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How Three Decades With a Speech Impediment Shaped Me

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I’ll never forget the evening my speech impediment became glaringly obvious to me. I was about 7 years old, sitting in front of my parents’ bed. My little sister was upstairs asleep and my baby brother hadn’t been born yet, so I had their full attention. I remember pulling at the carpet fibers nervously as they started talking about enrolling me in speech therapy classes at my elementary school. It wouldn’t be that bad, they explained. My friends would all think I was at enrichment, and I’d just slip out for half an hour or so to work one-on-one with the speech teacher.

I remember looking up at my own father, his eyes welled with tears as my mom took charge of the conversation. A lifelong stutterer himself, I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was his fear in the flesh. I’d inherited his nervous, shaky way of talking. I would get frequent blocks throughout the day, where even starting a phrase would send me into a fit and frenzy of furrowed brow, squinted eyes, and red cheeks I could do nothing to cover up.

Still, I was young and evergreen and not too concerned with it. I knew it was frustrating, and it could be embarrassing at times, but I had a circle of three best friends and each of us were a little quirky in our own ways, so it never occurred to me that I needed “fixing.” It was just a part of me, as ingrained in my being as my brunette hair or the constellation of freckles spattered across my collarbone.

Still, I begrudgingly attended the school therapy sessions. I sat across from a string of petite and pretty and well-meaning teachers who taught me tricks to make my speech smoother. One told me to wear rubber bands on my wrist, and every time I felt “stuck” I could pull at one and remember to employ my “stretchy speech.” That worked well until I did it during a presentation in fifth grade and every other classmate asked me why I was tugging at my hands the entire time. Another gave me tons of literature on stuttering, which my parents devoured but I cast aside. My favorite one tried to break the ice on our first day by talking to me about all the famous people who stuttered, and how it didn’t mean the end of their dreams.

They were all kind and helpful in their own way. Yet for all their efforts, I still couldn’t say my “Cs” without dragging them out (a daily challenge for someone named Courtney) and I still found myself red-faced and hot every time I was called upon in class.

After a few years, I stopped attending in-school therapy sessions. I found ways to get around my stutter, primarily by avoiding certain trigger words that I knew would trip me up. While that worked for a pretty long while, it also meant I missed out on a bunch. I won a schoolwide essay writing contest in middle school and the grand prize was a trip to Carowinds amusement park. I’d never been and I was so excited. Then, I learned that part of accepting the prize was reading my essay out loud to the entire sixth through eighth grade. I told my teachers I declined my first place prize, and to please give it to someone else. I’ll never forget sitting on the cold gym floor as the second place winner claimed my spot.

Over time, I carried that habit of avoidance with me. I was 25 before I ever ordered takeout through a drive-through and I’ve never called to request a favorite song on the radio station. I rarely go to the drive-up bank teller, and instead, I’ll wrangle both of my two squirmy children inside for a two-second transaction. We can be an astute and calculating bunch, us with the speech impediments. Many of us walk around with a thesaurus in our minds of words we can use that are easy to say, ones that won’t leave the other party staring at us in that mix of confusion, sympathy, and impatience we’ve come to dread.

When I was 27, I was set to give a big capstone presentation for my Master’s thesis. Parents and loved ones were asked to come and it was to be an evening of celebration. Yet for me, it initiated a deep dread I couldn’t shake. So I sprung into action. I enlisted the help of a local speech therapist, who went to work helping me reverse years of covering up and side-stepping my stutter. The first time I sat across from her in her tiny, windowless office, she noted that part of a stutterer’s identity crisis can lie in being perceived as incompetent when we’re in fact highly capable individuals. The moment she spoke that truth out loud, I felt a lifetime of shame come crumbling down. Finally, someone got it. Someone knew I wasn’t sitting in the back of the class with my head down because I didn’t know the answer. I’d known the answer for years, but I’d rather risk looking aloof than sputter my response and feel the warm sting of humiliation.

She also pointed out that there are multiple ways to stutter, and that by lumping all of us together into one category, we’re doing a disservice to the unique properties that make up each of our situations. She fitted me for a special in-ear device designed to echo my own voice into my ear when I talk. Did you know stutterers rarely stutter when they speak in unison? It’s true. It’s why we don’t fear saying the Pledge of Allegiance at football games or singing along with our favorite singer on the radio. When we’re repeating words alongside someone else, our speech is gloriously smoother. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but it’s more aligned with “normalcy” if that even exists.

I didn’t invite anyone in my family to my presentation because I still wasn’t ready for that yet. But my speech teacher came. She sat in a tiny desk right in the middle of the room and came armed with lip gloss so my lips wouldn’t stick together and trip me up. She went over my speech with me in the campus lounge for hours before it was my turn to get up and speak. When I did, she looked me in the eye and mouthed the words alongside me, at the same time I heard them repeating in my device. It went off without a hitch, I got my M.A., and all was well.

Still, every day is not without its challenges. I called the doctor to make a routine checkup appointment last week and encountered a blockage so difficult to move past that I had to simply apologize, hang up the phone, wait about an hour, and call back. My sweet husband makes most of my calls for me, and I give my last name at the coffee shop because it’s easier to say than my first. I’m still finding ways around my stutter, though I’m vowing that this year is the one where I reverse that damaging trend.

One of the first places I intend to practice my newfound sense of boldness? A work conference in Florida coming up in two weeks. It’s my first time away from my two babies and I’m nervous as any mama would be about it. Adding to my apprehension? I’ve been asked to lead a quick question and answer session one afternoon. As my job is mainly virtual, I’ve not seen any of my co-workers in person. No one knows I stutter, though they soon will. When I was first presented with the offer (a huge honor, really), I initially wanted to decline. I’d drafted an entire email explaining my situation, and that I’d be more comfortable listening in than leading. Then, I looked down at my children, happily playing on the living room floor.

To them, I’m superwoman. I can bake a mean omelet and magically know where to find their favorite shows on TV. I hold them high on my legs in a makeshift airplane and I take them to the library and to preschool and every little ice cream shop in town on our days off. I catch them when they go too quickly down the slide, and I keep a stockpile of Band-aids for when their knees hit the pavement off their Big Wheels. I’m a doctor and a chef, a referee and a refuge.

To them, I’m not a stutterer. I’m so much more. I’m leaning heavily into that knowledge and confidence as I move headfirst into this new and challenging year. I’m Courtney. I stutter and it’s really stinking hard sometimes. But, I’m also a wife, a mother, and a daughter. I’m an incredibly hard worker and a thoughtful friend. So maybe I text more than I call, and I write more than I speak. Maybe stuttering will always be a part of me. But it doesn’t define me anymore, and I’m tired of letting it bury the lead.

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Originally published: February 12, 2018
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