My College Essay

“Are you choking?” asked my history teacher.

It felt like three years passed before I could answer. In fact, I might as well have been choking because that was exactly what it felt like. I physically could not speak; it was like someone was holding back my tongue and preventing me from uttering a word, and the silence felt endless. The humiliation that I felt when I stuttered during my eleventh grade American history class made my fear all the more recognizable. I used to let it bother me until I realized that having a stutter isn’t something that should be hidden, but rather embraced. I used to identify myself as a stutterer, but as I’m coming to terms with it, I’m realizing it is more of a distinctive quality, rather than a “disability.”

It’s difficult to describe what stuttering is like to a fluent speaker. The most common stutter is the repetitive st-st-stutter, like Porky Pig’s. However, mine is not so much the repetitive kind, but more of a silent block that comes out of nowhere, the way a freak accident occurs randomly and without caveat. It has been happening for as long as I can remember. Everyday the same thought floods my mind: what will today’s stutter be like? The simple act of talking is accompanied by the fear of stuttering: speaking in class, ordering at a restaurant, talking to a stranger, or even telling someone my own name. Yet, day after day, I raise my hand to participate, I introduce myself to new people, I order my favorite butter pecan fro-yo with strawberries drizzled with caramel. I have learned to go forward in the face of fear, even if it makes me uncomfortable.

There is something to be said about this change—how in one moment I can feel so vulnerable, and in the next I can feel so free. I thought about this vulnerability when I approached the podium for my senior speech this past fall; I felt anxious, hesitant and scared all because I was afraid to stutter, like it was something looked down upon or that the world would come to an end because of it. The thought of stuttering in front of so many people made me quiver. But, despite these thoughts, I did it anyway. I went forward in the face of fear and, after it was over, even though I stuttered in the beginning, I felt invincible.

I’ve been told that there is no magic cure for stuttering, or if there is one, it’s more your internal strength—that courageous thing you do, despite that giant pit in your stomach telling you every excuse not to. I’m quite familiar with this anxiety, but I still challenge myself to speak up in various situations, which has helped my stutter to improve progressively. I sometimes wonder why I haven’t been able to come to terms sooner. Maybe it is because of the way I have perceived stuttering, or the reactions I have gotten. I can’t control how others react to it, but I can control how I react to them. I’ve often been hurt by awkward laughter and confused stares; however, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by people’s patience and admiration of my strength.

I’ve been told that my ability to finish a recitation, to charge forward in my senior speech, and to approach new people with confidence has inspired others to step out of their own comfort zones.

A Turning Point

Having a basic idea of what I wanted to say, but still not knowing exactly what to say, and with tears starting to stream down my cheeks, I started to speak:

“I went to college for a long time, a really long time… for over ten years. I went for so long, I believe, because I was avoiding the real world. I was scared of what would happen when I finished.

I finally did finish school, but never got a job in my field of study. People would ask me why and I would give them one of my “stock” explanations – something along the lines of, “Oh, I looked, but was never able to get one,” or “I never got a call back,” or “I guess they weren’t interested in me.” I would intentionally keep it vague so as to save face, I guess.

The truth is, however, that I could not get a job… I did not get a job… because I never really tried. I never tried because I was too afraid to try. That’s even worse than failing because I didn’t even give myself the chance to fail.

All of my life I have been crippled by fear. My stuttering and all the feelings of self-doubt that surround it have caused me to be very shy and afraid – afraid that I’m not good enough, afraid of rejection, afraid of failure, afraid of success… afraid to really live life, I guess. It has led to issues of low self-worth, lack of self-confidence, and feelings of self-hatred.

I have let my stutter define my life. I have let it hold me back. I have spent years shying away from life, being too scared to take chances; years feeling sorry for myself, wrapped in self-pity and self-defeat.

I realize, though, that that is all very selfish of me. It’s selfish of me to be feeling sorry for myself because there’s so much more I could be doing, so much more I should be doing. It’s selfish because when you’re focused on your own self-misery, you’re not focused on what really matters in life.

That’s not somebody anyone wants to be around. I don’t even want to be around that guy.

I see other people who deal with great adversity – people who have worse disabilities than mine; people who are living in worse circumstances than mine; people, like myself, who stutter – people who rise above despite their circumstances. I see them, I see their dignity, their grace, their strength in the face of adversity, and I realize that I simply have no right to be feeling sorry for myself.

I don’t want to be that guy anymore – that guy who is always scared; always filled with so much self-doubt; always feeling sorry for himself. I look at you all here and I want to change. I want to be a better person. I want to be the kind of person someone can look up to, the kind of person someone would be proud to call a friend. I don’t want to give up.”

It was the last open-mic session of the 2012 National Stuttering Association Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida and I had just gotten done speaking. Everyone in the room stood up and clapped. I hesitate to call it a standing ovation, because I have never felt that I was worthy of praise, especially to that extent. I certainly was not expecting that to happen. I felt a bit awkward about it, and didn’t quite know how to react. I smiled and walked away from the podium and took my seat.

After the session ended, several people came up to me to thank me for sharing my story and to tell me that they found inspiration in it, quite to my surprise. I was at a loss for words, but managed a simple thank you. I was grateful for and humbled by their kind words, for sure, but I felt they were misplaced on me. Did I really deserve them? I honestly didn’t feel that I had said anything that great or contributed anything tremendously worthwhile. So I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Eventually the conference came to a close. I left quietly, as heavy-hearted and dispirited as I had arrived.

In the month leading up to the conference, I had fallen into a deep sadness, my stutter being the catalyst that set it off. Calling it a depression, I feel, may be giving it too much power, but maybe that’s what it was.

As terrible as it seemed at the time, though, I realize the experience was good for me. It was good because it forced me to do some serious introspection, to really take a hard look at myself and reflect upon who I was. It focused me enough to be able to recognize some difficult truths about myself; truths which, on some level, I guess I had always known, but dared not admit, or didn’t have the courage to deal with. So I just avoided them, hoping that they would resolve themselves or just go away.

But now, I was confronted with this stark reality. What had lain unexamined far back in the recesses of my mind was now brought to the forefront. It lay before me, a test I could not get out of. I had no choice but to look deeply at it, to engage in critical self-examination. I could no longer deny just how profoundly I had allowed my stutter to impact my life; how I had allowed it to cripple me, to hold me back, to define me. I realized that I had not dealt with it very well over the years. Nay, I had not dealt with it at all over the years. But now it had been thrust upon me. I had to face it.

It was a burden lifted, though, because what I had previously never made sense of, I was now starting to understand. What was blurry was now being brought into focus. What had been difficult for me to express, I was finally able to give voice to! And that was powerful, I thought, for if I could give voice to my feelings and start to make sense of them, I could then perhaps start working on fixing the broken life I had built for myself.

The conference drew ever closer and I was still feeling so bad about myself that I had considered not even going. But since I had already registered and bought my plane tickets, I forced myself to go. I’m glad I did, because had I not, I would not have gotten up to speak at the open-mic, and would not have had pause to reflect upon that experience later on.

About a month after the conference, I was sitting at home reflecting upon the events that had taken place in St. Petersburg, when it suddenly hit me, “I did that! I actually got up and spoke in front of a group of people. And they had been moved by what I said.” I almost couldn’t believe it.

It was then that I realized that maybe I do have a story to tell. And maybe it is worth hearing. And maybe, just maybe, if I could pull myself out of the muck, I could share my story with others; others who may be feeling the same kinds of things I have felt. Perhaps they could derive benefit from it. For the first time I felt like I had something to say.

I look back on that moment – on my having the courage to get up and speak and on those people who reached out to me and the kind words they offered – and realize that that was a pivotal moment for me, a turning point in my struggle to understand my stutter and find some acceptance of it. I just didn’t know it at the time.