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College was one of the weirder experiences of my life.  I imagine it’s like that for most people.  But my weirdness didn’t come from experimenting with booze and boys; it came from the speech therapy program I was forcibly entered into.  The one I was registered for without my knowledge and, to some degree, without my consent.

As if often the case, it took one lap around the room during a freshman public speaking class for me to be outed as damaged and dropped into the Robbins Center – an on-campus, training program for grad students in the Speech, Language and Pathology department. The students need someone to test and finding an adult, female stutterer is like stumbling across a purple bedazzled unicorn in the middle of Times Square. You can’t let it go. My professor made the arrangements for me. I know because one day I received a phone call saying they had heard about my interest in the clinic.

I had never heard of the Robbins Center.

I also didn’t care about the Robbins Center. Had no interest spending my days reciting mono-syllabic words and having my intelligence demeaned with fake phone calls to my customer service reps inquiring about the ‘burgundy sweater with the four brass buttons located on page 142 of their catalog’. I was in college. I was supposed to be reprimanded for my bad choices, but not because I forget to take a breath before initiating a vowel.  But, along with being a person who stutters, I’m also a people pleaser.

So here I sit, twice a week, for three years.

The Robbins Center is hidden on the 9th floor of one of the buildings on campus. When I arrive, I take the stairs. I want them to see that I’m stronger than them.  My voice might not be, but I am.

I come out from the stairwell and sit in the waiting room. It’s filled with small children. Seventy-five percent of kids with speech disorders will outgrow them; just one percent of the adult population will wear their stutter as a badge.  Mine must be showing because as soon as I walk in the parents stare. I am their worst nightmare. They would rather their lisping, stammering children grow up to be murderers, rapists, puppy killers. Anything but an adult who cannot speak. A girl who cannot coo. I smile at them.

The silent confrontation ends when I’m summoned into a tiny therapy room and seated at a small wooden table. Each semester I am passed to a new graduate student like a worn pair of jeans. But the face of the grad student doesn’t matter, because the routine is the same. We’ll start with breathing exercises, progress to reciting words, and then move to structure sentences. If I’ve made progress, we’ll end by going to the Dunkin Donuts across the street so she can eavesdrop my ordering a vanilla latte. She’ll linger a few feet, not-so-silently instructing me to breathe, to speak slowly, make eye contact. She pretends other people can’t hear her, but it may as well read, “STUTTERING BABOON” on my chest. Because that’s how I feel.

Therapy isn’t all useless. Sometimes I pick up new tricks. Things that seem helpful at first, but really only live to separate me from the outside words. It starts innocently enough.

    “Do you ever singe your sentences to help get them out”

No? Should I? Is singing better than stuttering?

    “Do you find rhythmic motion helps you speak more fluently? Say, tapping a finger?”

I tell her no, but then make a mental note to see if it helps. It does! Until, like a junkie, I need something stronger. So I move my whole arm. Then my foot. Pretty soon I’m shaking my whole leg every time I speak. Tics I can’t unlearn. Thanks. Therapy is making things worse, but I don’t tell her that. She wants so badly to help. I pretend.

I don’t know how to tell her I’m okay. That I’ve stuttered my entire life and make no apologies for it. My stutter is me. She thinks I’ve been teased. I haven’t. She thinks doors have been closed. They haven’t. I haven’t been isolated. It’s she who isolates me. Locks me in this room. But I don’t know how to tell her that. So I don’t. I do her exercises, smile, thank her for her time. Because besides being a Person Who Stutters, I am also a people pleaser. That’s what I need her to fix. And in three years, she can’t.

The speech program I was placed into during my college years changed me, but probably not the way my professor had hoped.  It taught me something I had never known about myself – I was different. My stuttering was an inconvenience to others, others like my professor and the people who worked at the college speech center. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if this was a lesson I would have been better off not learning. Because it changed everything.

2 Responses to “Calling Speech Therapy Patients What They Are: Guinea Pigs”

  1. Pam

    OMG, I felt exactly this way when attending therapy through a college program. Different student each semester, except I had to make a video tape at the end to let the next one know what I wanted to work on next semester. Never any continuity, always starting over. Never any understanding that what I needed was to work on me, being OK with me, acceptance, healing, all that stuff. Because I had always hidden my stuttering, which took so much mental energy that I finally coudn’t stand it any more. Another story, which is basically told in snippets on my blog anyway.I honestly don’t think they knew what to do with a covert stutterer.I quickly tired of learning fluency techniques that did nothing for me except make me frustrated – full breath, easy onset, relaxed and slow pace. And we too went to Price Chopper, the movie theater, and even a coffee shop. Honestly, I liked going, not to learn how to be fluent, but to hang out with other people who stutter, because I had never met another pws until 4 years ago. But the individual therapy, so the grad students could collect their data and clock their clinical hours, alas didn’t work.There are some people in the clinic I was attending who have been going to speech therapy for 20 years. And guess what? They STILL stutter.And I am also a people pleaser – working on that furiously now. Must be something about us adult women who stutter, huh? Good stuff!

  2. Patrice

    Hi Lisa! What amazing stories! You are an incredible writer! Your stories truly touched me. I so enjoyed meeting you at the gathering last Saturday. Getting together with others who stutter has become an important part of my life. I hope I will get a chance to see you soon.Take Care,Patrice


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