy onsets, speaking slowly, and in a nutshell we learned to take control of our speaking mechanism. I and my roommates were fanatical about stopping stuttering, and we told all the camp counselors, clinicians, etc., that, if we were speaking to them and stuttered and didn’t correct our stuttered word immediately, to turn around and walk away. We were awesome speech cops for ourselves. Progress came quickly.
I came out of the camp six weeks later as a fluent speaker. There were no residual stutters, no fears, nothing. Just smooth, easy speech. I went back to the camp for a second year, but it didn’t do much because the progress had already been made. And for the next few years, I barely thought about stuttering.
Ever so slowly, my stutter returned. I was fluent, so I didn’t practice the skills I had learned. By this time, I was in my late teens and making a name for myself as local actor. From the kid who stuttered so badly that his classmates walked out in third grade, now I found that I loved being on stage and getting a standing ovation for speaking. It was great fun. I was talking with an agent in Chicago and a small time director in New York about possibilities, but around my senior of high school, I fell out of love with acting, and would never perform again.
Interestingly, about this time, my stuttering was coming back and was becoming a nuisance again. It wasn’t as bad as when I was kid – I wasn’t having really intense hard blocks on every third word, but I was stuttering heavily and playing the mental gymnastics game of forecasting what I wanted to say and switching words all of the time to hide my stuttering. My days became exhausting from the mental energy required to manage my speech problem.
In undergrad, I pursued speech therapy once as a freshman. I was paired with a beautiful 24 year old graduate student, and spent more time flirting with her than doing any of the exercises. It was the same old stuff anyway – exercises that come from people who have never stuttered and don’t really understand the nature of the problem. They’re offering what they can, and doing the best they can, but the techniques aren’t really getting at the issues, so ultimately, I was unsuccessful. I stopped therapy pretty quickly after I started. Looking back, I never got that date with the grad student, either.
During my college years, my stuttering progressively worsened. But I improved at hiding it, too. Sometimes I couldn’t hide it, and I’d run into the scenarios we all know. For example, calling the cable service to inquire about a bill and being hung up on because I couldn’t say a word, and they thought that I wasn’t on the line anymore. Ugh. Brutal.
Overall, though, I was trudging along, using word avoidance and situation avoidance. I knew it wasn’t the best thing to do in the long term, but what choice did I have? So, after four years stuttering in undergrad, I went off to graduate school.
As a grad student, no one really knew that I stuttered — until, of course, one of my big presentations occurred in which I had to present a particular facet of the field to the faculty, and then we were supposed to discuss it for a few hours. Essentially, in this sort of “exam,” the student is required to become an expert in one particular facet of the field over a year or two. Typically, the student’s knowledge becomes on par or better than the faculty in that particular facet. The conversations with the faculty are usually very rich and fun in these exams. The faculty have significant breadth and experience, but often the students develop greater depth in their chosen facet. It’s a major milestone in the graduate journey.
What should have been great experience was actually a nightmare. From the first slide, I stuttered openly and badly. I was trying to change out words, but within a technical lexicon, it’s impossible to change words. The presentation was very, very difficult. In hindsight, one of the great ironies is that no one on the faculty, including my graduate adviser who I had known for seven years, knew that I stuttered. So from their perspective, it must have been a very strange experience! At first they thought I had too much coffee. If only that were the problem!
After I finished presenting and completed the dialogue with the faculty (maybe 90 minutes total), I left the room so the faculty could discuss if I passed or not. I walked into my lab’s offices, closed the door, and put my head against the wall. I closed my eyes and tried to keep myself together. I was taking deep breaths, trying to stay present. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, and I felt my mind trying to slip away. It was like the 3rd grade all over again. But this time, it was my graduate career at risk. It was one of the lowest, saddest, most humiliating moments of my life. I stood there, head against the wall, eyes closed, for a solid 10 minutes as I contemplated the implications of what had just happened.
I actually passed, completed my dissertation a few years later, and got some letters after my name. So, the stuttering didn’t win, but it came extremely close.
Let’s fast forward.
I relocated to Houston and started attending the local National Stuttering Association chapter meetings for a while. It was a great group, but I wasn’t getting much out of it and eventually drifted away.
My professional life had taken off, and I found myself working for a big company doing all kinds of speaking related work. I was running global conference calls, flying to different sites and working with local teams, coaching leaders, etc. All stuff that required some degree of fluency. I was still stuttering, and some days were significantly worse than others. But overall, I had basically resigned to being someone who stutters forever.
Then, one day about three years ago, I started catching stories in seemingly random places like podcasts of stutterers who overcame the disorder. This re-energized a bit of interest in looking back into options for myself. After about 18 months of working on mind training with ex-stutterers, I found Lee’s book. I read it and we started Skyping not long afterwards.
By that point, I had been reading aloud almost every day for at least 30 minutes for the past year. I read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy out loud over that period of time. Then, I reread “The Fellowship of the Ring” out loud for a second time. I had been reciting affirmations for over a year, almost every day. I was seeing huge improvements and changes in my life. They’re too numerous to cover here, but for example, I ended a problematic relationship, moved, advanced in my career, started new athletic adventures, bought a house, etc. I was a much happier person from the work and the progress (not just in my speech, but in my whole self).
What was immediately helpful for me in Lee’s methods were the crutches. I knew that I didn’t need to stutter anymore. I knew it wasn’t a valid response anymore in any context, and that when I stuttered, it was really something deeper going on that dealt with how I saw myself, how I related to other people, etc. But I still had the habit of stuttering.
In the crutches, I found alternative things to do when the stutter response was just too strong. For me, dropping the first letter was immediately powerful. In the long-term, I don’t think I’ll need crutches at all (which Lee predicts), because I’m turning myself into someone who doesn’t need to stutter. But until then, dropping the first letter is a great alternative to engaging in the old habit of stuttering. Some of the crutches (like speaking slowly, using extreme pronunciation, being passionate, smiling and inserting full stops) actually help anyone become a better speaker.
Additionally, reading and smiling when speaking are the two most beneficial behaviors for me. I still read aloud almost every day. And every time I feel the urge to stutter, I realize that I’m not smiling. There is more to it than all of that (for example, when I feel the need to stutter, that means there is something in that moment that is creating the need to stutter, so I look at that moment as closely as possible to understand what might be showing up from my past, and then I work on that issue), but reading aloud and smiling are probably accountable for the lion’s share of my progress.
Having said that, the mind training (affirmations and now trying to learn more about self-hypnosis) has been and is hugely impactful for me. I always knew that I was a negative person, but I didn’t realize that there was an alternative, AND that we can influence it. I’m FAR more positive today (in everything) than I was a few years ago. It’s unbelievable how much my underlying attitude changed.
So here I am today: fluent in the eyes of listeners, reading aloud, practicing crutches, reciting affirmations, and continuing the journey toward complete freedom from stuttering and all mental planning of my speech. Lee’s book and methods and many free-coaching sessions are a major component of what got me here. Despite all of my efforts to stop stuttering for years before I read Lee’s book and Skyped with him, I can only say that Lee is the recognized expert in this field with likely more experience on point than anyone else on the planet. Needless to say, I know of no better methods for overcoming stuttering than Lee’s. To all the PWS out there, read Lee’s book and embrace his methods. It has been extraordinarily helpful.
JOE in Texas, December 2019