I am not sure when I started stammering or stuttering. But it is safe to assume that it has been part of my life since I started talking at around the age of two.
My oldest memory is the overwhelming envy I would feel observing those around me, especially my peers, speaking without difficulty — while bantering at school or in the playground or communicating with teachers, family or the neighborhood shopkeeper.
I would obviously get frustrated, while those hearing me… Well, I don’t remember how they felt about it, but I still recollect the episodes of ridicule I endured.
Over time, my feelings of inadequacy spiraled into social anxiety which affected my relationship with others and also deprived me of many opportunities. This phase peaked in my teen years.
Today, as a 31-year-old media professional who has come to grips with his condition, I can look back and even crack a few jokes about what I went through. But it was not always so — and like all journeys, the first steps and years were the hardest.
Speech struggles in childhood
Early on, my concerned parents tried to help. However, due to a lack of knowledge and readily available (and reliable) resources back in the day — we are talking late-1990s Ahmedabad here — they went on a confused trail themselves. They tried many remedies — from the simplistic to the outright weird, and everything in between.
There were ‘expert’ suggestions from friends and relatives, who were well-wishers no doubt but, not knowing what I was dealing with, mostly off the mark.
Once, my swimming coach advised my parents to rub butter on my tongue (and they did it too). A woman in the neighborhood advised me to chew licorice roots. Another person asked me to do anulom vilom (a type of breathing exercise) 10 times a day.
I had reason to thank the swimming coach for his advice, though: I loved eating butter.
How I coped in the beginning
As for my own efforts, the way I dealt with stammering, or rather the teasing, in childhood was also wrong. I now realize that bullying those who made fun of me did not help — while the teasing stopped, the psychological impediment I carried stayed with me. Maybe it even worsened.
As I grew up, there were more and more occasions where I just had to speak. And the first thing that came to my mind was the fear of stuttering.
I especially dreaded three letters: L, R and U. Words and sounds with these alphabets would make me stammer. It being impossible at times to avoid specific words while talking, I did what was in my power: I withdrew myself from school and social functions.
Ultimately, I would shy away from anything and everything that required interacting with others.
Speech trials in the teens
I dealt with a lot of frustration in my teen years but did not try to look within for answers.
Social anxiety had taken hold and — though I had a group of friends, a teenage gang so to speak — an inferiority complex was always there.
I was fond of a girl at that time. She was a good friend but I did not ask her out or try dating her, thinking she would judge me or outright reject me if I expressed my love.
Pros and cons of speech therapy
I went for my first speech therapy session in 2005, when I was 13. The belief going in was that an anatomical issue was behind my stuttering. But the therapist dispelled that in the first session itself.
Speech therapy sessions are important, and they do help people who stammer. However, in my case, the two speech therapists whom I consulted could not make a significant difference. I realized the reason only later.
The sessions were generally held in a comfortable and controlled environment. I would show considerable improvement there. But my stammer would return to haunt me the moment I stepped outside — where I faced many uncontrollable and uncomfortable factors, including talking to people I did not know.
However, I did gain a few insights.
Seeking to make me understand my condition better, the first therapist reiterated through the sessions that stammering would affect me only if I allowed it to make me feel inferior. This particular advice greatly helped me when I embarked on my collegiate and professional journey.
How I control my stammering now
The turnaround for me happened later, fueled by both introspection and conscious attempts to ward off the inner conflicts and self-doubts that were bogging me down.
Have I stopped stammering? The answer is no. I still experience bouts of stuttering.
But what has helped is the acceptance that it is okay to stammer. I also have a little technique: the practice of pausing. I employ this when I begin stammering. I pause, collect my thoughts and words, and resume speaking. It works more often than not.
Of course, when it comes to stammering, there is no one solution that fits all. Overcoming the mental block was important in my case. As was resolving to take control of the situation.
Fast-forward to today, and my profession requires me to communicate with people. I do stammer at times, even while conducting interviews or during meetings. But I overcome the stammer in a couple of seconds and continue — telling myself, and hopefully conveying to others around me too, that it is okay to stammer.