Monday, December 19, 2011

Fear of What?

If you do an Internet search on stutter, you'll find that among the most common terms associated with the condition are fear, anxiety, shame and the like. If you read stutter message boards, you'll find stutterers discussing their frustration, embarrassment and anger at having to deal with their condition. Clearly, negative feelings, however expressed, are a very real part of the life of stutterers.

If you dig further into the literature on stutter, you'll find a common claim from therapists and researchers that stutterers overestimate the degree of negative attitudes held by their listeners. Commonly, it is said that stutterers 'project' their own feelings on to their listeners. No doubt, there are some people who harbor negative attitudes towards stuttering, and some express them openly when they encounter it.

In order to justify putting the onus for causing the stutterer's fear/shame/anxiety/etc. on the listener (given that this fear is typically felt before the stutterer even begins speaking ), we have to reach past the actual behavior and attitudes of listeners and speculate. One can argue that the fear comes from past experience, in which listeners did show hostility or ridicule, or simply impatience. This is a reasonable speculation, to a degree. How often, and to what degree does it apply, however?

Our experiences are all different, but how many stutterers suffer repeated, long-lasting persecution for their speech? For those who have suffered ridicule and bullying from schoolmates over time, it would be understandable that they should think the worst of non-stutterers. I suspect, however, that such cases are the exception rather than the rule. And given the natural cruelty children are capable of, I doubt most stutterers have suffered any more than many other children at the hands of their peers.

I would suggest that 'past experience' is only a partial answer. If eight out of ten non-stutterers treated stuttered speech with ridicule or disdain, it would be reasonable. I can only speculate, but I believe that the true proportion of people stutterers interact with who respond negatively is far smaller than four out of five. If positive - or at least neutral - experiences are the rule rather than the exception, then why the emphasis on the negative? Why is the evidence of fear and anxiety so much greater than the evidence for a rational basis for such feelings?

Let me make a suggestion as to the origin of the famous stutter-anxiety - one that might explain both the consistency and the degree of the phenomenon better than the 'listener reaction' hypothesis. It was William Perkins who suggested that stuttering be defined as a loss of control over the speech process. My hero in the field of stuttering, Marcel Wingate, derided this idea, but in this case I think he was wrong to do so.

The difference between stuttered speech and the normal flaws of speech by non-stuttering speakers is exactly the loss of control over the speaking process that is experienced by the stutterer. This is related to my antipathy to the rat-bag term 'disfluency,' which includes stuttering, as well as every imperfection of speech by those who do not stutter. A non-stutterer can be trained to clean up their speech to perfection, as professional public speakers like television and radio announcers, and (some) college professors do. Removal of interjections like 'umm' and 'uhh' are just a matter of paying attention and practice. That is, while they slipped into the speakers manner of speaking casually, they can be removed volitionally

The disordering of speech produced by stutter are another matter entirely. The blocks that generate the stereotypical prolongations, repeats and the assorted rest are not a bad habit; the blocks are generated beyond (under, within?) the level of voluntary control, and as such are only subject to conscious decision to a slight degree. Perkins was right in his assertion; what separates the stutter block(and the tics of Tourette syndrome, for instance) from other 'behaviors' is that they are generated at a sub-conscious, sub-voluntary level, and are not subject to what we commonly think of as 'will power.'

It has taken my multiple paragraphs, but I can (begin to) get to the point now. I'd like to propose that much of the fear, embarrassment, etc., of stuttering is not so much the fear of negative judgements by others. Rather, it may be the fear of experiencing the lack of control over one's own body that occurs during a stutter block, projected on to others.

You can read books and articles on stutter for hours and barely see a word about the core of the condition: the physical inability to proceed through the normal production of a spoken syllable. Stutterers are not bad at speech, as I might be bad at hitting tennis ball or painting a portrait. Stutterers suffer a temporary fault of speech production, in which the expected motor process cannot be carried out. This is in spite of the fact that in other cases, the stutterer is perfectly capable of saying the same word perfectly. Stutter can be described as a dynamic paralysis (although I've never seen it put that way), in which a typical series of physical movements is stopped in mid-sequence.

Imagine that you decide to write something down. You see a pen on your desk, and reach for it. Your elbow extends, your upper arm raises in your shoulder joint slightly, your wrist turns to face the palm of your hand down, and just as your fingers begin coming together in preparation to grip the pen, your entire arm locks up and will go no further. What's going on? Your arm comes back to your body, you raise your hand to look at it, you shake your hand at the wrist, and then you repeat the above process.

You reach down, get to the same point as last time, and again, just as you prepare to grip the pen with your fingers, your hand and arm lock up. Now you strain to force your hand down to reach the pen, but in spite of your arm muscles quivering, you can't get your fingers any closer to the pen. You pull your arm back, rub it with your other hand, shake your whole arm this time, and start over once more. And the same thing happens. After 5-6 attempts, you finally find yourself able to grab the pen roughly off the desk. How would you feel?

What I've done here is to model the stutter block with hand and arm movements. I've also eliminated any observer effect. How would you react to being suddenly incapable of controlling your own body in what has always been a natural - and necessary - series of motions? How would you think of your own arm if it suddenly seemed to be disconnected from your will? What does it mean to say 'this is my hand' when the hand won't respond to sub-conscious level control as it always has? It seems to me that this kind of dynamic paralysis of normal motor function would be terribly disconcerting.

Now add another element to this phenomenon. Make it intermittent. Sometimes you can pick up the pen, and sometimes you can't. Sometimes it's bringing a fork to your mouth while eating. Sometimes turning the ignition key when you want to start your car. And sometimes it's getting your penis out of your fly when you need to urinate (use your imagination, ladies). I think you can see how this sort of intermittent loss of control of one's body could easily be traumatic to the psyche - independent of any 'listener effect.'

I am proposing here, that a significant part of the fear/anxiety/shame that is discusses so often around stuttering originates not in the stutterer's understanding of how they will be perceived by others, but in the stutterer's own body. I am proposing the existence of a quite natural sense of dread that comes out of the loss of control over the stutterers's body during a block. That such a sense of wrongness should be directed outward to listeners is also quite natural. How many stutterers stop and analyze their own condition during those moments of blocking? Who calmly and rationally studies the nature of their stutterings, and considers the origins of their anxiety?

The nature of stutter directs us to look outwards when we examine our own physical and psychic responses to moments of stuttering. When do we stutter? When we talk. When do we talk? When there is someone to talk to. It is easy to take the next step and say that our listener causes us to stutter. Of course, here we must note the maxim from statistics: correlation is not causation. A good deal of science goes into supporting that statement against 'common sense.'

So to 'deconstruct' the 'listener effect' in stuttering anxiety, we could say that just because a listener is in front of us when we feel anxiety during speech, that doesn't mean the listener is causing the anxiety. Listeners, and any perceived negative attitudes held by then, could just be the hook we hang our anxiety on when we haven't looked inwards to find the source.

This is not to say that bad attitude on the part of non-stutterers isn't real. Any stutterer knows that. To a greater or less degree, we've all experienced the insults and various degrees of negativity, from being ignored to being beaten. My effort here has been to account for the difference between the degree to which real harm that can be inflicted on us (limited, and generally less than we think) and our internalized level of negative feelings.

So once again, the reader might ask 'what's the point?' In this case, I would argue that the point is a big one. Stutterers are notoriously resistant to speaking openly, and to the therapeutic path. Stutterers are even resistant to dealing with other stutterers. The first time I saw a stutterer on television as an adult, I was shocked. I found it hard to keep watching, it was so painfully uncomfortable for me. My native Boston metropolitan area has 1.8 million residents and two National Stuttering Association support groups. When I attend my local group meetings, we get from two to five stutterers. That's one stutterer at the meeting for every 1800-4000 stutterers.

Why is this? Why are stutterers so averse to their own condition that we are so resistant to acknowledging it and dealing with it? You can say fear and shame, but those words just raise the question 'why?' Why is the distaste for our stuttering so great that so many of us can't even begin to attempt to deal with it? My suggestion is that the source of our anxiety is deeper than has been acknowledged in the past.

Even if we understand cognitively that listeners won't point and laugh at us in public if we stutter, the interior source of anxiety remains. That feeling, experienced thousands and thousands of times over by the time we reach adulthood, that our body is not our own. The feeling that we are, in a sense, possessed during the moment of speech block, and have had our bodies severed from out intentions. Something not 'us,' not our thinking, volitional selves, is getting between our intentions and our most human of behaviors. When that which makes up our inner self is divorced from our physical self, should we be surprised at the outcome?

1 comment:

  1. Mark, that made alot of sense. I especialy liked your comment that when you saw a PWS
    on TV for the first time you found it painful
    to listen to. This same reaction in myself
    has bothered me but after watching 3 or 4
    podcast on Stuttertalk I am almost over this feeling. Heck now listening to one of those podcast i will have periods that I just don't
    hear the blocks.