When Every Word is Amplified

It’s not easy for stutters when it feels like everyone is hanging on your every word.

I don’t even know where to start when writing about it. Stuttering can leave me speechless in real life, but I’m truly surprised that it’s done the same with my written prose.

(Pauses for an all-too-long moment.)

Okay, now that I’ve thought about what to say, here’s a metaphor: for me, stuttering is like hitting a wall that sucks all the air out of your lungs before paralyzing your body. No matter the speed I’m going, I just can’t seem to burst through it.

When I hit on a pause, my muscles are get incredibly tense, as if they’re in shock that it’s happening again. I start blinking uncontrollably while looking away from the person I’m talking to. The word “um” flies out of my mouth as if it’s the only word I was ever capable of saying.

That can happen for about two to four seconds before I find a substitution word that allows me to get my point across without stammering over a word I couldn’t say. Sometimes saying “um” allows me to also spit out said word I had trouble with. Or maybe I rearrange the sentence around to make it easier to say; that’s usually done by throwing in the words “with” or “something”, even when they have no bearing in the conversation.

This is the life of someone who suffers from stuttering, specifically somebody who already had grown out of it before relapsing. You know that old stat that says people are more afraid of public speaking than death? There are sometimes where I’m honest-to-God more afraid of a simple conversation or phone call than death itself.

The worst part of it all? I thought I’d be over this by now. I suffered from this as a child, at which point my parents enrolled me in speech therapy by the time I was in second grade.

My speech therapist was a wonderful woman named Ms. Card, and she noticed that my stammer was unusual. Unlike the common conception of a stutterer (those who trip up on words with their lips, like “Will you go to the p-p-p-prom with me?”), my blockage was more found in my throat, as if I was grasping for the air necessary to just spit out a word.

She gave me three tips to overcome this issue: 1) make eye contact, 2) open mouth speech and 3) slow down your speech. So essentially the way to overcome this blockage was to focus all my energy on the person I’m speaking with and stating words slowly and efficiently.

That worked for years as my stammer then went away. I spoke eloquently and freely, and my friends often chose me to do presentations and public speaking for them. The exercise would always freak me out, but I was clutch and incredibly gifted at public speaking.

Occasionally I’d relapse, but whenever my mom caught me doing so she’d look me dead in the eye and remind me of Ms. Card’s tactics; the tip would always work and I’d snap back into fluent speech moments later.

But toward the end of my time in high school, that began to change. I started to trip up on words again and became afraid to say certain phrases. I remember having a hard time telling my friends which community college math placement test I took, because it was very difficult to say “Elementary Algebra” or “Intermediate Algebra”. Vowels are always my biggest enemy nowadays.

The backslide continued into my college career, which was no minor nuisance considering I was going to school to be a journalism major. I wanted to be one because all of my friends remarked of how charismatic and born-ready for TV I was. Frankly, I had dreams of being an anchor.

However, this relapse had other plans, and I have no doubt that the usual stress college journalism school students are under (we always got coaching for how we spoke on camera, which makes sense) made it worse.

Me, circa October 2015 in college

Suddenly, I nitpicked how I spoke at every moment and placed undue pressure on myself to say every word confidently. But that must’ve worked some sort of reverse psychology on my brain, because eventually I couldn’t say a damn thing.

First I had a hard time introducing myself in class. Other times I’d get nervous doing story pitches because everyone would then get quiet and listen to me. I always had a tremendously loud voice (the kind that makes people pay attention to you), but could that perhaps be working against me here?

The worst moment in college was when I was reading news stories live on-air for a radio broadcasting class. This opportunity already made me nervous enough that I practiced the script numerous times. I scoured over it and made sure that I wouldn’t trip up on certain words or names, like “Austin” or “Avenue”.

Well, all that preparation was for naught, because the moment I got on air I started stuttering like a complete fool. There were long gaps in my speech, which the radio equivalent to asking people to turn off the station. I’m grateful it’s never turned up online and if it did, I probably would ask whomever put it up there to take it down. A few days later we had to listen to our broadcasts in front of the class, and having to relive that experience is one of those uniquely awful moments that sticks with you for the rest of your life. When my teacher asked what happened, I merely said “I don’t know”.

Because of that, I scaled back my ambitions. I changed my career path to newscast production, then writing, then film reviews. But increasingly I found it hard enough to just even talk to people or get out a simple phrase. I could say maybe half of a sentence, but would get messed up in my head and start stammering over the attempt of even finishing it.

This is not a story with a happy ending. I still struggle with stuttering, and it has regressed to a point where I barely make eye contact with certain people and have a hard time asking questions. There are moments where I feel shut off from the world, unable to do a thing. Hell, I have an extremely hard time even approaching people and stating something like “Could I have a cheeseburger?”; I always have to feign like I’m reading off the menu.

However, I will leave you with this. There are some moments and people who I don’t stutter around at all, as if a magic spell blessed me with fluent speech. It mystifies me why that exists, but I do believe that increased self-confidence in those situations helps my speaking. I often find that the stammer disappears when I do theatre acting and pretend to be someone else.

The past three years I’ve tried to re-use Ms. Card’s tactics, but to no avail. I can’t make eye contact, the largest hole my mouth can make can’t even spit out a word and I often attempt to talk fast in hopes of “speeding” past a difficult word. But perhaps there’s a fourth rule here that I need to realize more, one that allows speech to flow with the fluidity of a rushing river. That rule is to love yourself and believe in everything you say. Perhaps that is where a happy ending will be found.