Stuttering is unique in its ability to strip away a person from themselves. Not because of anything the actual speech impediment does – with enough time the words will come out. But instead, lots of stutterers find themselves changing what they mean, who they are, what they want: all in an attempt to save themselves a type of shame.
Earlier this week, I talked about what it’s like to go into a coffee shop and order coffee. I tried to capture what a simple, daily task feels like for a stutterer and how life revolves around the stutter. After watching “thisisstuttering”(1) at a screening, my friend turned to me and said, “I knew you thought about stuttering when you stuttered. I didn’t realize it was the lens through which you saw the world.” It’s the first most important thing to understand before you can talk to a fluent speaker about stuttering. It consumes. But why?
Wednesday I was at a meeting and another stutterer talked about how when he went to his coffee shop, he started using a different name. Not to be fun or silly, as some do, but because it was so uncomfortable to stutter every single time. People used to tell me that it’s too bad my mom didn’t name me something else because maybe I wouldn’t have to stutter every time I said my name. Most stutterers find it amusing that we all stutter on our own name. But it begins something: shame or fear upon saying our own name, upon presenting our identity.
In Dead Languages, David Shields writes, “As Sandra liked to point out, what you can’t identify doesn’t exist; no stutterer can say his own name.” (2) Some believe that the shame of self is why stutterers cannot say their own name, but I disagree. Though I don’t know what the name-phenomenon is caused by, it is a picture for how a stutter strips away our identity. One person may start using a new name at coffee shops. It seems small, but it allows the stutter to control us, to change even our name. But what else does a stutter change?
During my short time of communicating with other stutterers (something I avoided most of my life) and reading their stories, I’ve noticed a clear pattern. It chips away at who we are. At the very least, it did for me. Outgoing personalities become so silent that people believe extroverts to be introverts. Interests in career choices are quieted by the fear of stuttering. Shields mentions the problem to “develop a general orientation towards speech of ‘what can I do to not stutter’ instead of ‘what can I do to talk’” and it becomes clear how living by that type of mindset can change the way we live our lives.
For these types of situations, I don’t believe in the goal of fluency. It’s similar to my view on weight loss: losing weight will not change who you are. When you envision yourself with a body that you deem more acceptable, you also envision yourself as a different person entirely: perhaps someone more confident and happier. But losing the weight will not turn you into that person. In the same way, fluency will not give you back the parts of yourself that you have been pushing away for years. Fluency is not the key to confidence and to personal change. A stutter is not who you are, despite what you believe. As I heard someone say once, “My stutter isn’t who I am; it’s just how I communicate sometimes.”
The difference is in the power we give our stutter. Though we find relief in fluency, it is temporary.
It is a taste of what we wish we had, but it makes losing that fluency so much worse. It cannot be depended upon. But more on that another time.
What do you do in your life that may chip away at who you really want to be? What do you let hold you back? Or, if you have a speech impediment, in what ways do you see it affect you?
1. Lott, Morgan. “Thisisstuttering :: A Documentary.”
2. Shields, David. Dead Languages: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 1989.