As a stand-up comic, Steve H. knows the trepidation of standing on stage submitting himself for the judgment of his audience. And for most of us, doing something like that would fill us with dread.
Unfortunately, he also knows the fear of speaking at all. Steve developed a stutter at the age of 6, and for his entire childhood, teen years and young adulthood used comedy not as a platform to express himself, but as a defense mechanism against the cruelty of others.
At an early age, “I noticed that others had a rather easy time of expressing themselves, whereas I could only express myself some of the time,” he said. “It planted the seeds of frustration and … it was probably my first taste of [feeling] the world isn’t a fair place.”
It wasn’t until he was 9 or 10 that Steve received any treatment for his stutter, and that was through his school’s speech therapy program. However, it wasn’t before he’d already built an extensive disciplinary record related to what doctors at the time said was ADHD. When the speech therapist began pulling him out of classes for sessions, he had already faced the stigma of being taken from class to take his ADHD medications.
Though the medications calmed him and helped him improve his grades, he said the sessions with the school speech therapist accomplished nothing.
Steve said he was never much of a stutterer in front of his parents, but in other social interactions closed himself off.
“I was introverted. Not because I was scared of people per se, but because I learned that if I talked less, I wouldn’t stutter or stammer or block and I wouldn’t get made fun of,” he said. “The only saving grace that I had was the fact that I was funny. I feel that helped me circumvent a lot of the abuse that other stutterers and stammerers had to go through. But the pain was there, regardless.”
That pain became worse once he reached high school and took his first part-time jobs, where he had difficulty communicating with bosses and coworkers. In the summer of his senior year in high school, Steve’s father finally agreed to pay for speech therapy outside of school, but the three months of treatment didn’t take.
Once in college, Steve turned to alcohol to help control his stutter. “I read that Winston Churchill was a stutterer or stammerer himself and to combat that he would just, pardon my French, but he would just get shit-faced, and then go give speeches to Parliament and whatnot,” he said. “When I read that, I was like, ‘That’s a great idea. I’m going to do it too.’”
In retrospect, it was not a great idea. But he still didn’t stop looking for a more permanent cure, scouring resources on treating stuttering and even turning to vocal training for singers. Though his stutter didn’t improve, “it made me a better singer,” he said. “So, there’s that. It comes in handy during karaoke, I guess.”
By now in his 20s and hoping to embark on a career as a stand-up comic, Steve realized his stutter was again standing in his way. Comic Doug Stanhope, who built his bit on his own stammer, initially inspired Steve to perform with his stutter. But despite any successes on stage, his stutter made interactions with club managers, booking agents and other comics – all used to fast-paced patter and on the lookout for weaknesses they could exploit – incredibly difficult.
For Steve, he reached a point of desperation after a falling out with other comics with whom he’d shared a podcast.
“It was probably two months into the [coronavirus] pandemic and they soldiered on with the podcast without me. I was listening to one of their episodes and they basically trashed me for about five or 10 minutes about my stutter and the way I talk,” he said. “That was my rock bottom. To hear my friends just blast me on a podcast … I just felt betrayed.”
That was the moment Steve decided he had to make a change. In quick succession he joined two Facebook groups for stutterers – one for people who embraced their stutter and the other that looked at stuttering as a mind-body disorder. After monitoring the pages for a few days, he said the “embrace your stutter” page turned him off.
“I was just like, ‘Hey, listen – I get what you guys are doing, but I’m trying to overcome this. I’m not trying to have what I felt was a giant target on me,” he said, laughing. “Because I’m in the world of comedy, man. They’re a bunch of ruthless curmudgeons.”
It was on the second Facebook page that he first saw a testimonial for The Lovett Method, which forms the basis of the World Stop Stuttering Association’s treatment for stuttering. After finding WSSA founder Lee G. Lovett’s book Stuttering and Anxiety Self-Cures, he was at first skeptical of the cascade of overwhelmingly positive reviews. After reading a few chapters, it was clear to Steve that Lovett was indeed a former stutterer.
“This was the first time I’d heard of a ‘civilian’ self-cure,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, this guy isn’t just full of it. He clearly dealt with that issue as a kid and an adult and he has methods, so I’m going to pay the price of admission and see how far it goes.”
Steve said that after following the book’s lessons and recommendations for a month, his fluency improved remarkably. He finished the book and began attending speech club meetings online at World Stop Stuttering Association (WSSA), learning how to implement the advice and practice the mind training outlined in Lovett’s book.
“Eventually I started my own practice group through the WSSA website, and just the act of volunteering helped me become more fluent,” he said. “Before I knew it, I didn’t have that fear anymore and I was a person who’d stopped stuttering (PWSS).”
But at this point Steve had yet to share his journey with the larger stuttering community, mostly out of concern for the effect it might have on his comedy career. Lovett offered him the opportunity to do so through a video success story that would be shared with other Lovett Method students.
“At first, I was reluctant to, but after a few days I came around to the idea that I do need to be open to that part of my life,” he said. “Also, there might be some other kid in the group that maybe has aspirations of being an actor or performer or politician or comic or public speaker or just a good guy, and it would serve the greater good by divulging that information.”
The Lovett Method’s emphasis not just on speaking better, but also letting go of the trauma that comes with being a lifelong stutterer also had a positive effect, Steve said.
“For myself, I would say that I felt like the 2,000-pound elephant that was sitting on my chest finally stood up and walked away,” he said. “The amount of fear that I would have going to every single conversation outside my family and a few friends that I made over the years, every interaction was just plagued with fear. I don’t feel that way anymore.
“I actually want to talk to people, whereas before I wouldn’t even talk to my neighbors in the elevator,” he continued. “Having completed Lee’s program, I was able to let most of that junk go. Now, I actually enjoy talking to people for the most part. I’m not the same person I was before I did the program, and I will always say that this program saved my life. I will go on record till the day I die and say that.”