When I Wondered If My Words Had Value Because I Stutter
The art of conversation has not been lost on me even though I am a person who stutters. A good orator, as I have been taught by my university’s public speaking class, is someone who can speak clearly and eloquently without any awkward pauses or repetitions in words. My instructor might as well have said, “someone who doesn’t stutter.” I thought classmates, acquaintances, professors and people who didn’t know me would judge me based on my stutter more than the content of my words. For most of my life, I wondered if my words had value because they had a few consonants or an elongated vowel throughout the sentences.
Conversations are a daily part of life. As a person who stutters, I have to view conversations differently from fluent people. To me, a conversation resembles a traffic light. I wait patiently for the green light as other people talk about their lives, tell anecdotes and express their opinions. When they stop talking, the light changes color and another person begins their part of the conversation. Then when it’s my turn, I begin talking and expressing my point of view.
However, sometimes the light switches among everyone else in the group and the light never turns green for me. I stand in silence as everyone else talks about their lives. I have to inch forward, hoping my words will be able to join in at some point. Sometimes, the light turns into a four-way stop and as I move forward I have to halt in my place, apologizing for interrupting and gesturing for the interrupted party to continue speaking, to continue explaining their thought. I allow them to move forward and pass through the intersection as I am stuck in place. Sometimes when I want to add an idea into a conversation, when it’s finally my turn and I inch forward, the traffic has long gone and my trail of thought along with it. I am left behind in words and phrases even though my body is right there standing next to everyone else in the conversation.
I think faster than I talk, and sometimes when I want to contribute to a conversation, I have to think about how to chime in with my thought. I listen to what the other person is saying and at the same time I think about how I’m going to add in my thought. How can I comment without interrupting them? I wonder. How can I express myself and hope my stutter doesn’t cause the awkward pauses, the vacant expressions, the averted eyes? Sometimes I give up and don’t say anything.
I’m finally realizing my words are enough. I used to be afraid of speaking up for myself. I would wonder if my words were good enough and if I deserved my place at the table. I wondered if I should continue to speak up in an office conference room, at the dinner table, in a crowd of people during an audience Q and A. I fought an internal battle no one else was aware of until I spoke about the thoughts floating through my head, sometimes a small stream and other times a roaring rapid crashing along the shore.
I’ve often wondered how many times I chose not to speak because of the stuttering block. The block which feels like an invisible force pressing on my vocal chords, the block I’d have to internally push beyond to get my words into the conversation. How could I communicate when the very words I wanted to say fought back? I hadn’t realized the same words that felt so freeing written on the page in a journal could be so restrictive when attempting to speak out loud. The words used to express ideas became my cage.
Stuttering was a double-edged sword. Sometimes I distanced myself from the spoken word by asking more questions and deflecting the conversation from myself to other people. I’d listen intently, curious to what the person talked about, and then continued to ask questions to further our conversation and allow them more time to speak and more time for me to observe in silence. I felt both empowered and betrayed by the words I wanted to speak out loud. Sometimes the words emerged from my mouth with an extra syllable or a prolonged vowel. These words I wanted to use to communicate my ideas in a conversation sometimes refused to come out at all.
Over time, I’ve realized the stutter itself could become a conversation starter. I could bridge the gap between how I viewed my stutter and how I talked to other people about this aspect of my life. Talking about stuttering with other people was a way to overcome my fear, embarrassment and loneliness. I used words in conversations to create bridges. The same words I thought had trapped me all those years ago became keys I then used to unlock my own cage to join the land of fluency and communication.
Conversations are essential to everyday life, but sometimes they can be lonely. Sometimes the very act of speaking feels like I’m constantly proving my worth to whoever I’m talking to and to myself. I have to reinforce that my words are good enough to be spoken out loud. My thoughts are worth the fight for self-expression. I’ve come to realize the best moments occur when I have the freedom and the time to express myself to people who have the patience to listen. I care about what I have to say and it’s freeing to find people who care about what I have to say, too.
Getty image by Drew Bloksberg.