I have stopped trying to be perfect
17th February 2022
After a lifetime searching for a way to deal with his stammer, Tim Shanks explains how he couldn't dismantle his avoidances, and how being 'out and proud' about stammering might be unattainable for him.
I am 71 years of age and have stammered since I started to talk. I have come to understand as a young child I was insecure, timid, unassertive — in a word, afraid. I was also as I grew up competitive, perfectionistic and a 'black and white' thinker. The American speech pathologist William Perkins thought that these were all psychological attributes that would nurture a lifelong stammer. I have come to realise that these psychological issues were more important to my happiness than my stammer.
I have always wanted not to stammer. I tried conventional speech therapy when I was eight — and again ten years later. This had no impact on my stammer and I gave up on therapy, deciding that avoidance was a much better 'cure' for me. This played havoc with my prospects of a career or a relationship. In my desperation to find a way to deal with my stammer, I was seduced by the romance of, first the Church of Scientology and a course claiming to stop stammering. I fell out of love with both. The former was a protracted messy affair. I didn't even get to a first date with the latter.
However they all thought that avoidance was the 'devil'. I thought avoidance was my 'god'. I had a problem!
In my late thirties I found 'true love' through the Association for Stammerers (which later became the British Stammering Association — BSA — and then STAMMA), with the works of Wendell Johnson, Charles Van Riper, Joseph Sheehan and William Perkins. They understood me and my stammer, and a link to mental health issues. However they all thought that avoidance was the 'devil'. I thought avoidance was my 'god'. I had a problem!
I started on a Block Modification course and could not get beyond the stages of identifying and reducing my avoidances. I tried Sheehan's Avoidance Reduction Therapy on a self-help basis and failed again. Sheehan recommended that I tried psychotherapy to help stammering therapy work. This made sense as my mental health issues of anxiety and depression had been escalating over the years.
What I did like about Sheehan (and Perkins to a degree) were their psychological views on some aspects of stammering. Stammering can have psychological 'pay-offs', and it can act as a defence mechanism against other painful personal truths. These can 'sabotage' stammering therapy. You could be a 'giant in chains' and think you would be different if you did not stammer. If this was not the case, it could be harder to face than stammering. All these issues need psychotherapy.
So I began looking for this other type of therapy and believe me there were plenty on offer….400, I believe! I particularly was attracted to Carl Rodgers, Eric Berne, John Bowlby, Thomas Szasz and Dorothy Rowe. Over the years (1990-2015) I tried many psychotherapies (person centred counselling, group and individual psychodynamic therapy) without any meaningful reduction of my anxiety/depression and avoidance of stammering. I am taking now anti-depressant medication, which helps a little.
Wanting to accept my stammer
Despite all my avoidances I think there is something deep within me that wants to accept my stammer. It is a part of me and who I am — nothing to be ashamed of. I think a desire for perfect fluency can be destructive. I could be tempted by an 'out and proud' disability social/model approach to stammering theoretically, but emotionally I know I would be unable to practise it.
I could be tempted by an 'out and proud' disability social/model approach to stammering theoretically, but emotionally I know I would be unable to practise it.
I am now over 70 and will not be pursuing anymore therapy — stammering or psychological. I recognise that I am anxious/depressed and avoid my stammer and have accepted that fact. I have stopped trying to be perfect.
I have been happily married for 35 years, with two grown up children. I have managed to work, mainly in driving jobs, and am now retired. I was very active in the BSA in the 1990s editing its member's magazine Speaking Out and working as a fundraiser. My mental health issues contributed to my leaving. I have always liked writing and since retirement have been doing more of it.
I have produced a small volume of poems including several about stammering. I have also written a 70,000 word autobiography — mainly focusing on my stammer and its effect on me and my life. It has been a rollercoaster ride! I have had over 50 jobs, including door-to-door salesman. How can a person who stammers do that? By avoiding, of course. I ran out of a job as a journalist after two weeks. I meditated. I joined a cult. If anyone would like to read about these and my therapeutic adventures please get in touch.
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