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PC: Delaine Downie, 2009

The most embarrassing part of this story is that it happened while watching Twilight in theaters. At least I wasn’t actually watching the movie as I climbed up the stairs, away from my big group of friends, to sit next to one friend that had isolated himself. He was feeling sorry for himself as he watched his ex-girlfriend hold hands with someone else.

I didn’t say anything when I sat down.

He broke the silence, his voice shaking. “Why are you sitting up here? You should be with everyone else.”

“You’re up here all alone,” I replied.

Everyone here is alone. They are each just sitting in their own chair, alone.”

I glanced at him. He was watching me, and his eyes weren’t as watery. “Ok, well then I will sit here, alone, in the chair next to you sitting here alone.”

He made some grunt/sigh noise and caved. He offered to move up to sit in the same row as everyone else, on the opposite end of his ex-girlfriend, so we got up and became part of the group again. He made fun of the entire movie and we got to laugh much more than we would have otherwise.

This moment has always stayed with me, and I thought it was because of how dramatic the situation felt. But I realized when I was the regional conference for the National Stuttering Association, it was because this was exactly how I felt every time I used to hear the words: “You are not alone.”

I would fight those words. I felt so alone. How could I suddenly not be alone? I was alone, alone, alone.

You hear that from the children at the conference: “I’m the only kid at my school who stutters.” I remember that feeling in high school: I was different. I was alone. Even my closest friends could not grasp what I faced on a daily basis. Most teenagers feel this in some way, but it was simply a fact of life I carried with me. No one else understood.

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My San Diego Chapter at the 2015 Regional Conference

So flash forward a few years of my life and how did I end up in this room full of about 100 people, feeling completely understood? When the words “You are not alone” used to make me snap back with, “You aren’t me, so what do you know?”

This was my truth that I had to face: “You are alone. Maybe you are. But you don’t have to be. You are alone until the day you realize you don’t have to be anymore.”

Like my friend with his whole “being alone in the seat next to me.” He chose to be alone. It was his choice to stay there, being alone, or realize he had a friend sitting next to him. It sounds dramatic, but is it not exactly what I did with my stutter?

I spent my life avoiding people who stuttered. I was afraid to look in the mirror and see my biggest flaw staring back at me in the eyes of all these people. On TV, even adult stutterers were still so insecure and pathetic; they were still alone and isolated. They were career-driven accountants who could never work their way up because their speech still controlled them. I did not want to find out that was true.

And I didn’t. In fact, I found it to be quite the opposite. I have met public speakers and I have had lawyers pointed out to me (the two careers I had deemed impossible because of my speech.) I have met social butterflies and nerds and comedians. Nearly every person to take the stage makes the audience laugh. I found that I was, in fact, looking in a mirror. But what I saw was kindness, empathy, encouragement, beauty, humor, silliness. I still saw my stutter, but it didn’t feel like a flaw anymore. It didn’t feel like anything. The rest overwhelmed. If our stutter caused us to be people who giggled together over how awkward interactions with fluent speakers could be, then it encouraged humor in us. If being spoken over for years connected us, it also encouraged empathy and kindness in us. If wishing we had been noticed more often connected us, it also brought out the ability and strength to encourage each other. Our stutter connected us because it turned us into a beautiful people.

I was alone. Until I realized that I was not alone. And the people who were sitting on the chairs either side of me were the exact kind of people I needed in my life. I will never be alone again. There are moments I want to run away, moments I am afraid of this new life. I am terrified of the truth that my stutter is not what is holding me back: I am*. It’s always been me. I am terrified of seeing this truth in other people. But now that I have about 50 more Facebook friends, I know I won’t be so alone anymore… at least not when it comes to my stutter.

So I can say this confidently now: I am thankful for my stutter. If for no other reason, I am thankful because it connects me to all of these people. There are other reasons too, but that one is my favorite.

I am not alone… not anymore.

* There are situations where people who do not understand disfluency will limit people who stutter. There are job interviews or networking situations or social situations in which people who stutter will be held back. This is still a fact of life. I don’t mean to dismiss those at all. I am speaking in a more general sense of my own anxiety/shame that has always held me back and my fear of what others are thinking.   

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