Five college students sitting around a table and laughing

I am 24 years old and I stutter. I started going to speech therapy when I was 5 years old and continued to go until I was 12. During that time period, I went to two different speech therapists three times a week. Over the seven years I became fluent. From the ages of 12 to 17 I did not stutter, nobody could tell I stuttered, and I did not consider myself a stutterer. Then my senior year came along and my stutter returned.

My parents and I attributed the return of my stutter to my nervousness and excitement over the life changes coming: graduating from high school, going to college out of state, meeting new people, and experiencing new things. We thought the stutter would disappear when I became acclimated to my new environment.

That (fortunately) did not happen. I continued to stutter, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that I stuttered. Over the course of my freshmen and sophomore years of college, my parents occasionally mentioned I should see what resources my school had to offer — if any — in terms of speech therapy.

I ignored their suggestions until my uncle expressed the same sentiment during Spring Break of my sophomore year. At the moment, I heeded his words and those of my parents and decided to investigate what my school had to offer. I was told I could attend speech therapy at my school, but I would not be able to begin until the fall semester. My parents were appeased and I was apprehensive about what the fall had in store for me.

When I started speech therapy again, it was at a time when I was ignoring my stutter. I did not talk about stuttering. I did not tell anyone I was going back to speech therapy except my closest friends with the caveat they could not tell anyone.

The fall semester came around and I walked into a speech therapy session for the first time in eight years. The second I walked into the building, I left my pride at the door and was open to what could happen. At the time I did not know I made one of the best decisions of my life.

As time progressed, I learned and re-learned techniques to decrease my stutter. I became more comfortable talking on the phone. I became more comfortable in public speaking situations and did a better at job interviews. However, the most important thing to come out of my two years of speech therapy was acceptance.

After two year of therapy, I was now able to accept the fact I stutter and will for the rest of my life – and most people do not care I stutter. As a result, I was able to openly talk about stuttering with anyone and help break down misconceptions. I now post articles about stuttering on social media and look into ways to get involved with the stuttering community.

When I graduated college in 2015, I graduated from speech therapy as well. I have not been back to speech therapy nor do I have any intention on going back to speech therapy. I am now involved with the Baton Rouge chapter of the National Stuttering Association (NSA). I have been on panels to discuss stuttering, and I embrace my stutter.

If I were to go back to therapy, I would be lying about my acceptance. I plan on breaking all stuttering perceptions, not encourage them.

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In the summer of 2013, I worked as a camp counselor at an all-boys summer camp. That alone was out of my comfort zone because I’m about as far from an outdoorsman as one can be. The outdoors was nothing compared to being a camp counselor to a dozen 7- to 9-year-olds, our youngest campers. When we began training, I stated that I wanted to work with the oldest group of campers, 12- and 13-year-olds, because I had previous experience working with high school age kids and I thought that experience would translate nicely.

However, at the recommendation of the child psychologist who trained us on how to handle certain issues that may arise during camp, I was placed with the youngest group, a position I hesitantly accepted. What I thought was a curse turned out to be a blessing because I grew to love that age group, after I got over my growing pains. One reason loved them is because of the lessons my campers taught me about life and stuttering. These lessons I still use four years after the fact.

1. I care about my stutter more than others do.

During the first hour of the first day of camp, one of campers went up to my co-counselor and asked, “Hey Brad*, does James stutter?” Brad’s response was, “Ask him.” The camper then proceeded to ask me and I said, “Yes.” The camper’s response was, “Cool, so does my sister,” and he moved on. That moment taught me that if he doesn’t care, why should I care that I stutter?

2. Own who you are.

Every week, the camp would receive a new batch of campers, and every week I was given a new group of campers. As a result, Brad and I had to go over the rules and regulations of the cabin and the camp, but more importantly, it required me to announce something I wanted to hide from the world: “I’m James and I stutter.” At that time, I was a few short months away from going back to speech therapy and I was still running from my stutter. I knew I had to tell my campers this fact about myself because I would be with them 24/7 for the next week, and if I did not, they would figure it out. When I said, “I’m James and I stutter,” during the first week of camp, it was the one of the first times I owned the fact that I stutter to a room full of strangers, kids no less. As the weeks progressed and turned into years, this statement became easier to say when I am with a new group of people.

3. Stuttering is a great teacher.

When I introduced myself to my campers every week, I followed up “I’m James and I stutter” with “Some people are tall and some people are short. We all have differences, but we all respect each other and treat one another with kindness.” I hope that my speech taught my young campers about embracing and owning their differences, embracing the differences of others, and that one treats everyone with kindness and respect, regardless of one’s appearance or voice.

4. The beginnings of acceptance.

The biggest lesson my time as a camp counselor taught me was acceptance. My experience at camp started me on my journey to accepting the fact that I stutter.

*Actual name of co-counselor used with his permission.

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As someone who stutters, sometimes I start to worry. Do people understand? Do I come across as highly introverted and even uninterested because I’m so reserved most of the time? Do people know that I really do care, that I love them, that I love talking to them? All these thoughts flood my mind whenever I’m in any kind of social situation, whether it’s with close friends and family or with less familiar acquaintances. On the toughest days, when my stutter is a relentless opponent in this battle to speak and I start retreating into silence, there are a few things I just long to tell that person standing in front of me.

1. If we’re having a conversation one day and I let you do most of the talking, please know it’s never because I’m uninterested. I love talking to you. In fact, I could talk with you all day. However, the truth is that stuttering can be downright exhausting for me sometimes. I might just be having a really rough day with my speech, and on those especially tiring days, I would rather listen to what you have to say. But I will always try my absolute best to add something in whenever I can.

2. If you ask me a direct question, and it seems like I’m avoiding it by giving a vague answer, please know I don’t mean to ignore you. Now, this one is extremely specific, but I felt that I needed to include it because it’s a constant struggle for me. Can I be totally honest with you? Sometimes the stutter has been so powerful and so overwhelming that I have resorted to desperate measures just to somehow answer the question, whether it makes sense or not. This might look like pretending to forget the name of the drink I ordered when a friend asks me or even “forgetting” the name of my online schooling program because the words are just too difficult to say. This might look like beating around the bush until the tension subsides enough for me to answer you. That is the honest truth. When you ask me something, it might take awhile before you get the answer to your question, but I promise I will always try.

3. If I ever seem distant or removed from a social situation, please know it never has anything to do with you. Even if I seem really quiet, odds are, I’m as happy as can be on the inside because I’m with you! It’s normally never because I’m sad, or anything else. It might just be that my stutter is giving me enough trouble that day that I just prefer to sit back and quietly take the world in. I have many days like that, and those days teach me so much.

4. If I do a terrible job at initiating conversations with you, please know I’m trying to do better. It’s never because I don’t want to talk to you… because I really do! I have always struggled with initiating conversation. For some odd reason, it’s much harder for me than just jumping into a conversation that’s already started. Asking questions is especially difficult. Through the years, I have made slow progress in this area, but I have a long way to go. I believe I’ll get there someday with God’s help.

5. Most of all, please know I care. One of my deepest concerns is that people won’t know how much they really mean to me and how much I love them. After all, communication is the most basic aspect of human interaction. It’s how we share our hearts and lives with others. It’s how we connect as fellow human beings traveling through this same life together. Life revolves around communication. Please know I’m thankful to have you in my life. I have been so abundantly blessed with family and friends. Sometimes I can’t express my heart the way I want to with my words, but I can still express it with actions… and I hope and pray that I have.

Follow this journey on Flawlessly Spoken.

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Anyone who knows me somewhat intimately will more than likely know I am a person who stutters. Maybe not as bad as the stereotypes depicted in South Park’s Jimmy and elsewhere in the media, but it is something you will notice if you spend any length of time with me. To most people this might seem like a trivial detail in one’s life with no real consequence, but to others it may be a point of focus in establishing a person’s (in this case my) identity. Neither of these analyses are more “correct” than the other, but the split in the ways people respond to someone stuttering points to a widespread lack of awareness and education on this invisible communication disability.

This article is not intended to come off as a crusade to amend this apparent mass ignorance, nor is it intended to direct blame at any individual who has perhaps responded in a callous way when confronted with a stutter in conversation — as most of these responses are not mean-spirited but rather come from a place of unfamiliarity. Instead, I hope to shed some light on the realities of stuttering through my personal experiences in finding methods to cope with the most prominent and unyielding challenge I face in my day-to-day life.

For as long as I can remember, I have stuttered. Through the years this has come to the surface in varying degrees of difficulty on a wide, wide spectrum of personal fluency. I have worked with more speech therapists than I can count on one hand to try and tackle being dysfluent, with alternating levels of success and frustration. Many people reading this may be surprised to hear how critically my speech has impacted my life, and still others may be surprised to read that I even stutter at all.

While today I would describe my stuttering as “moderate,” the real consequences of having speech dysfluency are often more internal and mental rather than being reflected in the severity of the stutter. This is certainly not the case for all people who stutter, but the personal toll that dysfluency has had on my life has come in the form of shame, anxiety, and pain. As you might imagine, these factors feed into the vicious cycle of stuttering itself. For any person who grows up with a stutter, there are bound to be many instances of ridicule or belittlement — usually in the form of peers mocking or laughing about the inability of the person stuttering to say what they want to say. While the internalization of these far too regular and unfortunate circumstances have certainly played a role in my psyche as it pertains to speech, the struggle becomes more socially challenging in adulthood when the playful ignorance of childhood can no longer be used as an explanation in navigating these situations.

I can tell you from first-hand experience that adults are not immune to patronizing those they perceive as “lesser,” even if this comes from something as functionally irrelevant in the grand scheme of things as a stutter. While working at my last job, I was charged with answering phones and scheduling appointments for clients. In one instance I can recall in particular, I got badly stuck on a word and noticeably stuttered while trying to assist a caller. They proceeded to unabashedly laugh at me for about 10 seconds and then speak to me in the way a parent speaks to a young child to finish the call. While now I can look back on this phone call with disappointment in the caller’s lack of maturity, at the time this moment made me retreat further into my shell and ultimately ruined the rest of my day. Essentially attacking my intelligence, this person felt that my speech reflected my mental faculties.

For many people who stutter, myself included, phone calls present a very distinct challenge in daily life. Throughout the years, I have gone to great lengths to avoid speaking on the phone, and to this day I have extreme difficulty with phone calls, though it is a responsibility for me at my current job as well. Much of this I’m sure has to do with the forced turn-based nature of “the phone call” itself. There is a certain protocol in a phone conversation, whether it be the specific greeting you are expected to recite at a job, or the general individual focus on speech associated with any phone call. Speaking on the phone subverts a lot of the methods we people who stutter have developed over a long period of time to deal with speaking publicly, as the immediacy of conveying your thoughts in speech is implicit in the act and adds heaps of pressure to the situation.

Perhaps the most irritating and disheartening of all the challenges associated with stuttering for me comes from the seemingly simple task of saying my name: Kyle. I have been in countless situations where I’ve met new people and been unable to say my name when prompted. The response in the listener’s eyes is usually either one of terror or complete bewilderment — “What, did you forget your name?” While this is gut-wrenching and painful for me to think about even now, the real issue is how I deal with the build-up prior to this speaking situation. For instance, if I know I will be in an environment where I will have to introduce myself and say my name to a new audience, I may worry for weeks on end and lose a good deal of sleep. With my current semi-nomadic lifestyle of uprooting and moving to new areas fairly regularly, having to introduce myself to meet people is a constant necessity when I arrive in a new place. The actual reality is rarely as bad as I build it up in my head, but the anxiety of “the next speaking situation” is something that never escapes me.

This specific issue is so troubling because I have no ability to substitute a word for “Kyle” in the event I do get stuck on saying it. Substituting words is a common tactic for people who stutter, particularly for more covert stutterers such as myself who fervently attempt to hide the fact that we stutter. In many situations it has been the only defense mechanism that has worked for me in speaking fluently. I am sure many friends and family members would be surprised to discover how frequently I employ this strategy in regular conversation. While this “passing as fluent” approach is often argued to be self-defeating in the long run by speech pathologists, in the short term it has saved me from countless incidents of embarrassment and shame.

However, this method falls short when addressing proper nouns such as my name or where I’m from. The problems associated with introducing myself as “Mike” or “John” instead of “Kyle” just because it’s easier to say extend far beyond the potential fallout of getting stuck on a word — though I reluctantly admit I occasionally do this at places such as Starbucks where they ask for a name for the order. In one instance, I met someone when I was living in Ireland who asked where I came from. Unable to start the “n” in “New York,” I defaulted to telling him I was from Boston. While I can laugh at this now, it has stuck with me and is a reminder that changing the context of what I want to say because I feel a stutter coming on is also stuttering. Although I survived the situation and “passed as fluent,” I sacrificed intended meaning for fluency.

Another commonly terrifying arena for people who stutter is going out to eat at a restaurant. Much like a phone call, it is a turn-based speaking situation, one in which you are expected to recite your order as it appears on the menu. This can cause an all-too-familiar type of stress that hearkens back to the turn-by-turn reading in middle and high school classes. Just as I introduced myself as being from Boston instead of New York, I often will not order the menu item I desire the most but instead the one that is easiest for me to say in the moment.

I imagine this may seem ridiculous to someone who hasn’t personally dealt with stuttering, and I will admit it is a tenuous balance between accepting myself as someone who stutters and trying to maintain fluency by any means necessary. Once again, this is more of a defense mechanism than a proactive means of addressing my speech dysfluency. I aspire to one day develop the habit of ordering whichever food item I wish to eat most, but for now I can handle the slightly less-tasty dishes in exchange for mental and emotional stability.

Maybe the most concerning element of stuttering is how it affects educational and career pursuits. This has unfortunately been a reality for me over the past number of years and has impacted which college classes and professors I would take, as well as which jobs I would apply for. One of the main factors I would consider for these decisions is how much speaking would be required of me. While I have the awareness now to accept my past self and the scattered efforts to protect my mental health, it does indeed break my heart a bit to know I opted not to enroll in some interesting classes because they were discussion-based. Coupled with this challenge is my passion for conversation and debate, which quite paradoxically is often not able to be realized because of the restraints I have learned to shackle onto myself in various areas of my speaking life.

Though these issues consistently build up many walls in my life, the persistent challenges of being dysfluent have allowed me to develop methods of self-acceptance to knock them down as they appear. I have worked with many speech therapists, but one’s philosophies have stayed with me to this day and are a constant source of resonance and personal inspiration. James McCormack from Galway in Ireland taught me a great deal about gaining perspective on my stuttering and about finding methods that work for me. Far different from the emotionally-removed clinical speech pathologist who scours a decades-old textbook for ways to combat stuttering, McCormack is a person who stutters himself and knows first-hand the daily challenges we face in a world that demands fluency.

Perhaps the most important things I’ve learned from him have to do with “narrative therapy.” This approach to therapy is very individualistic as it relies on the person to use their own skill sets to navigate issues as they arise in their life. It separates the person from the issue and recognizes the ebbs and flows of life in general as we embrace both our successes and our pitfalls. No other philosophy has worked better for me. I am “a person who stutters” not “a stutterer,” as my identity as a person is not dependent on this one attribute of my speech.

While the anxiety associated with stuttering is a constant battle and has dragged me down to some of the lowest points in my life, there are — believe it or not — many positives to be celebrated that come as a result of living with a stutter. Firstly, having to have an extensive arsenal of words ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice in the event of getting stuck has led to me developing a possibly more diverse vocabulary than most. The acute attention I pay to words and meaning has definitely been bolstered over the years as a result of my stuttering.

Far more important than this, however, are the lessons I have learned in patience and understanding. The embarrassment I have felt over the years from the reactions of others and the shame that has come from within have both contributed to my personal development as a human being who recognizes the varied, often invisible struggles people go through on a daily basis. My empathy comes from a source of true compassion and first-hand understanding, and for that I am both personally grateful and outwardly eager to help those facing similar struggles that may not be at first perceptible.

The diaphragmatic breathing practices I have trained myself to make second-nature, and the active efforts to generate mindfulness are both mechanisms that I am sure I would not have made a central focus in my life had it not been for my stuttering.

In closing, it is my hope that people will work toward giving us, as people who stutter, the time and space to articulate our thoughts without condemnation or belittlement. Beyond that, it is my hope that the drive towards acceptance comes not only from the public but from within for those of us with speech dysfluency — as that is the true battleground upon which we fight these ugly, sometimes seemingly insurmountable anxieties.

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A few days ago, I sat in a restaurant parking lot rehearsing my order.

House salad. Tuna with everything.

I didn’t actually want everything. But for me, saying the word “everything” is better than saying what I really wanted, which was spinach, tomato, peppers, onions and light on the dressing.

That’s just way too many syllables.

I am a man who stutters, and have, as family home videos not-so-subtly point out, since I could string words into sentences.

My choices – the words I speak – aren’t always mine. They are someone else’s. They are of someone who relies on ease instead of truth and technique instead of stream of consciousness. As a stutterer, I become all too aware of the everyday choices I make not by my actions, but by my words. The items I order, the questions I ask, the human interactions I have.

Stuttering expresses its grip in my choices. Stuttering decided if I should try out or not. Stuttering decided to email when a phone call would have been better. Stuttering lingers in the background because I would rather be introduced than introduce myself. Stuttering uses the TTY number and pretends to be deaf. (Yes, I have done that.) Stuttering decides between a steak and the special. Stuttering heightens my awareness of language, but lessens the amount of words I can use fluently.

In high school, I’d say “present” instead of here because the “pre” sound was easier to say. I often use fake names at restaurants. And I have a mental collection of replacement synonyms in case my tongue doesn’t form a certain vowel sound.

Nothing is going to stop me from being me. Rather as people wade through their own struggles, often they find how they work within the world. The very act of stuttering can also teach you what you want to fight for, what choices you really want to make and how you want to get there.

For me, that’s relying on scripts and well-choreographed rehearsals of questions and answers before I go into a meeting, make a phone call or enter the grocery store. These rehearsals eat away at my biggest fear – to be asked a question for which I didn’t prepare.

On my first date with my now-wife, I plotted answers to questions about my childhood, my dreams and the reason I chose what I chose to eat. I’m not leaving saying “grilled chicken, salad and water” up to chance when I’m with a beautiful woman.

As a stutterer, nothing is what is expected and not very many things are as easy as they should be. Ordering via drive-through can be agonizing, and only through sheer hunger or the tantrums of my children do I actually attempt it. A weekday trip to the store for one item results in an entire car ride answering hypothetical questions from the clerk, a friend who I might run into who might ask about my family, or a stranger asking my opinion on this brand versus that brand.

I have to have a stance, a planned answer. I don’t do one-offs. I can’t. I don’t make quick choices and opinion statements. My verbal physiology fights against it. A facial tic shows my struggle.

The entire course of my life has been dictated in some form by my speech impediment.

But I’m also a man of faith. And this is the only life I’ve ever known. Maybe all this stuttering has steered me away from bad decisions toward better ones. Maybe it kept me out of darker places. Maybe planning ahead has actually helped my life, my relationships and my career.

And maybe letting go of full control of my own choices and things that don’t matter has prepared me for real life.

Maybe all that’s true because when the air runs out and the words slowly slip away, I’m still here.

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Marilyn MonroeTiger Woods and King George IV, to name a few, have lived with a stammer — so have no doubt, a stammer doesn’t stop you being the best. It takes a certain resourcefulness to scan ahead for words that might trip you up and have alternatives up your sleeve. A certain strength to read and deal with people’s reactions as you bite your tongue, distort your face and pray the wind doesn’t change.

There are days when it’s exhausting and frustrating and incredibly annoying not to be able to say what I want to say, when I want to say it. There are other days it’s not relevant, not a focus. I mean, you don’t think about the mechanics of speaking when it’s working as it should.

It has become increasingly important for me not to hide from or hide behind my stammer, not to be ashamed or embarrassed because other people are. I can’t control other people’s reactions to the way I talk, but I can control my own.

I helped to organize an open day for the British Stammering Association on Saturday. I woke up in the morning, not feeling the freshest, muttering, “Why do I sign myself up for these things? There’s other things I’d much rather be doing today.” They were mutterings stemmed from the nerves I had of my looming slot to introduce the day. Still, a fry-up seemed more appealing.

It was one of the best Saturdays I’ve had in a long time. The dedication of the speech and language therapists who gave up their weekend to provide information and support, plus the funny, articulate, brave and inspiring speakers who shared their experiences made me feel proud.

Through sharing experiences, advice and laughs from my life and others, I want to bring stammering and all that comes with it into the light. It’s a big part of my identity, a part I’m learning to respect. I want every person who stammers to have the belief and the ability to be the very best version of themselves.

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