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The Starfish Project - my experience

Matt Callard | 01.06.2010

Matt Callard writes about how he has become his own therapist, whilst making the most of other people's support.

I'll start by saying that I respect whatever approach people have to their stammer. If you've chosen the therapy route, I respect whatever approach works for you. I just want to share my story to hopefully help others, just how a friend helped me by telling me about The Starfish Project.

Before I attended Starfish in 2006 my stammer would probably be described as quite severe. I'd tried various physical and psychological techniques over the years and always given them my best shot. Some helped me to an extent, some didn't, but I've never found that a problem - I was grateful for any help I could find.

I had understood for some time that it was the fear of stammering (and of what others might be thinking) that was running the show, resulting in my visible stammering and avoidances. For a while, I'd been trying to reduce these fears by taking them on (feared words, sounds, situations, etc) combined with some positive thinking. The problem for me was that because I stammered on most words, and regularly couldn't get words out at all, I wasn't having positive enough experiences to reduce these fears. Also, even though I was thinking more positive thoughts, I was still spending all my time thinking about my speech. I got to a point where I realised I just wanted something to give me some sort of control, so I could get on with my life.

When a friend recommended Starfish to me, I knew it was something to do with a breathing technique but didn't know much more than that. I had heard of the course before but hadn't really looked into it because I knew I needed more than just a physical technique. But because of the recommendation, I thought maybe it could help.

On attending the course, I quickly realised it was much more than just a breathing technique! In fact it also covered all the things I'd already been working on and more, I couldn't help but think why didn't I just do this before?

It is very much an all round approach - 'costal breathing' is just one part of the technique (but it's still simple), and the technique is just one part of the whole approach. The other parts are reducing avoidance, positive thinking, and having support of other people.

"'Costal breathing' is just one part of the technique (but it's still simple), and the technique is just one part of the whole approach"

Finding what works for you

The speech technique is by far the most effective I've ever tried - saying my name with control for the first time in my life was a great moment for me. It is also the simplest technique I've tried (I found others were often too much to think about), and the most satisfying and empowering (you say every sound of every word you want to say). I couldn't believe I hadn't discovered this before.

The course itself has many qualities that appeal to me. I found it simple, effective, empowering, fun, and the support is amazing - during and after the course. It has a basic structure but with great flexibility (due to the small group sizes) to allow for the individuality of each person attending. For example, I visibly stammered more than others, so I worked more on the basic technique, and practised words that were an issue before such as my name. Someone who maybe avoids situations more, might spend more time talking these things through, getting people's advice on how to approach situations, how to take on things they might have avoided before. You work on the things you need to work on.

People learn the basic technique and approach, then adapt it to suit themselves. You naturally create the way that works for you (you are encouraged to be your true self, nothing more). For some people it's clearly life changing, others aren't necessarily looking for that - you take from the course what you want.

Refreshers on the course give their own tips and experiences which I found invaluable. But it is an individual approach, so no one says this is how you have to do it. You hear what helps other people and give it your own slant as well. As a refresher, an experience I sometimes tell people about is when I started using the phone after my first course. Even though I was not totally in control of my speech, I had far more control than before the course and I was making calls that I would not have made previously. By focusing on these positives, I went on to make more calls, my use of the technique improved, and my control and confidence increased as a result.

I also like that there is no hierarchy - everyone is just there to help each other. You?re not made to do anything but the more you put in, the more you get out. You work on realistic everyday speech and situations and go at your own pace.

I really enjoy the course atmosphere which has a great balance of being motivating whilst relaxed and informal. The whole thing is an enjoyable, fun experience (for me this is very important - if I didn't enjoy it, I probably wouldn?t do it) and the fact that the course is not run for profit speaks volumes about the people involved and the joy they get from helping others.

I very much value the support from other people. This starts on the course, but there is a huge amount of support afterwards (if you want it) - mainly in the form of a telephone list, various support groups around the country and refresher courses. I've certainly made the most of the phone list which has helped me enormously - I'm now on the phone all the time when it used to be my biggest nightmare. People choose what they want to work on and take responsibility for that.

Into the outside world

After the course, I kept on making progress with understandable ups and downs, but I never went back to how I was before. Those 3 days were quite a revelation for me but I didn't want it to be about just those 3 days, I wanted it to be about the rest of my life. I'd got used to presuming therapies were something that could only help me a small amount, for a limited period, but by what I had experienced on the course and through seeing how much it had helped other people, I knew this was something that I could make happen.

With other therapies I tried, I always felt so reliant on the therapist.

Though it's not a cure, it's given me what I always wanted - something I have responsibility for, something I can work at and make progress with. With other therapies I tried, I always felt so reliant on the therapist. This is something that I can make happen outside the therapy environment and I have basically become my own therapist - while making the most of all the support on offer. I've found it much easier to push my comfort zones, think positively and reduce my fears with an empowering effective technique to focus on.

It's also not about trying to be too perfect, whatever that is. My goal has always been (and remains) - having enough control of my speech to do whatever I want to do in my life (from ordering a sandwich to going after my dream job); to say what I want, when I want. A bit of dysfluency has never really bothered me too much anyway. What did bother me was not getting words out at all, being held back from doing things, avoidance, and how all that made me feel. I've also grown to realise just how strong people who stammer tend to be, often without knowing it. This is easier to see now I have some control. With the progress I've made and the control that I now have, I know I can achieve whatever I set my mind to.

In my experience, all you need is your own motivation for making a change. Without motivation, you're unlikely to put in what's needed, but if you have the motivation, you'll naturally put in what's needed - it's much less effort than stammering/avoiding with no control anyway. Of course you have to work at it, just like you have to work at anything - it gets easier and more natural as you go.

I've since gone back on refresher courses to help others and work on my own speech. It's great to give something back and I take away something each time.

These days, I keep things very simple. I focus on the basics of the technique, on thinking helpful thoughts and most importantly, on enjoying doing things that I want to do, whether I fear them or not.

I've done presentations, a reading at my friend's wedding, spoken on live radio, etc, because I chose to, for the joy of doing something that was once impossible. But it's not really about that, it's more about fulfilling 'simple' ambitions that most people take for granted: everyday tasks, using the phone, having a proper conversation, starting a conversation, being relaxed when speaking, feeling confident, expressing my true self, the joy of controlling my speech, etc, etc.

I think in a much more balanced and healthy way these days, working on other things in my life that aren't about my speech. I've naturally thought at times, why didn't I do this earlier? But I can't change the past, I focus on enjoying what I'm doing now and what I'm going to do in the future.

From Speaking Out Summer 2010, pages 8-9