I do not remember when I started stuttering.
What I do remember were the feelings. Like something was wrong with me that I couldn’t quite understand. I was an exuberant child, enthusiastic about frogs and outdoor adventure, with a serious, very literal side. I was a high-achiever who was expected to do well in school but did not have to try at it. I took what adults said to heart from as early as I can remember.
As a kid, I went to a private school from 4th to 8th grade, and part of the curriculum was that all students were required to give public speeches in front of the class, and possibly the school if their performance warranted. As a PWS, you can imagine that this filled me with desperation and panic; but because of my perfectionist leanings, asking not to participate never even crossed my mind.
These were my first memories of helplessness that somehow, as PWS do, I endured. My stuttering was not externally pronounced, and I would rather have pretended to be less intelligent or less focused than I truly was, to feign ignorance just to get past the impossible moments of blocking than ask for help (that I had no evidence even the most well-meaning adults could give.)
When I first stepped through the doors of AIS at age 15 I still didn’t have my own word for what was happening within me. My parents knew I was struggling but also could not identify it. Because I was covert, I hid my stuttering at all costs. As a result, I lived behind a mask. Despite the arsenal of tools I acquired during the AIS intensive, the wounds left by shame would take many years to heal.
Stuttering was a foreign concept to me, because I didn’t let myself audibly block. My shame about what it meant to stutter, the physical reactions my body had endured over years of fight/flight/freeze and hyper vigilance, anticipation and low self-esteem in stark contrast to the high expectations of others, would follow me through college and into my twenties where I would discover that alcohol and other substances substantially numbed the feeling of failure as an identity that stuttering had imprinted on my psyche.
One thing that never left me was willingness. On some level I always had the courage to keep asking for the willingness to see what else was possible. I had the privilege of high-functioning and higher education coupled with finding fitness as a hobby to pull me through the years after college. After deciding, at age 28, that alcohol was shielding me from some serious healing work I wanted and needed, I started regular intensive group recovery work and embarked on a second Master’s degree in clinical psychology. Today I am able to use my experience with shame in a professional role as a pre-licensed therapist, and the healing work of meditation and yoga to guide others on the path to recovery from shame.
Here are four things to know about shame in order to effectively begin the healing process:
1. Shame is a manifestation of trauma as an identity. It is not something we are born with but rather something we take on in response to trauma.
Trauma exists on a spectrum and does not have to be life-threatening. Trauma is any deeply distressing or disturbing experience that induces an involuntary fight, flight or freeze reaction. For many PWS, stuttering and the inability to communicate or voice our distress is a repeated experience of trauma.
Shame and guilt are not the same. Despite intensive stuttering treatment at age 15, I went on to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and relationships, because no matter how fluent I was, the shame of stuttering had built a home in me that was firmly enmeshed with my identity. It would be ten years before I began to find myself again and eventually transition to a career in psychology, helping others to process and heal their shame.
2. The shame of stuttering can manifest in harmful coping mechanisms that need to be addressed individually. Self-awareness is much of the battle.
Knowing how stuttering (specifically the shame of it) is affecting you is essential to healing and recovery. Keep in mind, this is not about recovery from stuttering. (Stuttering is simply a different way of speaking.) We are recovering from shame, which for many PWS (and people with any type of stigmatized difference) is a daily occurrence prior to recovery. By taking an inventory of your feelings and how you are coping with them, you may discover that deep-seated shame is responsible for relationships suffering, poor physical or mental health, or certain addictive behaviors (i.e. drinking excessively to cope in social situations). Note: It is extremely helpful to enlist the help of a therapist, mentor or recovery coach in this initial exploration as it can unearth intense emotions at first.
3. Shame from trauma manifests emotionally and physically in the body over time, and thus the recovery process takes time and requires multifaceted self-care.
Self-care for complex issues like shame involves more than simply sleeping, exercising and eating well (though these are indispensable). Throughout my recovery, I have explored many mindfulness practices, including meditation, yoga, breathwork and energy work. I have even been trained in these modalities to be able to administer them to others. These practices embody healing by rewiring neuropathways and recalibrating the autonomic nervous system.
Recent research shows us that yoga, meditation and breathwork can actually change the way we react physically to different stressors and triggers. As PWS, this can literally change the manifestation of stuttering in the voice and body. And of course, holistically caring for the body with nutrition and movement are habits that enhance our wellbeing too. Finding a therapist or coach trained in trauma recovery and self-care practices makes all the difference and is worth the investment for lasting change and recovery.
4. Healing takes place when we share our stories. Finding support for collective healing is crucial.
Today, my experience as a mental health professional has shown me that most people are recovering from something, visible or not. Participating in recovery groups with folks who do not stutter helped dismantle the myth that I could not be vulnerable in front of fluent people.
Support is crucial in recovering from shame. The National Stuttering Association helped me to meet lifelong friends but I eventually found other groups that helped me to grow spiritually and heal physically. If you struggle with addictive behaviors, you are not alone. There are many recovery groups available, including a range of spiritual communities from Buddhist meditation societies to various types of yoga studios.
Keep trying different groups until you find your people. For some of us, PWS groups are enough, but if you find yourself craving connection on a deeper level, know that it exists.
Lastly, therapists, helpers and healers have been of immeasurable value on this journey. Psychotherapy, group therapy, energy work, private healing, and spiritual retreats can all address the issue of shame and are worth exploring.
Sam Gennuso is a pre-licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT), a recovery coach and PWS with a background in psychology (MACP), Eastern spirituality (YT200), and addiction recovery. Her work centers around the psychology of yoga, healing shame, embodiment meditation and cultivating unconditional Love.
- Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.
- Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.
The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY and Atlanta, GA, and services are also available Online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.