My lifelong battle with stuttering
When I first watched the end of The King’s Speech, I was reduced to a swollen sack of tears. Guys, he can speak. It’s hard, and it takes every ounce of courage he’s got, but he stammers his way through that speech, dammit! It’s a moment of pure triumph, and it’s one I have to live every day when I open my mouth. That’s the one thing King George VI and I have in common.
My stutter comes and goes. If there is any rhyme or reason to the “flare-ups,” I haven’t found it yet. I’d say I’m about 75% fluent on medium-days, 90% on great days, 65% on not-so-good days. In one day, can go from a lunch with friends with absolutely no stuttering, to dinner with my family where I stammer my way throughout the meal. I also tutor, and have to explain to my eighth graders why I can’t pronounce the name “John D. Rockefeller” and why I constantly have them finish my sentences. Nowadays I can usually laugh it off, but it didn’t always feel so comfortable.
Basically, every social interaction I’ve had throughout my life has been colored by my speech impediment. I’ve never known what it’s like to not be a stutterer. I’ve never known what it’s like to not think ahead to what I have to say and instantly analyze if I’ll suddenly be met with an “m” or a “b” and have to stop, force my way through the word, hum a weird guttural noise before I choke the word out. It’s so much a part of my identity now, but growing up, it definitely affected me.
In elementary school, the stutter would blossom spectacularly when the new year started in September. I don’t know why, maybe it was the nerves or the excitement, but I would invariably be met with a new stammer along with all my new pencils and notebooks. My friends knew the deal and thankfully, I wasn’t teased or bullied, but it annoyed me. I liked public speaking and I was an excellent student; this speech impediment kept me from shining in school presentations and made others pity me, which wounded my considerable nine-year-old pride.
In high school, my stutter manifested itself more forcefully, probably because all the worst things come out in adolescence just to make you miserable. I auditioned for drama club, practicing and memorizing a monologue perfectly, all the while knowing that once I got onstage, everything could crumble at the first word, and I would have no control over it. Or it could all go smoothly and wonderfully and I could get a speaking part, but then would it be possible to keep the stutter at bay for long enough?
In college, I constantly had to give presentations. Because of the erratic, spontaneously changing nature of my stutter, sometimes I would speak for twenty minutes without stammering once. Other times, not one word would come out on time, leading to furtive glances and uncomfortable looks on the faces of all of my classmates and peers. I’m proud by nature, so it never truly broke my spirits, but it did dampen them. I wanted to be as eloquent in person as I felt I was on paper. So I learned to preface my presentations with a disclaimer: “I tend to stutter, so please bear with me,” I’d say. And then I’d have to deal with my classmates’ sympathy.
And the list goes on. On first dates, my confidence level doesn’t guarantee a lack of stuttering. On interviews, I feel awkward telling my interviewer that I have a stammer; I feel like he or she will respect me less. And it’s so erratic: Sometimes I stutter the most when I’m home, talking casually to my family. When I’m meeting someone new for the first time and I’m less comfortable, my speech can flow smoothly. I haven’t truly pinned down a cause, and definitely haven’t found a solution.
Speech therapy was an interesting experience. I spent four weeks there speaking perfectly to the therapist, to the point where she honestly didn’t know what the problem was. I would come home and stutter, and my mother would sigh, eager to help me. By that time I was eighteen, and learning to be less fazed by it. Still, my pride balks whenever I can’t do something as well as others, something as simple as speaking.
I always think that stuttering is like having a huge zit on your face: it’s all anyone notices. When I say my name, sometimes it takes a second or two to get the “L” to meet the “isa.” People stare and laugh, uncomfortable because they don’t realize I’m not doing it on purpose. “Did you forget your name?” people will ask. “No,” I sometimes reply. “I have a stutter.” I’ve relished telling people the reason why I’m speaking like a broken record, because their embarrassed faces sort of make up for the embarrassment I feel. It’s not their fault of course, but this is just one way I’ve learned to deal with what other people think.
Another way is to acknowledge that it does affect me. I’ve spent most of my life pretending I don’t care that I stutter, just to preserve my pride. But unfortunately, I do. I care that I have to point to the item on the menu I’d like to order, I care that I have to mouth the words silently before speaking them, knowing that my throat could seize up at any point and I’ll look like an idiot. I care that a part of me knows I can never give powerful speeches, or conduct a poetry reading. I’m limited. That’s something I hate admitting.
Admitting this weakness, however, may be just the thing to finally overcoming this impediment, which has done its best to burrow into every aspect of my life. That’s where The King’s Speech truly changed the way I viewed my stuttering, when it was released nearly five years ago. The film drew a direct correlation between psychological issues and stuttering, and Lionel Logue is as much a therapist as he is a speech therapist. But the psychological correlation also made me feel uncomfortable—what is wrong with me that I stutter?
No one likes to be different. Being a stutterer is isolating, because very few people know the cause of it, few people know how to combat it, and few people know how difficult it is for stutterers to do normal things like say their name or ask for a book at the bookstore. Movies like The King’s Speech and testimonials from celebrities like Emily Blunt put the issue of stuttering back in the spotlight, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone. It’s possible to overcome this barrier. One day, maybe I’ll even conduct a book signing and be able to read a chapter of my novel flawlessly. Or maybe I’ll still be stuttering, and that’s OK too.