Originally published March 16, 2014
Several weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking to Northwestern graduate students in speech and language pathology about stuttering. This isn’t something I discuss a whole lot (read: never ever ever), but this is a great time in my life where I feel ready to share a little bit more about how stuttering has essentially shaped who I am and why I write.
I’ve never been outgoing. In fact, naturally I’m quite shy. But as I grew older, I realized that being shy isn’t productive so I’ve learned how to be more talkative. The problem with that? I stutter. And sometimes, talking scares the shit out of me. Literally. I’ll want to say something and I’ll have a bad feeling about how it will come out.
One thing you should know about stuttering is that there is no rhyme or reason to it. It makes sense to me because I’ve dealt with it my whole life. I know the situations when I’ll be mostly fluent and I know the ones when I won’t. I know exactly how the anxiety feels of being forced to speak even though I know my voice will be peppered with blocks and repetitions. And I’d be lying if I said that, for the majority of my life, stuttering has silenced me in many situations.
Well, after nearly two years of speech therapy and a quite stunning and enormous “aha!” moment, I decided the best way to conquer my sometimes paralyzing fear was to speak about it. Yes. To get in front of a room full of non stutterers and talk about stuttering while I stuttered. A lot.
And this brings me back to Northwestern. The day of the speech, I felt weirdly calm. But as the hours ticked closer and closer to showtime, I got nervous. Not the usual “Everyone’s going to be looking at me and I don’t know how I feel about this” nervous. No. It was more like “I’m going to be showing a room full of strangers the most vulnerable part of myself and I think I might puke” nervous.
Luckily I didn’t vomit (but it was a close call), but I did manage to get up there and talk. Just talk. Which on the surface seems easy enough. Say what you wrote down. Repeat what you practiced. Communicate a certain message to the audience.
But when you stutter, it’s different. You know that you are facing an obstacle that most people won’t ever understand. You see, there’s a big barrier – and I’m not just talking about the physical aspect of not being able to get the words out. The emotional side of stuttering is just as massive as the technical side.
I think that’s why I chose to write. Not because I didn’t think I could speak in front of people, but because I was afraid of it. The terror of knowing that, no matter how hard you try, you won’t ever sound the way you know you could sound if you didn’t stutter made my career decision pretty easy for me. No phones. No cameras. Just open up a Word document and get paid that way.
But as I spoke to these surprisingly attentive students, I realized that stuttering isn’t evil. It’s not even really a problem. It’s just a part of who I am. Sure, it’s a part that I sometimes (okay…often) wish I didn’t have to deal with. However stuttering has given me insight on things that I don’t think I’d have without it.
I’m a great listener and in a many ways a great communicator. I’m not nearly as much of a brat as I probably would have been if I didn’t have this constant impediment humbling me. And I’m empathatic. Compassionate, even, in situations when most people would probably not be.
Look, I’m in no way better than anyone. Case in point: when I’m nervous, I can barely get my name out. My. Fucking. Name. But after the nearly 30 years I’ve spent hating stuttering, I’ve realized it’s a quite wonderful part of who I am. It’s no longer a burden, and I have a feeling that one day it will become a gift.
And that’s why I write. Because I know that some people will never want to listen to me talk. They won’t be patient enough to wait for me to block and repeat and go back to the beginning of what I’m trying to say just to get my point across. And you know what? I don’t blame them because if I were to be totally honest, if I didn’t stutter, I probably wouldn’t have much patience for it either. But they will have no problem with reading my words. They can do it at their own leisure and they can make up whatever voice they have of me in their heads.
Although I know that being different is cool – there are entire areas of cities dedicated to the oddballs (yeah, I’m talking about you Wicker Park) – I know that whats different about me isn’t. It’s not widely accepted; only one percent of the population stutter and only a small percentage of that is female. But stuttering has shaped me. For a long time, it made me sad. Contributed to my depression and anxiety. Gave me great pause and silenced me. Now? It’s empowering. I feel like I have options because I stutter and not in spite of it.
Just this past weekend I participated in a panel discussion at a FRIENDS one day conference. FRIENDS is an organization focusing kids and teens who stutter, and their parents. Sitting on this panel, listening to these 12 and 13 year olds be so confident and chatty all while stuttering made me proud. Not just of them and their obvious security at such a young age, but of myself for being brave enough to sit next to them and speak with the same amount of confidence they did.
In a few weeks, I’ll be speaking at Ignite Chicago about patience and – of course – I’ll be incorporating my experiences with stuttering into the presentation. Am I nervous? Yep. But I’m excited as well. And that’s the biggest takeaway; something in your life can scare the shit out of you but it can also empower you. I believe that our fears are an indication of the things we should actually be pursuing. And I’m proud to finally say that I’m going after a goal – talking about stuttering to as many people who will listen – that I didn’t even know I had.