The Worst Nightmare of My Life
Thirty years ago, on a cold Monday morning, I faced the worst nightmare of my life.
It was the first day of my engineering undergraduate course. Surrounded by the group of 18-year-olds I was meant to be studying with, and I was struggling to tell them my name.
I still remember that dread, the knot of fear gnawed deep within me.
I tried to say “R,” but it wouldn’t come out. And to my huge embarrassment, all I could manage was “Shankar.” They knew my name wasn’t Shankar. But I didn’t have a problem saying “S”; it was the best I could manage.
I ended that day feeling the lowest I’ve felt. I was meant to be going to college to study engineering. How could I possibly think of that when my stammer was so bad that I couldn’t say my own name?
I was not born with stammering, nor do I have a family history of this problem. It all started when I was a toddler, and by the age of six, I became painfully aware that I spoke “differently.”
Stammering Is a Serious Communication Problem
Stammering, however, is not simply a speech difficulty. It is a serious communication problem. It can undermine a person’s self-esteem, affect their interactions with others, impede their education and seriously hamper their employment potential.
Stammering can be unpredictable, stressful, and hard to deal with. This can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and a feeling of helplessness, ultimately pushing the person to the extreme feeling that his/her life is no longer worth living. And what people don’t talk about when they talk about stammering is confidence or lack thereof.
Standing in front of a room of people, a circle of friends, or even in front of a mirror and talking out loud is nerve-racking. That single moment can turn into a nightmare. A stutter can stretch a second to what feels like an hour or an interminable sum of time that can be relived over and over again days and weeks later.
And adding to the problem, no two stammerers stammer alike. Everyone stammers differently from others. Every stammerer is unique. This makes treatments very difficult to generalize, and options become limited.
Van Riper's Block Modification Technique
Returning to my story, the self-help therapy that worked for me is called the “block modification” technique.
It is based mainly on the work of Charles Van Riper, a famous American speech therapist who stammered himself. He believed it was helpful to accept your stammering and learn to stammer more easily with less tension and struggle. This approach is also known as "stammer more fluently."
Four Steps in Block Modification
- Find out what you do when you stammer (identification).
- Reduce your negative feelings about stammering (desensitization).
- Change how you stammer (modification).
- Maintain the progress you have made (stabilization).
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Self-Help Therapy Worked for Me
Every stammerer is unique; this is why self-help therapies can sometimes provide very effective treatment.
Ultimately, it all boils down to relentless practice till you achieve more than 95% cure. It's true that a 100% cure is not possible, and if you start practicing with 100% in mind, you are putting unnecessary stress on yourself.
And the first lesson is to inculcate this middle-path mindset. Choose the most optimum “middle path” whenever you start the journey to eliminate stammering. It will give you guaranteed results. Never expect 100%, but strive to be above 95%.
The first step is to find out the trigger points. Who or what triggers stammering?
And this is acceptance, making peace with yourself, and acknowledging that you have a problem and can no longer push it under the carpet.
Some of the questions you need to ask yourself can be.
- Do you repeat sounds (‘s-s-s-supper’) or syllables (‘sup-sup-sup-supper’)?
- Do you prolong sounds (‘ssssssupper’)?
- Do you get blocked in speech so that you are unable to make any sound ‘. . . supper’)?
- Do you close your eyes or rush through the speech?
- Do you try to avoid the word by changing it for another that is easier to say?
- Do you feel annoyed, embarrassed, or frustrated when you stammer?
- Do you get inwardly angry when people make fun of your stammer?
- Do you stammer in pressure situations?
Once you identify the conditions and the scenarios in which your speech gets disrupted, you can accordingly identify patterns and work towards finding a solution.
This is the step in which you start working on the patterns identified in the previous step and clearly understand how they affect you mentally and psychologically.
Remember, this is the step of emotional acceptance and making yourself less sensitive towards stammering. You can never eliminate stammering unless you eliminate its emotional stigma.
Some of the ways how this can be done can be.
Talking to one or two selected people about your stammer can help you deal more openly. Talking to people you like and feel close to may make you feel less anxious about stammering.
You may find that people are not as bothered about your stammering as you might think. This is a psychological booster you can capitalize on.
Maintaining Eye Contact
When you stammer, you either look down or start fiddling with your fingers until the words come out. You are basically embarrassed.
Maintaining eye contact will not stop you from stammering, but it may reduce the embarrassment all around. It can put your listener much more at ease. If your mouth is struggling to produce the words and your eyes are expressing friendly messages, the listener will pick up on those messages and wait calmly for you to finish.
And remember to make the eye contact warm and friendly. An aggressive, frightened eye contact further aggravates the problem.
One of the worst effects of stammering is avoidance. You avoid certain words. You avoid picking up that phone. You avoid ordering that pizza .and so on……
Malcolm Fraser makes this point in his book Self-therapy for the Stutterer,
“While temporarily affording relief, avoidances will increase your fears and cause more trouble in the long run. Successful avoidances will perpetuate stuttering.”
So how do you change the habit of a lifetime? First, become aware of your avoidance tactics. Armed with your diary or a pocket notebook, spend the next week or so watching yourself and listening to what you say.
And then tackle one situation at a time. Overcome that fear. If you fail, it is ok. If they can’t understand you, it is ok. The key is to keep on working towards those avoidance situations until they become second nature to you.
This provides a lot of relief. You voluntarily repeat a word or a sentence to give more time to yourself. Make it perfectly natural and blend it seamlessly into your speech routine. Voluntary stammering can help eliminate some of your shame and embarrassment. The more you practice, the easier it will become.
Remember, your aim in this stage is to be willing to stammer without getting emotionally involved.
This is the stage where you make concrete efforts to alter your speech. Some of the techniques that can be used can be.
Here you go back and correct the stammer. Here is the sequence of actions that can be followed.
- Finish the word on which you stammered. Completely halt.
- Take a deep breath. Forget that people are around you, watching you.
- Now repeat the word again in a smooth prolonged manner.
Although this may seem like a long and involved process, it should only take a few seconds, and it will get quicker with practice.
Here you correct the stammering while in the middle of stammering. Here don’t stop but continue stammering till you smoothly slow down your speech and take absolute control of yourself. The key here is to slow down until you become smooth gradually.
Here you prepare yourself to move smoothly through a stammer you can anticipate. When you anticipate stammering on a word, pause just before saying the word to plan how to approach it. Don’t speak until you have worked out how you usually stammer on the sound and what you can now do to improve your fluency.
Always remember the key to modification is slowing down. Most stammerers tend to speak fast and think fast. This is a very important characteristic of stammering.
The slow, prolonged manner of keeping the sounds flowing is one of the best ways to deal with stammering.
Stammering has no one-time cure. It can recur. It can also worsen. Your old fears can come back, too.
The key is to keep practicing that improved fluency until it becomes your way of speaking and thinking. This is the stabilization that I am talking about.
As time passes, you continue to gain confidence in your improved, modified way of speaking. You start preparing and anticipating stammer situations and prepare well in advance to tackle them. You also react to pressure situations in a cool pragmatic way which keeps you several notches above normal people who may tend to get bogged down under similar situations.
The more confidence you have, the more freedom from fear you will experience and the more opportunities you will start gathering in life. And above all, never forget that what you have achieved is no mean feat. Give yourself treats and praise when you have improved. Remind yourself that it was not easy, but you managed it.
As David Mithall rightly said:
“I have realized that, even if you stammer, you have a voice. So, you should USE IT.”
- The Stammering Handbook – Jenny Lewis
- Self-therapy for the Stutterer - Malcolm Fraser
- Stammering — Manimaran
- British Stammering Association
- Stammering Pride and Prejudice - Patrick Campbell
- Speech correction: Principles and methods - Charles Van Riper
- STUTTERING CURE: How to Overcome Stutter and Stammering - Marcel Fuursted
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2022 Ravi Rajan