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My Lifetime Journey to Take Back Control From My Stutter

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I’ve stuttered since I was in first grade, but I didn’t start talking about it until I was 30 and found myself within walking distance of a speech therapist’s office.

Before then, my stutter was a traitor and a thief I cohabitated with but didn’t acknowledge all that much, even when its machine-gun repetition shredded whatever I was trying to say. I didn’t talk about it, I didn’t address it, I didn’t think about it. Aside from shockingly infrequent schoolyard barbs, the only other time it ever came up in an academic setting was when the school speech therapist pulled my mortified second-grade self aside in the middle of class and asked about my stutter, which I vehemently denied having and that was that.

I have to assume a child’s protests weren’t enough to deter professionals. The way my parents tormented and ridiculed me at home over my stutter, defiantly dismissing pediatricians’ advice to not bring attention to my speech impediment when it reduced my world to whatever syllable refused me smooth passage makes me assume I wasn’t the only one who resisted the idea of a therapist’s intervention. The way my second-grade teacher was vilified at the dinner table is more retrospective confirmation.

Later, one of the few positive choices my teenage self made was requesting the services of the high school speech therapist. I read a few pages from an arbitrarily selected novel aloud during an exploratory assessment sandwiched between classes; she declared I didn’t need her help. When my first job had me working with a bunch of friends from the college paper, I mentioned that I stutter and one of those friends immediately responded “No, you don’t.” Years apart as they were, after a lifetime of hearing my stutter exaggerated and repeated back at me at home, I had no idea how to process people who don’t hear what I hear and couldn’t explain why dismissal hurt almost as much as mockery.

I credit a lot to speech therapy, but it was really the middle occurrence in a trio of breakthroughs. Before that, I read Katherine Preston’s memoir “Out With It” and realized how much of my own narrative I’d neglected by ignoring my stutter. After, I found myself disclosing my stutter during a half-hour presentation I’d traveled across the country to give, feeling like my audience at least deserved an explanation. In all actuality, these moments were spread across two or three years; in retrospect, each contracted under the weight of an unexamined 20-some years suddenly subjected to painstaking scrutiny.

Reading Preston’s account of her own stutter, its onset, their dual journey, her efforts to elude it, their uneasy truce, her victory, offered a sense of finally being understood in ways I didn’t even know I could hope for. It’d still be another few years until I’d meet another person who stutters (PWS) in real life, and what this book gave me was intensified for being the first time in more than two decades I finally felt like someone else Got It.

No fluent person, no matter how empathetic, understands what it’s like to live in constant fear of your own voice, to be a prisoner inside yourself, to be Othered for the way you talk. People who didn’t grow up terrified of gaining weight because the Porky Pig jokes would be such easily plucked and lobbed low-hanging fruit don’t know what it’s like to constantly stay five steps ahead of everyone else to anticipate everything from a habitually troublesome syllable combination to cheap jabs. They don’t understand what it’s like to settle for pale approximations of the technicolor world you so badly want to talk about.

It is so easy to get hung up on all the fears a stutter can heap on and all the things it can steal away, which is where speech therapy comes in. I got maybe six months of professional help before the practice relocated prohibitively beyond my daily radius, but the combination of one incredible, intuitive speech therapist and being ready to unpack nearly 25 years of baggage accomplished a lot and quickly. It was an awestruck realization just having a professional assure me that my stutter is a decidedly mild one, especially once she explained how it’s magnified threefold in my head. A listener only hears my disfluency — if they notice at all — whereas I anticipate it, say it, and then beat myself up over it.

Later, when our sessions became less about managing my stutter and like actual therapy sessions where I poured my heart out to the first person who contextualized my stutter in a way that gave me back some of the power and agency I’d felt denied most of my life, my therapist introduced me to a middle-school patient of hers. The child looked at me with increasingly wide-eyed hope and blurted out, “So when did you get better?” within 10 minutes of conversation, unknowingly but absolutely breaking me in that way a person needs to be shattered before rebuilding themselves into something stronger.

Speech therapy very quickly stopped being about fluency once I realized self-acceptance was an option. I’d half-heartedly submit to verbal exercises, but I didn’t get the same satisfaction out of working toward a goal that might never be within reach as I did both identifying and finally tending to old wounds I’d let fester for far too long.

By the time I was on a plane to LAX to deliver the longest presentation of my career — despite public speaking being an occupational evil I thought I’d avoided by becoming a writer — I’d done enough research and soul-searching to start forging a truce with my internal saboteur. I’d learned about disclosure, or telling people about my stutter, which was like stepping into the light of overt ownership after covertly cowering in the shadows for decades to hide my secret. “If you miss something I say, don’t worry: I stutter, so I’ll repeat myself plenty of times” had become my go-to line for the effect it had: enough humor to soften the unexpected admission, enough explanation so people didn’t listen to how I talk instead of what I’m saying and — most importantly — enough invitation to encourage conversation.

If disclosing my stutter was a revelation, talking about it was liberating. I found people fiercely protective of loved ones who stutter and their own secondhand journeys of living and dying with their siblings’ or friends’ or parents’ struggles. I found people who struggled with speech impediments in their youth and still felt ruled by their inner child’s emotional scars. And I found that trusting someone enough to share my most fiercely guarded vulnerability transformed even the most superficial exchanges of small talk into deep connections with people who’d’ve remained nameless strangers otherwise, polishing what could have been left as a blandly fleeting moment into something much more significant and optimistic.

Disclosure and the opportunities it gave me to be an ambassador for PWS wound up teaching me more than any online research or therapy session in a safe space could have given me. Talking about my stutter in a place where it wasn’t in the spotlight gave it dimension and lived-in context. As more people proved receptive to hearing about my unique perspective, lessons emerged for me, too. A stutter can be an invaluable teacher of patient, active listening and empathy without pity. It requires a cultivated bravery, thicker skin or healthy doses of humor when every spoken word has the potential to rob a PWS of their verbal agency. It can lead to a hidden reservoir of both inner strength and untapped talents.

Our differences are fertile breeding grounds for discovery, both internal and external, both our own and others’. But stuttering isn’t just my journey, and my old hurts aren’t the only ones carried by PWS. Like any group, people who stutter aren’t monoliths. Just because I’ve made peace with my perfectly imperfect voice doesn’t mean someone else isn’t desperately searching for a strategy or surgery or pill to grant them immediate fluency. Just because my stutter hasn’t stopped me from pursuing the only career I want and making the kind of friends who become family doesn’t mean it hasn’t silenced countless other PWS and beaten them into the same darkness of isolation my younger self learned every corner of. Just because it didn’t dawn on me that stuttering is a disability until recently doesn’t mean others haven’t been tirelessly lobbying, advocating and fighting for a more inclusive world, starting with their own place in it.

Only about 1 percent of the population stutters; when your condition is little understood by the medical field and even less so by a general population who thinks an approximation of your voice is best suited for YouTube comedy channels, it’s easy to get discouraged. But silence is meant to be filled, and the more of us who start speaking up and sharing what the world looks like from where we’re standing, the sooner we can help others find their voices, too.

Getty image by Lumezia.

Originally published: May 12, 2021
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