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.
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