‘The King’s Speech’ rings true for a writer who struggles to be understood

Few things are more demoralizing than not being able to say your own name without struggling.

One evening as a young reporter covering the crime beat, I was having a particularly hard time managing my stuttering. I struggled on the phone to identify myself as a reporter to the officer on duty. In those days, my throat would sometimes lock up and I would force out sounds in grunts or repetitions. I’d tap my foot or a finger to create a rhythm for my speech. My hands would turn cold and my heart started racing, for I was worried about when a stuttering episode would erupt and how the listeners would react.

“Stop wasting my time,” the officer told me before he hung up. Just as I was about to call back, I heard him over the police scanner laughingly telling officers across the city that someone had called impersonating a reporter. Then he used the police code describing me as someone with mental problems.

I barely made it through that night at work, and while my editor intervened the next day with the police chief, my confidence in my ability to make it as a reporter was nearly shattered.

Today, at 57, I am at peace with my speech. It had been a difficult journey to make it to my first newspaper job, and many other challenges awaited me.

Like other stutterers, I’ve battled ridicule, misunderstanding and misplaced good intentions.

Cultural images of stuttering on television and in movies and songs for the most part are negative or treated as a joke. There’s Porky Pig, for one, and Aunt Clara, the wacky stuttering grandmother witch on the old television show “Bewitched,” too.

After Hollywood released “The King’s Speech,” which handles the stuttering challenges of the late British King George VI sensitively and honestly, it seemed a good time to share my story. Along with other people who stutter, I am excited that this movie, which has won 12 Oscar nominations, is promoting public awareness of this issue.

After that rough night working the cops beat, I considered returning to graduate school in a different field and agonized for weeks. Ultimately, I decided that I was not going to give up on my longtime dream, despite the obstacles of public perception in an industry where speaking is the calling card. Subsequently, I have worked for more than three decades as a journalist, including nearly a decade at The Charlotte Observer and nearly 20 years at The Washington Post.

Stats on stuttering

An estimated 66 million people stutter, with 3 million in the United States. Aristotle and Charles Darwin stuttered, as did actor James Earl Jones and singer Carly Simon.

Speech disruptions range from mild to severe, and usually involve repeating, prolonging or blocking on sounds, syllables or words. Males are three to four times more likely to stutter than females. Nobody knows why.

Researchers don’t know yet what causes stuttering but have determined that it tends to run in families. In my case, relatives on both my father’s and mother’s side of the family stutter. Most stuttering is developmental and starts when children begin to speak. In a study released last year, a federal researcher found what may be three genes linked to stuttering. More investigation is underway.

Always a stutterer

I can’t remember not stuttering.

My parents – and others who grew up hearing myths that have circulated for generations about stuttering – frequently told me as a child to slow down when speaking, though speed is neither the cause nor a cure. A great aunt insisted that I eat with a small silver spoon she gave me.

Over the years, I’ve learned to control my speech, though that doesn’t mean absolute fluency all the time. But before I learned the strategies, I didn’t stutter all the time, either. I’ve had long periods of relatively fluent speech and times when I didn’t talk unless I had to because speaking was just plain exhausting.

It still requires concentration. I have to think about not only what I’m going to say, but how to say it to minimize my stuttering.

I remember in the early 1990s I was one of a group of journalists who had lunch with Nelson Mandela, shortly after the South African leader was released from prison. The night before the gathering and during the hours leading up to it, I rehearsed silently and in front of a mirror what I would say during introductions.

I didn’t want to stutter when I met one of the world’s greatest leaders. On my notepad, I jotted down reminders of what to do to speak smoothly. I took a few deep, slow breaths before I started speaking. It went well.

Many therapies tried

Over the years, I’ve tried several speech therapies. As a young adult, I was taught to speak to the rhythm of a metronome, but that didn’t work and my speech sounded robotic. I used an electronic aid that was strapped around my throat and attached to my ear to mask the sound of my voice when speaking. I turned to hypnosis, with no success.

In 1979, I found a 12-day residential, intensive speech program at Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke, Va. There, I discovered that fluency didn’t have to come randomly anymore. For me, that means concentrating on how I breathe, move my mouth, lips and tongue to form sounds and words.

Most days, I work on these skills through reading or speaking aloud, and annually for more than 15 years I have spent a week every fall with a group of six other stutterers fine-tuning my speaking strategies in the Precision Fluency Shaping Program at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va.

Another test

Years ago, I had to find my way out of the pain and shame of stuttering and its hammering of my self-image. I was thousands of miles away from home, traveling alone through foreign countries when I was finally able to let go of the agony of stuttering.

I found peace with the fact that speaking for me would always be challenging, and decided that I would no longer allow myself to either get annoyed or be insulted by the impatient, sometimes dismissive, reactions stutterers face.

Just a few months ago, I was getting ready to order at a coffee shop with my teenage daughter and a friend. I was distracted and spoke without taking a few moments to get ready.

“I’d like a large d-d-dec-c-caf c-c-coffee,” I said to the woman behind the counter. She paused, looked at me and started chuckling. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. I paused, took a breath, positioned my mouth and tongue to correctly and calmly initiate the words: “This is not a joke.”

She glanced at my daughter and my friend and then back at me, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, as she put the money in the cash register. “I thought you were just messing around.”

I didn’t get angry. Neither was I ashamed.

Mae Israel is a Charlotte freelance writer and editor, blogger of Juggling Act at www.weareblackwomen.com and founder of Unlock A Voice, a nonprofit that offers support services to youth and adults who stutter or have other speech differences. For more info, e-mail unlockavoice@gmail.com .

About HCRI

Hollins Communications Research Institute was founded by Ronald L. Webster, Ph.D. in 1972 to investigate stuttering through scientific discovery and treatment innovation. Under Dr. Webster’s direction, Roanoke, Virginia-based HCRI, a 501 (c) (3) charitable organization, has become an international leader in stuttering research and the development of innovative, scientifically based therapy approaches.

The Institute offers 17 stuttering therapy programs annually, each of which lasts 12 days. HCRI clinicians have treated nearly 6,000 people, aged 9 to 73, from across the U.S. and 47 other countries. Clients include broadcaster John Stossel of Fox News; Annie Glenn, wife of Senator and Astronaut John Glenn; as well as athletes, teachers, engineers, students, doctors, military personnel, business professionals, police officers, actors, and others from all walks of life.

For more information, visit www.stuttering.org or contact HCRI at 540-265-5650 or admin@stuttering.org.