In the seventh grade, at the age of eleven, I began to stutter. It began without apparent reason; all too suddenly, I found myself tripping over consonants and unable to begin speaking words that began with vowels. When asked to speak up in class, I found I needed a visible act of physical exertion to get the words rolling; often, I would have to step out from behind my desk with a little skip or hop, an act that never failed to provoke giggles in my classmates and sometimes even my teachers, who would look at me with expressions part amused, part quizzical. I had never stuttered before; I was mortified and humiliated and crushed.
My stuttering was plain for all to see; my audience included my parents. My mother was intelligent and sensitive enough to realize this affliction had a psychological provenance though she could not begin to guess at what it was. Perhaps because I had changed schools the previous year; perhaps because I was still struggling to adjust life as a ‘civilian’ after my father’s retirement from the air force. I had never been particularly gregarious or extroverted, but now, some other barrier to social interaction had arisen from deep within me and laid a formidable roadblock in front of me. I showed no signs of being able to negotiate it.
My mother sought help. She was directed to a child psychologist–reputed to be of sympathetic temperament and disposition–whose offices were located conveniently near by to our home, a mere short bus-ride away. When she told me she planned to take me there for a consultation, I was agreeable. I liked the idea of being ‘treated’ and more to the point, I was curious about what a ‘psychologist’ did. How would she ‘cure’ me? What was the ‘treatment’ like?
Our first meeting with the psychologist went pleasantly enough; my mother and I met her together and provided her with some elementary details on our family, my school life, my friends, my daily activities, and of course, my immediate history preceding the outbreak of stuttering.
This intake meeting out of the way, my sessions with my therapist began. Twice a week, after school, my mother and I traveled by bus to her office, and then, while my mother waited for me, I went into the therapist’s office for an hour. This was a talking cure for talking; so we talked.
It is now almost thirty-five years since those sessions, so I can remember little of them. I do remember my therapist’s gentleness, her curiousness. I think her diagnosis, such as it was, of my stuttering, was that a shy boy had become even more so; that my inability to come out of my shell in my new school, to make friends in my neighborhood, my constant retreat into my books, had driven even my spoken expression back into me, repressed and suppressed it.
In the end, the ‘cure’ was effectuated by the simplest of means; she was a stranger, and she was kind, and she spoke to me, and listened to me and humored me. Those conversations, by themselves, drew me out of my shell and encouraged me to speak. She did not discipline me; she was not harsh; she did not rebuke me or mock me; she listened a great deal. I spoke, I complained, I bemoaned the changes in my life, I spoke of what I felt was missing in my life.
After every session, my mother would ask me how it had gone, and I would always have the same answer: It went well. I grew to like my therapist and looked forward to my bi-weekly conversations with her.
A few months later, my therapist told my mother I was ‘cured.’ Indeed, I was. I had stopped stuttering; or at least, the most noticeable forms of my affliction were now gone. I do not remember if we did any follow-ups, or if I was upset at having ended the treatment. In any case, soon thereafter, I left home for boarding school. Nothing quite convinced me how valuable my sessions with her had been than my time in boarding school; dealing with its feral residents while suffering from a stutter would have been misery.
Traces of my stutter still survive; when I am angry, stressed out, unhappy, or otherwise not quite psychically comfortable, I notice myself tripping over words, unable again, to begin words with vowels. At those times, the only remedy I can seek is to simply slow down, stop speaking, retreat, and then try again.
I wonder where my therapist is; I never found out her name, never met her again. Here is a belated thank you.
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