The Miracle of Speech

On Sunday, February 5, at about 11:30 p.m., I felt the sweetness, the ecstasy, the jubilation, that comes with new-found freedom.  After nearly 24 years, I overcame my speech impediment — a serious stuttering problem. It did not occur after hours of intensive therapy, or after the application of some new medical breakthrough.  My stutter simply vanished, between two sentences,  while I was on the telephone with a friend of mine.  I had been explaining to him the Alexander technigue, a technigue I was practicing that might help my stutter.  During the explanation, I began using the exercises that I had learned and the stutter vanished.

Some of the people that I have spoken to about this recovery have called it miraculous.  They echo the sentiments of Dr. Richard F. Curlee, a professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at The University of Arizona who has been working with people with speech impediments since 1961.   In his book Stuttering and Related Disorders of Fluency, he wrote, “Complete, permanent remission of the chronic stuttering problems of adults are so sufficiently infrequent that their occurrence may legitimately be viewed as bordering on miraculous.”  But in the space of a few sentences, my stutter had vanished.  I had finally escaped from the single most frustrating obstruction in my life. 

“I have a speech impediment.”  

That short statement had begun so many of my new encounters prior to February 5.  After I had stuttered my introduction, “H-h-hello, my n-name is Ch-Chris G-G-Gajewski,” I usually had to follow up with “I have a speech impediment.”  Sometimes, it was to reassure the person that I was not drunk.  Sometimes, it was just to let the person know so that they understood and hopefully would have some patience with me.  Sometimes, it was to stop them from laughing, from thinking that it was a joke.

Then, the conversation would continue.  Sometimes with their assurances not to worry.  Sometimes with their admonition to relax.  Sometimes after their apology.

If I was lucky, the statement “I have a speech impediment” would relax me sufficiently so that the stutter would not impede me too much.  Those occasions were rare.  When I was unlucky, the conversation would then become an obstacle course.

I would stay away from certain words, phrases, and sounds that I knew I would make me stutter.  My answers to simple questions changed.  My response to “Where are you from?” is a tough one.  “Philadelphia” becomes “Pennsylvania” because of the ‘f’ sound.  If I am questioned further, I try to make my way through “Philly” as best as possible.  If it had been a really bad day, and the “n” sound was giving me difficulty as well, I would suddenly find myself coming from a place called Rockville, Maryland, a place where I had lived for a couple of years.

As a college student, I would hear “What school do you go to?” and “What are you majoring in?”  “The University of Miami” came out as “U-M,” or sometimes, when the “u” and “m” were giving me too much difficulty, I would use my brother’s alma matter, “Penn State.”  “Journalism and Creative Writing” would suddenly become “English” to keep the amount of syllables to stutter over as few as possible.

I found a lot of my conversations cut short, by either them or myself, either from their lack of patience or my frustration.  I tended to keep my sentences as simple as possible, which led me to sound simple.  My reactions to my stuttering — embarrassment, frustration, anger, and people’s reaction to my stuttering — constant reassurances, laughter, and them finishing my sentences for me, had made me quiet, withdrawn, and sometimes fearful of talking.   Possessing the words to express myself, and sometimes being completely unable to piece together such simple phrases as thanking a receptionist for her help, had led me into a frustrated, self-imposed isolation.

The Stutterer

I have been stuttering since I first began to speak when I was about 14 months old.  My mother said that, at first, everybody ignored my stutter because I had started talking so early and they figured that the stutter was just a result of this.  It was thought that I would grow out of it.  My mother began thinking that I might have a problem when she saw an interview with Mel Tillis, a famous country-western singer who has a serious speech impediment.  During the interview, my mother recalls, he stuttered uncontrollably — just like I was doing.  That is when she began taking me to specialists.   

My mother received various answers to the question why I stuttered.  Some of the explanations were that I had some unknown emotional turmoil, that it had occurred because people interrupted me while I was learning how to speak, and there was even one specialist who said that my stutter may have been caused by a lack of oxygen to my brain when my mother had had an appendectomy while pregnant.  Most of the specialists simply said that my mind was moving faster than my mouth. 

“Stuttering affects about 5 percent of the population,” wrote Curlee, “[and] is highest during the preschool years.”  Some children, 80 percent of preschool stutterers, will outgrow the speech impediment.  For the other 20 percent, wrote Curlee, “stuttering will persist, often worsening, and if it continues past puberty, it is likely to become a life-long disability.” 

Treatments for stuttering varies.  Some methods work well for some children, other methods work for others.  I began therapy when I was 2 1/2, with regular visits to the speech therapist and exercises to complete at home.  My mother remembers one of the exercises that seemed to have an affect on me.  We would sit in my room, for an hour each day, and draw boxes in the air while we spoke.  There were also lists of words to practice and breathing exercises.  These exercises were helping me to cope with my stutter, but they did not do too much to help me cope with my peers.

 The single most memorable thing in my childhood was how vicious children were, and the pain, anger, and tears, that that viciousness brought to me.  There were the taunts, jeers, and mimicry:

“H-H-H-Hey,” they would call out as I passed, “the-the-there g-g-goes C-C-C-Chris.”  The laughter would follow.

  “Sometimes,” my mother recently told me, “I just wanted to go out there and force them to stop picking on you, but I knew that you had to get tough.  I knew then that your stutter would be with you for a long time.”

There were children, and adults, who were quick to equate a speech impediment with a mental deficiency.  I was labeled “retard,” “dummy,” and “slow.”  There was something “wrong” with me.  I could not defend myself from these labels; in tense situations, I could barely put two syllables together.

As I grew into my teenage years, I somewhat began to escape from the effects of the stigma attached with a speech impediment.  I learned how to choose my friends and, as I grew older, I found more people who were willing to overlook my stutter.    

By high school, I had learned a lot about my speech impediment.  I could go through good phases where I would only stutter occasionally.  I just learned to deal with the bad times.  I also learned that there were certain situations that caused me to stutter more.  Talking on the telephone was difficult, except with a few people.  When I was angry, I could usually talk flawlessly, but other high emotional states caused me to stutter more.  Talking to new people for the first time was especially difficult.  Introducing myself, alone and unaided, was almost impossible.

About the time that I learned these things, full-blown puberty struck.

Puberty is hell for everybody, but for a stutterer, it can be even worse.  It was during puberty that I learned about insecurity and depression.  Just as I began to come out of my self-imposed isolation,  my inability to talk with girls made me withdraw even more.  My friends could approach a girl and strike up a conversation with them on any subject at any time.  They would make the girls laugh, ask them questions, and ask them out on dates.  I was unable to do any of those things.  After a few completely disastrous attempts, I just about gave up even trying.  Even with the girls that I knew, the ones that knew I stuttered, I would still run into problems.  They knew that I stuttered, but the people that would answer the phone, their relatives, would not know.  I was hung up on constantly, or laughed at, them thinking that it was a crank phone call or a joke.

In high school, there was always someone that I wanted to meet.  Someone I wanted to ask for a telephone number.  Someone to ask for a dance.  I wanted desperately to be able to approach someone, smile my best smile, and simply say, “hello, how are you doing?”  I couldn’t.  The more that I failed, the more I believed that I could not do it.  The more I believed that I could not do it, the more true it became.  I had football.  I had my books.  I had my friends and family.  I tried to convince myself that it was enough.  It wasn’t.

By the time I began college when I was 20, after taking a couple of years off to work, my speech impediment had become ingrained into every facet of my life.  I knew that I would never become a public speaker and would never be good as even a casual speaker.  I decided, though, to challenge my speech impediment.  I wanted to be a journalist, an occupation that requires over-the-telephone interviews and a lot of interpersonal communication.  My stutter had dictated so much of my life, I did not want it to dictate my future.  I wanted to be a writer, a journalist.

My first two years went well.  I had met some good friends, I was making good grades, and found that my speech impediment was actually improving to some degree.  There were still people who would laugh when I first started to speak and quite a few times, people thought I was drunk, but I was able to deal with those situations with some kind of grace.  I found that the phrase “I have a speech impediment” could work wonders.

When I began my third year, my situation began to worsen.  I was beginning to take higher-level journalism classes which required interviewing and making contacts.  College became a strain.

During one class orientation, we had to introduce ourselves.  I was in a class of 40 and did not know anybody there; I was number 36.  As each person introduced themselves, the anxiety and fear escalated.  By number 15, I was not hearing anything that was said.  I was concentrating, praying and practicing in my mind:  “Hello, my name is Chris Gajewski and I am originally from Philadelphia.  I am a journalism major.” 

By number 30, my body was covered in sweat, the muscles along my neck and back were like strips of steel, and I felt like I was going to be violently ill.  I was gasping for air.  My introduction had changed to “Chris Gajewski.  Journalism.”  It became a chant within my mind.   

By number 35, the only thing that kept me from running out of the room was the fact that I could not move.  My mouth was dry and I was dizzy from lack of breath.  Waves of heat and tension pain swept through my body.

It was my turn.  I could not see anybody.  The only thing that I felt was pain.  Silence.  Every muscle rang with strain.  I squeaked out ,”C-C-Chris,” then waved to the next person to go on.

The Defeat of a Man

I was close to turning 24, close to graduating, beginning a career as a journalist, and I was running out of hope.  I had tried speech therapists, self-hypnosis, relaxation exercises, and everything else I had come into contact with, but nothing worked.  I was a stutterer, and would always be one.  Maybe, I had chosen the wrong major.  What else could I do with a degree in journalism?  What jobs are there that do not require personal interaction?

After 24 years, I seriously considering letting the speech impediment beat me.  I found myself avoiding people that I stuttered with more.  In an attempt to overcome the speech impediment, I had taken a public speaking class where I was required to give weekly speeches.  After struggling all semester, I never made the final required speech, instead using my speech impediment to get out of it.  I had given up on having a girlfriend or even meeting new friends.  One time, in a store, I was stuttering so badly that I finally wrote out what I needed on a piece of paper for the clerk to read.  I was tired of my speech impediment.  I was tired of struggling against it.  I was ready to concede defeat.

Creative writing was a viable outlet for me.  It required very little personal interaction, only a knowledge of personal interaction.  To this end, I took an acting course to learn more about characterization.  The first day of class started out just like so many others.  I waited my turn, then struggled out my name, followed by “I have a speech impediment.”

My acting professor, Mrs. Mary Ann Bentley, took me aside after class to ask me more about my stutter — she wanted to help.  There were many people who had wanted to help me:  professors, friends, co-workers.  They had tried, and failed.  I had failed.  She gave me a book, The Use of the Self, by F. Matthias Alexander.  It was an old book, first published in 1934.  I had read many things on stuttering and figured that it would be a waste of time.  I had to read it, though.  She had made the effort to give it to me, so I had to make the effort to read it.

The chapter on stuttering was familiar.  Alexander wrote about “habitual misdirection of the mechanisms.”  He wrote about relaxing while you speak and articulating every word.  I read it, then put it down at the end of the chapter.  I had heard it before.

A Fateful Phone Call

I avoided the telephone entirely.  There were some people, like my mother and sister, who I could usually speak to without stuttering.  I had found myself stuttering uncontrollably even with them.

“What’s wrong?” they would ask.

Nothing and everything.

Phone calls were kept as short as possible.

On Sunday, February 5, at about 11:15 p.m., I decided to give a friend of mine a call.  Joshua and I had been friends for a few years and I usually had some luck when speaking with him.  If the stutter became too bad, he would be patient as I struggled through the words.  Needing to speak with someone, about anything, I gave him a call.

The telephone call began as I expected:  bad.  I was worse than usual, barely able to get out any clear sentences.  The conversation continued despite this.  The Use of the Self was lying close at hand, so I began to tell Josh about it.  I stuttered my way through an explanation of the book and an explanation of the chapter on stuttering.  I explained to him about the relaxation and articulation.  Articulate means “uttered clearly in distinct syllables.”  Articulation means “the adjustments and movements of speech organs involved in pronouncing a sound.”  I concentrated on articulating every word and sound while continuing to tell Josh about the book.  I became aware of how my tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw were making the sounds.

I dropped the book.  The line was quiet.

“Go on, Chris.  Go on,” Josh said, his voice filled with excitement.

“I am not stuttering,” I said in a clear voice, while concentrating on articulating the sounds.

“I know,” he replied.  “Talk.”

“About what?”

“Anything.  Describe your apartment.”

I zipped through my apartment:  I explained the painting I had just bought, I told him about my collection of books, I explained how the apartment was organized.  Each time I would exhaust a subject, Josh would lead me into another.

At one of my pauses, Josh said, “Do you want to speak with Jason?”

Jason was Josh’s roommate.  He was one of those people who I found it especially difficult to talk to, and usually avoided speaking with him.

Jason got on the telephone.

Concentrating on articulating each sound, I asked him how he was doing.  Then, I picked up on his cues and responded to his questions and statements.  I talked to Jason for 20 minutes and did not stutter one word.

Josh got back on the telephone.

“Well,” he asked.

“I didn’t stutter, Josh.  I did not stutter!”

“Complete, permanent remission…”

I was afraid to stop talking that night.  I called everybody that I thought would not be too upset with a late night telephone call.  I even called the operator, just to speak with someone that I did not know.

The telephone calls ended about 5 a.m. when I realized that I was so exhausted that it had become overly difficult to concentrate on articulating each sound.  I said good-bye to the person I was talking to and fearfully put down the telephone.  Would I still be okay in the morning?  I laid down in my bed and just hugged myself tight.  Hoping.  Praying.

I woke up the next morning and reached for the telephone.  On Monday, February 6, I went through my telephone book from A to Z, speaking clearly and without any hesitation.  The people I had been talking to were astonished and jubilant.  A few people cried.  Some people called it a miracle.

At first, my mother’s reaction was disappointing.  When I stuttered with her, she took it as a sign that I was under stress, but for the most part, I would speak perfectly.  So when I called her that night, unusually late, she was worried.  When I explained to her that I had overcome my speech impediment, my mother, the one person who had been with me, helped me, and comforted me for 24 years, was skeptical.  She did not have the same basis for comparison that others did.  She was used to me not stuttering. 

So I explained the conversation with Josh.  I explained my talk with Jason and how I could never speak to him.  I explained the confidence I felt, and the exhilaration and joy.  I erased her skepticism.

“My baby,” she tearfully gasped.

My mother and I spoke for about an hour, reliving some of the hardest experiences of my life:  the taunts, the humiliation, and the isolation.  She told me about the early exercises:  drawing boxes in the air and teaching me how to read to practice words.

Then, we spoke about something which I had never known — her guilt.  Since I began to stutter, she had felt like it was her fault.  The one specialist’s words had rung in her head for 22 years:  “Your child’s stutter might be due to lack of oxygen to his brain during your appendectomy.”  It did not matter that numerous specialists had given her other reasons.  It did not matter that none of my other functions seemed to be affected.  It did not even matter that she had no control over her appendix.  She had latched onto the one reason for my stutter that could be attributed to her.  My clear, unbroken speech finally disproved that theory, and took away her guilt.     

It has now been a few days.  I am beginning to relearn the freedom of speech, to express myself exactly as I wish to, not how my stutter dictates.  I have spoken with people over the telephone and face to face in a clear steady voice.  I was able to go to a bar and order a “Heineken” instead of a “Bud.”  I was able to properly thank a receptionist for helping me.  I was able to hold down my side of a philosophical argument with Jason.  I asked a woman that I had met in class a couple of times if she would like to come with me for a cup of coffee.  I was able to interview a chef at a local restaurant for an article I am writing.  The list goes on. 

Each thing is a very small thing, but, for me, they are brand new experiences.  I am learning how to speak again, and that new speech is freedom.  I am saying “Hello” instead of “What’s up?”  I spoke to my neighbor for the first time.  I ordered a meal at McDonald’s instead of pointing to the sign and struggling out a number.  I am no longer avoiding words, phrases, or sentences.

I am still stuttering from time to time — very infrequently — but there is no frustration or anxiety associated with it.  When I stutter now, usually when I am over tired or try a word or sound that I am not comfortable with yet, it is a reminder to concentrate on articulating each word and sound.  It is going to take some time and practice to make it natural. 

I just met someone new.  In the course of the conversation, I told her that I used to have a speech impediment.

She did not believe me.

Three Months Later

Three months ago, when I lost my speech impediment, the situation was perfect for me to stop stuttering.  Recent triumphs had created for me a state in which I was emotionally, financially, and mentally stable.  That stability led me into a natural acceptance of Alexander’s technique, which stopped me from stuttering.

Life moved on, though:  a cutback of hours at work, anxiety over school, a break-up with a girlfriend.  All of a sudden, I was not as stable as I once was.  I began sleeping less, smoking more, and I began stuttering again.  Now, I go through good days and bad days, again.  The frustration has returned.

I do not, however, evade my speech impediment.  A recent “bad day” at the eye doctor’s office had him asking me all of the usual questions:  where are you from, what school do you go to, what are you majoring in?  I stuttered horribly, uncontrollably, but I answered each question, with the correct answer, in its entirety.  It was tough going, but I made it through the appointment and through the “bad day.”

One other thing which has not left me is the confidence that one day my speech impediment will be gone.  In a telephone interview with Dr. Curlee, he said that I do have the ability to overcome the speech impediment, but it is going to take time.  He said that to make the Alexander technique work, it is going to take roughly two years of practice and patience.  I have been stuttering for 22 years, two more is not going to make that much of a difference.

Until then, I am practicing, concentrating, and trying to remain stable and fully in control of my thoughts and words.  Learning that I can overcome my speech impediment is a miracle in itself.  The greater miracle, the actual defeat of the stutter, is going to take some time.  I will be patient. 

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