The Story of My Stuttering

The following is a talk I gave to adults who stutter at a regional meeting of the National Stuttering Association, in Tacoma, Washington (March, 2008). It describes my personal experience with stuttering and the effect it has had on me as a speech language pathologist providing speech therapy.

I will preface my story with some remarks. I have two points of view about stuttering that probably exist simultaneously, and that will be obvious as I tell my story. As a speech-language pathologist working with people who stutter, I see stuttering as a communication problem with life-altering ramifications, and I am constantly looking for ways to help the people I work with manage their speech so they can say what they want to whom they want when they want. As a person with a history of stuttering, I understand the struggle to learn to accept oneself and the stuttering but not to adopt the role of stutterer, someone whose life does not move forward because of the stuttering. A nationally known expert in stuttering, Dr. Walter Manning and others (Plexico, Manning, and Dilolo, “A Phenomenoligical Understanding of Successful Stuttering Management” in Journal of Fluency Disorders (Vol. 30, 2005) talk about adults who stutter who experienced success in therapy. They learned to develop counter plots for their lives: they stopped looking at themselves as stutterers and began to focus on other roles they could play, as musicians, sports players, dancers, authors, cooks, and so on. They learned and I am learning that stuttering is something we do, not who we are. In my office is a sign that asks “How Much of Your Life Does Stuttering Decide for You?”

I am learning about the process of accepting all over again as I lose my hair. Yes, I am going bald and I am discovering many parallels with stuttering including avoiding and covering up and not being open. Today is my first public disclosure.

My remarks are based on my life experience as a person who stutters and as a clinician charged with treating people who stutter. I have learned from my own experiences and I have learned a great deal from the people with whom I have worked.

I was born on the Oregon coast in Astoria and grew up until age 12 in Warrenton Oregon where my father was a crab fisherman. We moved inland to St Helens Oregon when I was 12. There was no history in my family of stuttering. In the fifth grade my teacher told my mother she thought I was stuttering. Late onset of stuttering is unusual; most stuttering starts in the preschool years. There is some interesting research that reports a higher incidence of neurological incidents (head injury, disease, concussions) in adults who stutter without a family history compared to those with a family history. In the fourth grade I suffered a concussion while playing baseball and the next year I was labeled as a stutterer.

My mother took me to our family doctor who referred us to the University of Oregon medical school in Portland (now Oregon Health and Sciences University), where I was indeed found to be stuttering. That summer (1959) my mother, brother, sister, and I spent six weeks in an apartment in Portland while I attended a four day per week summer program for children who stutter, on the campus of Portland State University. It was a stuttering modification approach. We went out into Portland’s South Park blocks in groups of two and stuttered on purpose to people we met, asking for the time. We also went into stores and asked for things while deliberately stuttering. The purpose was to desensitize us to the reactions stuttering produce. I didn’t like it much. When I returned to school that fall in the sixth grade, my teachers told my mother I was stuttering less. What I learned on this first part of my journey with stuttering was only something I have fully realized just recently: the unconditional support of family and friends is essential for the person who stutters.

In the seventh grade we moved to St. Helens, Oregon. I don’t remember many negative experiences with stuttering in school. However, I was in Boy Scouts and was a senior patrol leader, meaning sometimes I had to go to leadership training meetings with other scouts from other troops. Invariably the leader of the meeting would say something like “Well, let’s pull our chairs in a circle and go around the group and introduce ourselves.” This of course meant saying my name which I had begun having a great deal of trouble doing.

As a sophomore in high school I asked a girl to the Winter Ball. It took ten minutes but she agreed to go and we had a good time. In high school there were a lot of girls I wanted to ask out but did not because I was afraid of stuttering and the embarrassment and shame. In the short term in high school, stuttering changed my life causing me to go in a direction I did not want to go.

As a junior, I had the opportunity to order a class ring. Every Friday, we had to line up in at the student activity office and sign up to order a ring. All we needed to do was give our name and hand over the check. Each Friday the line would advance person by person and just before it was my turn I would leave the line. I did that for four weeks in a row, then gave up and told everyone we were too poor to afford a ring. That was not true. I was afraid to say my name because I knew I would stutter. I deliberately modified my life, denied myself something I wanted because I was afraid of stuttering. In the short term, at that moment, stuttering changed my life, causing me to do something I did not want to do.

As a senior I was in an advanced placement English class where we chose an author and read most of his work, then wrote a major paper and delivered it orally. I worked for a month on the project and practiced the speech many times. When it came time to deliver it, I stuttered throughout the entire presentation. I was very upset, very disappointed, ashamed, and mortified, and I went home and cried. But right after I finished the talk, the student who sat in front of me, Jim Stevens, turned and said, “That sounds like a very interesting author. Which one of his books would you recommend I read first?” I was so appalled at my performance that it took years before I realized there was something to learn from his remark. He actually had learned something from what I said. He actually had listened to what I said and not so much to how I said it. My speech was not a total disaster. There will be people who will hear what you say in spite of the stuttering. I had magnified the stuttering as so horrible that it was beyond comprehension that anyone could have gotten anything out of what I said. But Jim Stevens did.

I went to the University of Portland for my first two years of college. The first afternoon on campus I met my roommate and told him two things. We had been advised that the first evening was a freshman only dinner and that we had to dress for dinner, shirt and tie. I told my roommate I did not know how to tie a tie and would he please help me. (We both dressed for dinner only to find the common hall filled with students from California wearing shorts. It was the first and last tie I wore at U.P.). The second thing I said to my roommate concerned my stuttering. I told him I sometimes stuttered so that he would know I was not having a seizure or trying to hide something. Only later did I learn that disclosure of one’s stuttering is generally a good and useful idea, that much of what we do when we stutter is our effort to hide the stuttering. A few days later I met with the priest in charge of our dorm who was also my theology professor and told him the same thing, that I stuttered.

Every summer while I was in college I worked at the sawmill in St. Helens. One summer another worker asked me my name. I stuttered and bobbed my head and finally got out an approximation of “Glenn.” Unfortunately, the fellow thought I said “Clem” and so all summer he called me “Clem.” I never corrected him and let him assume that was my name, even responding to it when he would use it to address me. I learned what it felt like to be ashamed of my own weakness in not correcting him. I was ashamed of my weakness in avoiding more stuttering by pretending that my name was Clem. This episode and the previous one with not ordering a class ring illustrate, unfortunately, something else I was learning: how to avoid more stuttering. Again in the short term, stuttering changed my life, causing me to do self-defeating things I did not want to do.

I became a history major at U.P. but wasn’t sure where that would lead me. My mother suggested I go into something that I knew something about: and she was talking about my stuttering and the field of speech therapy. I would like to say I learned to listen to my mother right then and there but it took a few more years. Since U.P. did not have a speech language pathology training program, I wound up enrolling the following year in the program at Portland State University where I got re-acquainted with the two professors who had run the intensive six-week summer program I had been involved in when I was younger.

Another event happened at about this time which is important in my story of stuttering. Home on Christmas vacation, some friends invited me on a night sledding trip in the foothills of the coast range, behind St. Helens. We parked our car at the bottom of a long hill and walked up, then sledded down. Around a corner came three local men in their car, driving too fast (they had been drinking). They saw our car and tried to stop but slid in the snow and crunched both cars. Well, one of the friends I was with was son to one of the more successful men in the town. This man had been sued before, and these three men sued him, claiming we had actually driven our car into theirs. They said what we smelled on them was actually stove oil. I was called as a witness in the ensuing trial. When I met with the defense attorney, I told him about my stuttering, not wanting him or the judge to think I was covering something up when I bobbled my words. At the trial, when I was called to the stand, the attorney stood up and said that I wanted it known I had a speech impediment (his words) so that listeners would not assume that I was not telling the truth and stuttering in my nervousness as I lied. I answered all the questions without stuttering once. Again I learned about disclosure and the benefits of bringing stuttering out in the open.

That next year, my junior year, at Portland State University, I took a class called Voice and Diction, the introductory class for students majoring in speech pathology. We learned about the anatomy and physiology of the vocal mechanism, the acoustics involved in speech, and how to use one’s voice more effectively. As part of the class, every student had to stand in front of the group and read a standard passage as sort of a “before” recording, to help the teachers decide what parameters of voice ought to be worked on. As with many people who stutter, I was good at avoiding or postponing speaking situations but finally my name came up alphabetically and it was my turn. I stuttered throughout the entire passage, and I remember watching the cute girl graduate assistant’s eyes get wide. The professor sitting next to her sat up straight to listen. When the class was over that day, I was asked to enroll in the stuttering therapy program at PSU, which I gladly agreed to do.

The next term I did enroll in the stuttering therapy program at PSU, developed and headed by a man named Dr. Robert Casteel. The program would now be called a fluency shaping approach, since we learned a new way of talking to replace our stuttered speech. When this ten week therapy program was over, most of my overt stuttering was also gone. I was convinced that a fluency shaping program was the only approach to use. I was not aware at that time that my core behaviors of stuttering, mild as they were, were still present and that I needed some management tools to help me during my moments of stuttering.

In the stuttering clinic, I learned the importance of knowing about the body parts we use for speech and how they work. I learned about the importance of taking responsibility for my own speech (saying things like I held my lips together too tight instead of Oh dear, it happened again. We were taught to say that we “interfered with our speech” instead of saying “we stuttered.”

In the stuttering clinic as a client, I met a fellow near my age who stuttered more severely than I. He had actually been in the summer therapy program at PSU with me 10 years earlier. During the clinic we became friends and remain so to this day. This man has stuttered all his adult life. At this writing, he has just retired from a very successful career. He never let stuttering stop him from communicating. I have seen him stutter and get stuck on a word and watch his listener finish the word for him. My friend would ignore the listener and stutter away until he finished the word. From this man I learned determination.

At roughly the same time as the stuttering clinic was going on, I met a fellow about five years older than me named Cliff Goldman. Cliff was a person who stuttered and had recently moved back to Portland from Washington DC where he had earned a master’s degree in political science. While in Washington DC he had been a member of self-help and support group for people who stutter called the Washington DC area stuttering council. When he returned to Portland, Cliff began taking classes in speech pathology, where I met him, and he also started a local chapter of the DC support group called the Portland Area Stuttering Council. He invited me to the first meeting of the group. I arrived at the house in NE Portland and knocked on the door. It was opened by a man a few years older than me who asked me my name. Of course I stuttered. When I had finished, he said, “Hi, I’m D D D D Denny.” That night I began learning the importance and value of support groups for people who stutter, as places to practice speech skills in a supportive environment but most important as a place to feel totally accepted. That evening was the first time I had been in a room with more than one person who stuttered. I went to stuttering council meetings as long as that particular group stayed active in Portland.

This fellow Cliff Goldman had a major impact on my life. He was also involved as a client in the Portland State University fluency program. Cliff took working on his speech very seriously. Every day, he gave himself speaking assignments. The assignments included practicing whatever technique he was working on and also finding a speaking situation he might be tempted to avoid and doing that speaking task. Cliff, like me, became a speech-language pathologist. We worked together for a time and I often found myself at conferences and professional meetings with him. Always when the speaker was finished and asked for questions, Cliff would be the first to raise his hand, even if he really had no great interest in the topic. He used the occasion to practice speaking and that’s one thing I learned from him: people who stutter need to practice speaking. Cliff took practicing very seriously and did it daily.

Cliff and the other members of the support group helped me learn the value of practicing saying my name. I had continued to struggle with introducing myself through high school and the first part of college. Once my direct speech therapy experience had concluded, I was encouraged by my fellow stutterers to avoid avoiding saying my name and to be proactive: to go on offense. I began answering the phone like this “Hello, Glenn Weybright”, or just “Glenn Weybright.” I learned from the stutterers and others that incorporating something into my daily life, weaving it into my daily routine gave me the best chance of making it stick. I also learned the value of being proactive. I did one more activity to practice my name. Winter term, 1970, I looked in the Portland area phone book and found 423 bars and taverns. Each night that quarter, I called about 10 of these establishments and asked for myself: “Is Glenn Weybright there?” I practiced saying my name by easing into the first sound. Of course the bars were usually noisy and I had to repeat myself several times. Most of the time I wasn’t there and so I thanked the bartender and hung up (one time I was there and I hung up anyway). At the end of that assignment and while continuing to find opportunities daily to practice my name, most of my stuttering on my name had ended.

It was through the support group that I met another man who had an impact on me. This fellow and his wife lived in Portland and still do, so I have been able to see him from time to time through the years. This man has lived with stuttering all his life but has lived His Life, not a life controlled by stuttering. He was a very successful engineer then got a doctorate in environmental engineering all while stuttering. I have listened to him speak quite a few times. He stutters as he talks but manages his speech well. He shows the stuttering, doesn’t try to hide it, and is able to say what he wants to whomever he wants when he wants. He says he imagines a column of air coming out of his mouth as he talks with words hooked on, and he does what he needs to do to keep the air moving forward. From this man I learned to visualize the column of air and the idea of always moving speech forward.

One year following my involvement in the stuttering treatment program at Portland State, and now as a first year graduate student in the speech pathology degree program (and as a brand new husband to Debbie) I returned to the stuttering clinic, this time as a student clinician. I worked with several people who stuttered. The next year I graduated from PSU with a degree in speech pathology and began working at the community speech and hearing clinic in Portland, at that time located on the campus of the medical school. Six years later I was promoted to Head of speech-language services at the clinic, a position I held for four years before I left the center to start a private practice in speech pathology, which continues to this date.

While I was at the speech clinic, I discovered remnants of my stuttering still existed. I found it difficult to be fluent when very stressed. I discovered problems saying words beginning with “wh, d, h” and the short vowels “a” as in “apple” and “e” as in “every.” Cliff Goldman was at the speech center at the time and he helped me develop methods to manage my stuttering. I learned that my fluency wasn’t perfect (whose is?) and I began to realize that as a clinician treating people who stutter I needed a broader approach. This line of thinking eventually led me to a more integrated approach to treating people who stutter. Later in my career, I learned about the positive benefits of voluntary stuttering: how the easy repetition of syllables on purpose can actually calm the person who stutters, slow his speech, and reduce actual stuttering in the short term.

I learned a great deal from a man I never met, Dr. Charles Van Riper. I learned about “leaking the stuttering out” and stuttering easily and avoiding avoidances.

I learned more from watching people I knew who stuttered live their lives daily with stuttering, I mean really LIVE their lives with determination and courage.

I learned that for many, if not most adults with histories of stuttering, spontaneous fluency is probably unattainable and when someone relapses after a fluency shaping program it is not because he doesn’t try or work hard or isn’t motivated. It is because he has a neurological disorder.

I have now taught or helped to teach the graduate course in stuttering to students at Portland State University for seven years. I have learned that graduate students are eager to learn about stuttering and eager to help. I have learned they are very willing to learn about the person and his/her stuttering and willing to personally try the same techniques that they are asking the client to do.

Finally, I have learned why I developed stuttering. I believe things happen for a reason. My personal view is that God was preparing me for a career in helping people with communication problems. Because of my own stuttering, I learned what it feels like to have your words stuck in your throat, to see the eyes of your listener widen, to hear the nervous giggle, to have the room and life in general come to a dead stop as you struggle to get words out. Because of my stuttering, I was led to a rewarding career. I help people every day and I get paid for it. I also have met some very interesting people on the way. In the long term, stuttering has changed my life.