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Challenges of retirement

John Cole | 01.06.2009

Early retirement created more rather than less of a problem for John Cole's speech. However it led him to look at why he had hidden his stammer, and to move forward.

The current part of my journey began when I took early retirement. I had thought that getting away from the pressures of work would help my fluency. It didn't, in fact the opposite happened. After retirement, I had so much time that I was thinking and worrying about my fluency much more than before.

My dysfluency is that I block, and this feels awful. I would go to extreme lengths to avoid problem words. Indeed I am a Covert Stammerer - I am so good with my avoidance that no-one knows I have a stammer at all. It came to a point where I thought I needed to do something about it. I couldn't go on like this much longer.

So it was that I came to Speech Therapy. In setting my goals, I said I wanted to be rid of my stammer, to be totally fluent. I did not like the stammer at all and wanted to be completely rid of it. I thought I would be shown techniques that would help me control my fluency - but I was very mistaken.

Stammer is a part of me

Karen had a philosophy that my blocking was an integral part of who I am. It took some time before I came round to this way of thinking. A lot of our sessions felt more like therapeutic counselling than speech therapy, but in the end it came as an important realisation that my blocking was a very important part of who I am and of how I have become who I am.

As I worked with Karen and explored more of how I had come to stammer, and also helped by Positive Affirmations, I came to be more forgiving and accepting of myself. I started to talk about being able to stammer in public when months before I would have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid such a thing. It was helpful in a speech therapy group (and on BSA's E-Friends) to talk with other people who stammer, and understand that they had the same fears as myself. I equally remember how amazed I was to learn that I was not the only Covert Stammerer in the world - I really did believe that that was the case at one time!

Slowly I was learning to relax myself at the point of potential blocks and also to feel at ease should I do a repetition (which isn't my 'normal' stammer), as well as to be forgiving of myself should I feel the need to avoid. An important lesson for me was to understand that I was doing the best I could.

An important lesson for me was to understand that I was doing the best I could.

Looking back

A big breakthrough for me came from reading a book which saw a stammer as a learnt behaviour. I don't know whether this is true for everyone but it seems to fit with being able to speak OK on my own, whereas in stressful situations the threat of blocking becomes greater. During this phase I did a lot of thinking about my earlier life, my teenage years and then into early manhood. I could see why I would have started to see my stammer as something awful, as well as understand why I had become a Covert rather than Overt Stammerer.

More importantly, I could also see that I had long moved beyond these 'hang-ups'. I no longer looked at the world in those ways. This further convinced me that I had settled into a pattern of learnt behaviour. As a young teenager I had been private and insecure, a perfectionist. My speech had seemed a huge issue. I thought that if I stammered, people would think I was daft. It was understandable to want to hide it. However, I had since grown up, got a job, got married and had a family. I could put my speech in perspective - it did not matter that much if I stammered in front of people. Karen had me going into new situations and being willing to stammer in them. I found that the ground did not open and swallow me up, and people did not think I was daft. Yes I am rather a perfectionist and I don't like the stammer, but I came to realise it is part of me.

Unlearning the stammer

So if the stammer is a learnt behaviour, I thought, then I can unlearn it. I find that as a problem word or letter comes into my mind, I can start to feel the physical sensations that I would experience when I block. To me then, logically, if I could replace that awful memory associated with that word with a memory of being able to say it fluently then in this way I can replace the old learnt behaviour with a new, fluent, learnt behaviour.

So, if I feel the 'old' sensations when hearing or thinking about a problem word, my new technique is this. When I am on my own I will say the word 10 times out loud. Because I am on my own this will be 100% fluent and I internalise that I CAN say this word. I start to feel less threatened by this word. Sometimes I still feel uncomfortable if I hear or think of the word again, in which case I repeat the process.

What I have found is that when I am in conversation with people then I will use a 'difficult' word without even thinking that it was a potential problem, and it's only later that I realise I didn't avoid or block it. This feels really great and further strengthens the new learnt behaviour.

Having been able to do this in relatively 'safe' conversations, i.e. people I know well or one-to-one's with strangers, I now feel I need to take it to the next level, which is perhaps with bigger groups and more stressful situations.

One other technique I have found helpful is Positive Affirmations. I might say (when I'm on my own!) "I am fluent" or "I am confident" 10 times out loud. Or if I am feeling nervous before a phone call I sometimes say 10 times out loud "I can make this call" and that helps dispel the nerves. This fits with the idea that my stammering attitudes and behaviours are ones I learnt years ago and I can now choose to leave them behind.

I thought that if I stammered, people would think I was daft.

Opening up

I also feel though that I want to be more open with people in being able to say I have a stammer - it's a part of me and I don't want to hide it any more. It's important to me that I am more fluent so I can do anything I want to, but equally if I do stammer then I don't want to feel embarrassed about it or feel that it is so awful.

I don't know if this part of my journey through life will have an end or not, I suspect that perhaps the stammer will just become less important as other events come along, time will tell.

I would also like to recommend and thank BSA for its E-Friends programme, the support and encouragement I received when I first started my journey was invaluable.

From the Summer 2009 edition of Speaking Out, pages 16-17.