The Handicap of Stuttering
I was eleven when my school teacher asked my mom, “What is wrong with Ellen? The other day she started stuttering out of the blue, just like that.” That was exactly how it was. One day I was talking freely, smoothly, and normally. The next day, I could hardly give answers in class due to a severe stutter. At the time, both mom and my teacher were puzzled. I’ve lived with my stutter ever since. In adulthood, I did some research on why someone stutters, seeking to understand a handicap that sometimes forced me to say five words in place of one to avoid stuttering. What I found was fascinating.
What is stuttering?
Stuttering is a fluency disorder and is characterized by four different speech patterns: repetition of sounds (ssssssssave me a sssssseat), partial word repeats (su-su-su-sunshine), blocks that prevent any sound from leaving the mouth (the mouth opens but no sound comes out from the tense vocal cords), and the frequent use of repeated interjections or other extra words (like-like-like you told me to). Stuttering normally begins between the ages of two and five as a child is learning speech patterns. 75% of children who stutter no longer stutter in adulthood; essentially, they outgrow it. The remainder stutter for the rest of their lives, though it may significantly improve. There are four times more boys who stutter than girls. In addition, 60% of stutterers have an immediate family member who also stutters.
Stuttering is not a constant disfluency of speech. Many stutterers, myself included, have good days and bad days. Stutterers can go days or even weeks with fairly fluent speech, and then experience days where every other sentence is difficult to say. The severity of the stutter also varies depending on the situation. Some can read out loud fluently; others can’t. Some are fluent when speaking before an audience, others only when one-on-one. The situations are as unique as the stutterer.
What causes stuttering?
The true answer here is that no one knows for certain. There are various reasons that all play a part, genetics for one. Since stuttering tends to run in families, there appears to be a gene that is passed on from generation to generation. In my family, my grandpa stuttered, and I have two brothers who stutter as well. One of my nephews also stutters.
Another reason could simply be that the brain of a child who stutters develops differently than the brain of someone who doesn’t. Brain scans of children who stutter indicate more activity in the right hemisphere, which processes emotions, rather than the left hemisphere, which controls speech.
Psychologists originally thought that stuttering was caused primarily by stress, trauma, or another psychological problem. While late onset stuttering (stuttering that begins after the age of ten) can be, for most stutterers that is not the case. However, stuttering itself can cause stress or anxiety because of how difficult it is to speak.
Are stutterers stupid?
Stuttering does not indicate a learning disability. My mom had once said that, when she was a child, she thought the students who had to go speech class because of a stutter had a learning disability. While stuttering can occur along with other learning disabilities, that is not the norm. Most stutterers are of average or above-average intelligence. In my case and the case of one of my brothers, we were straight A students. In fact, I was bored during most of my school years because the work did not challenge me intellectually.
Stuttering also does not indicate a lack of understanding of language. Some stutterers become writers with a high command of language structure. Many stutterers are well-read. If able to speak fluently, they could use “big” words accurately. But because they stutter, they often cannot say the words they want to say and sound as if they have a poor command of their language.
What is it like to have a stutter?
The Social Awkwardness
Up until I was twenty-eight, I came across as shy and awkward, often stuck-up and frozen. I didn’t talk in groups, as the attention of everyone in the group as I talked made me nervous and triggered stuttering. In group conversations, I’d be the one quietly listening rather than adding my two cents. After church or in other activities, I’d be the one standing with my back to the wall, observing people rather than conversing with anyone. I’d try to blend into the wall in hopes no one would try to talk to me. If I could, I’d sit on a chair somewhere by myself and read. As a school student, I didn’t talk in class more than I had to even though I knew the answer to every question.
I remember my grandma pushing me to come out of my shell and make new friends. I couldn’t. How could I even talk to a stranger when the first words out of my mouth went like this: “My name is E-E-E-E-llen. What-what-what is your name?” The person would look at me, uncomfortable as I struggled to speak. The conversation was strained, and the other person soon found an excuse to leave. I couldn’t tell jokes either. By the time I was able to get the punchline out, it had ceased to be funny.
The Technique of Substitution
To avoid stuttering, I used the technique of substitution constantly. Once I was past the first few sentences in a conversation, I could often speak with a minimum of stuttering. However, no one guessed how fast my brain was flying when I spoke. I thought 2-3 sentences ahead, guessing at the next question of the person I was speaking to, rearranging my replies and my word order and substituting easier words on the fly if I stumbled across a word that would make me stutter. I’d watch other people speak and marvel at the ease with which the words flowed out of their mouths. I wondered what it would be like to speak without thinking.
However, substitution was also very frustrating. I often knew exactly what I wanted to say, with just the right words to convey my meaning. Instead, I was blocked from using that word because I stuttered over it, so I would insert a whole other sentence to get my meaning across, just to avoid stuttering. That was an enormous challenge in my job as an accountant when the terminology of my field forced me to say certain words regardless of whether I stuttered or not. I couldn’t always use substitution and then well, I just had to let myself stutter. I hated how “wordy” and stupid I sounded sometimes.
The Inability to Read Aloud
I couldn’t read aloud either as I couldn’t use the technique of substitution. I was forced to say exactly what was on the page. Just the tension of knowing I had to say every word even if I stuttered over it increased my stuttering. I remember trying to read books to my nieces and nephews when I was a teenager and being reduced to tears because I couldn’t get the words out. I still dislike reading aloud and when I do, often don’t read word for word, though it is many times better than it used to be.
The Feeling of Isolation
For nearly seventeen years, I was the observer, not the participant. I already felt isolated due to the sexual abuse and the family dysfunction. The stuttering only made my isolation worse. When a friend of mine wrote about the isolation her deafness caused, I was surprised how much I felt like she was telling my story. It wasn’t always easy to find new friends who didn’t look at me like I was “retarded” or didn’t quietly pity me. At Bible school, a young man who showed interest in me never looked at me again after I had to recite the books of the Bible during chapel and stuttered on every word. A wise friend told me that if he responded that way, he wasn’t worth it. I knew that, but it still stung.
Can stuttering improve later in life?
Yes. By now, unless you knew me as a teenager, you would never guess that I stutter. People who have learned to know me in the past five years are surprised when I tell them how badly I stuttered. Recently, one of my friends, with whom I hadn’t spoken in five years, was surprised to hear very little stuttering during our conversation over supper. So yes, my stuttering has greatly improved. Occasionally, I still use substitution. There are still certain words and certain sounds that are more difficult to say. For the most part, though, I speak smoothly with relatively little thought.
I still find the phone most difficult, though that has improved immensely as well. I used to avoid the phone at all costs unless the caller was someone I knew very, very well. When I first started working as an accountant and answering client phone calls, I stuttered with nearly every phone call. I disliked how unprofessional I sounded, but there was nothing I could do about it. However, I had purposely pursued a job in the accounting field partly because I wanted to get much better at phone conversations and talking to total strangers. I wanted to conquer my stuttering, and I knew the only way to do that was practice, practice, and more practice.
My accounting job forced me out of my shell and forced me to interact with clients and prospective clients. Over time, repeatedly using the phone expanded my comfort zone, and my stuttering lessened. However, I still find it easiest, especially in my personal life, to let phone calls go to voicemail. Then, I can listen to the voicemail, prepare what I want to say, and call that person back at a time when I’m comfortable. I used to feel extreme self-contempt over doing that. Now, I’ve learned it’s what works for me, and that there is no shame in it. We all have handicaps in one way or another that we work around.
Public speaking is still difficult as well. Public speaking can be difficult for someone who speaks smoothly, let alone someone who stutters! At the Christian fellowship I attend, we usually have a time of announcements, testimony, or prayer requests. We pass the mic around to whoever wants to speak. Amazingly, my stutter has improved enough that I have made various announcements regarding the status of my health and cancer treatments. I was able to speak with minimal stuttering, though I still used substitution more than I often do.
My key to public speaking is to make eye contact with people in the audience and focus on speaking to each of them. It gives me the illusion I’m speaking one-on-one. Since I rarely stuttered during a one-on-one conversation, even during the worst years, that technique calms my tension and nervousness.
Even though for many years I hated my stuttering and felt shame about it, I didn’t let it hold me back career-wise. I’ve taught junior high and high school, worked in accounting, interacted with clients, taught adult-level bookkeeping classes, and now attend college. I’ve even learned a foreign language! Though I still stutter sometimes, I don’t let it keep me from being successful in the business world.
Now, when I know I won’t be able to avoid stuttering while teaching a class on QuickBooks to business owners, for example, I come right out and announce it to the class: “I have a stuttering problem, so I won’t always be able to speak smoothly. If you want to finish a sentence for me so we can keep moving, go ahead.” That instantly makes everyone relax, including myself. Most speech therapists encourage stutterers to be open about their stuttering, as it reduces tension for everyone. I have found that to be the case. If I’m open about it, people are respectful and helpful in return.
What does my stuttering have to do with my sexual abuse?
Recently, I’ve told my story at a local high school and to the ladies at my church retreat. Because of my severe stutter, I figured I’d never be a speaker. I remember five years or so ago when I first felt the nudging from God that He wants to use His story of redemption in my life to help others. I basically had a Moses reaction: “God, this doesn’t make any sense! I can’t talk, and I can’t do relationships! That’s just not who I am! I think You have me confused with someone else!” But I couldn’t get away from the burden, couldn’t escape the conviction that I was supposed to care for others and speak up to give hope to the broken.
Now, I look back on that and smile. I didn’t have any peace until I said, “Okay, God, whatever you want. But if this is what you want me to do, You’re going to have to change me. Right now, caring for others and speaking up feels impossible.” And, like the God He is, He took me at my word. Five years later, I actually enjoy speaking and caring for others.
Now, since I finally have my voice back with only minimal stuttering, it’s almost like I can’t shut up sometimes! That was so NOT me only a few years ago! To be honest, I’d rather have the problem of talking too much and having to remind myself to slow down and listen to others than to be barely able to speak. Trust me. Much as you might wish for that if you are someone who regularly sticks his foot in his mouth, you don’t want the isolation it brings.
You may notice that the title of this post is called “Finding My Voice.” I do believe that my stutter is tied into my larger story of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse silences victims, and I believe my stuttering was a physical symptom of that silence. In addition, for years, the most difficult words for me to say were my name, the names of my family members, my age, and the state I was from, so my stuttering also reveals my struggle with my identity. I will expand more on these topics in future blog posts.