Breaking the Chain

I further tell them to imagine that there are two people within each of them, one a stutterer – frightened, withdrawn, frustrated – and the other an adult with whom we are communicating. I train the adult, and the adult must ‘parent’ the frightened stutterer and guide him through the process of change.--- Dr. Martin Schwartz, in his book Stop stuttering

You will recall that at the end of the first chapter I concluded my account of my personal experiences as a stutterer with my decision to attend Dr. Martin Schwartz’s workshop. This workshop gave me the key to open a door I thought I would never unlock. For the first time I faced up to my speech problem in its totality, and began to accept responsibility for the way I speak. My personal account continues in this chapter.

Schwartz was due to present a three-day course in the conference room of a hotel. I got quite a shock when I entered the room. It was the first time I came face to face with other people who stutter (PWS), all sharing the same problem. Everybody was so nervous and shy – nobody wanted to make eye contact, and nobody made any attempt to speak. Silence.

Funny rubber tubes

When he entered the room, you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. I could not help being reminded of the message John the Baptist sent Christ from prison: ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’

Not that Prof Schwartz resembled a messiah – with his suit and his spectacles he looked more like a businessman. His voice was calm and relaxed. We were provided with rather funny-looking rubber tubes and were instructed to put one end into an ear to listen to the air flowing from our mouths as we practised. We also received manuals with a summary of his theory of stuttering and the airflow technique. I had previously read his first book, and was not completely unprepared. Each of us had also brought an audio recorder.

The first part of the course dealt with theory. We had to find out why we stutter, and how to stop it. The exercises came next. We had to learn how to apply the technique, and soon everybody had mastered the basic principles. Everybody, that is, except a man in his fifties, one of the worst victims of stuttering I have ever met. Ironically his speech was on the surface not as bad as that of some of the others.

He confirmed what Schwartz had stated before: poor speech is only one part of stuttering. To be a stutterer you do not necessarily have to stutter! One of the things that can make you a stutterer is a fear of speech, ie having feared words and feared situations. Many PWSs in fact never stutter because of their extensive use of synonyms, distractions and other tricks.

‘I’m too far gone’

To return to this particular PWS. This was a person whose personality had been dealt a severe blow by the disorder. His pessimism about Schwartz’s technique was written all over his face, and eventually he failed to complete the workshop. When I phoned him afterwards to invite him to our support group meetings, he refused. ‘You people go ahead, and good luck, but I’m too far gone,’ he told me. One cannot but wonder what kind of a life he had had. I have since met others like him.

One of the first problems brought up at the workshop was the language issue – South Africa is a multilingual country, which presents added problems for the PWS. Dr Schwartz explained the importance of practising in all the languages in which you stutter. Though my home language is Afrikaans, from that day I did most of my practising in English. It not only improved my English, but helped eliminate much ‘stress of linguistic uncertainty’ (see the chapter ‘A Possible Cause of Stuttering’).

I rather liked the spirit in which the workshop was presented. We were not treated as children or patients. The approach was rather like the type of workshop where sales or business people are taught how to communicate effectively.

‘Be your own speech therapist’

‘I want all of you to become your own speech therapists,’ Schwartz said. ‘You should know everything there is to know about stuttering and airflow. The more you know, the easier it will be to take control of your stuttering.’ (‘I wanted the patient to substitute an analytical mode of thinking for an emotional one,’ Schwartz writes in Stuttering solved.) Reacting to stuttering in an emotional way only increases tension and worsens speech.

The three days passed quickly. The last arrangements were made at the end of the course: we had to form our own self-help club and meet regularly for exercises.

Creating the self-help club

He emphasised the absolute necessity of such a club if we wanted to improve. It is very difficult to work in isolation when trying to do something about stuttering. YOU HAVE TO KEEP IN TOUCH WITH OTHER PEOPLE WHO STUTTER. Adult PWSs have acquired a lifetime’s worth of negative feelings such as guilt because of the social unacceptability of their stuttering. These feelings accumulate, increasing tension levels. When PWSs meet other people with the same problem, they begin to realise that they are not alone in this respect. This can help them get rid of negative feelings, so reducing their base-level tension and improving their speech.

Unfortunately this does not apply to everybody. Some people actually stutter more when talking to other PWSs. This may be because of increased stress. These people find it stressful to talk to other PWSs, perhaps because they have not yet confronted their own stuttering. These people should first face up to stuttering, so that they can relate to others who stutter.

For most people, however, meeting with other PWSs can be very beneficial. Apart from doing exercises, you get an opportunity to talk about your problems, exchange ideas, discuss the different aspects of stuttering and learn more about the treatment. You gradually begin to see your problem in perspective. It is no longer YOUR problem; it is THE problem.

The workshop was followed by months of hard work – at least one hour every day of reading and speaking exercises, part of which had to be recorded on cassette and sent to Prof Schwartz’s institute in New York for evaluation by trained clinicians. The recordings were then returned with comments and new assignments. We also had to do daily relaxation exercises.

‘Airflower’, not ‘stutterer’

Our first group meeting was an enthusiastic event attended by a crowd of people including ‘airflowers’ from previous courses (since the course we no longer referred to ourselves as ‘stutterers’ – if you continue to view yourself as a stutterer, you reinforce your ‘stutterer’s self-image’). Everybody eagerly used the technique, ie we all ‘flowed’, and our speech was excellent. Most people reported that their speech had shown an immense improvement since the course.

Others tended to be cautious, including myself. We had been warned by Schwartz about a sudden, temporary but dramatic initial improvement, followed by a reaction. The temporary improvement can be attributed to lower base-level tension due to things such as new hope, the contact with other PWSs, etc.

And that is exactly what happened. Soon many people experienced a severe relapse. Many were discouraged and did not return to our meetings. In fact the enthusiasm for the technique gradually waned. People stopped attending the meetings and practising. At one stage the club nearly fizzled out, but a few die-hards kept it going.

Fear of the unknown

I believe there are various reasons for this decline in enthusiasm. Some people simply found the daily exercises too much work. They had expected a miracle, but none was forthcoming. Stuttering was easier than the hard work required. Some of them probably did not find stuttering such a handicap anyway.

For others, the psychological transition from stutterer to a more fluent speaker may have been too much. Breaking away from the ‘stutterer’s mentality’ is a long-term process requiring a sense of purpose and much willpower. I got the impression that many were unable to face up to the possibility of new-found freedom and a new life. Perhaps a fear of freedom, of the unknown and the uncertain is part of human nature.

I believe that many people reacted in the following way: ‘I’d rather stay here, in a world that I know. Yes, I stutter, but I can control it to some extent. I cope when I have to, and anyway my speech will surely improve. People who know me accept my stuttering. It’s not a serious problem. Worse things happen to people all the time. I’m grateful that stuttering is my only problem.’ This is classic rationalisation. The fact is that these people did not change their self-image.

Losing enthusiasm is also related to a fear of success. The effect of all those years of conditioning is that the stutterer is so used to speaking poorly that fluency would require a complete personality adjustment. This point was emphasised during the workshop. ‘The ultimate aim is not perfect speech,’ Schwartz said. ‘What is needed is a personality change. We need SPEAKING CONFIDENCE. A fluency technique will help you to achieve this speaking confidence.’

* * * *

And yes, my speech did gradually improve – but with a great deal of effort. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when I started noticing an improvement. It was a zigzag pattern: one step forward, followed by a relapse, in turn followed by fresh successes.

It was as if an old, rusted door was opening creakily. But what was behind that door? This question did not bother me at the beginning. It would only become a problem at a later stage ...

I knew that I was getting better. My blocks were less intense; I began to eliminate word and situation fears; and I successfully applied my technique in various situations which would in the past have caused difficulties.

Don’t try to run if you can’t yet crawl!

Despondency posed a big problem, however. There was ample reason to want to give up hope. Though most people manage, after a few attempts, to use a fluency technique successfully in the relaxed atmosphere of their own room, THE REAL SECRET LIES IN APPLYING IT IN REAL-LIFE SITUATIONS – and in taking VERY SMALL STEPS forward. Don’t try to run if you still haven’t learned to crawl; don’t try using the technique in real life if you haven’t practised, mastered and habituated the basics within the privacy of your room.

I tried, very gradually and with great trepidation. I started by saying a few ‘airflowed’ words to members of my immediate family. Next I managed a simple, perfect ‘Good morning’ at work or a ‘Thank you’ to the newspaper vendor. I found that these small successes, of which the listeners were probably never aware, were hugely important as they boosted my confidence immensely and encouraged me to continue practising.

Severe relapses

Months passed during which I made steady progress. Then, out of the blue, I encountered a series of severe relapses which must in hindsight be ascribed to subconscious reactions. I was at war with myself. I had become a fluent stutterer, a stutterer wearing a mask of fluency, and the stutterer wanted to reassert its authority. The resultant stress played havoc with my speech, which was again out of control in spite of all my efforts. I would have immense blocks immediately following a dedicated practice session. My stress stubbornly resisted all relaxation exercises and rose to unknown heights.

Over and above this it did not help that our support group meetings gradually dwindled. One after the other, people lost interest. Of the thirty or forty people who had attended the first meeting, only about ten or twelve remained. At one stage I myself seriously considered giving up. I was fed up with everything, and stopped attending the meetings for several months. Having opened slightly, the door had slammed solidly shut again.

I was at a low. The period of two years in which I could receive advice on cassette from America had expired. Only a tiny spark of hope made me persevere in practising at home: in spite of all the relapses, the technique did work occasionally.

New insights

New hope was also forthcoming from the advice of other PWSs (who had managed to keep the self-help group going) and the publication of Schwartz’s second book in 1986. I began to realise why my progress had been disappointing:

Schwartz had earlier neglected the importance of psychological adaptation. In his second book he did much to rectify this omission. I realised that I had been paying too much attention to the speech technique, and not enough to the related psychological and social components. I had made the same mistake as many others who venture into the minefield of stuttering: to emphasise one side of the problem at the expense of another. In the past, many experts had overemphasised the psychological side of stuttering, and Schwartz had overemphasised the physical component.

With this insight I resumed my efforts and notched up new successes. I started reading a number of books on assertiveness, visualisation and positive thinking which greatly helped me in gradually adapting to my improved speech and facilitating the process of change.

Revenge on stuttering

I can recall the first time I managed to have a real-life controlled telephone conversation with a clerk in a bookshop. I asked him about the availability of a book, its price, the publisher, etc. When I replaced the receiver, I was beside myself with happiness. Oh sweet revenge! That is what it was – revenge on the stuttering and the years of frustration.

Soon afterwards I successfully ordered a meal from a waiter in a restaurant via the technique. I will never forget the joy I felt afterwards. Next I had a conversation with a shop assistant. I could describe exactly what kind of jacket I wanted. This was a period in my life when I felt that the stuttering was like an evil spirit gradually leaving me.

I overcame successive feared situations. Nothing succeeds like success. I discovered that the vicious circle of stuttering-tension-stuttering has a positive mirror image: successful applications of a fluency technique can activate a cycle of speaking confidence and enthusiasm, in turn followed by lower tension and the resultant better speech.

No use crying over spoilt milk

Now, 30 years later, I can look back and say that I have made tremendous progress with my speech. Particularly my telephone conversations are on the whole so much better. The former flicker of hope has become a flaming torch. The great majority of speaking situations no longer engender stress or stuttering. My fluency has in fact improved to such an extent that in most situations I don't need to use any fluency techniques.

Which is not to say that I am ‘cured’, nor that my speech is perfect - I know that I will always have the potential to stutter when in stress. I believe it would have made a difference if I had been introduced to the technique at an earlier age and not in my thirties. If I could have started off with the technique as a child or teenager and had known then what I know now, my life and my career would probably have taken a different course. My stuttering in the first decades of my life has definitely impacted on and shaped my career – but no use crying over spoilt milk.

No longer a victim

Changing the way that you speak is not easy. Speech is part of one’s personality. I have to control my speaking rate, and still need to apply the technique consciously when I feel that I may stutter. The Passive Airflow Technique is very sophisticated and demanding, and difficult to make habitual. If your application of the technique is sloppy, or if you are too tense, it may not prevent you from stuttering. Fluency techniques have their limitations, and I do hope that, one day, more research on the vocal cords will lead to a final solution to stuttering that will truly and effortlessly cure all people who stutter.

I use relaxation exercises and vitamins to control stress, and practise my speech technique each morning before breakfast or while driving to work in my car. I still find that these exercises are crucial – if I don’t practise in the mornings, stuttering can catch me unawares.

Nevertheless I can now do many things I would not have dared to in the past. I have participated in several radio and television programmes, and actually enjoyed it. I’m no longer a passive victim of stuttering. For me, the Passive Airflow approach, together with this theory of stuttering and the understanding which makes it so much easier to deal with the defect, has become an essential speech tool - in combination with the earlier consistent practising, group support and psychological self-help years ago. I lead a new life.


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