Limitless Optimism For Persons Who Stutter – Avoidance Reduction Therapy

Book Review For The Journal of Fluency Disorders. Book: Every Waking Moment


Author: Christopher Anderson


Review Written By: Jennifer McGuire jenny.padden@gmail.com


In Every Waking Moment (EWM), intelligence analyst and PWS Chris Anderson recounts his stuttering experience over the span of almost four decades. The book is largely a series of chronological vignettes that succinctly depict key moments in Anderson’s journey from a prisoner of his own feelings and attitudes about stuttering to an empowered, confident communicator. The economy of Anderson’s words juxtaposed with the level of detail that he is able to depict provides some insight into his skills as an analyst at the highest levels of government. He has a knack for getting to the point and moving forward, all while managing to weave in illustrative details that cut right to the heart of his lived experiences. The result is a book that is both incisive and deeply affecting.
Anderson describes in granular detail that for much of his life, stuttering and its downstream effects impacted his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors every waking moment. He depicts the all-encompassing nature of contending with a nonstop firehose of mental gymnastics, emotional pain, and relational disruptions that stuttering–when intersecting with internalized stigma–entails. EWM recounts in visceral detail the ways in which the stuttering experience felt as though it would swallow Anderson whole, but it never reads as a bitter litany of complaints. The manner in which he conveys a raw account of the pain followed by an inspiring tale of healing allows him to shine a light on the many causes for optimism that exist for the stutterer, none of which hinge upon the mythical “recovery” narrative. Critically, EWM opens up a conversation around trauma and the stuttering experience. An increasing number of PWS are resonating with the idea that developmental stuttering can give rise to complex trauma. Anderson’s descriptions of freezing and leaving his body in the moment of stuttering, and his recounting of how frequent and compounding these experiences were gives vivid color to the conversation around the relationship between stuttering and trauma.
The childhood experiences that Anderson describes in the early pages of EWM will no doubt resonate with readers, especially PWS and parents of children who stutter. As a stutterer, I found that my brain ran two parallel film reels as I read about Anderson’s childhood. One reel depicted the visuals of his life as I read about his experiences, while the other reel played complimentary scenes from own childhood. In his signature crisp style, Anderson writes, “stuttering shaped much of my early development and took over who I became.” For me, those 13 words capture a behemoth web of painful memories, sensations and fears. In this way, recounting the particulars of Anderson’s childhood becomes a mere tool to convey the shared experience of many stutterers during their formative years. Underneath the specifics of Anderson’s childhood lies the mass of confusion, isolation, and shame that characterizes the childhood stuttering experience for many. I believe this firsthand account will be tremendously illuminating for parents, siblings, grandparents, and therapists of children who stutter.

Just as children who stutter contend with shared internal experiences as a result of their stutter intersecting with the world, family systems often play out in similar manners as well. Thus, not only did Anderson’s feelings of isolation and shame resonate with me, so did the dance that his family and speech therapists engaged in. A concerned mother advocating for her child, well-meaning SLPs drilling fluency techniques because that is what they had been taught to do; all of it hit home. What makes Anderson’s perspective so compelling is that he is able to hold two things true at once. He acknowledges that neither he nor those who loved him employed effective coping strategies, and at the same time, he expresses loving compassion toward his younger self and the loved ones and SLPs who unwittingly did more harm than good in their quest to help him. This duality is one of the most powerful elements of EWM. Anderson can describe what hasn’t worked for stutterers in the past and what still isn’t working in service of our healing, while also expressing empathy and compassion for those who misstep. Expressing empathy toward current norms is a much more effective way to lead change than criticizing and shaming the people and practices that do not serve us. The moment in which we live does not seem to prize this sort of nuance, but Anderson’s narrative exemplifies the power of allowing understanding and forgiveness to coexist with advocacy for change.
EWM progresses from Anderson’s childhood to his young adult years. In these pages, the reader encounters three themes that will feel intimately familiar to young adult stutterers. First, the paralyzing fear of not being a worthy partner and the accompanying choice to settle on–and cling to–a relationship that isn’t working. Second, crippling anxiety about being able to make it in the professional world and the accompanying terror of trying to cleave from one’s family of origin and become self-reliant. Third, contending with the societal stigma that is reflected back on stutterers by professors, career counselors, and potential employers.
What is so impressive about this phase of Anderson’s life is the relentlessness he exhibits in the face of these obstacles. Anderson’s ascent from college to professional life exemplifies a level of tenacity and perseverance that I could have only dreamt of. He identifies his “dream college” and a specific program within that institution. During an interview, the program director revealed his stigma-informed reservations about Anderson when he queried, “if Christopher can’t effectively communicate, how will he be able to meet the academic requirements?” Incredibly, Anderson agrees to matriculate on a conditional basis with the understanding that he will be reevaluated in a year. What bravery it took to willingly consent to being placed under a microscope when the aim of the intense scrutiny was to evaluate how much stuttering impacted his success as a student. It is during this time that he really starts to challenge the limiting beliefs that he and others have used to hold him back, a practice that continues to serve him to this day. For me, these pages read like a biography of an underdog athlete who has decided to excel and commits mind, body and soul to his goals despite a lack of faith from those around him. Cue “Eye of the Tiger” and play it on repeat.
These muscles that he built during his college years serve him well in the professional journey that follows. While still mired in self-stigma and grappling with many of the debilitating fears that plagued his childhood, Anderson now has a seed of perseverance that has taken root in his
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mind. This is no orchid seed that requires perfect conditions to grow; Anderson’s seed is more akin to that of a dandelion–a weed, really–that is destined to take hold and thrive despite the ravages of stuttering stigma that aim to choke it out before it can even sprout. By this point, Anderson has developed a regular practice of forward momentum that will not stop in the face of doubt. The fruits of this practice are jaw-dropping. After securing his dream job at the FBI, a young Anderson begins to regularly find himself called to give intelligence briefings to senior officials including none other than then Bureau Director James Comey. When Anderson struggled mightily during his initial introduction to Comey, the Director responded by maintaining eye contact, smiling calmly, and asking Anderson to sit next to him at the table. There is a growing conversation in stuttering circles about stuttering gain. If being invited to the most privileged seat at Comey’s table is not stuttering gain, then I don’t know what is.
Having established how he would respond to Anderson’s way of speaking, Director Comey’s treatment of Anderson remained consistent. Anderson explains, “when I briefed, he waited patiently again and asked questions that did not let me off the hook even though he recognized how difficult it was for me to speak.” This sentence prompted me to pause and take a few deep breaths. I wanted to let the underlying message permeate my body. Anderson and Director Comey’s interactions exemplify what a conversation with a stutterer looks like when both the PWS and communicative partner move past a reflexive bias toward fluency and focus instead on the many other elements of communication that fuel an exchange. Comey valued Anderson’s contributions because of the numerous attributes that Anderson brought to the table, including deep knowledge of his subject matter and diligent work ethic. For his part, Anderson leads the reader through a master class of how to put self-stigma in the backseat by his very choice to place himself in such high-feared, high-stakes situations. Anderson and Comey’s interactions provide compelling models of what de-stigmatized conversation can look like with a PWS.
With his professional life no longer being dragged down by self-stigma around stuttering, Anderson shifts his focus to personal goals. He had gained momentum in his practice of pushing through fear to achieve success at work, and it was time for him to deploy these skills in the service of finding his soulmate. He begins training to compete in an Ironman competition around the same time that he begins a new kind of stuttering therapy–avoidance reduction therapy for stuttering (ARTS). The tenets of ARTS dovetail nicely with his own growing instincts to push past his communication fears to achieve his goals. ARTS takes place in a group setting, so it also introduces him to a community of like-minded people. He meets stutterers of all ages who are unified by their shared desire to break the chains stuttering has on their psyches. For the first time in his life, he is in relationship with others who stutter, and moreover, they are all working toward stuttering with abandon.
This therapy accelerates his momentum, and he is ready to take a risk on love. As a reader, I smiled through the pages depicting him falling in love with his wife, Maria. Efforts to suppress stuttering often lead to disconnection and isolation, so it is particularly gratifying to read about Anderson’s success in pushing past these impulses to hide, choosing instead to embrace authentic connection with a human who excites him– mind, body and soul. Much like Anderson’s intentional avoidance of a happily-ever-after narrative around stuttering, he is
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deliberate in his description of married life. Like so many, the couple experiences fertility issues. In the face of these struggles, Anderson is able to paint a picture of how the strength and resilience that he has honed throughout his stuttering journey continues to serve him in all areas of life. He has a deep confidence in his and Maria’s ability to get through the painful and discouraging medical interventions and come out triumphant on the other side. And so it is that we come to the last developmental milestone depicted in EWM–Anderson becomes a father.
Despite the fact that Anderson has achieved personal and professional success by all standard measures, his journey is not complete. He has a deep reservoir of empathy for other PWS, parents of kids who stutter, and clinicians who want to help their clients in more authentic and effective ways. In many ways EWM is a love letter from Anderson to the stuttering community. Through the pages, he offers his story as a stepping stone, so that others might feel empowered to cross the terrifying waters of stigma and find their wholeness on the other side of that treacherous river. Indeed, having found a way to allow personal and professional success to live alongside his stutter, he hopes to inspire others that there is happiness and fulfillment to be found outside of the quest for fluency.
Still not convinced? Read the book. Anderson’s experiences as depicted in EWM lend credence to this lofty idea that success and stuttering do not need to be held in opposition to one another. After all, the broad strokes of Anderson’s present-day life represent the outcome that we dream about for our kids–and he stutters. For those who remain attracted to the safety presumed to lie within fluency, it is worthwhile to ask: Would Anderson have ended up (a) an FBI analyst with access to the senior most officials at the agency, (b) married to the woman of his dreams, and (c) a father, had he not run toward stuttering instead of away from it? EWM is a revolution because it writes a playbook for how to get there by breaking out of the old paradigm that prizes fluency. It is a stuttering-ever-after-story, not a happily-ever-after story, and thus provides “proof of concept” to the rumblings about a reimagining of stuttering and its treatment that have been stirring in the community for years.

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