Stammering- Personal insights into a complicated neurological condition

Learn well your grammar,

And never stammer,

Write well and neatly,

And sing soft sweetly,

Drink tea, not coffee;

Never eat toffy.

Eat bread with butter.

Once more- don’t stutter.

Lewis Carroll

This is from a man whose stammer prevented him from joining his dream job of clergyman. I can sense the sadness in every word of his poem, but you probably can’t. How many times have you spoken to someone who struggles to get their words out? At school, college, work, or social gatherings there is always someone you try to avoid. Not because he or she is unpleasant but because holding a regular conversation with them seems like a chore. As you try to control your impatience at the delay in their speech, they grow more desperate to get it out. Their face spasms and contorts in trying to form the words, their hands sweat and clench. The words are blurted because they come rushing at an embarrassing speed. Some of you understandably but insensitively try to help, by prompting, or completing their sentences for them. Some of you wonder why these people seem distant, rude and arrogant, while in reality they are only shielding themselves from your casual judgement. 

If my assessment of people who interact with stammerers seems bitter and accusatory, it is because it is. Stammerers learn early on that they will be judged, dismissed and laughed out of a room even before they have entered it. They learn that their stammer is fair game for convenient put- downs, even from close friends and family. The likelihood that a stammering child is bullied is high, as I was. As a stammering teenager you watch your peers hold the most casual conversations with an ease and fluency that you can only wish with all your heart you had. Living in a state of constant anxiety, insecurity, under confidence and low self worth is normal. 

I have stammered. I have felt my heart pound at my ribs at the thought of having to say ‘Present’ at roll call in school, choosing to say ‘Yes’ instead, knowing that P’s were my nemesis and had more than once caused me to be marked absent because I was unable to get past them. I have felt my face go red in shame at school while trying out for debates. I have preferred to stay at home in the evenings, choosing a book over playing with friends, because  play involved conversation, and I couldn’t put myself through it. I have hesitated to make or receive phonecalls, sweating at something as simple as talking to a stranger to order pizza. I have watched orators and grieved as I asked myself why, despite knowing exactly what I wanted to say, despite my knowledge and my analytical abilities, my speech refused to cooperate. I have gone to multiple speech therapists, learned how to play a conch as part of breath control training, tried to speak while tapping my finger at every word, sung out entire phrases, even spoken to myself in mirrors in pretend conversations. Nothing worked. I was miserable. 

One day it subsided. My crippling inability to speak the simplest of words and sentences became a thing of the past. Confidence flooded in as I found coping mechanisms to comfortably mask my stammer. I did and do this by substituting trigger words. Every stammerer has a directory of replacement words filed away in their brains, a whole thesaurus. I also use strategic filler sounds like ‘ummm’ and ‘errr’, which help me bridge speech gaps in a conversation, mimicking a thought gap where there is none. Sometimes, I use this incremental split- second purchase of time to fish for a substitute word or phrase that is easier to say. 

It is very difficult to explain to someone who has never stuttered what it feels like. Everyone has experienced a hesitation or loss for words while speaking. Stammering is not that. Everyone has experienced a tongue tie or palpitations standing in front of a huge audience. Stammering is not that. Stammering has an underlying neurological cause, a sort of wiring defect in the brain, which causes the speech muscles to not respond to the command given. If speech is the display or output and the command to speak is the keyboard or input in a computer, stammering is the computer programme freezing momentarily, not responding to any command. Instead, you have an annoying spinning hourglass (a la Windows 95), the working cursor of your worst 90’s nightmares. The spinning hourglass is the stammer. The operator bangs on the keyboard in frustration, but nothing appears on the screen. The only option is to wait for the program to self-correct and respond or Alt-Ctrl-Del. The stammer might occur on any word without warning, like a program glitching on a pirated Windows 98. Some words are more frequently affected and ‘glitch’ in times of stress, anxiety or excitement. 

Even though stammerers struggle with basic fluency, the condition does not correspond to any cognitive learning or motor disability. Stammerers can take solace in the fact that some of the brightest minds in history have stammered-  scientists, actors, politicians, even great orators. Isaac Newton, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill and King George the VI are some prominent names. But even these people struggled with social skills and insight, because debilitating anxiety and social phobias come with the territory. Newton had all windows closed while speaking so that his stutter would not be heard by passersby on the street. In the 2010 film The King’s Speech, Colin Firth playing George the VI expresses his shame and frustration thus- ‘If I am King, where is my power? Can I form a government? Levy a tax? Declare a war? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.’ It is my humble opinion that these anxieties and phobias contribute to the severity of the condition. Anxiety causes stammering, and stammering feeds anxiety. The circle is vicious and indescribably hard to break.

Stammering cannot be cured, in the sense that it never truly goes away. The severity waxes and wanes depending on the occasion and the age. Research shows that a large portion of children stammer, but the stammer generally goes away by 3- 4 years. A very few unlucky ones carry it to older ages. Among these, the stammer subsides in the late teens for some lucky children, like it did for me. Rarely does its full blown paralysing form carry on into adulthood. To reiterate, techniques like intentional slow speech and anticipatory pauses, strategic word substitution and use of filler sounds are helpful. I can now mask it to the point that people who don’t know me intimately are surprised to know how difficult it was for me to answer the roll call in school everyday. War is what happens when language fails, says writer Margaret Atwood. I have been at war with myself in my head for as long as I can remember. 

There are certain conventional treatments available. They never worked for me, so I hesitate to recommend them. I believe that therapy should only be aimed at addressing the extreme anxiety associated with the condition. Developing self- confidence, letting go of all embarrassment, learning to accept yourself and your every flaw also go a really long way in reducing anxiety and by association, reducing the severity of the condition. The importance of surrounding yourself with people who ignore your stammer completely and talk to you normally cannot be emphasised enough. I am blessed in having found this support in my wife. Stammerers are hyper-aware of the response their stutter invokes in people, so they are constantly watching closely for even the smallest involuntary sign of discomfort- like a facial twitch, eye roll or flinching or wincing. It helps tremendously if you make the conscious effort to not react. Whatever you do, just please don’t acknowledge it. Unsolicited empathising or sympathising of any kind adds to the humiliation and the helplessness. As I have mentioned previously, don’t reveal your impatience with prompting and attempts at completing their sentences for them. Even well- meaning advice, like ‘Speak slowly’, ‘Breathe before you speak’, ‘Just relax’, ‘Calm down’ or ‘Remember your speech therapy techniques’ backfire and do more harm than good. You can’t tell someone with a fever to cool off. If you are one of those who laugh at stammerers, find them funny and believe that they are only good to play bumbling idiots or provide comic relief in Bollywood films, you are welcome to roll over and die. 

To conclude, be nice to the stammerers in your life, but not in an overt or demonstrative way that damages their sense of pride or already fragile self esteem. Respect that they are constantly fighting a battle harder than you can imagine. Believe me, there is a way to engage with stammerers without making them anxious or self-conscious, but only you know what it is. As with anyone else in life, there are ways to hold conversations without making the other person feel foolish or bad or regretful for wasting your time, because that’s what stammerers think they are doing. There are ways to be kind without hurting their feelings. The burden of making you comfortable with our stammer does not and should not lie on us. I have always believed that if something is important to you, you will make an effort to get it right. You could make a start by watching films like The King’s Speech and Rocket Science that depict this condition with accuracy and sensitivity. You could read up on it at the British Stammering Association website , at the Stuttering Foundation website or at the many other resources available online. Several stammering forums now exist, where stammerers and those close to them find ways to help each other. 

I would like to end with another quote by Margaret Atwood, who I have not read but admire, and wish I had. Word after word after word is power. I think she meant it for writing, but it also applies to speaking, to fluency. As someone who has been denied that power for a very long time, I would urge you to be grateful that you have it in abundance. 

Thank you for taking time out to read this. 

Sri Vatsa

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