Lisa began to stutter at eight years of age. Her mother also lived with a mild stutter her whole life.
Although unable to recall a specific trigger for her speech disorder, Lisa distinctly remembers feeling anxious when reading aloud in class during grade three.
According to Lisa, her stutter during childhood and adolescence was “completely overwhelming and debilitating at times”.
For years Lisa went to extreme lengths to avoid speaking in public, and subsequently missed a plethora of school assessments, while minimising her social interaction with others. Lisa ensured she was always accompanied by her best friend or mother on outings, both of whom proactively spoke on her behalf to others.
As an avoidance mechanism, Lisa recalls placing a huge amount of pressure on herself to find an alternative word to the one that would cause her to stutter.
Lisa battled her stutter up until 20 years of age, when she was introduced to a speech course from which she learned to confront and optimally manage her stuttering.
Today, Lisa articulates her words confidently and barely exhibits any form of a stutter. She runs a successful vegan food manufacturing company, and is a proud mother-of-two children.
This is Lisa’s story.
Lisa describes herself as a “covert stutterer”. Many people, including those close to her, were unaware of her stutter for years. Over time, Lisa honed her skills to avoid speaking out loud. In the interim, as she progressed through primary school and then onto high school, Lisa grew increasingly self-conscious of her stutter.
“I had to direct so much energy into my speech. I was able to anticipate what letters or sounds I would get stuck on, so there was a constant whirlwind of words racing through my mind, that I would need to weave through to find a replacement word, in order to avoid using a word or a sound that I knew I would get stuck on.
“My other tactic was to befriend those whom I knew would be able to both understand, and speak for me, so I could proactively avoid engaging in conversation,” said Lisa.
Lisa underwent intense speech therapy for three years, and sought treatment with a number of different speech pathologists, in a bid to resolve her stutter.
“Because my mother had also exhibited a very mild stutter throughout her entire life, as soon as it became apparent that I had developed a stutter, I was enrolled in extensive speech therapy intervention.
“During year six, my school teacher kept me inside the classroom at lunchtime to practice smooth speech with me, which meant I missed playing outside with my friends.
Lisa was a proficient dancer in her youth. Yet, despite her extraordinary talent in this area which saw her travel extensively, her speech proved a significant and ongoing hindrance. Lisa regularly experienced “blocks” in her speech, which profoundly impacted her verbal communication skills and self-confidence.
“There was something almost ironic about the way that I excelled as a dancer, and as a consequence, had the privilege of travelling all over the world with my chosen sport. Yet I struggled so much just to speak and hold a basic conversation.
“My closest friend and fellow dancer, who was always with me, spoke on my behalf,” Lisa said.
“I would almost always experience a knotted feeling in my throat when I was required to speak. I literally couldn’t get the words out of my mouth.”
Stuttering also derailed Lisa’s schooling, for even if she failed to understand something, she would never raise her hand to obtain clarity.
“Sometimes I even failed school assessments because I failed to understand a concept. Unfortunately I was never confident enough to raise my hand to ask a question.
“At one point in high school, I missed out on two whole weeks dedicated to public speaking assessments on the pretence that I had chicken pox,” said Lisa.
“My stutter was too often associated with humiliation and emotional exhaustion, particularly when I had to express something for which I couldn’t manage to find an alternative word. Sometimes I could not even say my own name, address or date of birth!”
Despite experiencing limited success with treatment as a child, at 20 years of age Lisa was introduced to a treatment option for stuttering that encouraged tactical breathing and taught participants to confront their stuttering rather than to use avoidance strategies.
“To be honest, at first I found the speech programme to be quite daunting, particularly because I was one of only a handful of female participants. I’m not entirely sure what element of the programme proved effective for me, but the techniques used really resonated with me.
“Eventually I became a programme instructor in order to help others and to reinforce the techniques I had learned myself,” Lisa said.
According to Lisa, she has not been “cured” of stuttering, but rather, is much better able to manage the speech disorder now. Given her first-hand experience with stuttering, she is confident genetics plays a role in stuttering, as her mother also lived with a mild stutter.
“For many years, I had a genuine fear that I would pass stuttering onto my children, to the extent that I seriously considered not having kids, because I didn’t want them to experience what I had endured, growing up.
“Now that I have two beautiful kids, and my favourite thing in the whole world is to be a mother, it’s awful to think about what I could potentially have missed out on, had I chosen to go down this path,” said Lisa.
Lisa is participating in the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence for Speech and Language ‘Genetics of Stuttering Study’, which aims to recruit 3,000 Australians who have lived with stuttering, in order to identify genetic markers to the causes of, and predisposition to stuttering. Lisa hopes her contribution will make a difference to those with lived experience of, or a genetic predisposition to the disorder.
“I’m certain any study that aims to pinpoint the genetic causes of stuttering in order to improve treatment options, will prove hugely beneficial to those who stutter, and their loved ones, because current understanding of the disorder is still so limited.
“I certainly encourage those who stutter, or have stuttered, to volunteer for this worthy cause, to help isolate genetic markers that may explain the disorder,” Lisa said.