I am one of about 3 million people in the United States who stutter. We represent 1% of the country’s population. Most of us started stuttering when we were young children. As far as I remember, I’ve always spoken with a stutter. It’s the only way I’ve spoken pretty much all my life. Despite common myths about stuttering, I don’t stutter because of a traumatic childhood or emotional problems. My stuttering is not a bad communication habit that I picked up as a child, nor is it caused by my inability to tame my nerves. It is a complex communication disorder with causes that are neurophysiological rather than psychological or emotional. I am a kind of stutterer who suffers from frequent “blocks,” or abrupt stoppages and pauses. As a result, I may look like I am uncomfortable or even nervous at times when I struggle to get words out of my mouth. But rest assured, I am neither nervous nor uncomfortable. And please don’t ask me to relax. If stutterers could stop stuttering by simply relaxing, there would be mass unemployment among speech-language pathologists. Stutterers don’t have the privilege of relying on relaxation as a way to overcome our speech disfluencies. Therefore, even a well-meaning non-stutterer risks manifesting ableism when they ask a stutterer to relax or stop being nervous. Also important, I and most other stutters can and will finish our sentences on our own if you please just give us a few seconds. I understand that seeing someone struggle to speak may make you feel uncomfortable or even make you feel obliged to interject. I know you mean well and appreciate the effort, but please don’t finish my sentence for me–let me finish what I wanted to say in my own words.
In truth, though, it took me a long time to really understand these aspects of my speech disorder and how stuttering affects and shapes me as a person. Throughout my childhood, not being able to say what I want to say when I want to say it shaped the way I learned to communicate — to choose words deliberately; to anticipate then struggle with blocks in my speech and tensions built in my throat and in my jaws; to think about what to do when I can’t get words out of my mouth; to think about how to get over the panic and excruciating embarrassment; or maybe to just give up and avoid speaking my mind at all, most of the time, anyway. I was torn by my inability to express myself, not because I didn’t know how to think for myself, but because of the dreadful stammer that I had to live with. I lived with this feeling of helplessness and voicelessness all through my youth and well into my adulthood. Too often I felt alone and overcome with the sense of shame and guilt — for failing to articulate my thoughts; for failing to represent myself as a confident, bold, and critical thinker who had a lot to give to the world. And it took me a long time to claim my speech disorder as a part of who I am. Over the past several years, I have learned to embrace it, understand it, and cope with it better than I had ever have. I have read and studied more about stuttering. I have worked with speech therapists — some good, some not so good— and eventually trained myself to be my own therapist. I am much more at peace with myself as someone who constantly struggles to deliver the sound of his own voice that represents his intended speech. I have become friends with my stuttering self.
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[…] Most of the time I can do a decent job of pretending not to be a stutterer even when I stutter. It has been a big part of me since the early years of my life. And over the years I have learned to be at peace with myself as someone who struggles to find his […]