The Banquet Dinner
On Saturday night November 4 2023, the Banquet Dinner of the Canadian Stuttering Association took place. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this, as I prefer one on one communication. When Anne and I walked into the dining room, we picked a table where no one was at. Among the people who later joined us was a man and his daughter. He sat directly across from me. I assumed he was here to support his daughter’s stuttering problem. Anne asked him if he spelled his name the same way Mark McGwire did. Perhaps the reason she had asked him this had something to do with the night of Saturday May 22 1999 when Anne and I sat in the Top Deck of Dodger Stadium. On that night Big Mac hit a solo home run to left centre field in the first inning. And then in the 8th inning he became the third player ever to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium. He hit it to the farthest part of the stadium, off the roof of the bleachers in almost dead centre field. The ball bounced off the top of the roof, as can be seen on a You Tube replay. The ball disappeared into the parking lot, despite what Vin Scully had to say about it at the time, where it was picked up by a little girl who was walking into the stadium with her parents, a woman who later met Mark. I have replayed that moment in my mind more than a few times. What a thrill!
Back to reality. The Banquet Dinner. Now almost from the beginning, this guy took over the conversation. My first reaction was here is another one of those talkers who won’t shut up and he is going to annoy everyone by talking about himself. At first I kind of tuned him out. But slowly my perception changed. I missed most of what he was saying because my hearing is getting worse every year now, especially in the din of the crowd. But I wasn’t able to completely tune him out, because I couldn’t avoid the series of non verbal messages or clues that he was giving off. Don’t ask me what they were, because they were received by me non verbally as well. The message was here was a man who was extremely well put together emotionally. This perked up my interest dramatically. Even more so, here was a man who knew how to take over a room. He did it, by making everyone else around him feel more comfortable. Now that just made me feel jealous.
Before we went to bed that night, Anne told me this man was a psychiatrist. Now that changed everything. In my experience there are some really good to great psychiatrists. I had three of them, two of whom were great psychiatrists. I struggled with sleep that night. With a new respect for this fellow, I struggled with whether I should approach the man and talk about what had happened to me. I calculated the odds of success as being around but probably less than 10%. I put my odds at 8% of getting anywhere with him. But 8% wasn’t zero, so I finally decided to give this a shot. The problem for me was he was from the United States.
Sunday November 5 2023
So I decided to check him out with Eeva Stierwalt, the incomparable leader of the Canadian Stuttering Association. Over a lifetime I have noticed that most people take energy from us. But there are those precious few of us who give energy to us and to other people. I have never met anyone who gives energy to other people like Eeva. In fact she is the best I have ever seen. I know I wouldn’t have spoken up about my stuttering if it hadn’t been for her. I had forgotten about my stuttering for decades and moved on with my life, starting with my first date with Anne on January 3 1972. The last thing I wanted to do was to bring back all the awful stuff that preceded my getting better in late November 1971. But Eeva’s effect on me was such that I couldn’t refuse. She made me a loving offer I couldn’t refuse: ‘Come and tell us your story’, or words to that effect. That made me feel I had a public obligation to come forward, especially when I soon read for the first time in my life that there is no known cure for stuttering.
So before breakfast on the Sunday of the conference, I sat down with her and asked her if she was ok with my approaching this man. I learned from her his name was Jerry Maguire. Jerry calls himself Jerry, but professionally he is known as Dr. Gerald Maguire. “By all means” she enthusiastically responded. Her extroversion is contagious. I told her I didn’t want to do anything which might hurt the interests of the Canadian Stuttering Association. I was concerned because he was an American. She told me not to worry and to go ahead. I did ask her to do one thing. I knew that I really needed to talk to this man for a lot longer than the time we would have available. I sensed if I tried to talk to him without her help, I was going to come across as a complete lunatic. She said she would help me in that regard. She did.
So I caught up with Jerry around noon. For the next 25 minutes in a couple of chairs away from the madding crowd, we sat upstairs where the books were on sale. Now I had decided I was going to feel him out with a simple question, a question out of left field. Obviously we were here to talk about my stuttering. But I chose to go somewhere else first. I can’t exactly remember how I framed my question, but it went something like this. “On a scale from 1 to 10, where ‘1’ is not much at all, and where ‘10’ is a great deal, how much did cognitive restructuring affect your life?” The test was this. If Jerry had said not at all, or if he had said cognitive restructuring was overrated, or worse if he had said ‘I don’t know what you mean’, this would have been a very brief conversation. He didn’t say any of those stupid things. In response, he did not hesitate in answering this question, other than to take a moment to figure out which number to use. The number he finally settled on was ‘7’. He spoke confidently and smoothly. He took my question seriously. That’s all I needed to hear. I now had the sense that Jerry was worth talking to. And as it turned out, he was amazing.
Now my first experience with cognitive restructuring occurred on November 30 1994. On December 12 1996, when I told my psychiatrist, the great Stanley W. Dermer of Hamilton Ontario, about what had happened to me that day in 1994, my notes of that 1996 appointment that day roughly put it this way:
Stan said “the process you are describing is part of what is known as ‘cognitive therapy’. And the specific process which you have described... is known amongst psychiatrists as ‘cognitive restructuring’”... At the same time, he agreed it is recognized in the literature that the replaced feeling is considered to be "me in disguise" and the newly emerging unconscious feeling is considered to be, relative to the replaced feeling, "the real me". He also said “you’re on the right track with what you have been doing.”
As an aside up until I met Jerry, I had never bothered to go looking for my summary of that appointment in my records. In fact I had no idea when that appointment had even occurred. But 3 days later on November 8 2023, I went looking for it and easily found it. It was a very exciting appointment and my notes on it went on about it for 5 pages.
After that 1996 appointment with Stan, when I tried to look up ‘cognitive restructuring’ online, the explanation was a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo, written by an automaton who came across as if he had never had a real feeling in his life. I have long since given up trying to find out what this term means from the internet. I just know that, excluding January 3 1972, my first date with Anne, the two greatest long term moments in my emotional life were the day I first realized I had accidentally recovered from stuttering in late November 1971 and the day I first experienced cognitive restructuring on November 30 1994. They are the two moments which served and continue to serve as the twin cornerstones of my positive emotional life for most of the last half century. Cognitive restructuring has been a real help ever since November 30 1994. It has never failed me.
Now the subject of cognitive restructuring when I spoke at the Sunday Open Mic was of course not relevant to briefly describing how my stuttering got better. However it turned out to be totally relevant to explain how I felt when someone had finally heard me, when I talked to Jerry about how I got better. Suffice it to say, and oversimplifying it in the extreme, cognitive restructuring is for me the process, where I replace one horrible long term feeling with another short term less painful feeling, during the process of doing an hour long look-in. I do so without using will power, such that when the quiet hour is over, both feelings have run their course, following which the horrible awful feeling ceases to control my life, until some time later, when it becomes necessary to crank up the process again. And again. In more recent years I have had to do this only a couple of times a year. Until 2023, when I began to use cognitive restructuring repeatedly for a completely different purpose, that is, to deal with the various types of emotional struggles which are part of daily living.
Now I subsequently have wondered if the process where my stuttering came to an end was my first experience with cognitive restructuring in 1971, rather than later in 1994. It turns out there are some real similarities, but there are some differences as well. The main difference is like comparing a vaccine for Covid with a vaccine for small pox, say. With Covid you have to get re-vaccinated at regular intervals; but with small pox, you need to get vaccinated only once. Cognitive restructuring is like getting repeated vaccines for Covid. The process of my recovering from stuttering, for me, was like getting a single vaccine for small pox. One and done. The other difference is that in my experience with cognitive restructuring, one feeling is replaced with another feeling, whereas in the process of my stuttering coming to an end, I didn’t so much as replace one feeling with another feeling. It was more like feeling two different feelings consecutively. First I felt, or very easily made contact with, ‘I hate myself’ and then a few seconds later, I made faint contact with the feeling ‘I love myself’, just before some new stuttering was expected or was about to occur. And yet even here I still wobble back and forth on that other difference. Because when I reread ‘A Magic Moment’ I can’t help but again wonder whether or not that 1971 experience was indeed my first experience with cognitive restructuring, where ‘I love myself’ did indeed replace ‘I hate myself’ . In any event, there clearly is an eerie similarity between the two processes which I still wonder about to this day.
My Conversation with Dr. Jerry Maguire
Now this introduction to my conversation with Jerry about cognitive restructuring only lasted a minute or two. I then went on at length to describe as best I could, all the while trying not to sound like a complete lunatic, how I luckily got better from stuttering. This took quite a bit of time. When it was over, I waited for his response. It was with 2 simple words “Cognitive Restructuring”!!!! At that moment I knew. At that moment I knew I had finally met someone who had HEARD me. I felt overwhelmed with joy. The odds were only 8% going in, but in rolling the dice, I had just hit it bigger than winning any jackpot at the casino. It was way bigger than I could ever have imagined, when lying in bed the previous night trying to figure out whether or not I should take the plunge.
Now the importance of having someone understanding us cannot be overstated. That’s how we get Heard. That’s also how we increase the love we have for ourselves. Each of us need to have someone who has real listening skills to be able to do this for us. Jerry has real listening skills. Now if you are interested in hearing real listening skills, I commend to you a video on You Tube which I stumbled into a week before our stuttering conference on November 3-5. It is an hour long video of Bhavna Bakshi interviewing Eeva Stierwalt. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOIFEu_HhR4 is the link. Now I have had more than one of these types of conversations with Eeva myself in the past year or two. And every time the conversation was over, I walked away feeling better about myself. That’s Eeva for you. Eeva is a really good listener. Having those kinds of conversations are how I increase the love I have for myself. What struck me about this particular conversation the first time I heard it was that Bhavna also had seemed to show some real skill in listening to another person. I wasn’t really sure how much skill, as I simply sat back and let the conversation wash over me and tried to absorb what was happening on the screen.
I was so impressed I got Anne to watch the video with me again the next day. In relistening to the conversation, I put myself in Bhavna’s position in order to see exactly how she had responded to Eeva. I found the following. Bhavna would ask a really good question. Then she let Eeva respond. Eeva responded beautifully, and at length, as is her habit. Bhavna did not interrupt. But it quickly became clear that Bhavna was not just letting the other person talk, in the hope that she could get back in and start talking again. No Bhavna was absorbing what Eeva was saying. And when Eeva was completely finished, it was Bhavna’s turn again. Now this was the moment I was interested in. Bhavna responded perfectly. She took one or two little nuggets out of what Eeva had said at length, and then reflected those back to Eeva. It was obvious to me that, by the way Bhavna put it, Eeva would have felt that someone had heard her. Even better, Bhavna did not respond in such a way which might upset Eeva or cause her to deny what Bhavna had said. Bhavna stayed well back from doing anything like that. This process happened repeatedly during the entire hour. I recommend this video to anyone who wants to see how someone can listen to another person so effectively.
Sunday November 5 2023 ended with another Open Mic session. The previous day had ended this same way. That Open Mic session on the Saturday was run by Tom Scharstein. Tom was amazing, even extraordinary. He made everyone in the audience feel comfortable, much like what Jerry did at the Saturday banquet. Tom asked people to come up to the front of the room and stand beside him. He said they did not have to say a single word. One person, as I recall, did just that. He went back and sat down without speaking, to thunderous applause from the empathetic audience. The others all chose to speak. Quite frankly I have never seen anything quite like it. What Tom did was to show off the charts empathy and kindness to other people. After the session ended, I had a couple of words for him on my way out, like ‘You did a great job’ or something like that. Facing him I suddenly felt shy, a real rarity now. I really wanted to say that what he had just done was extraordinary, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. In retrospect, I realized that I had missed a real opportunity at the convention, in failing to spend more time with Tom. Now I did not speak at that session and quite frankly I couldn’t imagine myself ever speaking at an Open Mic. Until I did such imagine it; and did so speak at one the very next day.
The next day, the Sunday, after what happened with Jerry at noon hour, just before the Open Mic started I began to feel that I just had to share that noon hour experience where, for the very first time in my life, after 52 years, I felt someone had heard me, when I spoke about my stuttering. But by the time I made the decision to do this, it was almost too late to get Anne who was in our room resting. Fortunately Daniele Rossi came and sat beside me and he provided me with support for something I knew I needed to do. Indeed if it hadn’t been for Daniele I might not have attended either Open Mic. I went because he told me that the Open Mics are really interesting, as often something unusual happens there. I let Eeva know I was going to speak. I was really asking for her permission, given that anything and everything I can say about my stuttering is so controversial. Once again she was in my corner. She always is. She encouraged me to speak, knowing full well what I was likely to say. I asked to speak last. She agreed. I told Daniele I was going to speak and speak last.
Now I was well aware going into the convention this year that it was important for me again to pretty much act like the wallflower I was last year. This year I managed to keep my mouth shut almost completely, up until this Open Mic that is. I did so because I was aware that everything I could say about my stuttering was controversial. As it was likely to scare a whole bunch of people in the room. That’s the last thing I wanted. Yet one of the most dramatic moments in my life had just occurred a few hours ago. I just needed to share that with my fellow stutterers, because that dramatic moment was about stuttering, the one thing we all have in common. So I overrode my better judgement on the matter and decided to go for it.
As I sat there waiting my turn, it suddenly hit me... it was now or never... there was only going to be one first time for me to publicly speak about my stuttering... And it was going to be right now... So I had either had to put up or shut up... there could be no taking the ‘scenic route’ either... it had to be right out of the box... not later in the what I had to say, when I knew what I was about to do would be really easy... doing that later would be cheating. Would I or wouldn’t I?... I decided to roll the dice, knowing fully well I might end up feeling like a horrible hypocrite if I failed... but I needed to be true to myself. So when I heard that the next person to speak was in his 2nd year of attending the convention, I knew it was my turn.... like right now. Lisa Wilder introduced me as ‘Don’... but I wasn’t about to use this as an excuse, as way out of getting out of what I knew I must do. I took the mic not really knowing how to use it. It was show time for me now... It was now time for my Maiden Speech on My Stuttering story.
My first words were ‘My name... my name...’... Now at that very moment, I realized I wasn’t as scared as I thought I was going to be, because once again that preternatural calm, which I am unable to properly explain to anyone else, settled over me at just the right moment. At that point I finally knew. I knew I was going to be just fine. “My name... my name... my name is Don McLean!!!!”. I had done it. In the one situation, which I sensed was the most likely to make me stutter before an audience which instinctively knew what I was doing, I had done it without making a mess of it. I didn’t have time to reflect on it at the time. But in the middle of the night lying in bed later, first a big tear rolled down my right cheek and then another glorious big one down my left cheek. I had done it! I had said my name without stuttering, in the one situation where I was most likely to fail. Which was the one situation where I couldn’t afford to fail. Because here was a guy who claimed he had not stuttered in 50 plus years and now he can’t even say his own name. And so it really mattered to me that I did not fail. I had done it. I felt so good. At no time, however, did the thought occur to me that I had written an article with the same name. That had nothing to do with this whatsoever.
I began my Maiden Speech with a reference to ‘cognitive restructuring’. Because this term was central to what had occurred at noon hour earlier today. I simply said I had asked Jerry a question about the role cognitive restructuring had played in his life; and that he had said it had played an important role. I tried to communicate that what he had said and the way he had said it had given me the confidence I needed to proceed. I then launched into the story of how I got better. I am not sure what details I provided about how I got better, because I was acutely aware that talking about it was going to scare some of the 30 or so people in the room. But I had to provide some minimal information on the subject, as it served as the context or background to one of the most exciting moments in my life. I may have mentioned about learning to listen to myself, from which I had discovered that I hated myself and that I loved myself. Then I know I mentioned that when I had accessed the feeling ‘I love myself’ in a stuttering context that the words had started to unexpectedly flow freely... one by one... smoothly... perfectly. Then I said I repeated the same exercise again and again, and the same thing happened: the words flowed freely. And again. And again. Until finally I realized that this was going to happen every time in the future. And then I said “I wept... and I wept... and I wept... and I wept... because I then knew that the worst scourge of my life was over... completely over.” Tears of intense positive consolation again rose up from within, just like they always do, whenever I describe that climactic moment in late November 1971.
I then came back to why I was standing before my fellow travellers today. I told the audience that when I finished my detailed description of my stuttering story, I had waited for Jerry to respond. When he quietly used but two marvellous words, “Cognitive Restructuring” to respond, those two quiet words emotionally thundered through me, because, finally, after 52 years ago this month, with respect to my stuttering story, I felt I had found someone who had finally heard me!! Standing before my fellow travellers, I now found myself completely speechless. Even stronger emotions poured out of me than the few minutes previously. Positive ones. Tears again welled up from within. But shockingly, I found I could not say/utter another word to this very supportive audience. I am told there was some applause, but I didn’t hear any of it. I was too overcome to hear anything at this point. I felt I had to get off the stage. I don’t know where my microphone went. When I managed to get off the stage without falling down, Eeva greeted me with a huge hug. In front of everyone. Now that made me feel really, really, really good.
My 2nd year of attending the stuttering convention was in some ways like what had happened on October 22 2022 at my first stuttering convention. What happened last year was described in an article entitled “Reflections on 24 hours of Craziness”. In both years I was overpowered with positive emotions, but in different ways. Last year my tears were about a new feeling of intense ‘belonging’, the likes of which I had never experienced before in my life. This year my tears were about having finally been heard, some 52 years after I had totally unexpectedly and accidentally recovered from stuttering.
Don McLean is a CSA member who has attended our past two conferences. This is his third article for the CSA website.