However apocryphal, I remember being told the that I learned to read before I could talk. That story was supported by a second one revealing that I did not begin to speak until I was more than five years old. Perhaps I was reading-accelerated. Perhaps I was speech-delayed. Take your pick. Anyway, from the start, I was a stutterer.

Stuttering, also sometimes called stammering, is a speech processing disorder in which the voluntary production of vocalization is disrupted by hesitation, repetitions, and/or gestures that appear to be associated with the stutterer’s effort to speak. Other accompanying behaviors may include facial grimacing, tongue-twisting, jerking hand movements or head bobbing, among many others.
Normally, speech production involves the intake of some sensory or cognitive data, the organization of that data into concepts or associated ideas, the translation of those ideas into representative language, and then the motor expression of that language in spoken words. For stutterers, for myriad reasons, this already astonishingly complex process gets even more complicated, resulting in breakdowns.

Breakdowns in speech production can occur at any point in the sequence and contribute to the stutterer’s failure to produce fluent speech; then he (and the 3 million stutterers in the US, for unknown reasons, are four times more likely to be a he) will be designated a person who suffers from “a speech impediment.” The stuttering person may have a deficit in skills at sensory integration, or even certain subtypes of sensory information, which then cause repeated delays in speech initiation. Or there may be a breakdown in the transformation of cognitive language templates to motor representations, resulting in an unending struggle to express as vocal sounds language-based concepts that are internally crystal-clear to the stutterer. The nature of the breakdown in vocal processing, from conceptualization to concrete speech, will determine the unique nature of the stuttering manifestation, from prolonged hesitations to repeated initiatory word sounds to gestural conversions to combinations of all three or many other “impediments.”

Formally, of course, the cause of stuttering is unknown. Most likely, the true etiologies of stuttering are as varied as stutterers themselves. Considering the complexity of the brain, the interacting factors that may contribute to a speech production disorder are potentially as numerous as the atoms of the universe. Additionally, different factors may contribute to differing degrees, creating still further endless variations. Most likely, stuttering is affected by numerous, subtle, shaded circumstances and conditions, many of them unknown even to the stutterer’s family or friends or even the stutterer himself. Chronic, long-term stutterers typically do not demonstrate the impediment when whispering or singing. Many stutterers stammer less when communicating with familiar loved ones, or animals or small children or, in some cases, when performing on stage or speaking a foreign language. When I went away to an overnight camp for two weeks when I was 11 years old, even though as a shy, stammering child I found the experience unpleasant in some ways, subsequently my speech impairment disappeared for a period of about four months. Then, inexorably, it returned.

Most if not all stutterers are painfully familiar with “the block.” The block is the barrier to productive speech that arises as the stutterer contemplates the presentation of his verbal message. The block often, but not always, takes the form of tension or rigidity in the neck or mouth, which increases as the stutterer presses ever more forcefully against it. This contributes to the gestures and grimacing and repetitions mentioned earlier, as the stutterer strives to smash through the block like a fullback crashing through a defensive line. But, typically, greater effort to overcome the block just leads to greater tension and an ever escalating impasse – the more effort and pressure invested in breaking the block, the heavier and more resistant the block becomes. Thus, the stutterer often ends up standing silently before this psychogenic block, staring at it with a familiar sense of resignation and frustration, as the person on the other end of the phone line finally hangs up after long seconds of silence or the clerk behind the counter turns away after asking the stutterer for the second time what he would like and receiving no quick answer.

The block, the stutterer soon realizes, is at least as big and as powerful as he is. It is clearly not under the control of the stutterer and seems, somehow, to gather strength from the stutterer himself. Thus, the encounter with the block leaves the stutterer with a sense of helplessness and self-alienation, as if some external power can at any moment begin determining his responses and, in effect, controlling his behavior.

Like every stutterer, had I been given a $5 bill every time over the decades a frustrated listener told me to “relax,” or “just spit it out,” I would long since have been a millionaire. When a stutterer hears such entreaties, he inwardly rolls his eyes, for he knows well that the block does not respond to the demands of listeners any more than it obeys the pleading requests of the stutterer himself. The stutter wants nothing – literally nothing – more than to please the listener through his speech. The stutterer longs to be loquacious, verbose, fluent, like so many others who communicate even the most innocuous and sometimes inane messages without the slightest hesitation. But stuttering is the ultimate inhibition to spontaneous communication, and thus the stutterer slowly becomes shut in upon himself, a person who thinks much more than he talks, if indeed he speaks at all. The stutterer is confronted tens of times each day with an involuntary question: What could I become if only I could speak? The answer, for him, is always just beyond his reach.

Sometimes, the stutterer’s earnest effort to ease the burdens of sharing leads to the discovery of “tricks” that seem, at least for a while, to facilitate fluency. For me, it was when I was about 16, after years dealing with largely self-imposed shame and humiliation in a crowded urban high school. I suddenly found that if I expelled air as I began speaking I could get the vocal ball rolling, as it were, and present my message relatively smoothly. I began to relax and, thus empowered, to speak up more in class. Success contributed to success and for a time I thought myself cured. I was less afflicted by the tortured self-consciousness that is the burden of so many stutterers. I began to participate in extra-curricular activities, sports, and even experienced a bit of social popularity. For a time, I breathed, spoke, thrived, and experienced moments of bliss. I felt like a normal person – almost.

Like most dependency-creating drugs, though, such tricks typically lose their effectiveness over time. Eventually, I found that my breath-exhalation technique, my little shameful secret, would in high-pressure situations often reduce my speech to a frog-like croak. It was better than staring at my listener in dumbfounded silence, but not by much. Once again, the block had found a way, if not to defeat me, as least to parry my efforts at fluency. I once again faced the bemused stares of listeners.

As mentioned, circumstances in which speech production is tacitly or overtly required within a limited amount of time are particularly problematic for a stutterer. I recall carrying on a brief telephone conversation when I was 19 years old, as my lovely first girlfriend stood beside me. After concluding the tortured five-minute call and hanging up, I turned to my girlfriend, red-faced and dripping with sweat. She gazed at me inquisitively. “That is the agony that is speech,” I said. I understood that, as caring as she was, she lacked the lexicon to comprehend the meaning of what I was saying.

Years later, when testifying as an expert witness in court hearings, judges would sometimes interpret my hesitancy in responding to inquiries during cross-examination as a deliberate refusal to abide by court protocols. On more than one occasion I received stern lectures and even threats that I could be held in contempt of court if I did not respond immediately when questioned. At that moment, in my embarrassment, I would gladly have traded places for the opportunity to sit in silent solitude in a jail cell. Once again, I was faced with the choice stutterers confront many times a day; should I reveal my supposed affliction, put my stuttering cards on the table, as it were, or just shut down and wait for the storm to pass? Again, like nearly all stutterers, I chose the latter.
For a stutterer, the very effort to speak results in a splintering of awareness. While an ordinary, unafflicted speaker sees the process of verbalization as a unified experience of communication in which most if not all of attention is focused on the information being shared, for a stutterer the experience is very different; for the stutterer a percentage of awareness is always diverted to the physical struggle to produce speech, while significant remaining segments of awareness are simultaneously focused on observing the listener’s reaction to the stutterer’s mangled sounds, making strategic decisions about how to best manage the overall process of communication insofar as it is affected by stuttering, considerations about word-substitution or reordering to (hopefully) increase the probability of getting over or through the block, and thoughts about one’s personal emotional reaction to feelings of humiliation, among many other considerations. It is remarkable, when one understands the diversity of distracting factors interfering with a stutterer’s speech, that he is not completely mute. As an unafflicted person must always devote a sliver of attention to readiness for speech, a stutterer must always be prepared to take on the seemingly enormous psychological burden of the many consequences of the stuttered speech act.

Every stutterer recalls the terrifying moments in school waiting to be called upon by an unknowing teacher as she strides in front of the class; Will it happen today? Does she understand my situation? What is her attitude about my situation? The vigilance required to maintain such readiness can itself be exhausting. That was one reason why I was not surprised to learn that an old high school chum, who was himself a “severe” stutter, had soon after graduation chosen to establish a home with his family deep in the woods. In time, so did I. A stutterer learns, however inaccurately, that people are the usual source of humiliation. Humiliation avoided, it may appear, is humiliation denied.

Of course, however deep in the desert or forest one plunges, there you are. Most wounds the stutterer carries are internal, so he may find himself shaking his head at the trees on a lovely forest trail or as he gazes off at an infinite horizon. Self-disgust is perhaps the most serious affliction of the stutterer, one that is not easily resolved by self-forgiveness or even through the caring and generosity of others. Through ten-thousand disheartening interactions the stutterer may come to believe that the demon creating the block within himself must also have been formed, to some degree, by the other. Thus, the stutterer sees himself as a figure of ridicule. My first psychiatrist told me that such negative interpretations of the other are mere projection. And, of course, I understood, as with most things, he was right. But wasn’t that a glint of contempt I discerned in my frustrated listener’s eyes?

So, around the fire in a stutterer’s heart regale the dogs of rage, just waiting to be awakened. For many stutterers, the first response to any disturbance is protective anger, a growling and baring of teeth. If the scent reveals a friend or fellow pack member, then the irritation is immediately transformed to affection and bonding. Otherwise, a sturdy leash may be called for.

The leash may be made of many things; perhaps it is comprised of an innate biological timidity, perhaps a spiritual orientation that mandates turning the other cheek if salvation is desired, or perhaps a law-enforcement-like strict commitment to codified protocols; or perhaps, like the speech-affected Mike Tyson, intense hostile attention is focused on structured opportunities to assault another. But, typically, whether male or female, the stutterer is afraid the dogs of rage will one day escape unsupervised and then some innocent or semi-innocent person may be harmed, and, in truth, the stutterer himself will be responsible. In the flurry of his overactive frontal cortex, the stutterer understands that having been repeatedly hurt does not justify hurting another. But what care the dogs of such sophistries?

There also may be profound gender differences in the subjective experience of stuttering. Every human is biologically wired to desire to stand tall and proud before the clan. But a woman who is struggling to speak may evoke sympathy, compassion, efforts to provide protection and comfort, for the gender-biased tasks that deep wiring says she is called upon to provide are not significantly hindered by silence. But a man, straining in frustration to produce even a single assertive word, usually evokes only contempt. The stutterer’s life is comprised of countless such crises, such momentary failures, and not everyone is enlightened enough to respond to these small crises with compassion. And how is the stutterer to know who is so enlightened, and who is not? Thus the stutterer learns to “transcend” his own shame, to view his humiliation with the detached gaze of a scientist. But the experiment, always, is with oneself.

So, the stutterer, like most so-called handicapped people, struggles with a sense of being “broken,” of having lost that degree of courage essential to standing up for himself. Like the shell-shocked soldier who huddles trembling in a ditch and is later slapped as a coward by General Patton, the stutterer has learned that even when one is utterly broken, even when one crawls on one’s belly in abject humiliation, one increases one’s chances of survival. Every totem pole must have a spot reserved for the lowest man, and the stutterer usually believe that place is his.
I recall as a boy of 10 walking to school and being harassed by another lad who himself suffered from polio and wore heavy metal braces on his legs. I broke down in tears and begged him to leave me alone. I remember sensing how surprised and even perplexed he was that he had finally discovered someone who even he could bully. In retrospect, though unintentional, it may have been one of the most generous acts of my life.

Upon entering high school, I discovered the weight room and the sport of wrestling. I channeled my anger and resentment into pumping iron and adjusting to the unmerciful strictures of physical combat. I grew from a lightweight to a middleweight. To my surprise my body, always small but powerful, responded and within a year resembled an advertisement for a weightlifter’s magazine. It didn’t add much to my wrestling skill, but I discovered that by just keeping quiet and looking very fit I would generally be left alone. Bullies took one look and understood, without a word being said, that my appearance indicated that I could not be easily physically overwhelmed. To my surprise, no one tried.

But, inside, I could not hide from my own insecurity; if only they knew how frightened I was, how easily I could be vanquished! I strived to master the stutterer’s secret skill, the fine art of concealment. If I dressed reasonably well and kept my mouth closed and radiated a certain silent hostility I could usually stride through my days unmolested. I was always aware, however, that it was only a shell, a thin veneer.

As I stumbled through the adolescent stage of learning how to form relationships with others I wondered if even those who appeared to like me were in reality only interested in the package, the appearance, rather than the whole person, including the seething morass of emotion and fear that lurked within. If indeed I won the daily contest to thrive, I felt that I had only faked my way by; if I lost, I felt that the terrible truth had been revealed. Despite my deep self-doubt and insecurity, I somehow progressed through college and graduate school, working hard, striving to make up in effort what I lacked in confidence. I learned that for some, at least, that was good enough. I got by. But I was not flourishing.

It took years for me to understand that people have far better things to do with their precious time than to worry about their impression of me. Finally, in my fifties, I reentered psychotherapy with a skilled and compassionate clinician and a plan to begin at the beginning and hide nothing. I started with the first memories, the dark beginning that had constituted the fragile foundation of myself. I stopped minimizing or exaggerating or negating my trauma and, with my therapist’s support, began to see things in a more clear and balanced way. I stopped making excuses for others or for myself. I was finally able to accept my accomplishments, to be satisfied with something less than compensatory world-dominating brilliance, and to devote less energy to frantic efforts to conceal my wounds. For the first time in decades, I began to relax.

Fertilized by the fair weather of calmness I was able to let myself shine and I at last experienced a measure of self-acknowledged success. Remarkably, whether through increased self-acceptance or relaxation or insight, or the plain old benefits of age, my stuttering slowly lessened and then virtually disappeared. As my first therapist had fruitlessly said so many years before, I finally and deeply believed that I had a right to be heard. And so, when needed and to the extent required, I said what I meant.

Of course, I say “virtually” because the old bumpy roads of dysfunctional speech production never do become smooth eight-lane superhighways. Hesitations and repetitions re-emerge, and the occasional bouncing initiatory blocks, but I worry less about them and understand that nobody else cares much either. At last, I am able to focus whatever time and energy I have left on the Maslowian higher tasks of self-actualization.

When I look back – and as an older Irishman I do look back – at the tension and the fear and the anger and its multitude of consequences, I am sad. But I am also grateful in the hard understanding that all that has happened was required for me to grow up and fully give what I have to give – and now, at least and at last, I truly have now.

So, what did I learn from being a stutterer? On the negative side I learned how to be afraid, how to doubt myself and my own worth, and that the world is a dangerous place, at least for a sensitive and vulnerable child, where humiliation and shame may come sauntering around the corner at any time.

On the positive side, most deeply, being a stutterer has taught me that even in the face of fear and struggle I can persevere and be of service in the world. I learned that most people are kind and compassionate and will respond with gentleness and patience to others who may be different from themselves. I learned that pain often carries with it a degree of wisdom, that wisdom was never meant to be free, and that to expect it to be so is a waste of precious energy. I learned, most of all, that even when life is a difficult struggle, I can survive. And, so far, I have.
And, as the stutterer’s special lesson, I learned to identify and honor that part of myself that is always apart and watching, the personal eternal witness that now has so much experience in observing, observing without judgment.

Dr. Michael J. Murphy is a forensic psychologist and neuropsychologist who can be reached at psychologicalinvestigations.com. Please feel free to post this essay on any websites or other places where you think it might be helpful to someone.