What Stuttering Has Taken from Me, and What I've Reclaimed
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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