by Reuben Schuff
Its 4:15 A.M. Alarm number two wakes me. I need to be out the door by 4:55 A.M. to make it from my apartment in Raleigh, NC to Vivian’s office in McLane, VA by 9:30 A.M. for Saturday group. I’ll get home about 6 or 7 P.M. It’s the best 14 hour day there could be. I don’t go to group every week any more like I used to, but it’s still part of my plan to stay healthy. In the early days, when I found the ARTS group after finishing engineering graduate school and moving across the country for a new job, I’d never miss a week.
Vivian and I met in 2007, and we didn’t hit it off at all. I’d make an appointment with her because I was quickly crashing in my new professional world with everything to lose. I was immediately troubled that this crazy women seemed to want to make me stutter even more than I already was. But a trusted friend, who also stutters, had told me about the ARTS approach. After finding out that Vivian shared an affinity for my speech therapist from college, who had saved my life thus far, I decided to trust her. So I showed back up for group therapy.
I can count on one hand the times in my life when my mind was been totally blown. In my first Saturday group, I remember thinking and feeling, I want to be able to communicate like these people. They stutter sooooooo well! ….And they even look like they are having fun talking, and living life. The radical, insane idea to open stutter and make ugly noise (in the right situations), took up home within my daily assignments.
Assignment number one had nothing to do with making the noises of speech, but had everything to do with getting back to the path that leads to communication with human beings. I came to ARTS thinking that getting stuck in block was the worst place on earth, to be avoided, yes “avoided” at any cost. I wanted deeply to find a way to not get stuck in my terrible blocks that interrupted and often ended my communication. To my great surprise, initial terror, and ultimate freedom, I’d find something even harder: to open my eyes in the moment of panic and disconnect, and to look at my listener, as I struggled. As I tried to lift my head, I felt the weight of 10,000 elephants pushing it back down. Every time I’d drop my head, I’d been feeding these elephants with shame and fear, building new behaviors into my tangled pattern of disconnected and struggled communication. “Open your eyes, lift your head up” played in my mind though my workday from then on.
I learned from ARTS how to be a powerful, confident communicator, a person who stuttered, with purpose, authority, and joy. Those are all things I get to keep, everyday, wherever I am. I get excited about the longer term change. In my three years at my first job, I grew from a scared kid, in a silent corner, to giving presentations and talking with all sorts of people all day. The idea of being a person who stutters doesn’t just exist on Saturday morning, inside of the special walls of Vivian’s office. It’s become an everywhere and always part of the person that Reuben Schuff is today. I’ve become a leader in self-help and support within several non-profit organizations, contributing both in writing and presenting before large groups locally and nationally. I’ve become a Toastmaster, competed in speech contests, and last year even got PAID to speak for a special Toastmasters event!
My first love is Aerospace engineering, and in the months to come I have a new challenge. As I write this story, I am packing up in Raleigh, NC to move to Los Angeles. A grueling interview process resulted in an offer to work on rocket engines, my hope and dream. I think my new company knows who they are getting. I’m very open about stuttering and take it by the horns. In my interviews and presentations you get to hear my 20-second acknowledgement of stuttering, smile with me, and then focus on the rest of my communication, not distracted by the differences you may still hear in my speech pattern.
There’s a terrible seven letter word that strikes fear and trembling into people who stutter. “Relapse”. As I pack my boxes for Los Angeles, step out of a hard earned comfort zone I’ve built in North Carolina in the last three years, and run to meet a new challenge, I’m not worried. Because the awful word “Relapse” isn’t fluency-based any more, and my foundation of being a successful communicator doesn’t get shaken by the variability of stuttering, or the fear of struggling. The success isn’t about the ways sounds are formed by a biological speech motor system, it’s about the approach vs avoidance of being a person who stutters. Relapse means going back to the mind of trying to hide from stuttering, and avoiding the part of life that involves human communication.
It is surely possible, and a humble truth of rising to a new challenge, that my day-to-day fluency I’ve enjoyed in recent years will not be the same in months to come. I’m sure to struggle more in some difficult situations with new pressures and complexity. But there’s no going back to the idea that trying to hide and avoid stuttering is a good idea. The joy and confidence to communicate effectively is the horse, and fluency is the cart. To put communication first, to seek fear, and soak in shame, to shred comfort zones, and keeping climbing; that’s why relapse isn’t possible. I’m an engineer, a traveler, a juggler, a Toastmaster, an author, a leader and a person who stutters, it’s all a package deal. I can’t wait for my alarm to sound in the morning, I got people to talk with, and something to say.