Stuttering and the Power of Suggestion


Let’s play a word association game. What is the first word you think of when you hear the word ‘stutter’?

If you are a journalist, in all likelihood you will lean toward the word ‘debilitating’. In fact, the phrase ‘debilitating stutter’ is so ingrained into the habits of writers that it has been used to describe men and women as varied as Joe Biden, Emily Blunt, Tim Gunn and Ed Sheeran.

In publications as wide ranging as People magazine, The Daily Beast, NPR and the LA Times, it is near impossible to find a ‘successful’ stutterer who has not been described as having a childhood marred by a ‘debilitating stutter’.

This badge is affixed to them by the outside world. They rarely, if ever, describe themselves in such terms. Why would they? Their stories are not pitiable, they are not figures of weakness. In fact, their stories are full of grit and fortitude. These are people who have faced difficulties and prevailed. Debilitated they are not.

If we agree with George Herbert Mead’s idea of the ‘looking-glass self’, the idea that our own self-image derives in large part from how we are viewed by others, then the language we use to describe stuttering becomes centrally important.

Stereotypes are insidious things. If someone reads an article describing a ‘debilitating stutter’, they would be forgiven for seeing someone who stutters through that reductionist lens. Perhaps a young person who stutters reads the word ‘debilitating’ and feels less competent, less able to aspire to something greater, less a part of the world around them.

The stereotype hangs in the air and, whether you believe in the stereotype or not, you become worried that your behavior may end up proving the stereotype true. Your anxiety spikes, acting like lighter fuel to your speech. You stutter more, panic more, fight against it more. You become more like the stereotype you so deplore.

This paradoxical problem, known as the ‘stereotype threat’, is certainly not only felt by stutterers. Everyone is a member of a group that has some stereotype affixed to it.

We can, of course, hope that the world around us will stop measuring us in ever-narrowing stereotypes. We can hope that we will be seen as the jagged mass of individuals that we are.

In the meantime, I believe that it is worth finding ways to reduce the impact of the threats that surround us.

Writing in his book Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele introduces the ideas of critical mass and refusing to see people through the lens of their identity stereotype. The more people we see succeeding and stuttering openly, the more the stereotype of debilitation erodes. The more we tell children who stutter that they are capable of great things, the more we expect from them, the greater their ability to thrive becomes.

Take, for example, men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch (another stutterer ‘debilitated’). Each man has described their mothers telling them that were too smart, that they thought too quickly and their stuttered voices were just trying to catch up. How differently they must have felt about themselves as children when the ‘problem’ was framed in that light.

So, let’s go back to that word association game. What happens if you connect the word ‘stutter’ with words like ‘strength’ and ‘capability’? How does that change the narrative of someone’s life?

Finding pieces of me after making peace with myself

(A disclaimer and an apology: I’ve spent years looking for empathy when all I wanted, as it turns out, is understanding. I just wanted someone to relate to all the things I didn’t know I was feeling and say all the things I didn’t know needed to be spoken. Reading “Out With It” finally got me to own my stutter for an audience, even though I had begun to make peace with its place in my life quite some time ago, which is why I’m leaving my story as one irretrievably intertwined with my review of Katherine’s book: I never knew what a relief it would be to see my experiences mirrored in someone else’s life, or how grateful I would feel when faced with proof that I am far from being alone in this journey.)

I’ve stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn’t mean I’m completely at peace with it. The little girl who was too afraid to assert herself for fear of sputtering all over the difference between what she wanted to say and the tangled ghost of approximation she had to settle for, quickly supplanted the even younger girl who had no problem hamming it up with improvised songs and dances on home videos; the adult she grew up to be, on less fluent days, automatically apologizes for stuttering and will feel a wave of relief no less powerful than the countless ones before when her conversational partner says they’ve never noticed. The wild dream of unblemished speech is just not a realistic one after a certain point, so acceptance is the only viable option: Realizing that one merely chooses to live in fear of their own voice and can just as easily choose not to is a moment nearly as empowering as sudden fluency.

Speech therapy was presented as an option exactly once, in what felt like an ambush when my elementary school’s speech therapist pulled me aside during class a year later. Not being able to withstand the internally embellished embarrassment of a public outing as someone needing to be fixed, while also imagining all the ways I could be reprimanded for interrupting class, I insisted I didn’t need help just to end the inquisition as quickly as possible; I now have to assume that academic professionals wouldn’t let a clueless seven-year-old have the last say, and that my parents (who, after asking my pediatrician how to treat my stutter, summarily ignored his advice and chose to make fun of me for years to come — which did have the benefit of making the surprisingly few schoolyard jabs roll right off my otherwise too-sensitive self) or whatever teacher initiated this encounter didn’t see the worth in pressing on.

The first time I decided I was ready to try speech therapy was in high school. I only wound up seeing the school’s specialist a handful of times, as the sessions pretty much involved me reading aloud from whatever book she had available and her declaration that I didn’t have a problem. At that point, after nearly a decade of living with a stutter, I knew my own patterns well enough to be frustrated with a seemingly optimistic prognosis: I have good days and I have bad days, with the problems mostly flaring up at double consonants or when speaking on the phone, and rarely occur when a book or a script supplies my every word.

I doubt I’ll ever work with someone to “fix” the way I talk just as much as I doubt the possibility of shedding the verbal flaw I’ve sported for more than two decades, as I am now more interested in what I can do to encourage understanding but have been unsure of what exactly my options are. So when I stumbled upon an article about “Out With It”, I had two immediate reactions: “I absolutely need to read this” and “I absolutely should have written this.” (Later, “Why wasn’t I interviewed for this?” would come, but fleetingly and only half seriously.) I have never spoken to another stutterer and certainly never had a chance to ask the probing and probably eagerly invasive questions I’ve been dying to lob at someone else who knows what it’s like to live with an invisible hand at one’s throat: This book was that chance. Here is someone offering up not only her own experiences but also those of so many others.

“Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice” is a story in two parts. It is an unflinchingly honest account of its author’s nearly lifelong battle with her stutter as well as a study of how the condition manifests itself in others, the schools of thought proposing various coping methods and solutions to hide behind, and the search to understand just what exactly causes this particular speech impediment. It is the need for inner reflection happening in tandem with outward-focused curiosity that turned Katherine Preston’s debut into exactly what I expected a stutterer’s memoir to be, as the affliction makes it impossible for a person to remain in ignorance of how his or her faltering speech affects and is perceived by every single person who serves as our audience. To stutter at an early age is to find out what happens when childhood’s blissful lack of self-awareness is replaced, with a callous prematurity, by adolescence’s almost paranoid perception of harsh scrutiny.

It is a book fraught with disappointment, frustration and embarrassment, but also determination, hope and self-discovery. Stuttering is, as Katherine quickly points out, not a fatal disease but it is a decidedly unexplored and misunderstood one. It is a condition that is unpredictable and humbling, that lays the afflicted vulnerable to the slings and arrows of society. It is a childhood bully who tends to retreat by adulthood, though not all of us will reach the wonderland of fluency: “Statistics will later break us into two groups,” Katherine writes. “Those who “recover” and those who don’t.”

Katherine traces her journey with an unwanted passenger whose mission it is to mangle her every word — her phonetic renderings of a voice made exasperatingly arrhythmic brought to mind another stutterer, the estimable David Mitchell, and his personification of the impediment through the inimical Hangman in “Black Swan Green” — from its first appearance at the age of seven through the already daunting terrain of adolescence to finding a place in the adult world that will accommodate her years of accrued baggage. It is a personal voyage so punctuated with objective reflection and the slow growth of inner strength that any stutterer would be proud to call it their own.

For all my knee-jerk self-reproachment at having been beaten to the punch in terms of penning the definitive stutterer’s memoir, Katherine’s is by no means the path we all have followed. Despite her numerous attempts to find “success” in speech therapy, her gradual shift in knowing that she would give anything to divest herself of a speech impediment that makes simple verbal communication grounds for a panic attack (let’s not even approach the unique horror the prospect of phone calls brings) to realizing that the hurdles such a condition has helped her overcome and the resolve it has instilled in her is empowering and paved with tiny victories but it is her own path to self-acceptance and hers alone, though her milestones and breakthroughs and jumbled emotions are all stops along the way that I can’t help but believe are common to all stutterers’ experiences.

The part of me that read this book in the hopes of recognizing echoes of myself and feeling a little less alone for it was dizzyingly satisfied. Katherine is roughly the same age as me and began stuttering around the same time I did. She, too, is a rarity among rarities, being a female stutterer who carried the disorder into adulthood. She is able to examine her younger self, her fears and her insecurities with a clinical eye and an improbable amount of heart. Reading about her early retreat inward, her horror over being seen as something broken, her struggle to overcome a speech impediment that overshadows all she is and is capable of every time she ventures a spoken thought offered me a sense of empathetic kinship that is usually reserved for the beautifully damaged fictional characters I’ve come to favor. Like me, she is no stranger to deploying an arsenal of thesaurus-gleaned stutter-friendly synonyms to dodge the words that are habitual problems. She adopted accents and affectations to gloss over verbal traps. She was reluctant to identify herself as a stutterer, preferring to ignore that which plagued her until she finally had to learn all she could about the foe within. Later, having realized that she could make her written voice do all the things her spoken one couldn’t but being unsure of how to make it as a writer, she tried her hand at journalism.

It was what Katherine and I shared that made the differences in just our two stories appear so divergent, though: It was so easy to sympathetically nod along when she was navigating familiar territory that being jarred from it had the strange sensation of an out-of-body experience, or seeing the same role played by two different people. She emphasizes her parents’ unflagging support and willingness to help her “get better” without pushing her beyond her comfort zone and reducing her to incurable disfluency, and I couldn’t help but envy her of that. Her tales of speech therapy, the brief spurts of hopeful fluency that sputtered into the resurgence of the stutter she thought she had finally put to rest, were genuinely surprising, as I had always fancied that corrective measures were the ticket to speech unencumbered. And, because I can’t help it, yes, I compared the severity of my stutter to those both reprinted and spoken of in this book, and was profoundly grateful that my worst days are what someone else wakes up hoping for.

The bravery Katherine embraces in exposing that which has been the most fiercely guarded part of herself is incredible. She digs into old diaries and painful memories to pinpoint relevant stopping points along her journey, which read as an offer of trust to the reader rather than cheap bids for congratulations. As an adult stutterer, I found it reassuring that someone was so open and detailed about this things so few people truly understand; as a younger stutterer, I imagine I would have found relief in knowing that someone else has trod this path before without letting the all-too-easy giant-in-chains excuse keep her down.

It is that honesty and refusal to sugarcoat her life as a stutterer that makes Katherine such a perfect voice for those who have yet to embrace their own. She examines how stuttering twists the things most people take for granted, like being able to supply one’s own name quickly and effortlessly or making a joke without fearing that the punchline and timing will be ruined by an inopportune loop of repetition, but it is her straightforward examination of how a stutter affects one’s professional path that nearly had me giving myself whiplash by nodding in such vigorous assent. “It turns out that careers are a sticky subject for stutters,” she writes as an introduction:

“Many advocates argue that any job is possible. They have a point. I have met stutterers in every career that, at twenty-two years old, I had assumed were nigh on impossible. … Their hearts were in the right place, but there was one rather large problem. They gave me the distinct impression that any job was possible as long as there wasn’t a discernible speech impediment. I could have anything I wanted as long as I didn’t stutter obviously. …

If you have the advocates on one hand, you have the realists on the other. They appreciate the sentiment that no job is impossible, but they refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. Instead they take to emphasizing the degree of the stutter. What may be possible for a mild stutterer is not always possible for someone who stalls on every word.”

Katherine is able to take a step back from a condition she knows all too well in order to consider the non-stutterer’s vantage point, to recognize the severity of each stutterer’s impediment. She is a narrator who is remarkably adept at sidestepping the pitfalls of judgement in favor of considering all sides before attempting a thoughtful, logical assessment.

“Out With It” is engaging and insightful, showcasing its author’s curiosity and capacity for overlooking the worst of a situation in order to focus on its benefits. While it’s obviously got loads of appeal for stutters in particular, the gist of the story is making peace with one’s imperfect demons and learning to look outward. Katherine’s book “is not one of deliverance” nor does it have that moment where she is “magically fixed as the curtain drops” — and it’s all the better for delivering one of the book’s unexpected messages: Recognize the difference between being grateful for what you have and settling, and know when wanting to be better becomes the same as demanding too much.

Katherine bemoans how she was in her twenties when Hollywood finally presented a stuttering cinematic hero in “The King’s Speech,” and how there are few role models for stutterers beyond those who have successfully hidden their impediment to land some sort of societal prominence. In unloading so much of herself in a book that’s less of a memoir and more of a promise that someone has not only shared those moments of seemingly insurmountable mortification but also overcame all those same hurdles to become what she knew she was meant to be, I can’t help but believe that Katherine Preston is filling that once-absent role all by herself.

The journey isn’t over

Me and my stutter have come a long way over the past three years. I don’t think we’re archenemies any longer; maybe, we’ve became amicable bed-fellows but I know we could be so much more.

I’ve had my stutter for as long as I can remember. I have no great story of its first utterance or any recollection of a cause in my childhood. My dad stutters, I stutter: it just is. It had significant negative impacts during my early life: from humiliating moments answering the register in school to horrible attempts of speeches at school. After these bad stuttering experiences accumulated, I thought it was a disgrace to stutter and I therefore increasingly put all my effort into hiding the hideous beast. My stutter became covered by a sea of social awkwardness. This probably began in my middle teens and by the time I came to university I was very good at it. I had managed to hide my stammer completely for the first three months, using a mixture of swapping words I might stammer on, avoiding situations where I might stammer and, the old fresher favourite, alcohol to help with socialising. The psychological burden was immense, I was constantly on edge and I actively avoided activities I would have liked to have done but I thought it was for the best.

My approach, however, all came crashing down one day in morning class. After a great party, and a reciprocally bad hangover, my ability to avoid stammering was weakened and I had a stammer which would not stop. My body emptied of any confidence and happiness as shame came rushing in. I wanted to run out of the room but I managed to stay for the rest of class. I felt all my classmates present now knew of my shameful secret and I was angry at them for being at the scene of my downfall. I think I purposefully distanced myself from those who were there for the rest of the year. At the end, my tutor pulled me to one-side and said that he now understood the reason I had been quiet in class. He informed me it could not persist if I was to successfully complete the course. He suggested it was my approach to stuttering and not the stuttering itself which was the cause of the problems. I never spoke in class and did not contribute sufficiently. He suggested speech therapy could help. He was right but I denied it. I muddled my way through the year without really altering my approach but strangely his words refused to leave my head. It was in the aftermath of this horrific moment that I suppose I began to start ‘thinking about thinking about’ approaching my stutter differently.

That summer, by chance, I attended a gathering for people who stutter. I had been on several stuttering therapy courses before with little success but the approach of some of the people at this conference was different to any speech techniques techniques I had been taught. They just spoke and let the stutter come out if it happened: they were charismatic, engaging, happy and confident despite their dysfluencies. I’m not even sure ‘despite’ was the right word, perhaps (and I am only now coming to understand this) ’because of’? I had a great time there and it altered something fundamental in my mind-set. Those sporadic childhood experiences of stuttering were not a reflection of how it really appeared to most other people I met. It was not disgraceful to stutter.

Since then, I’ve looked towards accepting my stutter as part of me: basically not caring whether I do stutter or do not stutter. With the help of fantastic speech therapists and further conferences, I have allowed myself to stutter openly and began eradicate my old avoidance habits. I stutter more than I ever have but, paradoxically to outsiders, I feel a lot happier with my speech. I am more confident and sociable. I have realised through positive experiences – such as successful presentations and speeches – that I can be interesting, engaging and likable even if I stutter on almost every word.

Overall, I feel I’ve come along way with my stutter but the journey isn’t over. I feel ok now talking with stuttering, but I still can’t talk about stuttering. I just find it too painful a subject matter and those old feelings of shame and disgrace quickly resurface. I’ve hidden my speech therapy from all but my family. I had the perfect chance to mention it just a few days ago. I was talking with two close friends about Cloud Atlas a book by David Mitchell. For a few seconds, I contemplated saying “I actually met David Mitchell at a stuttering conference last year. He gave a fantastic speech” but I didn’t. I’ve thought about bringing it up more than ever over the past year but I just can’t seem to do it. I know just how powerful it can be to speak about your weaknesses, as evidenced by the fantastic stories here. I can see my friends want to talk about it. Me and my stutter can be powerful allies. I’m thinking about it and I hope I do it sooner rather than later.

Letting Go

It has taken me a long time to get to this point, to tell my story.

I have stuttered since I could talk. One of my very first memories of stuttering is when I had to stand up and give a speech to my class in primary school – if that wasn’t nerve wracking enough, throw in stuttering and it is a recipe for disaster. I stuttered on every word and the whole class laughed. I don’t remember how old I was but I remember feeling very low.
You would expect somebody who gets that reaction to run out of the room crying, but I didn’t. I sat back down at my desk and remained silent. Although I was crying on the inside, I would never let anybody see me cry, not about my stuttering anyway.

I have spent the past 29 and a half years analysing why I stutter, giving all of my energy to speaking fluently and thinking so intently about what I am going to say next. When you spend so much time and put so much energy into EVERYTHING that you say, you miss out on so much.

Growing up I felt lonely, I felt that no one understood my stuttering, or really understood me. I still thought that up until about 3 years ago when I dug deeper in the social media landscape and found Facebook support groups.

Even though I have stuttered my whole life, I have only come to accept my stutter the last six to twelve months.

Before I would tell myself “I’m going to be strong and not stutter today” and inevitably I would fail and I would get down on myself.

Now when I stutter I think, “Ok that’s not so bad, nothing bad happened.”

I have been going to speech therapy for awhile now and even though I enjoy the sessions and think my speech therapist is wonderful, I’m now starting to question whether it is of benefit to me. I am coming to the slow realisation that I will probably stutter my whole life, I will never speak fluently and that doesn’t seem so scary anymore.

The stress and pressure I would put on myself not to stutter took an emotional toll on me. It is time to simply…Let Go

It is time to let go of my fear of stuttering, of stuttering itself. I have let stuttering affect my life for too long, no more.

My stuttering has made me brave, has made me strong, is giving me purpose…it is simply who I am.

What Health Coaching Has Taught Me About Stuttering

When I meet with clients for the first time, I ask them what it will feel like to finally accomplish their goals. I ask them if they are scared of anything, and what they have experienced in the past that’s held them back from realizing their full potential. Many times, things will come out that have nothing to do with food. This is always the way with change, the only guaranteed thing; and it is both terrifying and exhilarating. Change is what binds us. But it also sets us free.

When I decided to start a business, I knew I would need to tap into the confidence around my stuttering that I was known for. Being that strong public speaker was essential, and ironically, I was used to publicly speaking – about stuttering. However, my knowledge about health was newer than my lifetime of dealing with this disorder, and I had to be sure I wasn’t jeopardizing my credibility when it came to my wellness audience. So I decided to minimize the “issue”. I decided that stuttering would no longer be important. Almost immediately, the confidence I had worked so hard to cultivate slowly began to fade.

When I was 15, and I started intensive speech therapy for stuttering, I was thrown into the fire, instructed on the second day to recite my mission to anyone who would listen as we strolled the streets of New York. The goal was to desensitize myself from the caustic effects of stuttering by talking about it to strangers. Rude listener responses, phone hang-ups, angst; none of it would matter if I did as I was told. I carried this goal from high school to college, heart racing, with my one-two punch of an introduction ready at any oral presentation I gave. It came with me to retail jobs, staff meetings, internships at Rolling Stone and Cosmopolitan, and into conference room roundtable introductions in the advertising industry. Even on command over a speakerphone (a special brand of anxiety for those who stutter). The thought of another “Umm, you’re breaking up…” in front of my colleagues was just not an option.

It’s been 13 years since that first day in the park, standing before a stranger, telling them about my deepest insecurities as part of the therapy approach. Fundamentally, I’ve acknowledged and accepted my stuttering over the years. But the more I spoke with people about my health coaching business, the more my mind nagged at me to be careful not to let stuttering out. So you can imagine my surprise when I relayed the issue to my business coach Elisa and she said the following: Love it. “Huh?” I replied. LOVE. Your. Stuttering. It’s you. It was so matter-of-fact, so sensible, so OBVIOUS. It was not a lecture, but a simple statement that begged the question: How on earth could you not?

I don’t know what made those three simple words click so hard in my mind, but after thirteen years and this one session, I realized that stuttering was so much more than an announcement.

It’s my story.

When I talk about losing 25 lbs. and struggling with binge eating junk food, I’m talking about years of trying to master fluency. When I ask my clients what scares them about finally changing the way they eat, I’m telling them that I worry what will happen when a new person finds out that I stutter. And when we talk about potential and why they are afraid, I tell them that they can confront something they think is going to make them different and weird, and still come out stronger in the end, like I did.

When I came up with the name, “Well Gone Weird” for my company, I had only an inkling of what it would come to mean. You can try things that are hard, or weird or unknown to make yourself a better person.. You don’t need permission or to make sense to anyone but you. You can be your own version of yourself, no matter what it seems like to other people. Whether it’s health, stuttering, or any other issue that has helped define who you are, NEVER be afraid to be weird. Sometimes, it’s all we need.

Health coaching and stuttering

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.