There are many causes of stammering, most of them dramatic. A severe head injury, neurogenic disease, a stroke, other trauma; for me, I was simply born with it. Even from the time I formed my first sentence, there was a notable difference.
Whereas most parents would have chalked this up to a normal level of disfluency during the early stages of speech development, my mom, being extremely intuitive, always knew there was something more.
“She’ll grow out of it,” my doctor now-infamously told her at every single appointment.
I was 3 years old.
Now I am 23, and still live with this today.
These misconceptions never seemed to end.
“You’re just nervous.” No, I’m not.
“You’re talking too fast, slow down.” Actually, I’m talking at this pace because everyone usually interrupts me if I pause for too long.
As a teenager, I reluctantly enrolled in speech therapy, but found the exercises, and even the staff, to be degrading.
It is also always frustrating to witness the societal perception of stammering, specifically misconceptions about its relationship to confidence, awkwardness, and even intelligence.
Phrases like “Did I stutter?” have become infused into pop culture and are so blatantly common that most people don’t even realize they’re offensive.
Media portrayal also does not help.
Actors who stammer in TV shows are often relegated to roles that portray nervous, haphazard characters who exude qualities of weakness and immaturity. You have never seen a superhero with a stammer, have you?
One main exception that comes to mind is the movie The King’s Speech, in which actor Colin Firth (who does not have a stammer in real life) portrays the extremely disfluent King George VI. The performance was so compelling and heartfelt that it earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Firth, by all means, portrayed an extremely strong, resilient character, who was not simply defined by his inhibitions, but by his ability to rise above them.
When most people think of disfluency, they often think of the most outright, obvious signs, such as a word or sound that’s repeated over and over again. The black and white.
But there is also a type of stammering that exists in the grey area, the subtlety. A pause that lingers on just a few seconds too long. A small syllable that’s repeated just a few too many times.
Unbeknownst to non-stammerers, there are also reasonings behind certain quirks that may not be immediately clear. For example, unlike some people, stammerers don’t just use sounds like “ums” and “ahs” as simply filler words, but instead they are actually a linguistic tool to help physically, verbally segue into a more difficult word with a similar sound, such as saying “That is, uh-, uh- -unfair.”
To some, that may not be significant. But to me, especially when speaking to someone who doesn’t know me very well, these small things become huge.
The repetition feels like hundreds of times, not a handful. The pause feels like it goes on for minutes, not seconds. Blank stares. Judgement. Deafening silence.
Don’t even get me started about talking on the phone.
Over the years, things have greatly improved with my personal experience with fluency, but there are still good days and bad.
The good days are when I am just as fluent as everyone else, where every sentence just seems to flow seamlessly into the next, leaving passers-by unaware that there is even an issue at all. In fact, the majority of people I mention it to have responded with, “Really? I never noticed!” While this is obviously encouraging, they clearly have no idea what goes on behind the scenes.
The bad days, however, are much more obvious. These days are where every response feels like a laborious, even physically painful task. Sweating, fist-clenched, heart pounding, fidgeting, squirming. Head rush. Complete pauses (called “blocks”), in which I am sometimes unable to form even a syllable of any word.
Unsurprisingly, like most people who stammer, for a very long time I had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. Every possible situation that I could avoid, I would, dreading being the center of attention. I overprepared and overanalyzed everything I said, ruminating and rehearsing even one-word responses.
I gained tremendous confidence in college after having so many amazing opportunities to get involved in different organizations and groups. Leadership roles, speaking roles, professional roles, they all gave me the confidence to persevere through these issues, even if they made me uncomfortable.
Because I wanted to expand on this confidence, in community college I decided to finally face this fear and take a public speaking class.
Unfortunately, this is exactly when the COVID pandemic hit, which placed the class in a virtual environment. However, instead of presenting our speeches over video conference, we were instead asked to record ourselves and post the videos to an online discussion board. Clearly, this defeated the purpose of it being a public speaking class.
When it came time to post my first recording, my classmates must have assumed I had none of these fears. From their perspective, they only saw a pristine, polished, perfectly succinct video of someone presenting an idea, full of confidence and humor.
However, behind the scenes, what they didn’t see was the 22 different outtakes of the same speech. An entire recycling bin full of all of the rejected re-takes, frustrations, and feelings of defeat.
Overall, I have always preferred written communication over verbal, as I think I communicate myself better in writing. Perhaps this has lent itself to my career as a graphic designer, as after all, this field prioritizes visual and written communication.
Sometimes, I am at a loss to even come up with any words at all.
In general, I often watch others and am in awe of how they seemingly never run out of things to say, or at least, never get tripped up on their words. Teachers, media influencers, comedians, TED Talk presenters, and so on. It seems as if there is an endless series of words that so effortlessly flow from one idea to the next, completely unhindered by any pause or a shadow of doubt.
For me, if I do not have things written out in great detail, I legitimately, verbally run out of things to say, as if there is a physical drop-off point where the train of thought simply, and uncontrollably, ends. Recently I have begun to think of the best way to explain this by using a metaphor of a video game.
Traditionally, video game graphics only render what is immediately in front of the player’s character. If the character moves too fast or look too far out into the horizon, they can sometimes reach the “end” of this rendering, in which the entire surroundings completely disappear and the world literally falls away from itself, fuzzy, unclear and empty.
That is what it feels like to not have all of the words in front of you.
However, in written form, my thoughts are endless. If given any topic of interest, I could surely and easily create an entire thesis, from which would expand any countless other subtopics like a nebulous, multiplying web of ideas.
Today, things have certainly improved dramatically. As I continue to expand my experiences and opportunities, I continue to become even more and more confident and optimistic. Today, I actively seek out leadership roles, instead of shying away from them. I make a concerted effort to talk to new people, instead of avoiding them. And I am the first to raise my hand and ask questions if something doesn’t make sense.
No, I didn’t grow out of it. There are still good days and bad days. But I have simply not let the bad days define me.