Memory is a tricky thing and before I forget those little details, which could be important for other travelers, I thought I should put everything down. I claim no originality - others may already know this. I also claim no universal efficacy for the approaches I share here: they may or may not work for you.
But as the things stand in the field of stammering therapy today, a little ‘hit & trial’ may not be amiss. I will try to summarize main principles which helped my recovery from stammering mindset. I do not claim that my stammering is cured. I do say that I have become a reasonably good communicator, who still sometimes stammers – but happily!
One last word of caution: this is not the outcome of a controlled trial. This is just a retrospective (and subjective) attempt to understand what MAY have contributed to my recovery. It is, by no means, comprehensive, exhaustive or infallible. It certainly has not made its way to peer-reviewed journals yet!
I was born timid and weak. Once in childhood, some boys shouted at me and my sister (not me) picked up a stick and chased them off! Similarly when a teacher in class 9 asked me: Do you stammer? I promptly said “no” because I did not have the courage to say what I knew to be true in my heart. But every time such things happened, I felt a pang of remorse. Somewhere deep down, I always felt that I should have taken the other path - even if less traveled. Gradually, I began trying out my ‘baby’ courage in small ways: like participating in the school debate in class 9 in spite of excessive stammering; stepping into boxing ring - and trying out things which boys my age often avoided.
Coming to arena of speech, who inspired me? A senior colleague in sixties, who once shared in detail and with amazing openness, about his struggles with his stammering during a training session! A mountaineering trainer, who in a very matter-of-fact way announced on top of his voice to us, the trainees, standing on a glacier at fourteen thousand feet: “I sometime speak too fast and stumble all over words. Dont hesitate to ask me again, if you dont understand- before you take off the cliff..”
These instances, in my thirties, made me realize that common men could demonstrate great courage in day to day life. It hurts no one. But still, stammering was another matter! I just could not say, even to myself that I stammer.
Sometime in my early forties, I decided to fulfil another old ambition of mine: Martial arts. I began learning Goju-ryu karate. While as part of training, I fought many bouts in our dojo, I never went for the open championships. Sometime in 48th year of life, I found myself facing someone half my age in one of those regional tournaments; our scores were equal through the four rounds. Then, it was the match point; as I stood in my corner, a thought came to my mind: You are afraid of getting hurt in the face. You are working too hard to save your face. If you could give up all your fears just for one second - you could score the winning point by going on offensive...
This inspiration came to me, when physically I was totally exhausted and my conscious mind too was losing grip. It was like a SOS flare from a sinking ship on a dark night. I just acted on it and won the match point- to my great surprise! I had read a lot of psychology books: Feel the fear and do it anyway etc... But this real life incident was a kind of ‘on job training’ and went straight to my heart. From this point onwards, I was convinced that one could feel the fear and still go on. Learning from the books could not convince me. But actually putting myself in danger helped me to internalize this fact that fear is like a big shadow- but only a shadow. When you go looking for it with a torch, you don’t find it at all.
Another pursuit, which initially was a part of my avoidance, subsequently introduced me to the inner untapped resources of courage - Mountaineering and Trekking. I guess, going for a walk in nature for me, initially was only meant to avoid human company and small talk. I gradually began to enjoy it. I did some mountaineering (6000 meters, twice) but later on stuck to trekking: Solo trekking, often crossing high passes at 4500 to 5000 meters. At least on four occasions I got lost in the wilderness of Himalayas. All these experiences taught me one thing: we will never know what we are capable of, unless we try. For that we need some courage, which is already within each one of us. You dont have to wait for it to come or it to be granted from the above. More you use it, the greater it becomes, easier it becomes to access.
Finally one day, in my late forties, in sheer desperation, I decided to talk about my stammering. I found a saint, who I felt, will be able to handle this; I told him how my life long stammering and attempts to hide it have left a dark heaviness in my heart. He looked at me and listened whole heartedly- and blessed me with a gesture of his hands, since he was in silence. Nothing unusual but I felt totally accepted in that moment. He did not do any miracle. But a miracle did happen in those moments. My secret was no more a secret. I felt incredibly light and free. That feeling has persisted ever since.
Many of us live in denial. Because it takes courage to come out of it. Not huge courage - just a little bit. This first step, only you can take. Because even God respects privacy of your thoughts, primacy of your will and therefore will never force you to do anything against your wish. Therefore, I think courage is the first requisite on this long journey..
Since I was living in denial, I had no access to direct sources of information. You would go to a speech therapist only if you thought something is wrong. Internet and books came to my rescue. I was not only reading extensively, but meditating deeply on it- analyzing and absorbing, finally actually experimenting on those ideas: joining IPWS yahoo chat group; posting and responding to other’s questions and comments. Quiet private browsing was not enough- I had to participate! I had to get my hands dirty. So in search of open-ness, I started a blog dedicated to stammering, because I realized that most of chat groups discussed issues in the privacy of their own groups. I wanted to go beyond that stage.
During these internet sessions, I discovered that:
● My problem and issues were not unique. Many have been through it.
● Many had walked this path and emerged successfully, having overcome their issues. Stammering was not the end of the life, as it seemed to me in my teens. It was also possible to reach a point where you could genuinely look at stammering as a little funny detail of your life OR even a blessing in disguise.
● What happens in stammering, happens in many other situations: anything which makes you look or act different, can fuel, if allowed, development of an entire psycho- socio- physiological complex. In Eckhart’s words, your pain-body (link). So, people with Leukoderma, walking calipers, Albinism and a million more differences of superficial nature have issues just like ours. It was difficult to believe that a girl with Leukoderma and I with my stammering had so much in common. But there it was. It helped me to grasp the underlying universal nature of human suffering.
● Stammering is not just what you do with your mouth. It is much more than that. It is (or soon becomes) a “system wide” issue. Therefore, it needed that kind of (“system wide”) approach to recovery. Just learning a little prolongation to launch myself in opening sentences was not enough, until I looked closely at the deeper psychological factors pushing me to speak fast.
● I approached stammering literature with seriousness, that it deserves and learned many techniques and approaches to counseling. Being a medical professional, I already understood neuro-physiology of brain, mechanism of speech production and basics of psycho-dynamics underlying counseling. Sites like Kuster’s Home page, Veils of Stuttering, Stuttering Brain, NSA, BSA etc. helped me to apply my general understanding of health & wholeness, to specific domain of stuttering. I would not have succeeded, if I had tried to learn just a few fluency or modification techniques.
● Stuttertalk encouraged me to record stammering interviews in my self-help group. So, knowledge and information from Internet and books, were not limited to conceptual level, but encouraged me to go out and practice those ideas. This is how a “community” sprang up in last 15 years. THIS benefited me greatly. How? See the next paragraph.
3. Meeting other PWS
For a long time, I thought, I am the only one who stammers in this big “bad” world; I am the only one who is having these weird thoughts 24/7. This generated a deep sense of loneliness and alienation. For quite some time I found it difficult to truly enjoy human company - barring the company of a few very close friends. The feeling in my youth could be compared to the feeling of a cosmonaut left on an uninhabited planet by some accident. Only, my alienation was made worse by all the people around me who were having a great time! I felt locked out of a big hall, where a merry party was going on from the beginning of creation.
In last 15 years, I was forced to travel around and meet many many many pws- big and small, from all walks of life: NC, Communication workshops, Sunday meets and what not: sometime on Marina Beach in Chennai, or Connaught Place in Delhi or I***sys campus in Pune or some park in Hyderabad or some school in Chandigarh or.. or.. and the list goes on.
Plus Communication workshops, one after another. After meeting all these pws, that sense of being marooned on some God-forsaken planet, left me for good. Thank you, ALL of you out there! If anyone cured me of my mysterious ailment, it is YOU ALL, spread across India. I cant thank you enough, ever.
But meeting others is good when we exchange gifts. Such relationship cannot be one sided. While I received a LOT, what could I give back? I had nothing of value to give back. But I tried to offer total acceptance to others - the same kind as I had received from the Silent Saint. No questions, no judgement. Just acceptance of others as myself. In the process, I was learning to accept myself too - with all my failings.
I, who was considered not very social till 45, suddenly was interfacing with hundreds of people across the country (some abroad too) and was developing fine social skills in the process. Now, I knew how to crack a joke in a full on party- without offending anyone and having great fun doing it.
Now, I realize that being “social” is our destiny; being “social” is FUN; being “social” is the very essence of our human life. And - being “social” is EASY.
4. Long term commitment
Bringing all the above changes into my life needed a long period of checking out, experimentation and follow up. My enthusiasm will vary from day to day, week to week as did my stammering. What helped my commitment to last longer than my enthusiasm was the fact that I found myself in a position of responsibility towards others: I was coordinating a self-help group in Herbertpur - and later TISA at the national level. Even when I did not feel very motivated, I had no other choice but to whip myself into that frame of mind. Had I been looking for fluency for myself, I would have most likely stopped exerting after 6 months. But as SHG coordinator, I had to go week after week, to SHG meeting, even if no one came: I would take a book with me and read. Outwardly, it seemed as if I was getting nowhere.
But the fact was, this act of getting involved in other’s problems was developing my grit, my sensitivity, social skills and my long term commitment. Offering communication workshops year after year, made me somewhat indifferent to setbacks. I understood, that any worthwhile project cannot be completed in a few days, or weeks or even months. Changing ourselves, our thought patterns and our habitual reactions is an important project. It needs long time and commitment.
Was it because of stammering that I analyzed things too much? Difficult to say but I did introspect a lot as a child and tried to make sense of the world around me. This trend got strengthened by reading Vivekananda and other great masters, both from east and west. I began to see that the external world is not the only world available to us. There is an inner world too. I could see myself in the light of what the world told me about myself: You stammer; you are different. But I was also free to view myself in an inner light.
So, while stammering dominated my self-concept, I could seek relief in an inner world too- get rejuvenated and bounce back. Still later, I realized that I need not be defined by the external world at all. I can have an alternative self-concept, based on an inner conviction.
This outer and inner world are like a word and its meaning. Inner world offers meaning of whatever happens to us in the outside world. The meaning we attribute to our day to day actions decides how they are going to affect us in the long run. If we think we are victims of a tragedy, beyond our control - then victims we will be for the rest of our lives. If we think that stammering can be cured, we will spend rest of our lives - not living - but looking for a “cure”. If we think stammering is a burden - burden will it be. If we think world will not accept me till I have fixed my stammering- that is what the world will do. Because the world is just a mirror.
But if we think, it is an opportunity for problem solving - then our entire experience will change. So, it is important that we search for the meaning in our stammering experiences - and not be satisfied by readymade answers that others (including therapist) hand us down. This can be done by being quiet and diving with in - call it Vipassna or “down time” or “prayer” or whatever..
Interestingly, all these approaches work equally well for other issues in life too. Introspection helps not only communication and relationships but it may bring down your Blood pressure too. Courage works not only for dealing with stammering but also for taking calculated risks in job and getting ahead in life. And so on.
I never had much difficulty while working in the hospital as a GP. It was a dominant relationship with the client, the patient. Mostly I had to just give some “instructions”. It was a one sided, top-down communication. Not a problem for most stammerers.
But when I joined Voluntary sector, I discovered soon, that the best communication is two-way, free of hierarchy and based on exchange of meaning, rather than sounds. And this could be ensured only by asking “What did you understand?” – and then, LISTENING to the answer whole heartedly. In this long process, I understood that communication was a lot more valuable skill than just speaking fluently; I also sensed that, good communication skills would need a long term commitment.
In any case, by 40, I had realized that I could try anything but stammering would not be “cured”. It went away for days, weeks, sometime months but never failed to return faithfully! So, I decided to read about, learn and practice communication, as much as I could. That was the only thing left for me to do.
The opportunities were plenty. I had to constantly conduct training, meetings, and workshops. I remember one of my first challenges: The ANM (our staff) had asked me to conduct a session for village birth attendants (Dai) in a small village in Chamoli district. I accepted the challenge, took the Flash card in my hands and started with some trepidation. I found it easier to speak while using the flash card, which displayed reproductive organs, fetus, child birth etc. Ten minutes into the presentation, one of the old wrinkled Dai, whispered to her neighbor – How shameless!
I just ignored the comment and focused on the message I was trying to convey. When I talked about blockage in Fallopian tubes due to unclean delivery practices, the same Dai sat up alert and asked: How is it that some women have a child and there after become infertile, no children at all?
I explained the role of infection and blockage of fallopian tubes AFTER the birth of one child and subsequent infertility. The same Dai, was now nodding her head in great appreciation, as if to say: This brat may be shameless, but he has told me today what no one had ever told me before! I just don’t remember whether I stammered in that session or not. I remember only this little exchange with a grateful old Dai. I had finally understood the meaning of communication. It is not about the impression you left behind - it is about the understanding you leave behind.
Later, coupled with desensitization – don’t forget, I was having to do Voluntary Stammering willy nilly in every communication workshop! – and now with plenty of workshops / trainings with “normal” people behind me, I was approaching a place, where facing a large audience did not intimidate me: It rather inspired me to give my best – my best thoughts, energies, knowledge and inspiration. Those of you who have been in theater, would know this feeling, this subtle excitement, just as you step on to the stage.
And yes, to put everything on a firm footing - I was also reading books on communication (and online courses like this), trying to grasp the underlying principles. All this has taken a lot of work spread over 2-3 decades. I don’t know of a shortcut. If I had my life all over again – I will not hesitate to do all this over 2-3 decades again because journey is more interesting than the destination! Let me end with a quote from Emily Dickinson:
“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”
Happy new year – 2016 ! May we all progress towards the promise of a better world, where people are valued for their inherent worth as humans, not for what they say or do or look.