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Why I Stopped Trying to Hide My Stutter After 35 Years

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I have stuttered for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories of stuttering come not from the stuttering itself but to how people reacted to me. My father yelled at me to “Stop talking like that,” which I remember like a kick in the stomach. I couldn’t help it and didn’t understand why someone important like my father would yell at me because of the way I talked. I therefore concluded there was something wrong with the way I talked.

When I got to kindergarten, my teacher reprimanded me, saying, “We don’t talk like that here.” Now two influential adults in my life had given me the message there was something wrong.

I tried to figure out at the tender age of 6 or so how to not stutter so I wouldn’t get negative feedback. The only surefire way I came up with to not stutter was to not talk. So I became quiet. I didn’t stutter when I didn’t talk, and my dad and teacher didn’t yell at me anymore.

Once in a while, I did talk and stutter, and I remember classmates making fun of me. It made me feel ashamed of myself, and I often cried but rarely told anyone how it made me feel. You see, we didn’t talk about stuttering when I was growing up. It was the elephant in the room — something that made everyone uncomfortable.

I remember going to speech therapy in third grade. I remember it didn’t do much good as I still stuttered. The speech therapist didn’t seem to quite know what to do for me. Therapy was short-lived, as my father pulled me and my siblings out of public school and sent us to a Catholic school, where speech therapy wasn’t provided.

So I began learning how to cover up my speech. In addition to not talking much, I learned how to “pass” as fluent and became what’s known as a covert stutterer. I learned how to substitute words by switching a word I might stutter on for one that I wouldn’t. I developed a huge vocabulary and learned the synonyms for many, many words. Sometimes, I would switch the context of a sentence and say something that didn’t make sense just to avoid stuttering. I didn’t want to face the humiliation of being laughed at or made fun of because of the way I talked. It was better for me to not make any sense than to risk stuttering in front of someone.

I did this for years. Outwardly, I didn’t stutter. But inside, I had all the feelings and fears of a stutterer. I felt shame, guilt and anger. Mostly, I felt isolated. No one knew what it was like to stutter and try not to stutter. It was like mental gymnastics, constantly being on the lookout for a potential stuttering moment and thwarting it with one of my many tricks. It was exhausting to live like this, and into adulthood, I felt fraudulent and inauthentic. I didn’t want to do this anymore and began to explore ways to be true to myself and let my true voice be heard.

In my 40s, after more than 35 years of hiding my stuttering, the way out found me. I was fired from a long-term job due to my stuttering, which I really wasn’t able to hide well any more. Being fired rocked my world, but it also forced me to finally confront what I was doing and how unhappy I’d been hiding behind a false identity.

I decided to return to speech therapy as an adult and also found a stuttering support group to attend. Slowly, I began to accept myself as a person who stutters and began experimenting with stuttering openly for the first time in years. It was remarkable — the earth didn’t swallow me up nor did I get hit by lightning.

What was also remarkable was the freedom I felt almost immediately. I felt light and liberated, as if the weight of the world had been lifted. I started telling people in my circles I stutter, and I wasn’t going to hide it anymore. To my surprise, most people already knew. Apparently, I hadn’t been perfect at hiding my stuttering all those years as I had thought.

I remember sometime after making the transition from covert stutterer to open stutterer, I began telling parts of my story. As I developed authentic relationships with people for the first time, I would share some of the story, which I had basically rewritten.

A work colleague asked me if I could hide my stuttering by scanning ahead and switching words, why didn’t I do it all the time. I remember this question like it was yesterday. I told her that pretending not to stutter wasn’t an option for me anymore. I told her I couldn’t be untrue to myself anymore. That being authentic was important to me, as was loving myself for who I am. I can “not stutter” by using tricks or being quiet, but that’s not me anymore.

I am a person who stutters. My voice shakes, quivers and blocks sometimes. Sometimes, I repeat a word or syllable several or many times. That just means that what I have to say is worth repeating!

For me, stuttering openly is OK. It’s just a different way of talking and that’s OK, too. All of our voices need to be heard.

What’s a part of your condition you live with every day that others might not see? Explain what that experience feels like. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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The Compliment I Didn't Expect After Giving a Speech With My Stutter

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Over 70 million people in the world stutter to some degree. Yet for something that affects the daily lives of so many people, not a whole lot is known for certain about what causes stuttering, what makes it get worse, or what makes it get better. As a result, there are many misconceptions about this condition. Stuttering does not come about because of psychological problems. Nor does it make us any less intelligent or capable than those who do not stammer. I, along with millions of others lead regular lives just like anyone else would.

James Earl Jones, the accomplished stage and screen actor, is famous for his roles as the voices of Darth Vader and Mufasa. But what is not as well known is that he had a debilitating stammer. In his autobiography, there is a quote about his experience with stammering that jumps out of the page and in my opinion, defines what stuttering becomes to so many:

“I think a stutterer ends up with a greater need to express himself, or perhaps, a greater awareness of the deep human need for expression. Being a mute or stutterer leaves you painfully aware of how you would like to say something. And I would know, as an afterthought, how I could have said this or that. But at the moment, you are too busy making the choice to speak or not to speak, to use this word or that word. The pain is in the reflection. The desire to speak builds and builds until it becomes part of your energy, your life force.”

James Earl Jones is hardly the only famous person to stutter. There is a very long list of people who live in the limelight who do not let stuttering prevent them from achieving their dreams,  such as Emily Blunt, Ed Sheeran, and even Bruce Willis.

In my experience, stuttering is a speed bump. How large that speed bump is depends on the severity of the condition, but it is still a speed bump. It is something that sometimes makes us second-guess ourselves or prevents us from doing things we would like to do. But it doesn’t have to always be a speed bump. Just as much it can hurt, it can empower us to do great things as it has for countless others before us.

I have only recently begun to empower myself to achieve the heights I know are possible. The university I attend has a number of model diplomacy teams, all of which culminate in a trip to a conference, where the team represents a country in a simulation of various international organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, or in my case, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As one might expect, participating in this sort of conference requires a lot of public speaking. As I described in a previous article, public speaking is hard enough without a stammer.

But through my amazing teammates I came to not hesitate when having to speak in public. One of my teammates and dear friends told me that she, along with the rest of the team, saw me as an inspiration. She said everyone was so inspired that I was able to stand up and give amazing speeches and not let my stutter limit me. Part of me wanted to believe that it was just her being nice, but I took her words to heart, and it showed when we went to Washington, D.C. for our conference.

I got up to speak to my fellow delegates many times during that conference. I was not able to be completely fluent during each of my speeches, but I did it with the understanding that most who were listening might be inspired to at least some degree by my actions. But if I needed validation for my beliefs, I received it on the final day of the conference, when one of the coordinators pulled me aside and congratulated me on my speaking skills, telling me that I was one of the best speakers there. The compliment was an unexpected but very pleasant surprise, and it renewed my belief that I could achieve my full potential despite my stutter. And for all intents and purposes, I began to reach my full potential during that conference.

Stuttering is a strange disability. It can tear people down and at the same time raise them to new heights. It can dishearten us just as easily as it can elate. But as John Stossel once said, “The happiest stutterers, I learned, are those who are willing to stutter in front of others.”

The Mighty is asking the following: What was one moment you received help in an unexpected or unorthodox way related to disability, disease or mental illness? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why I See Myself as a 'Fluent Stutterer'

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For the majority, speaking is as natural as breathing. For people who stutter, speaking can be an ordeal.

Forget what the snake oil salesmen tell you: there is no miracle cure for stuttering. No magic pill you can buy with six easy payments of $19.99. Though some children grow out of it, a stutter into the teenage years and adulthood can only be managed. Stuttering actors like Bruce Willis, James Earl Jones and Samuel L. Jackson have used their craft to combat their speech challenges.

At 34, I am fortunate that I’ve overcome my stutter. It’s taken me over 20 years, but I did it. While I’m still a stutterer, I now see myself as a fluent stutterer. How did I do it?

I owe a huge debt to tried-and-true speech therapy, mainly smooth speech or fluency shaping. At the most basic level, smooth speech is similar to singing: using diaphragmatic breathing to slow down your speed, thus increasing the chance of fluency. In the wrong hands, you can sound like a drunk robot. Done correctly, the words come out smoothly and with an even cadence. An emphasis on in-phrase rate control guards against sounding too monotone. At first, smooth speech may seem unnatural, but in my experience, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.

Growing up in Canberra, Australia, there was little help aside from too-obvious tricks like putting the “H” sound at the start of a sentence. Upon moving to Brisbane at age 11, I started speech therapy at the Mater Hospital, and began a two-decade journey to fluency. I attended children’s therapy from 11-13, and graduated to teenage maintenance from 13 until I finished school. I combined teenage groups with weekly individual therapy with numerous wonderful speech therapists, plus did regular week-long “boosters” during school holidays. By the time I’d finished high school, I shifted to weekly adult maintenance. This was the turning point.

I loved adult maintenance. I’d gone from being the only stutterer at school to spending every Tuesday afternoon with like-minded PWS (people who stutter), talking and practicing our three target rates: 50 syllables per minute, 100 spm, and 150 spm. I’ve also been an active member of the Queensland Speak Easy Association, serving as long-term newsletter editor, two terms as secretary and volunteering for stuttering-themed events and conferences.

For stutterers, it is incredibly tempting to pick a job where you don’t have to speak. But my other vital tool was speaking in the real world, known as transference. By my mid-20s, I was competent enough to do telemarketing and market research work, which I still continue a decade later. Relying on my voice for work has done wonders for my speech. Because I have to be fluent to keep my job, I am far more diligent. Now I’m at a stage where my speech is under control. Simple tasks, like talking on the phone, ordering lunch, or buying a movie ticket hold no fears. I’m even at the point where I don’t need speech therapy anymore. My regular call center work keeps me in practice, and I have enough smooth speech experience to pull myself out of a rough day.

I’ve mentioned fluency a lot, but that’s not the only way. Some brave souls embrace voluntary stuttering. The purpose is to remove the stigma and embarrassment of stuttering, which is all well and good, but to me it seems quite risky to stutter on purpose.

For all the consistent fluency I have now, there are still days where words are a challenge and I fall into old habits. Fortunately, I can still drop into maintenance or call a PWS friend to get myself back on track.

My advice to others who stutter is to find a technique that works for you, whether it be smooth speech, voluntary stuttering, or some other method, and stick to it. Build a network of PWS friends. The unspoken bond you share with other PWS will be stronger than with your fluent friends. Transference practice is golden. Once you feel comfortable, either get a job involving your voice or put yourself in speaking situations. It does wonders.

Andrew Pelechaty - man with glasses sitting at a table
Andrew Pelechaty

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why I Chose to Continue a High School Presentation When My Stutter Was at Its Worst

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I don’t remember exactly when I began stuttering. All I remember was that it began sometime in the third grade. Children aren’t always known to be kind to those who are “different,” and my case was no exception. I remember the bullies who mocked me at every turn, the ones who made me silence myself out of fear. I remember those who were silent as they watched their classmate suffer just as much as I remember those who had the courage to stand up for what was right.

But most of all, I remember the teachers, the adults in the room who I feel failed at their jobs, who sat idly by as bullying occurred right in front of them. In a number of very upsetting instances, they even joined in the mockery. The fear, the pain and the misery is forever seared into my memory as a curse, much like the albatross hanging from the neck of the mariner in the famous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

There is no way to suppress that pain, but fear can be overcome. It takes untold courage to have the will to constantly fight for something that comes effortlessly for most other people. It’s not a struggle that is unique to me. Everyone has their own challenges to deal with, and this one is mine. But it’s up to each of us to decide whether or not they will consume us. I can’t speak for others, but for me there was a single crystallizing moment during which I decided to not let my challenge consume me.

Friday, April 18, 2008: My freshman year of high school. I was slated to give a presentation on a section of Jewish literature for what was supposed to be a small crowd of maybe two dozen people at most. At the end of this presentation, I had to read a rather large section of scripture written in ancient Aramaic, which I wasn’t good at reading fluently to say the least. But what was supposed to be a small group turned out to be the entire school. Granted, I went to a small school, so it was only about a hundred people, but I didn’t know about this change until literally minutes before. All the mental preparation I did for this presentation went out the window. To make a long story short, I stuttered so much that the headmaster actually came up and offered to take over reading the Aramaic for me.

In that moment, I had a choice. I could take the easy way out, or I could fight and finish what I started. I chose to fight, no matter how painful it was, and I finished that presentation, stuttering and all.

They say that sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to find the strength to overcome, and that painful Friday was my rock bottom. I had seen the worst my stutter could throw at me that day. The public humiliation of my ordeal was so great that part of my mind begged me to never speak in public again. And if I never spoke in public after that, who could really blame me?

But I refused to allow my stutter to limit me, remembering the hundred pairs of pitying eyes in the audience on that awful day and vowing to never let that happen again. I fought. I fought through every stammer and every block that occurred. And it’s a battle that still goes on today. Every day is a new fight, a new battle to win. I’m not successful every day, but each new day is another chance for fluency, and it’s a challenge I always greet.

For those who are currently engaged in their own battles, don’t give up. Don’t let the ones who wish to see you falter through their words and actions dictate how you live your life. For every person who wants to see you fail, there are many more who are rooting for you. Know that the righteous are out there and don’t forget their presence even on your darkest days.

In a way I feel blessed. Blessed that I was given a challenge that has taught me the meaning of courage. Blessed that I learned not only patience with myself but patience with others. Blessed that I learned to accept the challenges others face as they accept mine. Blessed that this challenge is teaching me how to overcome fear in order to live a full life.

As the great journalist Dorothy Thompson once said, “Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live.”

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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To the Man at Walmart Who Laughed at the Woman Stuttering

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To the man at Walmart,

Last night, as you stood there staring and laughing, you saw a woman struggling to speak, stuttering and stammering her way through sentences. For some reason, you found this comical and continued to laugh as you walked by.

If you had looked more closely, you would have seen my loving fiancé, who has stuck with me through all of my diagnoses, medical procedures and struggles. A man who understands my stuttering sentences and always knows exactly how to make me feel beautiful and special every single day, regardless of my illness.

couple standing next to each other. the man's arm is around the woman's shoulders.

You would have seen my glasses, which I acquired after losing 50 percent of my vision from the scarring of my optic nerves from filling up with spinal fluid. And you would have seen me. Someone who suffers from a neurological condition called intercranial hypertension, which leaves me with excruciating headaches on a regular basis, but still puts a smile on her face every day.

And while you were looking at me, laughing, what you couldn’t see was this: the three bags of prescriptions I had just filled at the pharmacy to complete the 18 pills I take daily (more on the bad days) in order to function, just to walk, talk, work and live a less-than-normal life. You couldn’t see the three inches of hair I had grown underneath my wig since shaving my head last April to have brain surgery. You couldn’t see the tube that goes from my skull, underneath my skin, into my neck and down into my abdomen to drain the excess fluid off my brain. You don’t see the seizures that often leave me in paralyzing pain for hours. You don’t see the thousands of dollars in medical debt I’ve accumulated in a short amount of time.

So as much as your laughter hurt, I have endured much worse pain. You never know what someone is battling in their lives. Next time you see someone struggling, take a moment to look closely. You might just see things with a fresh set of eyes and realize that everyone has their own burden to bear — most of which are no laughing matter.

woman in the hospital

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Woman With Stutter Fighting Back After 'Traumatizing' Incident at Atlanta Airport

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One young woman feels she was discriminated against because of her disability at an airport in Atlanta.

On Thursday Jan. 21, Kylah Simmons, who goes by Kylie, was making her way home from Costa Rica, where she’d been studying abroad, when she was stopped at customs in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. When speaking to a customs agent and asked where she was coming from, Simmons, 20, stuttered on the words “Costa Rica.” She was then detained and questioned for an hour or more, causing her to miss her connecting flight.

“I felt inferior, intimidated and bullied,” she told The Mighty.

Photo of Kylie Simmons

Simmons, who writes about her stuttering on her blog and Facebook group, Stutter With a Group, was never told why she was detained, but she says she was questioned about her stutter and accused of being dishonest. The employee who questioned her went as far as to imply she was lying about her stutter because she didn’t stutter on every word. Simmons says her phone was taken away and she wasn’t allowed to call her family. She can’t be sure exactly how long she was detained, but she thinks it was for about an hour.

“What upset me the most was that the [customs agent] addressed my stutter as a ‘problem,’” Simmons wrote in her letter to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “I looked him in the eyes and explained to him that my disability was not a problem, but was simply a personal challenge for me that makes it difficult for me to communicate… I was continuously told that I was lying and that I was being dishonest. All my life, I have been bullied and silenced because of my stutter. I felt silenced today.”

Simmons with a classmate in Costa Rica.

After the questioning, Simmons went directly to file a complaint with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office. A supervisor there issued her a verbal apology, but Simmons has since written a letter asking for a formal apology and that employees at this airport receive further training in how to work with people who stutter. She has not heard back yet.

Simmons told Stutter Talk, a podcast about stuttering, that she was bullied extensively growing up because of her stutter, and this incident was traumatizing and reminiscent of childhood bullying. She says she isn’t seeking to have the employee who questioned her fired or reprimanded; she just wants a written apology and to see the airport take measures to ensure something like this won’t happen again in the future.

“I would like people who stutter to know they have a voice, and if they feel the need to speak up, they have that right to do so,” Simmons told The Mighty. “People who stutter can no longer be silenced. We have something to say, despite the challenges we may face.”

Simmons, from Washington, D.C., is currently a junior at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where she’s studying Psychology with a Media Studies concentration. She hopes to become a television producer.

She’s now partnering with The Stuttering Foundation of America to create a card for stutterers to travel with that includes more information about stuttering. Simmons hopes the card will be released soon, as there are two stuttering conferences set to be held in Atlanta this year where stutterers will be traveling from all over the world to attend.

“I do not want this to happen to me again,” Simmons wrote in her letter, “and not to anyone else with a disability.”

Many activists came out to support Simmons after she went public about her ordeal, and a hashtag was created called #DDDetainedinAtlanta. People have used it to spread awareness and voice their frustrations, as well as to urge the airport to educate its employees.

 

 

“Throughout this challenging time, I am grateful for the support of the national and  international community, including stutters and non-stutterers,” Simmons told The Mighty.

The Mighty reached out to the Atlanta U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office for comment but have yet to hear back. 

h/t Nina G

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