Stuttering Story

Nonfiction Accounts On Growing Up With a Speech Impediment

Importance of Finding My Voice — October 29, 2015

Importance of Finding My Voice

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Expressive personality with no voice was the IDEA behind this silly picture. 2009.
Every day seems to matter more than the day before it. What I mean by this is that you can’t change the past. You bring the past with you wherever you go, but it’s part of the present now. Your past only matters because it’s forming who you are today.

People pretend all the time like their past doesn’t affect their present. They repress and ignore things that happened in early childhood, a few years ago, or even last week. Yet it comes back to visit. It lives underneath your skin. It breathes even when you pretend that it isn’t breathing.

Last week, I posted that article, “When a Poke Feels Like a Punch.” I wrote that by telling an amusing story that didn’t hurt me very much. In the last week, however, I’ve had a couple moments where others’ pokes have felt like a big giant punch in the gut. One I responded to carefully. One I did not. I panicked and the anger overtook me so much that I swung my arms like a child waking up from a bad dream. I’ll reflect on the real “bruise” of one of these moments.

Growing up, my mom was extremely affirming about my voice. She allowed to “make valid arguments” (ones my Grandmother said was just me talking back) in order to make my point. My mom let me be heard at home. However… most people did not. Another family member (trying to not name names, since who knows who will read this) took care of my brother and me all the time. She enforced a very strict policy about how much I was allowed to talk. I was a chatty cathy with a fumbling, stuttering voice. Frequently, I was encouraged to not speak until I could “slow down” and “control my voice” which really meant I had to be fluent. I was taught by her that my voice was not allowed unless I could “control” it. But I couldn’t. I could slow down, I could try my techniques, but fluency didn’t happen.

It wasn’t just this family member. It was also at school. What I’m about to say can be interpreted different ways, and I do not have a suggestion for a better way this can be done. I understand its necessity. I also need to point out that it hurt my development as a speaker. I was frequently encouraged to not have to speak in front of the class. I was constantly given the “out” so often that I started to believe people did not want to hear my stuttering voice. I understand, as an adult, what was going on. But being the isolated child at school who was told every single presentation that I did not have to do it if I was uncomfortable was strange and confusing. What’s tough here is that I do believe children who stutter should be allowed to opt out if they get so much anxiety that they cannot do it. I also believe that they should be greatly encouraged to do it, “stutter and all”. I am not an SLP and have not studied it, so I’m not an expert. Who knows.

Either way, my voice being challenged makes me feel incredibly insecure. My voice being silenced has felt like a theme in my life: I desired for awhile to become a pastor, but “knew” that women “weren’t allowed” to be pastors. I used to stand on the “stage” at church where my pastor stood and pretend that it was me giving a sermon. But my theology at the time was influenced by the idea that women had to be silent. Why would God make my innate self so LOUD if I was a stuttering woman in church? On top of all that, I was also a victim of a sexual assault by someone I was close to, and frequently felt silenced when I wanted to share what had happened. It’s also the way people frequently make teenagers feel. There are few things as dehumanizing as having your voice taken away from you.

This is true for most disabilities in the US. It isn’t just true for stuttering. People often speak “for” or “on behalf” of another, and sometimes this is necessary, but is it always? How do we decide when to speak if for our whole lives, we have thought it would be better to be silent?

Recently, I was at dinner with my friends and the topic of my stutter came up. One of them complimented my blog and everyone tuned in. It’s incredible because I was unable to have these conversations a year ago. Another girl asked me if I had kids – would they have a higher chance of stuttering? Yes, they would. I mentioned I have a friend whose son stutters, and I know of other parent/child stutterers. She replied, “Wow, that sucks.”

I understand what happened here. It is a struggle to stutter. It’s exhausting and frustrating, and it has clearly affected my self-esteem is terrible ways growing up. However, my reaction to this comment was amusement. “Not really. I mean how great is it to have that connection? You have a parent who ‘gets it’ and can pave the pathway for the kid… providing that the parent has made peace with it.”

I’m still amazed at how far one can come in just a year.

It’s up to those of us who stutter to change the path we are on. It’s up to us to determine that our voices matter – not in spite of our stutter… and not even because of our stutter. I think people will listen. I think most people want to hear our voices. But no matter what the truth of that statement is: Our voices matter — stutter and all.

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Why a Poke Feels Like a Punch: Even Friends Can Say The Wrong Thing — October 22, 2015

Why a Poke Feels Like a Punch: Even Friends Can Say The Wrong Thing

30131_440647912344_3528711_nDespite knowing someone had better intentions, words can hurt. In the stuttering community, we talk a lot about how people make the comments they make about our speech disfluency typically because they “don’t know” what is going on. They don’t “mean” any harm. While this is true and important to identify, I’ll explain why it’s OK that this hurts and why even the lightest behavior can be harmful to you.

First, a story.

A couple years ago, I was getting brunch with a great friend of mine, who I’ll call Scott. Scott is a good guy, and would never intend to harm me. I know that and I understand that. This was also at a stage in my life where I was not comfortable talking too much about my stutter. I was newly aware of acceptance, and the battle was only about to begin.

He was telling me how his older brother has a great memory, but is a terrible storyteller. But how he, Scott, was an excellent storyteller but had a horrible memory. I laughed and said, “Well good thing I have both those things!”

He laughed back and added, “Now if we could just get rid of that stutter!”

Ouch. Thanks, Scott.

It hurt, but I tried to laugh it off. After all, Scott didn’t mean any harm. He doesn’t really care that I stutter. But it stayed with me. I carried it around with me, particularly when I was telling a story. Would this story be better if I wasn’t stuttering?

Eventually I told a close mutual friend about it, and he encouraged me to talk to Scott about it. At the next event I saw him at, I did. He was confused because this same mutual friend teased me about EVERYTHING. “Not my stutter,” I explained. “It’s off-limits, even to him.” Of course, he felt horrible and apologized a bunch. To him, it was just a random joke because people love to tease me. I laugh off nearly every other joke about me. He didn’t expect one this one to stick because to him, my stutter wasn’t a big deal.

I knew that too. So why did it bug me so much?

Let’s connect this to something physical. Have you ever gotten a gnarly sunburn? Or perhaps you were running and fell and got a giant bruise on your leg? Or you got your wisdom teeth out?

What is true about all of those areas for awhile? They’re sore.

Your friend comes up and wraps you into a hug. They mean well. They don’t intend to hurt you. But the sunburn on your back is SENSITIVE. The hug is horribly painful.

If it weren’t for the sunburn, for the bruise, for the recent surgery, touch would not hurt. After I got my tattoo, I couldn’t sleep on that side of my body for a couple nights. It was tender.

It still hurts.

A poke on a bad bruise can feel like the person just punched you in the arm. It was only a poke. But where they poked was so tender that they may as well have slapped you across the face.

So my friend’s comment was small. It was meant as a light joke and not intended to hurt. Kinda like those people who ask you if you forgot your name. Typically, the intention isn’t malicious. Yet it hurts as much as if they had imitated the stutter back at me and told me I was an idiot.

I guess the question is: why?

Part of it is holding onto this hurt. Maybe one person was bullied as a kid. But maybe it wasn’t even as straightforward. Maybe it was just that constant focus on your techniques, on the idea that only fluent people succeed in life. The idea that you’re still stuttering because you’re not trying hard enough. That others look down on you because of your stutter.

The word for these tiny comments, often by friends and loved ones, is “microaggressions”. I learned about microaggressions as I learned about cultural awareness and everyday racism. Discrimination of speech impediments is different from discrimination based on race, so I can’t argue that it’s the same thing, but it does include microaggressions.

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. – Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014 (bold emphasis by me)

For stuttering, this could be comments, particular glances, even body language. These things hurt because they are a reminder and a result of something much deeper. The discrimination people with speech impediments face.

Isad_ribbonToday is International Stuttering Awareness Day (ISAD) and I’ve been seeing a bunch of people talk about what “Discrimination Is.” Some of the stories are heartbreaking. People who are discouraged from career paths, openly mocked, fired, not hired, dismissed, ignored… from children who are not given a chance to adults who just want to be heard. Some may think that with all of these horrible things that happen, then why be hurt over a small joke? Shouldn’t we have thicker skin?

But it comes back to the fact that all these small things are a poke on a much bigger bruise that we live with. It’s why microaggressions are so important to at least identify. They may not go anywhere, but being aware of them is an important first step for validating why these comments hurt and why it is OK to stand up for yourself.

Sure, someone may be making a joke. But what they just did was slap the back of a person with a second degree sunburn. It’s OK to say “ouch,” even if it makes the other person feel temporary guilty. It’s OK to say “My stutter is a sensitive topic, and I’d rather you not make jokes about it” even to those who don’t mean anything bad by it.

It’s not wrong for a poke to hurt you when they’re poking a bruise.

Fix That Flaw! Who Doesn’t Accept Stuttering? — May 6, 2015

Fix That Flaw! Who Doesn’t Accept Stuttering?

Me in 1st grade showing off my new uniform… about when my stutter started showing

I cannot tell the story of my life without talking about my stutter. Trust me, I’ve tried. But why?

It didn’t greatly affect my relationship with my peers growing up. I went to a private K-8 and everyone knew about my speech impediment; they were basically banned from making fun of me about it. More importantly, everyone got used to it. The only person that constantly made me feel bad about it was an older relative who I spent a lot of time with, and it was always done in a “let me fix your flaws” type of way.

Even in high school, I never really had a teacher say much about it. My mom talked to them about it at back to school night. The only teacher who I ever remember mentioning it to also stuttered, and he told me that really, us stutterers were smarter than everyone else… not dumber, as often perceived. We were thinking too fast and couldn’t get the words out quickly enough. It was nice to have someone suggest that my stutter did make me different – the obvious – but in a good way. He was one of the two teachers who changed my life in a great way.

If anything, teachers liked me more and always watched out for me. I had one person try to tease me my sophomore year of high school, and my English teacher went after them. I was always, always protected from my peers.

So what happened? Where did my self-esteem drop because of my speech impediment? Why did I think myself incapable of high levels of socialization for a career? It didn’t come from kids teasing me or even ignorant teachers.

Personally, I tie it to two things: the way society views stuttering – and, as result, the approach of speech therapy.

My personal journey brought me to speech therapy at age 4 or 5 because I was unable to make the “R” sound. I then also developed a stutter. Great way to fit in. But the shame began when I couldn’t make the stutter go away. I was praised when I was fluent, and asked if I practiced my techniques when I was nonfluent. It was handled very similar to my piano lessons.

But I couldn’t practice away my stutter. And I hated the lessons. I still think they’re stupid. There was no acceptance. No one ever asked me if I even wanted to be fluent unless it was a rhetorical question asked when annoyed at me for not practicing enough; that was heard by me more like, “Do you want to be fixed or do you want to be stuck stuttering forever?” Parents were told of my techniques and were told to make sure I did them. It was all about elongating the first sound of every single word (do you have any idea how silly that sounds?) or making my breathing all bizarre.

When I quit speech therapy after high school, it wasn’t because I accepted my speech. It was because I was tired of failing everyone. I was tired of failing myself. I wanted it to go away not because I desired fluency, but because I didn’t want to disappoint the people around me forever. I wanted acceptance. The problem with our society’s view on stuttering and with speech therapy is that acceptance only looks like fluency.

So what does that teach those of us who stutter into adulthood?

How in the world do we even begin to change this?