October 22, 2012

Fluency: My Untrustworthy Friend

To celebrate ISAD, let me share this beautiful essay from Reuben Schuff; The essence could be conveyed in one line : For a young stammerer, search for fluency lasts a life time, is full of ups and downs- and finally what you learn is much much more precious and meaningful than mere fluency. So what did Reuben finally learn? Read on..
You can buy this stuttertalk publication -pdf version- full of very useful essays, at this link.


Dear Fluency,
We’ve been in this relationship with each other for a while now, a long while actually—
as long as I can remember trying to talk, in fact. That’s probably about 28 years. And
overall it’s been a pretty unhealthy, codependent affair. So to be honest, I think it’s time
we broke off this whole thing. We could try to be friends, but I don’t really know how
well that would work.
I used to look up to you and respect you. I thought you had all the answers and would
solve all my problems. We’ve been through different phases over the years. I grew into a
profoundly severe stutterer. I stuttered frequently and hard. As I graduated into
adulthood, it was all too painfully obvious that my communication was an unmitigated
disaster. In those days I thought that being fluent was the key to communicating and
enjoying life. But that key had eluded me for 18 years as I struggled relentlessly,
unguided.
In those years I never really thought that much about what you really were. I stuttered,
and I didn’t like it. I wanted to change it; that meant finding a way to make you my
friend. To stutter was to not be fluent. Logically then, fluency is the opposite of
stuttering. It would make sense that I saw you as the ultimate solution to my enduring
problem. I was resolved to go to any length to find you; I just had no clue how. And such
was the first 20 years of our twisted love affair.
To my great fortune and blessing, I would meet a skilled guide at this point in our
journey, which meant that I could begin to understand you in a deeper, more methodical
way. We started to unwrap the onion and get to know the elephant that I dragged around
with me, always present but never able to address. We began to change stuttering from a
dark cloud that I couldn’t understand into discrete pieces, behaviors, ideas and feelings
that I could cope with in digestible parts.
Human beings are unique among all creatures in the world in our ability to communicate
with one another in such a sophisticated manner. It is this ability that guides our lives and
allows us to grow and develop. I think the reason that the disorder of stuttering is so
poorly understood, even by those of us who are intimately familiar with it, is because it
strikes at the core of our humanity. We are inherently, intensely social creatures.
Stuttering disturbs this nature, and thus to understand it, we must look beyond the sounds
and syllables of the speech-motor system.
I remember where our abusive relationship took its first significant turn towards change.
It was January, 2002 and I was starting my second semester of sophomore year of
college. I was returning to chilly Indiana after spending my winter break in San
Francisco, backpacking in the city. I remember getting to my hostel on the edge of
Chinatown late at night and struggling so much to speak over the intercom on the door
with the night guard that I thought I wasn’t going to get in. I thought I might have to
stake out a stoop in the alley because I could not speak. It was one of those hopefully few
times in life where the pain and torment of the current situation was so great that the need
for change was undeniable, and worth any risk.
A year and a half after high school I finally followed up on the advice of my public
school speech language pathologist (SLP) who told me that Purdue University had a
pretty good SLP department and I might want to check it out when I started my studies
there. I hadn’t been too excited to pursue this at first because my experiences thus far
with SLPs weren’t very useful, but now I didn’t know what else to do. I remember my
first day in the basement of the Speech Science Department in West Lafayette, Indiana. I
was struggling and fighting with every secondary behavior and avoidance technique
imaginable just trying to get my name out. My whole body was involved in my disorder
by this point—not just the awkward facial contortions that are at least physically close to
the speech system—but my head, my arms and even legs were participating in my
disorder. From inside it felt like a train wreck of hazardous material, during an
earthquake, buried by a volcano. I can only wonder if others saw my condition and
wanted to hide from the unworldly sight, as I did. I was very much committed to
rebuilding our relationship then and saw you as the salvation to my struggle and torment.
To get closer to you, I learned some techniques that reduced my uncontrolled struggling.
I was introduced to the concept of prolonged speech. You remember how bizarre a way
of speaking that is, don’t you? Remember, we had to stretch every sound in every word,
and it sounded like we were speaking in slow motion? It was only for the therapy room,
though. I would have rather hammered a nail into my nostril like a sideshow freak than
present that way of speaking to anyone beyond the basement of the speech clinic. But I
was willing to give it a shot; I couldn’t keep beating my head against the same wall
anymore.
I remember sophomore design class; that was when I figured out that I had to be able to
talk and present if I was going to be an engineer. That was a massively scary realization
considering my total inability to do so. I remember when a very nice teammate in our
design class looked at me quite confusedly one day in the computer lab and asked simply,
“What’s wrong with you?” The question was posed with the inquisitive manner you
might expect if you were missing half of a normal face and had a third arm growing out
of your ear. I had no idea what to say, because I really didn’t know. Why couldn’t I talk
properly? I could talk without difficulty some of the time, so what was the problem? I felt
that I must just not be trying hard enough.
We convinced a major aerospace employer to hire us for an engineering internship after
sophomore year. I thought you and I were going to be friends, and I could rely on you a
little bit. But no, Fluency, you totally split on me for the whole summer—left me
completely hanging out to dry, struggling and flapping in the wind. I remember coming
back to school and sitting in the basement of the speech department and actually feeling
worse than when I’d first walked in months before. I thought, this was supposed to be
making me “better.” Where were you?
My SLP had made a valiant attempt to introduce me to the idea that stuttering goes
beyond the motor system struggles that are easy to see and hear. He tried to get me to
explore the emotions and thoughts surrounding this disorder, but these things were of no
interest or value to me at this point in our relationship. You and me: that was it. Stuttering
was the antagonist, Fluency the protagonist, and relentless struggle the plot.
My SLP understood how different situations affected my speech, so we worked in a very
managed way on taking the skills we developed in the magical safety of the clinical room
out into the real world. We were marching through the hierarchy systematically, but I
wasn’t quite ready to go in to the wild. So we took on the task of talking with SLP
undergraduate students in the clinical room. This was one step up from talking with my
graduate clinician, with whom I’d become comfortable. While I knew that part of my role
in the clinic was that of a guinea pig for students to observe, I was amenable to the
exercise. I did okay using my techniques and really felt good about the whole experience.
One of the students said that she really liked talking with me. That comment blew my
mind because I couldn’t image anyone enjoying speaking with me in my current
condition. And the process continued, moving slightly—grudgingly—forward, then a
little backward, and inching forward more.
Finishing my undergraduate degree may be the hardest thing I have ever done, and it was
with great pride that I received my degree in Aerospace Engineering at the end of 2004. I
got through speeches and presentations and even job interviews. I wasn’t treated easily
because of stuttering, at least not that I can remember. It was hard and I felt like you and I
had made a lot of progress in communication. I’d learned to approach the more
challenging speaking situations with the goal of how to stutter well, rather than how to
stutter as little as possible. That beginning of a cognitive shift is where I started to
understand how maladaptive of a relationship we had.
I went off to start a graduate internship feeling more in control and stronger than ever. I’d
been hired by a major aerospace and defense contractor and was very excited to go boldly
into the world. I went forth feeling like I had some tools to keep stuttering under control
and manage it better than ever before. Our relationship was reasonably stable. To have
achieved tolerable, managed stuttering was progress, but the road to recovery was just
beginning.
The beginning of my job was awesome. My management and teammates were
uncompromising, relentless, aggressive, and demanding. Work was a battle—we didn’t
get credit for just participating, you had to be competitive. I never felt like I got any slack
because of stuttering or any less was expected of me. I remember one meeting that was
the kickoff of a major project where we all had to introduce ourselves: name,
organization and role. There were about 30 people gathered from a half dozen different
organizations to tackle a problem of immediate importance for the company. My boss
had pulled me in to be a helper to the senior engineers. I remember how proud I was to be
there. I knew I was going to stutter when we went around the room and I was okay with
that. I had a job to do, and that didn’t include hiding or being sorry about stuttering. I
didn’t consciously understand at that time how our relationship was changing, but I see
now how I was beginning to value you less.
In the Fall of 2005 I returned to Purdue to begin my graduate studies. I went back to
therapy, encouraged by my work experience and motivated to keep making progress. I
had outgrown the traditional university therapy setting, where the supervisor leads the
first few sessions and then the graduate students take the helm, with supervision and
correction as required. I’d been through eight or so graduate clinicians during
undergraduate studies, and didn’t feel like training another. My SLP knew this, and had
the wisdom to start a group therapy night for those clients who had been working on
speech for awhile.
Starting group therapy was a new chapter; for the first time I was in contact with people
like me, who I could really relate to. I cannot overstate how much of a positive effect that
can have. At the first session we talked about the different things we each had done to
avoid showing stuttering. It was like everyone was cast from the same mold as we went
around the table and talked about being “ill” on presentation days; how at restaurants we
just pointed to our menus and ordered “this”; how we’d changed what we said our name
was to not get stuck in a block. As we each shared our experiences, it was profoundly
gratifying to see all the other heads nod in agreement, as if in unison, saying, I’ve done
that too.
I had matured enough by graduate school to start to talk about the cognitive side of
stuttering. Acceptance became more a part of therapy, and effective communication
replaced fluency as the goal more and more. But I kept holding on to you as the golden
idea of success in many ways. After all, part of effective communication is fluency.
I was fairly comfortable in my situation in graduate school, and feeling some effective
control. I developed a kind of robustness to my stuttering, as advertising and
desensitization became more important. I learned socially and professionally appropriate
ways to bring stuttering up and address it head on. It found that I preferred to inform my
listeners about what was going on rather than to have them distracted by my struggling. I
had given difficult presentations by this point and been a group leader in classes. I had
worked in team environments during my research. I had presented at professional
conferences and defended a thesis. So when it came time to interview for jobs again, I
didn’t feel as overwhelmed as I had before.
I traveled the country interviewing at major aerospace organizations and presented
myself and my stuttering as confidently and straightforwardly as I could. Sometimes I’d
bring it up first thing, to get it out of the way. Looking back, I think being able to talk
about stuttering when it is clearly visible and audibly struggled is essential to success.
When we can show that we’re okay with it, it makes our audience okay with it, too.
In August of 2007 I accepted a position at the same company that I had worked for
previously during my graduate internship and was off again to compete in the
professional marketplace. I was as confident as I’d ever been, ready for a new challenge.
While I felt like you and I had made leaps and bounds in our relationship over the last
few years, I still knew that on a scale of one to ten, we’d gone from about 0.5 to maybe a
strong three. That’s a 600% growth, which is nothing to sneeze at; but it’s still only a
three, when judged by people I was meeting for the first time.
One thing I’d learned was how crucial it is to have a network of support in my life, and I
now had a few friends who stuttered—people I could talk with without worrying at all
about struggling and being weird. Also, one of the people I was in a therapy group with
told me about an organization called the National Stuttering Association (NSA). I was
moving to Baltimore, Maryland, and I knew I needed to take some steps to make this my
new home. I immediately looked up the NSA and it turned out there were two chapters
nearby. I eagerly rushed to meetings at both when I arrived in town.
At my first meeting (in Rockville, Maryland) I made a friend who continues to be a
treasure in my life and helped me with very a difficult part of the journey. After starting
my job, my lack of confidence about my communication skills was confirmed. I was
religiously attending my NSA support groups and working as hard as I could to maintain
control over my speech, but after a few months, it became undeniably clear that it wasn’t
enough.
My friend from NSA recommended an SLP that I might consider. I had to talk to my boss
because the only time I could go was 3:30pm on Mondays. He was very supportive and
allowed me to leave early to make it to “speech class” each week. We put it as an
objective on my yearly performance review. I started in the speech clinic at the
University of Maryland in the beginning of 2008. It was a group setting from the very
beginning, and therapy was similar in many ways to what I’d done previously, but some
key differences would forever change our relationship. The goal shifted from my
somewhat controlled stuttering to focus on effective communication more intensely, with
no value placed on fluency directly.
My first radical task in therapy was to get rid of the controls and get back to my core
stuttering pattern: no modifications, no tricks, no holding back. We were in trouble now
because blocks weren’t accepted as a core stuttering behavior. I had to make noise, even
when that noise was uncontrolled and ugly. For 26 years I’d thought that getting stuck in
a block was the worst thing imaginable and had worked at great lengths to avoid it. Now I
found that it’s more uncomfortable and scary to make uncontrolled ugly noise.
Dealing with stuttering—the disorder of stuttering, I mean—is more about learning to
deal with the escape and avoidance behaviors and facilitating communication than
celebrating fluency. It’s really not too surprising; stuttering is abnormal, fluency is
normal. So is it any wonder that I wanted to get out of the awkward and uncomfortable
situation of struggling to communicate? You tricked me for a long time, because I
thought you were the opposite of the struggled stuttering that I hated and felt so
condemned by every day. Struggled stuttering is very different than forward moving
stuttering. It’s not the stuttering that I really hated, but the struggling. But working to
control and eliminate stuttering adds value to fluency; but fluency for its own sake is not
worthwhile.
All this was confirmed with the more advanced therapy I undertook, again with a group
of people who stutter. In hearing about their experiences, I saw the infidelity you
practiced in the lives of my group and how some of them had moved past the abusive,
codependent relationship I struggled with. You have an uninformed world to support you,
but I had a powerful group of skilled people who saw past the value that you are so freely
given, so frequently.
You must have been frustrated with me running around to all this speech stuff that had no
place for you. How much worse for you when I had to shut you out of my professional
life as well. Granted, that ugly uncontrolled stuttering that we talked about before
couldn’t make its way into work—it’s just not professionally feasible—but there are so
many avoidance behaviors surrounding stuttering that I had no shortage of assignments
from therapy to work on. For example, I had to work on my eye contact, something
fundamental to effective communication. You remember monitoring for losing eye
contact during a block, then the assignment to reestablish eye contact while I was in the
block. That assignment lasted weeks or maybe even months. It turned out to be a lot
harder than I thought it would be. It was like a physical force was preventing my head
from lifting up, but specific focused assignments and the encouragement of the group
made it possible.
When I was assigned at the last minute to lead a conference call, I was really confused
and scared; why me? But I stuttered through it as well as I could, knowing that, especially
on the phone, making noise is better than silence. I got through the call and continued to
lead it for several more weeks. On another occasion I was assigned a major part of an
important presentation. I remember advertising at the beginning of the presentation so our
customer wouldn’t be confused or distracted by the level of struggling that was going to
happen. I spoke for the next two hours and the presentation was a success.
In my job I was in the often nebulous role of coordinating many aspects of a project and
ended up running all over the organization, from the production floor to the front offices
and everywhere in between. I think I knew 75% of the people, in an organization of about
600, by name and what they did. Some days my job was to talk with 30 different people
in the organization to make sure all the parts got where they needed to be. There wasn’t
time to let stuttering, or more accurately the worry and avoidance of stuttering, rule my
day.
Picking up the phone changed from being feared in the extreme to almost an automatic
part of my day. I just had to do so much of it that I couldn’t avoid it. I had to present so
much that I didn’t have time to worry about stuttering. I learned that everyone needs to
prepare and practice communication. My team members and I would practice presenting
to each other and sometimes to management. I would practice my stuttering at a level
commensurate with what I reasonably expected to deal with during the real show in
comfortable situations with my team or even alone. I couldn’t help but notice that my
team and my management kept putting me in leadership roles and putting me in front of
the customer. That wasn’t because of Fluency; you didn’t help me.
In the summer of 2008 I went to my first NSA national conference. It was a high I’d
never experienced before and haven’t had again in quite the same way. The first day there
I went to a workshop called Open Mic, where anyone could stand up and talk about
anything they wanted. I remember listening to one person after the other get up and
speak. Sweat dripped off my palms as I fought with myself to raise my hand and
volunteer. It was really scary, but why? I was surrounded by people who stutter, yet the
fear of speaking persisted. I learned that day that’s it not all about you, because there was
absolutely no expectation of fluency in that room; yet standing up in front of a room of
people to talk was still tremendously difficult.
Back with my therapy group I would be introduced to a new idea: “Do what you fear.”
We grow by doing, and success builds on success; so the challenge is to define what
success looks like today and do that now. The journey doesn’t come in leaps and bounds,
but with many small footsteps consistently taken in the right direction. I got to celebrate
small successes with my group, like the first time I answered the phone and didn’t have
stuttering as the first thing on my mind. Or the first time I picked up a phone and dialed a
number without playing the mental tug of war of trying to speak well, or even stutter
well, but just picked up the phone and moved forward. We celebrated that I kept being
asked to give presentations and that I was enjoying it. I facilitated an open mic at the next
NSA in 2009, and was one of the co-presenters at a workshop that my speech therapy
group and our SLP facilitated. I remember standing up in front of everyone for the first
time, and being truly and honestly excited to speak.
I’ve moved on from a lot of things since then: moved around the country a bit, changed
jobs, and moved away from my speech group; but I’ve kept making progress in speech.
I’ve joined other NSA chapters, started other NSA chapters for teens and parents, and
continued to be hyper-involved in the stuttering world. My confidence tends to be higher
now, but not always. Some days I can take on the world, while other days picking up the
phone to make a call is still hard. This is a tug of war that I still have to fight.
As I reflect on the last decade of our relationship, I see how much I’ve changed. I want to
talk; I want to communicate. I’ve learned that the demon of stuttering is not disfluency—
it’s the fear, the shame, the lack of confidence and the avoidance of life. Valuing fluency
feeds these demons. On the surface society may seem to value fluency, but I don’t think
that’s actually true deep down. Confidence, courage, honesty, endurance, persistence:
these are the bedrocks of a robust person. I think I know what recovery from stuttering
looks like now. I used to think it was being able to be fluent whenever I wanted to. But
recovery is the state of being able to effectively communicate and enjoy the dance of life.
It’s the confidence to look the world in its eyes when you speak.
You are not reliable, Fluency. You are only there when things are easy, not when things
are hard. I think back to the accomplishments that I’m most proud of, and you didn’t help
me with those at all. I didn’t earn a college degree because of how fluent I was; I’ve
never been hired for a job because of a fluent interview. I’ve never had a meaningful
relationship with a person because of how fluently I was able to speak.
So this is it, the end. We can still hang out, maybe get a drink from time to time, even
catch a show with friends; but we’re done in any meaningful way. You don’t have value
in my life anymore. I’m not mad or angry, I just needed to really, finally recognize that I
can’t rely on you, and let go. I still have a ways to go down recovery’s road, and that’s
okay, because I know where real power lives. It’s not the sounds and syllables, but about
the change and the choice. It’s about knowing what the important relationships in my life
really are—those with my friends and loved ones.
Not with you, dear Fluency.
Sincerely,
Reuben Schuff, 2012
-
Reuben Schuff is a person who stutters and an engineer. He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees
in aerospace engineering. Reuben is active with the local National Stuttering Association
(NSA) chapters in Raleigh, NC and co-founded the Raleigh NSA Family Chapter. He has
been a presenter at several NSA national conventions and a volunteer at regional
workshops of FRIENDS: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter. Reuben
has also written articles for International Stuttering Awareness Day online Conferences.

2 comments:

Dinesh said...

Sir, you are unearthing the gems one by one! Article has left me spell-bound.. Thanks.

sachin said...

Yes Dinesh- I too was taken up by the simplicity of the story and the depth, to which, the writer had unearthed his feelings and emotions- which are so familiar to us, but rarely expressed by us :-(
The writer has done what thousands of us keep dreaming about..
Congrats to Reuben and NSA!