Me and my stutter have come a long way over the past three years. I don’t think we’re archenemies any longer; maybe, we’ve became amicable bed-fellows but I know we could be so much more.
I’ve had my stutter for as long as I can remember. I have no great story of its first utterance or any recollection of a cause in my childhood. My dad stutters, I stutter: it just is. It had significant negative impacts during my early life: from humiliating moments answering the register in school to horrible attempts of speeches at school. After these bad stuttering experiences accumulated, I thought it was a disgrace to stutter and I therefore increasingly put all my effort into hiding the hideous beast. My stutter became covered by a sea of social awkwardness. This probably began in my middle teens and by the time I came to university I was very good at it. I had managed to hide my stammer completely for the first three months, using a mixture of swapping words I might stammer on, avoiding situations where I might stammer and, the old fresher favourite, alcohol to help with socialising. The psychological burden was immense, I was constantly on edge and I actively avoided activities I would have liked to have done but I thought it was for the best.
My approach, however, all came crashing down one day in morning class. After a great party, and a reciprocally bad hangover, my ability to avoid stammering was weakened and I had a stammer which would not stop. My body emptied of any confidence and happiness as shame came rushing in. I wanted to run out of the room but I managed to stay for the rest of class. I felt all my classmates present now knew of my shameful secret and I was angry at them for being at the scene of my downfall. I think I purposefully distanced myself from those who were there for the rest of the year. At the end, my tutor pulled me to one-side and said that he now understood the reason I had been quiet in class. He informed me it could not persist if I was to successfully complete the course. He suggested it was my approach to stuttering and not the stuttering itself which was the cause of the problems. I never spoke in class and did not contribute sufficiently. He suggested speech therapy could help. He was right but I denied it. I muddled my way through the year without really altering my approach but strangely his words refused to leave my head. It was in the aftermath of this horrific moment that I suppose I began to start ‘thinking about thinking about’ approaching my stutter differently.
That summer, by chance, I attended a gathering for people who stutter. I had been on several stuttering therapy courses before with little success but the approach of some of the people at this conference was different to any speech techniques techniques I had been taught. They just spoke and let the stutter come out if it happened: they were charismatic, engaging, happy and confident despite their dysfluencies. I’m not even sure ‘despite’ was the right word, perhaps (and I am only now coming to understand this) ’because of’? I had a great time there and it altered something fundamental in my mind-set. Those sporadic childhood experiences of stuttering were not a reflection of how it really appeared to most other people I met. It was not disgraceful to stutter.
Since then, I’ve looked towards accepting my stutter as part of me: basically not caring whether I do stutter or do not stutter. With the help of fantastic speech therapists and further conferences, I have allowed myself to stutter openly and began eradicate my old avoidance habits. I stutter more than I ever have but, paradoxically to outsiders, I feel a lot happier with my speech. I am more confident and sociable. I have realised through positive experiences – such as successful presentations and speeches – that I can be interesting, engaging and likable even if I stutter on almost every word.
Overall, I feel I’ve come along way with my stutter but the journey isn’t over. I feel ok now talking with stuttering, but I still can’t talk about stuttering. I just find it too painful a subject matter and those old feelings of shame and disgrace quickly resurface. I’ve hidden my speech therapy from all but my family. I had the perfect chance to mention it just a few days ago. I was talking with two close friends about Cloud Atlas a book by David Mitchell. For a few seconds, I contemplated saying “I actually met David Mitchell at a stuttering conference last year. He gave a fantastic speech” but I didn’t. I’ve thought about bringing it up more than ever over the past year but I just can’t seem to do it. I know just how powerful it can be to speak about your weaknesses, as evidenced by the fantastic stories here. I can see my friends want to talk about it. Me and my stutter can be powerful allies. I’m thinking about it and I hope I do it sooner rather than later.