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Christopher Anderson On Healing Stuttering Trauma Through Storytelling

"As I pieced together my journey story by story, it became clear what I was doing—making sense of how stuttering shaped my life and slowly coming to terms with it. Several years later, I had what looked like a book and fell in love with storytelling as a means of healing."

Courtesy Photo

In the early hours of Tuesday, July 5, 2022, I woke up and did what I usually do (and really shouldn’t do) when I first open my eyes: I grabbed my phone. I am all too guilty of doing the in-bed email scroll first thing in the morning and, even though I happened to be on vacation with my family for that long holiday weekend, the morning of July 5 was no different. One thing did immediately jump out at me, though, and that was an email from Christopher Anderson.


Anderson wrote, “My name is Christopher and I am a person who stutters who very much appreciates the writing you do on stuttering…For this reason, I am writing to you because I will be self-publishing a memoir this October. It is titled, Every Waking Moment: The Journey to Take Back My Life from the Trauma and Stigma of Stuttering.


The title alone was enough to get my attention.


Anderson went on to ask if I would be interested and willing to read his memoir as an early reviewer. So, I did what I imagine many people do when receiving an unsolicited request: I hopped on Google. I quickly found an old StutterTalk podcast episode featuring Anderson. In it, he discussed training to be an Ironman and how it related to stuttering. He also talked about his high-profile career as an intelligence analyst, and thriving as a person who stutters in a stressful work environment.


In that initial search, I also found a YouTube video interview about his upcoming memoir, as well as some additional press and a shoutout from the National Stuttering Association.


A few things were immediately clear to me about Christopher Anderson: He is an engaged and respected member of the stuttering community; he had a lot to say about the lived experience of stuttering; and he felt compelled to help others by telling his story. It was enough to convince me that I wanted to read his book.


I replied to Anderson in the affirmative and, on a quiet day in August, I finally began reading. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.


His book is a comprehensive narrative that not only captures the struggles that come from growing up with a severe stutter but also holds revelations, hope, and a path forward. It is a beautiful story and one that I knew would be pivotal – not just for people who stutter but also for family members, friends, and the entire Speech-Language Pathology community.


Before I even finished reading, I asked Anderson if he would be willing to collaborate on a blog post. To my delight, he agreed. Our interview follows.


As a sidenote, I have since finished his memoir and wholeheartedly recommend picking up a copy when it comes out in October. I would also like to extend my deepest appreciation to Chris for the time he took in writing out these responses, and for sharing his stuttering journey.


 

Allegra Ludwig Michael (ALM): This memoir was a long time coming for you! What led to your desire to write a book about stuttering?


Christopher Anderson (CA): The desire to write came after I participated on several panels of people who stutter for Vivian Sisskin’s stuttering courses at the University of Maryland. Each time, I’d share the highlights of my journey—childhood, school, speech therapy, job interviews, and dating—and thought of the many stories that are silenced by stuttering itself or only shared in safe spaces.


As I pieced together my journey story by story, it became clear what I was doing—making sense of how stuttering shaped my life and slowly coming to terms with it. Several years later, I had what looked like a book and fell in love with storytelling as a means of healing.


Christopher Anderson (Courtesy Photo)

ALM: Was there a pivotal moment or experience in your life that shifted your self-perception as a person who stutters?


CA: When I started dating, really for the first time, in my twenties. Growing up with stuttering created this endless wonder of how I would ever meet my soulmate or grow a relationship to the point of proposing marriage. I stayed in long-dead relationships that left me without self-confidence or interpersonal skills. In the book, I captured this reality in as much detail as possible because the life impact of stuttering had led me into an inevitable divorce.


My self-perception changed faster than I could keep up with once I started to talk more and more about stuttering. On dates, I used my journey through stuttering as a superpower of sorts because there were so many interesting aspects of stuttering that those who don’t stutter never experience. I went on many first dates via online dating but I was determined to meet the one the old fashioned way. You’ll have to read the fateful story in the book about that but it was, ultimately, the story of my journey that won the heart of a beautiful and amazing woman, my soulmate. I never imagined stuttering would be what helped me cultivate the wonderful marriage that I once thought was out of my reach.



ALM: How does stuttering influence and impact your career? What was it like going into a career where there is a lot of talking required and how has this evolved over time?


CA: Well, I wasn’t so sure I could make it as an intelligence analyst. The director of my college program told my parents and I during the admissions interview that I wouldn’t graduate or have a successful career if I continued to stutter. It was one of the lowest moments of my life. In college, I learned that being an analyst required a lot of public speaking, with time pressure, and an intense pressure to succeed. I started doing presentations in my classes using a text-to-speech computer generated voice while standing and clicking the PowerPoint slides. I laugh to myself now because it was incredibly dehumanizing and shameful, but, it was how I started to decrease my fear of being in front of an audience.


Fifteen years later, I provide complex briefings to a variety of audiences and in challenging environments in which I stutter confidently and command attention for what I have to say rather than how I stutter. It’s worth repeating—it took fifteen years to graduate from the text-to-speech program, to sitting next to colleagues whispering answers in their ears for them to say on my behalf, to gradually choosing to stutter in every opportunity, and, finally, to not hesitating at all to speak and openly stutter.


The key to progressing—ever so slowly—was that I seized so many high-feared, limit-busting speaking opportunities that I had no choice but to adapt. And, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had many colossal “failures” but they were short-lived because I had to rebound and stutter not long after. It still amazes me that I’m able to stutter so openly in these situations where precision of language and communication skills are so critical. I was wrong to have doubted myself.


ALM: In your book, you discuss the importance of discovering support within the stuttering community. What was it like for you to begin interacting with other people who stutter, and what role in your life does the stuttering community hold now?


CA: I found the stuttering community after a series of rock bottom experiences. I attended a National Stuttering Association (NSA) support group meeting the week after I failed the final interview to get my dream job. I was devastated and needed to be with others who would understand. In that first meeting, the chapter leader handed me a business card for his Speech-Language Pathologist—in a slightly prescriptive way. Six months later, at 27 years-old, I was seated in Vivian Sisskin’s Avoidance Reduction Therapy group which was filled with incredible people who stutter. They showed me the many ways to seize the power of the stuttering community. That same year, I attended my first NSA conference in 2013, where I met so many incredible people. I encourage anyone who hasn’t experienced a large gathering of PWS to attend and feel what I’m describing here. It will change your life.



ALM: You describe that Avoidance Reduction Therapy for Stuttering (ARTS®) and working with a well-trained Speech-Language Pathologist were vital to your stuttering journey. Can you explain how avoidance-reduction therapy played such a key role for you in comparison with prior speech therapy that focused more on speech tools and techniques?


CA: ARTS® was the missing link. For years, I wondered, “But what about these thoughts, feelings, emotions, exhaustion, anger, stress, and [what I eventually unearthed…] trauma?” The fluency-shaping therapy I received hardly addressed any of the internal chaos caused by stuttering.


So, I met with Vivian for the initial consultation, oddly confident of my therapy resume in that nothing had worked. “Chris, has anyone ever told you that it’s okay to stutter?” Vivian leveled me with that question. No, no one ever had.


First, ARTS® is group therapy. Being with other people who are at varying points in their therapeutic journeys immediately proves to you that you’re not alone, and that was huge. When you’re sitting next to other PWS and hearing how they’re facing their fears and doing things you never thought possible, you have no choice but to take similar risks yourself and watch how they change you.


Second, Vivian knew both the actual holistic experience of stuttering and the importance of teaching the key aspects of the therapy in each session, tailoring both to our individual needs like a coach handing out plays. You think you know how you stutter and what happens inside you in each moment. However, I learned more about stuttering, the complexities of my pattern, and how I needed to work on each part of it separately, such as eye contact, motor work, and mental health.


In three hours every Saturday morning for about three years, I soaked it all in, and got to where I could continue pushing my limits as my own therapist.



ALM: What were the most surprising things that you learned about yourself and about stuttering while writing this book?


CA: The most surprising thing that I learned about myself and stuttering is how much stuttering had shaped every part of me and my development. This was the motivation for the structure of the book. Each of my moments of stuttering, from childhood into adulthood, were experienced as repetitive trauma. That’s a heavy realization, but when I slowed down and dissected the entire moment, it became clear—the anticipation, fear, avoidance, real or imagined stuttering, loss of eye contact, panic, tricks and other behaviors to hide my stutter, scanning for negative feedback, and the release of emotions and exhaustion afterwards.


It felt like I had stumbled upon a closely guarded secret. Stuttering and trauma, no way? The link opened up my perspective on so many more therapeutic and self-confidence boosting pursuits to pair with speech therapy. And, you know what, none of these new pursuits or speech therapy sought to hide or fix my stuttering. I still stutter and I allow myself to feel the entirety of the experience, no longer conditioned to numb it.


Christopher Anderson is cheered on by his wife at an Ironman Triathlon (Courtesy Photo)

ALM: Dedication to physical exercise and Ironman training are important parts of your story. Did training to be an Ironman help you with stuttering and, if so, how?


CA: My stuttering pattern and how it impacted my every waking moment was a bunch of habits I developed over the years to hide my stutter, to be fluent. Let’s be real—there was no way I could ever hide it, so all the behaviors that I did resulted from this lifelong effort were useless. The filler words, rapid-fire nasal inhalations, head jerks, squinting, and involuntary body movements were impediments to freely stuttering.


I paired my ARTS® therapy assignments with learning how to become an Ironman triathlete, to include teaching myself how to swim. An Ironman consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a marathon, a feat of endurance I chose because it seemed impossible, similar to how I’d always viewed transcending stuttering. Like learning to live collaboratively with stuttering, becoming an Ironman hinges on cultivating mental endurance and self-confidence rather than merely the physical performance.


The self-confidence I gained from proving to myself that I could train and then finish an Ironman snow balled into stuttering, and vice versa, nearly removing all of my fears, shame, and hesitance that once forced me to hide my stutter. I believe that learning how to create healthy, life propelling habits and daily practices is a therapeutic accelerant when coupled with a truly holistic speech therapy strategy. You don’t have to become an Ironman, but to confront stuttering, some of the evidence that fuels self-confidence needs to come from the things you enjoy doing outside of speech therapy. In both, I learned to trust the process until I was changed by it.



ALM: In the book, you discuss a fear that your son might eventually stutter. Has this transpired? Do you still hold this fear?


CA: Yes…well, for about two weeks at least. For many parents who stutter, this is the ultimate fear, right? It has been with me since I first thought about having a child but you can’t really understand how you’ll react until it punches you in the face. Our son is nearing three-years-old and earlier this year his teacher expressed concern because he wasn’t talking at school. This caught my wife and I by surprise because he is outgoing and talkative in every other social situation. The teacher even said the other kids had begun to talk for him and announced each time he said something.


Then, he started to stutter. Although we knew he’d be in great hands with Vivian and her crew, we weren’t prepared for the force and frequency of its sudden onset. The repetitions and prolongations totally changed his entire presence, causing him to talk significantly less. One night when I was putting him to bed, I kneeled down to his eye level to listen to what he was saying and I saw the panic as he struggled to push out his words, an experience I knew all too well. It took my breath away and I cried once outside of his room.


A week later, he stopped stuttering and even began talking at school. It was like I needed to weather that storm because I know that even if he starts to stutter again, his experience of it will be vastly different than mine, which was my fear. We can say ‘it’s okay to stutter’ and I know it is…but when you see that look on your child’s face as an adult who stutters, you’re forced to beat back the years of trauma you endured before you return to the place where you know that stuttering would actually enrich his experience of life. It is important that we discuss these very personal moments so parents of children who stutter know they are not alone. I know my son would thrive with stuttering if he starts to stutter again, and it’s okay that I feared it.



ALM: What do you hope readers take away from this book?


CA: Hope and trust. I chose the walk-in-my-shoes perspective for this book instead of writing a traditional memoir because of the debilitating uncertainty I felt growing up with stuttering over how I was ever going to make it in life if I continued to stutter. It was like a fog that influenced everything, and the existence from which came the book’s title. I’m not sure why, but I always had this impenetrable perseverance and determination not to give up in spite of this uncertainty. One day, somehow, life would turn up for me. But, still, how and when?


One of the takeaways that I have learned is that we further stigmatize the pursuit of transcending stuttering by spreading the message that each of us who stutters experiences stuttering differently and therefore require us to walk our own unique journeys. I know that is not entirely true and is a controversial subject, but I believe each of us who stutters is more similar than different, and can benefit greatly from hearing the stories of how others navigate the same milestones in life--such as childhood, college, work, love, and parenthood. Yes, we may each experience situations and environments differently, but there is a certain universality to it in which we can find ways to apply the experiences of others to our lives to dispel the life-impeding uncertainty and feel less alone.


This year I attended the Friends conference where a stuttering self-help all-star told her through-life story of change like I have in my book. She might as well have been reading mine for how closely her path to self-acceptance mirrored my journey despite it being so different. Her message was to trust that when you take risks to face your fears, in your personal and professional lives, life finds a way of leading you to become the person you never imagined you could, because of stuttering. Allow yourself to figure out your own steps, hope, and understand that you’ll arrive at a better-than-expected life when you do, trust.



ALM: Now that you’ve completed your memoir, what goals remain for you in regard to your stuttering?


CA: Writing was therapeutic and something I needed to do for me—we write the books we most need ourselves, right? Well, I want to keep pushing the limits of what appears impossible. Service to our amazing stuttering community is the next chapter for me. I’ve thought a lot about how to focus my energy, settling on a few areas where my journey, drive, and professional experience can have the most impact. I’m already working on a few specific projects based on the themes from my memoir, including my next book and a research study.


In these efforts, my aim is to build bridges between we who stutter and those who support us to take larger and lasting steps toward transitioning away from the wounds of fluency to healthy, constructive, and collaborative approaches for achieving fulfilling lives. If we harness the momentum from all of the wonderful people already doing their own parts, then we will, together, more quickly make the seemingly impossible shift from counting stutters to lives changed, forever.


If you’d like to learn more about the book, collaborate, or just talk stuttering, please reach out to ewmoment@gmail.com!


 

*To pre-order a copy of Anderson's book, visit this Amazon link. Note that the paperback, hardcover, eBook/Kindle, and audiobook versions of Every Waking Moment will be available for purchase on October 19, 2022.

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