November 1, 2013 Features

Odyssey's End

It's been a long, twisting journey for this adult stutterer. As he finally resolves to seek treatment, is it over?

Sometimes in middle age, I find myself washing up on shore at the most unexpected places. Today, I'm perched atop a large granite boulder in a sea of tumbled stone, looking down on my father's farm in western Maine, a place I have avoided for years. Tomorrow, I'm seeking treatment from a speech-language pathologist for the first time. It's estimated that up to 3 million adults in the United States stutter [PDF], and I'm one of them. You may be surprised to hear that I've never received treatment and only occasionally thought about it, for reasons that will become clear.

Odyssey's End

My dear, poor SLP—I do apologize in advance. Knowing myself as well as I do, it's with deep regret, but real admiration, that I ask you to dig through the splendiferous, tightly wound sediment, layers inextricably cultural and personal, of someone who has wrestled alone for decades with the predictability of an unpredictable mouth. Let me further declare up front that I'm placing a whopping bet that our treatment together will return at least once to where my journeys always seem to begin and end—to this hard, gray land, this Maine childhood of unfiltered stone.

As we get to chatting a bit, climb up here alongside me—granite under the hardening pink pale of late afternoon tends to stay warm, even in mid-September. Take a good look around. This world's partly the same as it was 35 years ago, when I left—the bittersweet of red and gold drawing up quietly behind green across the mountainsides; wild things creeping to stone wall edges as afternoon shadows begin stretching and pooling; smudged spirals of first fires slowly carrying the cobweb soot of summer from a half-dozen chimneys upward past shining ledges ringing the valley.

And yet, so much has changed along the way. The old man—my disfluent, defiant, oft-irate father—passed away four years ago. Deer now graze in the trampled twilight of a hilltop farm grudgingly following him to sleep. The place that sparked such sadness and fire (see "Walled Off," The ASHA Leader, Sept. 18, 2012) steadily dims within a landscape that's coming alive, again. Trees unrelentingly press across rocky fields we fought so hard to clear; rusting barbed wire and rotting fence posts stumble drunkenly against ancient, crisscrossing stone walls littered with limbs. There's nothing left to keep in or out, anymore.

Not even the prodigal, equally disfluent son, who's returned at long last and is finally seeking treatment.


During the moment when an adult stutterer like me walks into a clinic, coming in, so to speak, from the uncharted wilderness beyond the milestone-laden school years, imagine all that we bring with us. Thousands of days and nights spent coping with our distinct wiring. Believe me, there's so much inside, spinning around and through the disfluency—what I bet will first appear to my clinician as a rather dizzying kaleidoscope of raw memories, jagged emotions, and polished verbal and behavioral workarounds.

And there's more. Behind, affecting and connecting it all is culture, the idiosyncratic configuration of slices of modern life that I journey across on this one-way trip, gathering up, and reconfiguring every day as I keep personalizing my expression of American culture.

As I said, my dear SLP, I'm sorry. I'm bringing to the table a culturally vast and sometimes messily intimate inner landscape to traverse. It's been such a long journey.

Thirty-three years ago.

It always begins this way.

Bright first semester days: the venerable college rhythm, the gathering momentum of syllabi, intellectual promise, sighs and renewals; a time of fresh forwards and deadening ache when I always become stuck and different. New class introductions: shred and reveal. And always, self-loathing and punishment.

Dear God. Just. Let. Me. Speak.

Another gorgeous, crisp late summer afternoon on a private college campus in coastal Maine—it's the beginning of my second college year, and I've joined about a dozen students in the first meeting of a history seminar. Anticipation and wariness hover close—tired of lecture classes, I've been looking forward to a more in-depth academic exploration guided by a senior professor. With fewer students, however, there's less room to take refuge behind the typewriter. The professor's first impression will be hearing me speak, rather than reading my words. And there's the rub. I, the plucky, smart scholarship kid from impoverished, rock-strewn western Maine, stutter, particularly during first-time moments like this, and I am furious at myself that the professor and these well-to-do classmates from far away with their shiny new textbooks will hear and see me as an idiot. I hate being weak.

The professor hasn't arrived yet, so I slip into the restroom. The usual drill: Breathe deep, splash face, and keep rehearsing my damnable, hard-to-pronounce, consonant-crunching name while slapping myself hard when it isn't perfect. C'mon, you can do it. Bearing witness from the mirror is the reddening, stinging face of the sonofabitch who keeps trying to steal between me and the world. The class doesn't scare me—a smaller life, the poverty and abuse close behind, terrify me much more than speaking in public.

And then the introductions roll forth, surging nearer and nearer. I always feel so lonely during this moment of hellos, easy sharing, and reverse Russian roulette, when the gun pointed only at my head boasts just one empty chamber.

Clutching fists and hugging the sole thing I allow the closest—a reused notebook full of scribbles copied from the textbook on library reserve—I meet no one's eyes.

"I'm G—." Everyone's staring. The welcome ritual crashes into awkward silence.

"I'm Gar—." <nobreathnosound> "Eee." <stumblelocked> "Dun—." <stuck>

The professor's having none of it. "What did you say?" he asks, leaning forward toward me, pulling at a rather pronounced white beard.

Looking directly at him, I clear my throat and find fluency and name in whispers, which sometimes suffices to get me the hell out of such situations. Not this time.

Piercing, stern eyes. "Once more." He sighs. "Say again?" He cups hand to ear. A woman near me, murmurs, "C'mon, leave him alone."

Far away, a coppery smell. Blood's now trickling from nail-gouged, clenched fists and slowly splotching the tattered, cherished notebook.

"Gary D—."

He interrupts the better attempt. "Stand up, son, and let us all hear you!"

Miserable bastard. I can't stop it boiling up, this ever-present, barely controlled fury that always gifts fluency to my equally stuttering, explosive father. Enough is enough. Slamming the bloodied notebook down, I stand defiantly and lock eyes with the professor.

In his father's voice, the son, condemned to be always separated by wealth and words from everyone in that classroom, spits out his name, blue-fire menace crackling proudly through every consonant and syllable.

Twenty years ago.

It always ends this way, lately.

Plop.

Thick, oily sweat dripping onto a wedding ring; drenched hands clenched to a cracked and peeling steering wheel. I'm leaning forward, staring at a snapped-off palm frond that's just danced crazily up the rust-flecked hood to the windshield. Engine off. Quiet.

The stuttering's kicking my ass lately, again, and I just don't know what to do anymore. Trust and prepare, stumble, fade to numb.

Another late July afternoon in south Miami—burning, wet and close, a ghastly, ever-present shroud of humidity wringing out sweat and stealing breath. No escape. We can't afford an air conditioner and so spend every evening at the local Barnes & Noble, nursing soda and iced tea until it closes at midnight. No relief in the car; the AC, among many other things, is broken and there's no money to fix or replace it.

We're damn poor, and I'm so terrified that my God-awful stuttering is bullying us into a smaller life. I, the newly minted PhD in anthropology, haven't yet landed a professional position and have strung together part-time and odd jobs for a year. My wife works as a low-paying adjunct instructor at a community college. Can't tell her that my treacherous mouth stole the one real opportunity in the city. A few months ago, I interviewed for a local field-archaeologist position. Rehearsed as best as possible, thought I was on top of it, but the die began tumbling madly as the questions flew. Too many pauses; too little elaboration; I left the interview convinced I wouldn't be hired.

Shame and the fact that my wife and I are members of a healing-based religion prevented me from telling her why I didn't get the job. We don't give credence and weight to disease and physical maladies by talking about them directly. The growing hoard of non-mentions around us remains unmentioned.

What in hell is happening? I had fought hard in graduate school, rehearsed and prepared much, and seem to have coped magnificently with disfluency for most of thoseyears. But now, just as education launches into career, the words flee and the old smallness slithers back inside.

Nowhere to turn. Even if I step away from faith and seek medical help from a speech-language pathologist, there's no steady job or insurance (assuming it was even covered) to pay for treatment.

Can't sleep ... can't speak to anyone about it. Gut-achingly petrified that after all these years of fighting back against what was handed down, of crawling inch by inch out of poverty through learning, I've suddenly lost control of everything—my mouth, my life. How do I know that words won't abandon me at the next interview?

How, oh how, do I get rid of this damnable problem, once and for all?

Plop.

Plop.

Frenzied and frantic, I turned to God. Completely. Our church offered two-week classes for study and healing; it was assumed that a life challenge or physical malady of particular interest to the student would be healed by the end of the class. The first day, we explained privately to the teacher what we were going to heal—traumatizing, as I had never before ever spoken to anyone at length about my stuttering, especially not to a stranger.

Class began. I studied, listened and prayed. I didn't know anyone else's challenge or malady, but they sure could guess mine.

Days passed; no change. I kept at it, studying and praying with growing fervor. As always, I was an excellent student.

A week. Unbelievably, nothing had happened yet.

That last day—this day—I stumble out to the car, stunned and numb, leaving hope, trust and faith back in the classroom. It's over.

Itwillneverchangecan'tfriggin'controlitnevereverneverever HATEHATEit.

Hands shaking, I swerve into a nearby parking lot, crashing into a leafy tropical grove in the corner. Car's fine; palm tree sacrifices a frond.

Can't keep fighting.

Turn off the engine.

Tired. Sad. Alone.

It's a late July afternoon in south Miami, and I sit in a dilapidated car, sweating and trying to think. It's wrenchingly difficult. I've been trapped and drowning for so long that everything seems to slide off; nothing takes hold except the problem.

I give up.

Plop.

Plop.

Plop.

Half an hour ... then, clarity.

I ... can't ... live.

My wife won't be home from teaching for another three hours. I know where to find it. It'll be quick.

With calm certainty, I start the car.

Three years ago.

Sometimes, there's surprise along the way.

A stack of cover letters and a different wedding ring getting splattered from my rain-soaked, graying hair; a sleepy hole-in-the-wall diner along the Hudson River in upstate New York; a typically drab, rainy July afternoon in the rust belt. Laid off due to the economic collapse, I'm considering next steps and new beginnings.

Unemployed but ... wait for it ... a hint of a smile. It's been a great run and I love what I do—editor, publisher—even after 15 years. This whole disfluency thing? I think I've finally worked out an armistice. I rarely rage against the stuttering and I certainly don't despise myself anymore. Some days are better or worse—always—but at times I've become quite the nimble magician of substitution; the sliding, eliding, ever-elusive trickster of workarounds.

The waiter arrives. After five decades, this ritual's a breeze. Long ago accepting that menus contain lists of what I can say more than what I might want—tell-right rather than taste-right offerings—I've already scanned and am ready.

Well, well, it looks like I've pulled it all together. Hey, everyone, look at me, the oh-so-clever stutterer who's dodged and darted his way through a successful career! And without help from anyone! Applause applause!

Yeah, right.

Sigh. That damn job posting is making me take a good, long look at things I thought long put away. There it is—soaked and now curling on top of the stack—my cover letter for a director of publications position at the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. My wife, who's a registered nurse, speaks openly with me about disfluency and is encouraging, but I ... just don't know.

The truce with stuttering has come at a price. Something precious has been slipping away these last few years and, when I least expect it, it makes me sad, sometimes razor lonely. The fire's dying down. The flares of frustration and outrage, the steady burn of strategy against what I've been locked in a cage with for so many decades are dimming, as I more and more accept things about my disfluency as they appear to be. Such a skillfully wrought life of accommodation and acceptance within a larger professional world—I often forget that my everyday is invariably way less than it should be. Take that menu—on this rainy afternoon, I accept without question that whole portions of it are no-man's land to me. Why do I do that?

The fire's dying into complacency, taking with it also the ever-fluent voice inside, the voice that flies free and true, the sacred carrier of sentences, jokes and asides that no one on this planet has ever heard except me. You know, the true voice that's always being constantly erased and replaced, lost in the shuffle of my speaking voice. Lately, I'm hearing less and less of that fluency inside as it seems to succumb more and more to the shortcuts and aborted solutions of what everyone else hears. The duality and separation of my voices have been the crucible upon which I have fought and grown for so many years, and it's now collapsing into an indistinguishable, smoldering heap.

This isn't me.

The fight's not over yet. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life making my way through shadows outside brightly lit rooms of chatter. I need a different path.

It's darker now, the storm's intensifying, the diner's lights come on, and my reflection pulls up alongside in the window. An always irreverent, middle-aged man takes a gander at what I'm doing. Eyebrows raised just a bit. Dude, there'll be no blending in now. Everyone there will figure what you're really about the minute you open your mouth.

It doesn't matter anymore. I know who I am and what I want.

Brandishing a pen, I write with a flourish at the end of the cover letter what I've never discussed publicly, ever. "As one who struggled for years as a child and student to overcome the stigma of a speech disability, I am all too aware of the ongoing importance of your work."

Here we go.


Whew.

The sun's just touched the mountain opposite and gone all crimson. See how that ring of ledges catches and flares red, and how quickly the valley below slips into black? I never tire of sitting here and bearing witness to glorious rebirth.

As I said, whew.


Well, that's the whole and mess of it—odyssey's end, taking this adult stutterer to your doorstep. Although some details of my journey undoubtedly vary from others, I am sure the complexity, rawness and intensity of it all doesn't surprise you, dear SLP—you've been through this before.

For you SLPs treating adult stutterers between the ages of 18 and 64—that's a lot of yardage to cover. And so much painstaking work and patience, I bet, when meeting and understanding exactly where your clients are at the particular point in life when they've decided to seek treatment. Goodness, how do you do it?

Think about my story.

The fiercely independent, self-loathing Gary at age 20 would have never consented to treatment or even to talk about stuttering. If I had been forced by my undergraduate college to do so, it would have been a battle royale with the SLP. I would have despised you.

The wildly despairing, extraordinarily vulnerable Gary at age 33 would have likely sabotaged progress through his belief—nay, ardent desire—that the treatment would wipe away the stuttering completely and grant complete fluency. He sorely needed a magic wand to make it all go away.

The Gary who's at your doorstep now? My earlier, rather volatile incarnations still flicker and flare every now and then, but most of the time I'm just a middle-aged man with open eyes and few illusions. Complete fluency is not my goal ... I'm just never going to give up striving to become a greater part of what's around me, to share more of my true voice. My three years working at ASHA have me all fired up again to fight for a larger world, a more complete life.


Time to go. Before we do, listen to the night sounds and watch. The dark always comes quickly and completely in these ancient, pummeled mountains. Across the whole valley, there's just the one kitchen light in the old farmhouse that someone's snapped on. Just like decades ago, everyone's hidden from one another by dense forest. Tonight, however, I won't have to hesitate and hide up here while waiting for that light to go out.

Something wet and cold's trickling down my right cheek. Damn it. I'm outta here. Be seeing you soon.

With a sigh and slight smile, he disappears into the darkness, after all these long years finally following a light home—the wisecracking publisher; the hungry, angry learner of new worlds and things; the little boy who will never stop yearning for the ability, the right, to say all that he's ever wanted to say about his marvelous life.

Gary Dunham, PhD, is ASHA publications director and editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. gdunham@asha.org.

cite as: Dunham, G. (2013, November 01). Odyssey's End. The ASHA Leader.

Profiles of Cultural Insight

Three communication sciences and disorders professionals share insider tips on providing culturally informed services to Apache, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim clients.

Treating Adult Stutterers

For SLPs' perspectives on treating adult stutterers, see Jill Douglass and Glen Weybright's companion articles online.

Sources

ASHA (2013). [ASHA summary and affiliation counts January 1 through December 31, 2012]. Unpublished raw data.

Packman, A., & Onslow, M. (2002). Searching for the cause of stuttering. Lancet, 360(9334), 655–656.

Sommer, M., Koch, M. A., Paulus, W., Weiller, C., & Büchel, C. (2002). Disconnection of speech-relevant brain areas in persistent developmental stuttering. Lancet, 360(9330), 380–384.



  

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