Why I See Myself as a 'Fluent Stutterer'
For the majority, speaking is as natural as breathing. For people who stutter, speaking can be an ordeal.
Forget what the snake oil salesmen tell you: there is no miracle cure for stuttering. No magic pill you can buy with six easy payments of $19.99. Though some children grow out of it, a stutter into the teenage years and adulthood can only be managed. Stuttering actors like Bruce Willis, James Earl Jones and Samuel L. Jackson have used their craft to combat their speech challenges.
At 34, I am fortunate that I’ve overcome my stutter. It’s taken me over 20 years, but I did it. While I’m still a stutterer, I now see myself as a fluent stutterer. How did I do it?
I owe a huge debt to tried-and-true speech therapy, mainly smooth speech or fluency shaping. At the most basic level, smooth speech is similar to singing: using diaphragmatic breathing to slow down your speed, thus increasing the chance of fluency. In the wrong hands, you can sound like a drunk robot. Done correctly, the words come out smoothly and with an even cadence. An emphasis on in-phrase rate control guards against sounding too monotone. At first, smooth speech may seem unnatural, but in my experience, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
Growing up in Canberra, Australia, there was little help aside from too-obvious tricks like putting the “H” sound at the start of a sentence. Upon moving to Brisbane at age 11, I started speech therapy at the Mater Hospital, and began a two-decade journey to fluency. I attended children’s therapy from 11-13, and graduated to teenage maintenance from 13 until I finished school. I combined teenage groups with weekly individual therapy with numerous wonderful speech therapists, plus did regular week-long “boosters” during school holidays. By the time I’d finished high school, I shifted to weekly adult maintenance. This was the turning point.
I loved adult maintenance. I’d gone from being the only stutterer at school to spending every Tuesday afternoon with like-minded PWS (people who stutter), talking and practicing our three target rates: 50 syllables per minute, 100 spm, and 150 spm. I’ve also been an active member of the Queensland Speak Easy Association, serving as long-term newsletter editor, two terms as secretary and volunteering for stuttering-themed events and conferences.
For stutterers, it is incredibly tempting to pick a job where you don’t have to speak. But my other vital tool was speaking in the real world, known as transference. By my mid-20s, I was competent enough to do telemarketing and market research work, which I still continue a decade later. Relying on my voice for work has done wonders for my speech. Because I have to be fluent to keep my job, I am far more diligent. Now I’m at a stage where my speech is under control. Simple tasks, like talking on the phone, ordering lunch, or buying a movie ticket hold no fears. I’m even at the point where I don’t need speech therapy anymore. My regular call center work keeps me in practice, and I have enough smooth speech experience to pull myself out of a rough day.
I’ve mentioned fluency a lot, but that’s not the only way. Some brave souls embrace voluntary stuttering. The purpose is to remove the stigma and embarrassment of stuttering, which is all well and good, but to me it seems quite risky to stutter on purpose.
For all the consistent fluency I have now, there are still days where words are a challenge and I fall into old habits. Fortunately, I can still drop into maintenance or call a PWS friend to get myself back on track.
My advice to others who stutter is to find a technique that works for you, whether it be smooth speech, voluntary stuttering, or some other method, and stick to it. Build a network of PWS friends. The unspoken bond you share with other PWS will be stronger than with your fluent friends. Transference practice is golden. Once you feel comfortable, either get a job involving your voice or put yourself in speaking situations. It does wonders.
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