What Stuttering Means to Me

May 2019

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about what words mean to me. It was about my stutter and how finding my love of writing helped me cope with my speech. I wrote about the anxiety I had around my voice and how hard it was to write about my stutter because that meant I would have to address it and I was reluctant, to say the least. I even made a vow to myself that after I finished writing that essay, I would never cry about my stutter again.

Spoiler alert: I have cried about my stutter since writing that essay. Having emotions about a significant detail of your life is a part of being human and I’m certainly someone who will tear up over the silliest of things. So for me, crying about my stutter allows me to process what I have to deal with.

When I wrote that essay back in 2015, I was trying to navigate and understand what it meant to me to have a stutter. The year before, I had gone off of the medication I was on for six years that helped me not stutter. Throughout my entire adolescence, until I was twenty, I was deaf to my own voice. I didn’t hear my stutter and that’s how I coped with it. I honestly believed I didn’t have a stutter. Looking back on it now, I have no idea how I was able to not hear my own voice. Sometimes we can believe the lies we tell ourselves until we’re confronted with the lie itself.

From elementary school thru my senior year of high school, I had to attend speech therapy once a week with a speech pathologist at the school. When I was in middle school, I was forced to attend speech therapy outside of school. It’s one thing to attend speech therapy at school where I learned I could ramble to the point where I didn’t have to do much therapy at all. It’s a whole other thing to spend a Saturday morning in speech therapy. My parents thought it would help me. I thought I was being dragged against my will to learn tools I swore I would never use to “fix” a problem I didn’t have.

The goal of speech therapy as a kid was always fluency. The more fluent I could be, the more successful I was. The more I could avoid stuttering, the better I was at communicating. The more I could use the tools (I now see them as tricks) to avoid my stutter, the better off I could be. I was awarded Reese’s for every time I would use a tool correctly in a sentence or conversation. I did this like a trained dog performs tricks to receive treats. If I used a tool correctly, I would get a piece of candy. I did this, knowing I would never try to implement what I learned into my speech pattern outside of the room. Or so I had thought.

In the fall of 2007, my grandma told my mom about a story she saw on the news about a doctor in California who was treating patients who stutter with medication. Seeing how speech therapy wasn’t turning out the way my parents had hoped, they decided to make an appointment. My mom and I flew out to California in January of 2008 to meet with the doctor. I was on a medication called Zyprexa for six years.

This medication allowed me to continue to ignore my stutter and get thru my teen years. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if had to confront my stutter in high school. My stutter was very minimal and I often had conversations where I was pretty much fluent. I wasn’t ready to process my stutter and Zyprexa helped me to believe the perspective about myself that I had formed in my head.

While I’m very thankful for the medication for helping me get thru my high school, I also would never go on it again. It’s hard to describe what it was like being on the medication for so many years. All I remember is that I was always tired and slept for 10–12 hours every night and my legs would always be covered in bruises. Medication has a lot of side effects and I didn’t realize the weird reality I was living in until I went off the medication in 2014 and began stuttering again.

My stuttered returned and for the first time in my life, I not only had to confront it head on but I also had to accept the fact that I would be an adult who stuttered. When I was a kid, I was told that there was a small possibility I would grow out of my stutter. Many people who stutter as kids lose it by the time they’re adults. I had hoped that I was one of those people when I went off the medication and for a couple of months, I pretty much had the same fluency I had while on the medication.

When I began stuttering again, it was intense. There would be days where I couldn’t say a single word without stuttering and then there would be other days where I wouldn’t stutter hardly at all. There would be shifts back and forth and there was no warning or reasoning for when stuttering would happen.

Eventually, my stutter fell into an easy pattern, one in which I could almost predict what would happen. Conversations with people who I knew, I wouldn’t stutter too much. Speaking in front of a group of people, my stutter would be just as front and center as the subject I would be discussing. But, no matter how much I stuttered, what was most important to me was that I wouldn’t let my stutter stop me from communicating with people.

In the summer of 2018, I attended an immersion speech therapy program in New York City. The week program from the American Institute of Stuttering offered a new refreshing treatment method after years of thinking speech therapy was only there to offer one thing: fluency. I had decided to go to this program because I was going to graduate from college that December and thought it would be a good idea to examine my stutter as an adult before transitioning to the next chapter of my life.

Before that week, I hadn’t really interacted with a group of people who stutter for longer than an hour or two. It was an eye opening experience to hear people who stutter speak about their journey’s and what led them to the place they were at when they had decided to attend the immersion program. I met people who had covert stutters. I had never heard of that phrase before meeting them and it was fascinating to interact with them because their perspectives were so different than mine. Some of them learned how to stutter covertly around the same age I went on the medication, which made me wonder how I would have coped with my stutter had I been forced to confront it as a teenager.

Throughout the week, we had to complete different speaking challenges. One of the challenges was going up to people at Madison Square Park and ask them questions about stuttering. Though it was a daunting thought, it was an impactful experience to go out and speak with people who we did know about a subject that can be difficult to talk about.

There was one conversation I will never forget. It was with two men and they were genuinely curious about stuttering. I probably spent a good five minutes chatting with them. While most of the conversation has faded away, I do remember answering a question they had about stuttering: do all people who stutter, stutter the same? They don’t. Everyone who stutters has a different flow to their speech and how they deal with it. Like how everyone has a different thumbprint, everyone who stutters has their own unique speech pattern.

Speech therapy as an adult is much different than speech therapy as a kid. Choosing to seek help and learn other ways of working with stuttering isn’t easy. For many years, I avoided the idea of speech therapy because of the experiences I had a kid. The experiences weren’t always positivity, mostly because I was in denial of my stutter. So to put myself in a situation as an adult that I did not enjoy as a kid was intimidating.

I left that week in New York with the realization that I had some major work to do. All those “tools” I learned as a kid came back when my stutter returned and became tricks as a way to avoid the feeling of my natural stutter. Through analyzing my stutter and understanding the place it held in my life, I could begin to build awareness with my stutter to ultimately gain some control over something that I once saw as uncontrollable.

In the months since attending the immersion program, I have continued speech therapy. It’s been one of the best decisions I have ever made. It’s allowed me to really hear my voice for the first time and hear it for what it actually is. I’m constantly building an understanding of when and why I use my tricks. I’m also noticing my natural stutter emerge more than it ever has in my life. The more I do the work, the more I listen to my voice, the more old patterns begin to fall apart. That doesn’t mean they’re not gone, they just look different than they once did. Over time, I hope they will continue to take a different shape and let my stutter shine thru.

One thing that has changed is how my speech flows. Before going back to speech therapy, I would take a lot of pauses and my speech would be all over the place that it could have been difficult for the listener to piece together what I was saying. Now, I pause less frequently and my thoughts flow a lot easier, I can say what I want to say even when I stutter.

Earlier this spring, I had a major uptick in my stutter due to a medication I was taking. It was often overwhelming to speak because I wasn’t used to being in stuttering in situations I’m normally completely comfortable in. Because I have developed an awareness of my stuttering from speech therapy, I was able to mentally track my ups and downs the same way I had been tracking my speech for months now: listening to how I speak.

To me, stuttering means I speak words differently. It means communicating with people is never boring. Stuttering is a detail of who I am. It doesn’t define me but it is a part of who I am as a person and how I interact with those around me. It’s a continuous journey, one I have come to embrace.

My stutter doesn’t stop me from speaking. It never has and it never will. I may speak less sometimes because talking with an uptick in stuttering leads to exhaustion much quicker. But if I have something to say, I will say it no matter how many bumps or blocks I may have in a moment.