I’ve been a stutterer for as long as I can remember. Well, I actually began stuttering when I was eight years old, but I honestly can’t remember what my speech was like the years before, in my fluent days. The National Stuttering Association defines stuttering as a “communication disorder involving disruptions, or ‘disfluencies,’ in a person’s speech,” and estimates that one percent of the world’s population stutters. Along with the inability to speak fluently, according to the Association, stutterers often experience physical tension in our faces, embarrassment, anxiety and a general fear of speaking.
As a veteran stutterer, I am well versed in the internal struggles that come along with the disorder. So, I spent a majority of my life trying to hide my speech impediment. My stutter is severe, meaning I have trouble speaking 70 percent of the time, so it hasn’t been easy to conceal. But I tried nonetheless.
In school and in social situations, I’d do all I could to avoid speaking. I’d pretend to text, I’d stuff food in my mouth, I’d leave a conversation and, worst of all, I’d isolate myself. I feared that if I stuttered openly around people, they would laugh at me. I feared that people would look at me as if I were some strange creature, that I would be an outcast.
This, in turn, left me with severe anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. I spent years avoiding opportunities that would require me to speak at length; I even avoided people.
This all changed in college, though. During my sophomore year, I decided that I wouldn’t hide anymore. Frankly, hiding such a huge part of myself was exhausting. I knew I couldn't go on being afraid; I couldn't continue hiding. I decided that I would stutter openly and not make silly excuses like “I’m sorry, I’m just nervous” or “I’m just really cold” to justify why I wasn’t speaking fluently at any given moment.
I decided to free myself. Here’s what happened when I stopped trying to hide my stutter:
1. People Asked More Questions
The more I stuttered openly — repeating words, saying ‘um’ repeatedly, prolonging my words and making funny faces — the more people asked about my speech. When I met someone new and I stuttered when saying my name (which happens often), the person would notice my impediment and ask me about it.
“What just happened there?” they’d inquire, or “Are you okay?”
I would explain that I stutter and what the impediment is. I’d be sure to add that my speech is “not a big deal.” Initially, this both annoyed and frightened me. Stuttering freely opened the door to this line of questioning, and forced me to be honest about it.
This was scary because I wasn’t sure how people would react when I explained that I stutter. Would they think I was “weird?” Would they think there was something wrong with me? Sometimes both those things happened — and still do. But other times, people were intrigued, and some simply didn’t care about my speech at all.
2. I Felt More Comfortable Talking About It
The more I opened up about my stutter, the easier it became to do. After a while of telling new friends that I stutter, I was used to the initial reactions and to explaining the disorder. It got easier and easier, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.
I felt more free. The shame of not being able to control my speech slowly slipped away as I talked more about it and my experiences with the disorder.
When people asked questions about it, I didn’t panic and fret over what they would think of the things I said — and how I said them. I stuttered through my explanation and decided that I would be okay no matter how people reacted.
3. I Took Advantage of More Opportunities
I’ll admit that when applying for jobs, I dreaded seeing one small phrase: “must have excellent verbal skills.” My speaking ability is less than “excellent,” and I would often avoid applying for a job, participating in a school group, or even taking my professors up on cool opportunities to speak on panels or in front of local high school students.
Looking back now, I realize I missed out on so many great experiences simply because I didn’t want people to hear me stutter.
This changed — very, very slowly — as I stopped hiding my speech impediment. I began applying for challenging jobs (as challenging as a college job could be, anyway), speaking in front of groups and even leading class discussions. I’ll admit, I was scared as hell to do all of these things. But I did them, and I’m so happy that I did.
4. Social Situations Were Much Less Awkward
I’ll be honest, I know it has to be awkward to watch a person struggle to speak, make funny faces and even exaggerate hand gestures in conversation. I know it’s just as awkward for them as it is for me.
I’ve often heard people say, “it’s only awkward if you make it awkward.” I’ve always found that saying stupid because that implies that awkwardness (or lack thereof) is in our control. And when it comes to stutter, it totally isn't. I’ve learned that if one thing can make any situation awkward, it’s stuttering.
I know. But as I stopped hiding my stutter and became more comfortable with it, these situations became much less awkward. People were more comfortable around me — and I was more comfortable around them — and this both boosted my self esteem and diminished my anxiety.
5. People Laughed More, But I Cared Less
Yes, a lot of great things happened when I stopped hiding my stutter, but some not-so-good things happened as well. Sometimes, my greatest fears regarding my stutter came true.
Sometimes when I spoke, people laughed at me, walked away from me mid-conversation (or hung up the phone on me), or called me names. I even lost a job because of it.
However, when I stopped hiding my stutter I began to accept it, and, in turn, I began accepting myself. And when I accepted myself, people’s opinions of me didn’t matter as much.
So yes, some people were jerks and sometimes it hurts my feelings. But I know it’s not the end of the world when someone does not accept me. I’m okay with that. And opening up about my stutter is what helped me to be okay with that.
6. I Met More People Who Stutter
I wasn’t the only stutterer to spend most of my life hiding my impediment. As I grew accustomed to talking about my speech and being open about it, I met a lot of other people with the disorder.
“Oh my God, you stutter too?!” I’d hear from strangers-turned-friends.
And it was/is so great to meet other people who speak the way that I do. I honestly believe that if I had not opened up about my stutter, I would have missed out on meeting some really great people.
Stutterers need other stutterers. Knowing people who share something so personal with me has been great for my personal growth, my self-esteem and my general happiness.
Images: Andrew Zaeh/ Bustle; Giphy