Stuttering is a journey through suffering, fear, and loneliness. But as I learned this past weekend, it doesn’t always have to be. I traveled by myself to Chicago for the four-day National Stuttering Association conference knowing almost no one and left profoundly changed, connected, and accepted. I’ve always been fortunate to have family and friends who have been supportive through my struggles, but never anticipated what this community would be like. Meeting hundreds of people who stutter was like coming home after being away for 28 years. There’s a level of peace that can only be found when you are fully vulnerable and find nothing but unconditional love, acceptance, and most importantly, understanding. It’s hard to articulate (ha – get it?) everything I’m feeling after such an incredible experience but after some reflection here are some thoughts.
- The psychological toll is very real. From a few occasional repetitions to blocking on every word of every sentence, everyone physically stutters differently. What relates us to each other are the embarrassing experiences and resulting internalized shame. We’ve all been laughed at, thought of as stupid or slow, or had our words completed for us. As I heartbreakingly heard this past week, some have even been spit at, slapped as children, or shunned by family. We’ve all felt betrayed by our bodies not working with our minds, avoided situations and people, substituted words, or played dumb because the words wouldn’t come out. We’ve all tried to hide a part of ourselves that the world at one point told us was not worthy of being heard.
- Being silent does not mean we do not have a voice. Many people who stutter come off as shy, quiet, or otherwise introverted to the outside world. I found some of the most outgoing, gregarious, funny, smart, and talented people I’ve met in my life. Throughout the entire conference it was, for some, the first chance they’ve had in their lives to introduce themselves and tell their story. No matter how long it took through stuttering blocks or heart palpitations, every speaker was able to authentically share themselves and the results were incredibly moving. There were powerful singers, hilarious comedians, creative artists, supportive parents, smiling children, and kind eyes. Expression comes in more than one form and I found the strongest voices were often from those rarely heard.
- Stuttering makes us very compassionate, thoughtful, and reflective people. When a lifetime is spent in your own mind analyzing every word and situation with an overactive fight or flight response, it can be incredibly exhausting. Yet that same muscle developed intensely over time also means people who stutter have very thoughtful answers and reflections on life and are actually great conversationalists. I found myself effortlessly chatting with people I at first hardly knew for lengths of time about all things in life. The level of love and acceptance offered by those that don’t feel understood themselves can not be understated as the community came together around each other.
- Acceptance does not mean we should not fight every day to improve. It is okay to stutter. It is okay to struggle, and it is okay to feel tired of stuttering and struggling. At the same time, it is on each of us to continue to work every day to improve our attitudes and communication patterns. Things don’t get better without practice, and that means being vulnerable around people you don’t know, falling, picking yourself back up, and trying again. When you come to accept yourself, it is no longer a failure but yet another opportunity at greatness. Combine this with the amazing work done by speech language pathologists, medical doctors, psychologists, the NSA, AIS, and many others, we’ll continue to thrive together.
There’s a popular saying along the lines of it may not be your fault but it is your responsibility. This weekend has shown me I am whole the way I am no matter if I stutter, and that with intention and taking control of my actions there is a bright future ahead. I am incredibly thankful and blessed to have met everyone I did and look forward to continued adventures through life.
The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY and Atlanta, GA, and services are also available Online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.