I love to talk about the hard work that my clients put in as they journey toward better communication. May is Better Hearing and Speech Month (BHSM), and the second week of May is National Stuttering Awareness Week, making this client spotlight double special! The 2021 BHSM theme “Building Connections” definitely represents what has driven this special lady’s pursuit for moving forward beyond the hardships she faced due to her speech.
When Megan Starrak (pronounced “Mee-gan”) emailed me in late September 2020 about speech therapy for stuttering, my focus zeroed in on a single line: “I am at my wit's end.” And to no surprise. She listed a host of fluency programs and alternative treatments tried over many years but found no long-lasting fluency from any of them. She had suffered much due to her severe stutter and was ready for a new narrative. She had difficulty forming solid relationships, was overlooked for promotions, and even endured pinching (yes, PINCHING!) as a child during therapy sessions in an attempt to decrease her stuttering. These painful experiences had taken their toll. But despite everything, Megan still had hope for a better quality of life. With a degree in English and excellent writing skills, she could do more. “I have so much to offer in terms of my skills & knowledge, but can’t because I can’t communicate verbally,” the email said. At her last job, she found most coworkers to be patient with her. Unfortunately, she did not get the same reaction from the manager, who was hesitant to recommend her for promotions.
Life had it that she would leave that job to become the primary caregiver for her mother. She worked part-time jobs that required limited verbal interaction. Now, after many years, Megan wanted to pursue other job opportunities, but the thought of interviewing and reliving past negative social experiences was a huge mental hurdle to jump. Like many adults who stutter, Megan lived covertly by skillfully avoiding in-depth speaking situations. She avoided talking on the phone; she did not initiate conversations. And when eating out, she would order what she could say off a menu instead of what she wanted.
“My mother was making phone calls for me [until she passed away]. I felt like stuttering was bad and so that meant I was bad too.”
I knew that helping Megan would be less about changing her speech and more about changing her mind. Stuttering is often thought of in terms of its physical impact, like eye blinking, blocking, prolonging & repeating sounds or words, and visible tension. What is often not considered are the cognitive and emotional effects associated with stuttering. A 2018 study by Michigan State University post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Seth E. Tichenor, and Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Dr. Scott J. Yaruss looked specifically at how adults who stutter view their stuttering. Respondents indicated that, as speakers, the stuttering event starts well before a single word is spoken---with anticipation, anxiety, or fear that may not necessarily be perceived by the listener, but affects communication. As a person who stutters myself, I completely understood this. I knew that treatment had to address the whole person, not just the visible behaviors. I needed to help her see herself---a person who stutters---as worthy and capable as anyone else. And it all started with two words. Two words she had never heard from anybody about her stuttering: "It’s okay."
And with that, a new perspective began. A treatment that is focused only on producing fluent speech as a goal ignores the underlying influences of stuttering behavior and can unintentionally enhance them; especially when 100% fluency isn't achieved or maintained. Treatment had to include not just helping Megan understand her stutter behaviors, but how reactions to her stutter and beliefs about her stutter influences her total communication. We visualized and set communication goals, and created a plan of action to get there. We openly discussed barriers she might face as she worked towards her goals and brainstormed solutions to overcome them. For example, during therapy, Megan often expressed losing patience with herself and wanting to “just push through it.” This usually led to increased tension and communication breakdowns. She would remember the strategies we brainstormed that she felt helped move her through her tension. She is also learning to focus on her message and not beat herself up when having more difficulty. Self-disclosure (the act of revealing you are a person who stutters) was used as a goal and a strategy for addressing anxiety and building confidence in conversation.
A treatment that is focused only on producing fluent speech as a goal ignores the underlying influences of stuttering behavior and can unintentionally enhance them; especially when 100% fluency isn't achieved or maintained.
And confidence is looking good on her.
Currently, Megan has met many of her goals, including pursuing and completing two interviews, and reaching out to others who stutter via a National Stuttering Association support group. Does she still face challenges? Of course. All journeys have peaks and valleys. Those of us who have been on a similar journey know that even as we are learning not to reject ourselves, it does not mean we never feel rejected. Megan says when it comes to speaking freely, “It’s something I’m still working on. I’m getting better at it.” And when it comes to how she views herself---well, that's the TRUE game-changer: “My perspective is totally different. Before [speech therapy with RESPOND] the thought of talking to other people was ‘No, no, no.’ But now I know it’s okay to stutter...it’s how I talk.”
Well said, Megan.
Inspired to start your own journey with speech therapy?
Contact me for a FREE consultation
and to set up an evaluation in-person or online.
I am not affiliated with the National Stuttering Association (NSA) other than as a general NSA community member. I don’t receive direct referrals or other perks for mentioning them. In my personal opinion, they’re the bee’s knees, so I do recommend that people who stutter, their families, SLPs, and other professionals check out the NSA at westutter.org for tons of resources and ways to connect!