2013 – The year of acceptance and change

I am 22 years old and my stammer has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Although it can vary on the size of a part it plays from time to time. I remember first going to speech therapy when I was around six but after a couple of years my stammer seemed to disappear and everyone thought that I had ‘grown out’ of it.

There were always many theories for why I stammered, the first being that my mother and father split when I was eighteen months old and this might have been the time when I would have first started to speak. My mother moved a couple of hours away and I went to live with my dad and Nan. I remember having difficulty vocally communicating, but it was never a real issue to me then.

My stammer then came back when I was fourteen, around the time that my Nan suddenly had a stroke and passed away. I was in a very different mind set about my stammer back then and I seemed ignorant to the fact that it was there. It took me around a year to admit that it was back and go to see a speech therapist. When I finally saw a speech therapist I seemed to be fluent when I spoke to her but then I would have real trouble as soon as I left. Due to this I didn’t think speech therapy was benefiting me in any way and I chose to leave.

I had always been able to control my stammer until a few years ago when it began to control me. My dad split from his wife, who was a substitute mother to me for 10 years, and then my brother got sent to Afghanistan with the army. Since then my stammer got worse and worse, which was a very scary thing to experience. At the beginning of 2013 I started to witness a change in my personality as I would start avoiding certain situations. I used to be an extremely sociable person and was always known for this but I began to dread meeting new people. As soon as I realised this, I referred myself back to speech therapy.

My stammer has always been different to the ‘average’ stammer you hear about. I stammer more with people and situations that I am most comfortable with and, for many years, prior adult speech therapy, I thought that this was psychologically based. I had never met another person with a stammer and felt as if I was the only one in the world with this problem.

Since having adult speech therapy I have learnt a lot more about myself and the way I breathe, speak and my posture. I had picked up a few bad habits, also knows as fillers, that I believed helped me speak but got stuck somewhere down the line such as, closing my eyes, bending my legs and tapping. I am a very anxious person now, I constantly tense my body and I take huge breaths before speaking.

I recently went to a stammer support group where people meet monthly and share experiences. I met a few people over the age of 60 who still stammer and even though it was terrifying trying to accept that it will be there for that long, it gave me comfort to know that they had learnt to be in control and not their stammers. Along with this I read Katherine Preston’s book ‘Out With It’ which I could relate to in so many ways. I felt as though I had joined her on her journey to accept stammering. It was a very difficult thing to do, still is, but by accepting it I have opened up so many pathways which I never thought were possible. I no longer ask friends to make phone calls for me, I order exactly what I want in a restaurant and if someone doesn’t have time to listen to my stammer then I have no time for them. I still have the ‘bad’ days but don’t we all from time to time?

I have had many theories throughout my life on my stammer and have always blamed something for it being there. But from the support of the BSA, Katherine Preston and many fellow stammerers I have met in the past year, I have found acceptance, my confidence and the love of speaking and listening again. I could not thank the British Stammering Association enough for the support they give individuals every day who struggle to come to terms with their stammer.

Stuttering the bad and the good

I don’t recall much of my early childhood until about 3rd grade, that it is when it all started. In 2nd grade I was transferred from a public school to a private school, where I was bullied and picked on all the time (and of course the principal did nothing, nada, in fact on one occasion I hit one of the bullies and I got in trouble) – in my gut I feel that I must have stuttered but I don’t recall. However, 3rd grade started in September 1978, along with the usually bullying. And then came May 1979.

I was 9 years old and looking forward to a big trip out of state. My uncle was graduating law school so all of us decided to drive to Ohio for his graduation. I was so excited. We spent a night at a hotel, ate breakfast and then started driving that morning. I sat in the front seat between my grandma and grandfather. My grandma used to play cards with me after school and my grandfather loved to play baseball and watch baseball with me. I recall my grandma pointing out the window, telling me to look at the animals (growing up in Queens, NY, we didn’t see farm animals on the road too often). All I recall was looking to my left or right and then hearing an “oh-no” and then boom! A young 19 year-old, AWOL driving was speeding and changing lanes and hit us head-on.

My grandma died instantly from a broken neck (I learned many years later that she had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and had less than 6 months left so, in a way, it helped to release many bad memories). My grandfather died a few days later in the hospital. I had a broken arm/leg, chipped teeth and minor cuts on face. My mom had minor cuts, and my dad a broken hip (he was out of work for nine months).

When we came back my stutter was so bad, I couldn’t say my name. When I started 4th grade kids would make fun of me left and right. During class every kid had to read a paragraph out loud. I hated that. I always tried to go to the the bathroom to miss my turn.
All the teachers would tell me to slow down. I tried speech therapy but I didn’t apply myself. I became a very introverted kid. Whenever we went out for dinner with family or friends I’d order “the same” as the person who just ordered and didn’t care.

When I finished 8th grade in this private school filled with snobs, and a principal that didn’t care, I felt a new anxiety. I was going to a public school, where being white and Jewish meant being a minority. Now the stutter….boy am I in trouble…

So I started high school and some folks accepted for me for who I was, but then some, well some have to be same, “Hey what’s your name “H HHHHH HHHenry”. One day a teacher called our house and told us about a speech teacher in this school. I walked into her classroom one day and I think that day changed my life.

She wasn’t only my speech teacher, she was an adult that I could reach out to for support and help in school (we still keep in touch today via Facebook). Starting in 9th grade, we met a few times every week during my lunch period. I’d eat while we did therapy. I don’t recall the program but it consisted of learning how to relax, breath, talk on the exhalation and learn how to slow my speech rate. As time progressed I noticed that I was talking more easily, learning how to communicate with girls and others etc.

I remember one time in 9th grade my mom went to an open school night. The teachers were telling her the usual praise. Your son is really good in math, your son is this, that, etc. However, some of the teachers were saying, “Your son talks too much”. My mum thought they had the wrong kid but being a tall kid who stutters is kind of a give of away. So I started talking more, becoming involved with activities after school and so on.

Over the next three years, high school became a lot more pleasant. When I turned 15, my friend and I went to a movie and walked into a White Castle and saw a “help wanted” sign. I interviewed and was hired. In 2005, making $5/hr was a big deal and I was excited to me making my own money. It was my introduction to hard labor. At White Castle I was making burgers on the grill, working the fryer, mopping, stocking, and so on. However, no manager seemed to want me on the cash register. I found out they didn’t think I could handle it because of my stutter. I learned right there, Henry (H HHHH Henry) you need stand up. So I spoke to the shift manager and the store manager and told them I’m a smart guy, great with math, very easy to get along with and I’d like to try the register. It worked. From that day forth I was doing the full gambit of jobs.

At the age of 17 I gave up working at White Castle and tutored high school kids after school. To earn some extra money, I took a job at a local, small video rental store. Part of my job required me to call customers to let them know their rental was available. A few days into the job my boss pulls me outside and says, “I’m sorry but we’re letting you go.” He kept telling me it wasn’t my speech but I read between the lines. Later that night I cried. I never knew what being fired meant, especially for something that wasn’t my fault. The next morning I decided I would never let that happened again.

Later on that afternoon I walked into a Baskin Robbins for an ice cream. Could an ice cream cone change your life? Normally no, but this one did. I ordered a cone from the person at the counter, who happened to be the co-owner along with her sister-n-law. I heard them talking about hiring, so naturally started talking to them. I told them about my work experience and they told me, if I could work in a White Castle and tutor high school kids, I could certainly work at Baskin Robbins. I wound spending the next three years working there, eventually buying the store with my dad.

As a high school senior, I joined ARISTA. One day our leader asked for volunteers to give a presentation to the community, telling them about ARISTA and why it is important. I couldn’t believe what came over me, but I volunteered. I, the quiet one, am now willing to stand up in front 200 people and stutter and speak. I practiced so much. Then the big day arrived. I started to speak and, as nervous as I was, my speech came out clear, concise and moving. I finished and next thing I knew the three rows of my high school friends were standing and clapping.

Let’s fast forward in time. Do I still stutter? Yes, but only during times of stress or nerves. Most importantly, I’m not afraid to speak up.

In 1997 I was married, now living in Maryland, and started working for Boeing. On my first day as a full-time Boeing employee my boss says to me, “Henry now that you’re an official employee I can tell you, boy do you talk funny.” My boss at the time was a short guy from the south who had never met a New Yorker, a Jew or someone that stuttered before. I replied back, “Jim I’ve you told many times I stutter and why.” He says, “No, no no, I mean your New York accent, it is too funny.” We both laughed. I told him I am bi-lingual, that I can talk/stutter in New York speak.

During 2006-2007 I worked with someone at SAIC that also stuttered. One day he came into my office and closed the door. This guy was very quiet, hated to speak in meetings and really kept to himself. He said, “I don’t know how you do it but I wish I could. Just walk around, talk to folks, mingle, speak in meetings, etc.” I said to him, “If you’ve got something to say, say it. If folks are more interested in how to speak than what you say, to hell with them. SPEAK UP!”

So, to wrap up, when I go on interviews, or speak in public, do I stutter? Yes. Does it bother me? No. I have realized that you can’t go through life, pointing, ordering the “same thing” and so forth. My advice for anyone who stutters is to take a deep breath, speak on exhalation and go for it. If you worry too much you aren’t saying what you need or want to say.

Covert stammering and breaking the cycle

My earliest knowledge of my stammer would have been at primary school, aged about 8 or 9. The other children used to mimic my speech which, at the time, seemed like no big deal. Coming from an unloving household, I still don’t know if that had an impact on my speech. I know it didn’t help. I had no love, no hugs and no confidence. Coming from a family of five boys, there wasn’t much room for spreading the joy. In later years my father used to shout, “Spit it out ” when I was trying to talk. My mother was a perfectionist. She would never admit it, but I think having sons that stammered didn’t fit well with her ideals. I am an identical twin and my twin brother also stammered, as did my two younger brothers. The only brother that didn’t was the oldest, but he developed mental health issues throughout his life and died at the young age of 48.

One of the things that has stuck with me was an incident in secondary school. Everyone had to read a paragraph from a book while the teacher recorded us. I knew it wasn’t going to end well. Try as I might to let the teacher know how I felt, he continued to record me and then played it back to the whole class. I remembered being mortified. That had a big impact on my becoming a covert stammerer.

Being a covert stammerer has no doubt inhibited me from joining in various situations, and it certainly had a bearing on the type of jobs I applied for. I don’t think my stammer has affected my relationships. I’m married now, for the third time, and I have four beautiful, lovely children of various ages, none of whom stammer. When I say it has never impacted my relationships, it has definitely influenced any insecurities I may have had (jealousy, envy etc). In fact, I once cut my wrist looking for attention. It wasn’t a suicide attempt, I just wanted attention.

A covert stutterers journeyI’m now 53, retired and genuinely very happy. It has been a rocky journey but I have been determined to survive. I hug, cuddle and love my kids in a way my parents never did. I feel like I have broken the cycle of negativity. Speech is our communication tool to the world. When that doesn’t work the way it should, it is going to cause problems. It is how we deal with those problems that shapes our character.

Since joining the The British Stammering Association Group, I’m becoming more overt. I’ve found confidence in my speech, I even made a video which I would never have done before. I feel that I’m at a point in my life where I want to give something back to the stammering community. Having been there myself, I wanted to support and encourage. I hope I can become a better person through helping others.