by Jenny McGuire
I spent the first 22 years of my life hiding from myself and hiding myself from the world. I was disgusted and ashamed by the sound of my stutter. From an early age I did everything in my power to bury that part of my identity. I would hang up the phone when I called friends’ houses and their parents answered, unwilling to risk my stutter “being exposed” while asking for my friend to come on the line. While out with my family, I would order ice cream I didn’t even like because of the threat of stuttering on my favorite flavor. Or, even more corrosive to my self-confidence, I would ask my mom to order my ice cream while I “ran to the bathroom.” I rarely needed to actually use the toilet, but I sure did need to avoid stuttering, and if a lie was necessary to successfully avoid the sound of my own voice, then so be it.
I was always a good student, but I lived in fear that a teacher would call on me to speak in class. I would eagerly volunteer an answer or comment when I felt I could talk without stuttering. This was my way of trying to put “money in the bank” with my teachers, so when they cold called on people, they would feel they had already heard from me enough and choose someone else. If I caught them scanning the room for a “victim” to read aloud, I would pretend to drop my pencil and hope that while I leaned down to pick it up, they would move along to a different student.
Living with and trying to hide my stutter took an enormous toll on my physical and mental wellbeing. The stress of trying to conceal the way I spoke was literally eating at my stomach. In my sixth grade year, I spent every afternoon bus ride laying flat on my back on the front bench of the bus. After hours of being consumed with complete anxiety, I had an acidic stomach ache every single afternoon for the entire school year. The only thing that helped the pain slightly was to lay flat.
I lived like this—in a hellacious prison of my own making—until I graduated from college. During that scary transition to adulthood, my old avoidance tricks were no longer helpful in masking my stutter. I was forced to dig deep. I needed to decide whether I should “come out” as a person who stutters, or continue to hide. I realized that continuing to hide would further cripple me and would compromise the life that I envisioned for myself. A type-A, quasi-hypochondriac 22 year old college graduate should not have to wait for her mother to call and make doctors appointments for her. An outgoing 22 year old college graduate should not be terrified of finding a job because it would mean having to talk to new people and possibly “being exposed.”
I had come to the point where I realized that my life in hiding was no life at all, so I took the scariest leap of all. I came out as a person who stutters and embarked on a decade-long (and still going) journey toward self-acceptance. I sought the help of an incredible speech therapist, Vivian Sisskin, who specializes in avoidance-reduction therapy. Amazingly, my path out of the hell I had created for myself was to stop avoiding. My new objective—to show myself as a person who stutters—went against every fiber of my being, for I had developed a deeply ingrained habit of avoiding my stutter. It is not an exaggeration to say that my avoidance behaviors had shaped EVERY facet of my life until then.
When I first started therapy I was so scared of the sound of my own voice that I would silent block when Vivian would ask me to say a one-syllable word. Back at home, I couldn’t even read aloud to myself alone in my room. I simply could not tolerate hearing the sound of my own stutter—even when no one was listening but me. I was scared of showing my stuttering, but thankfully, I was even more scared of living in that self-imposed prison forever. So I put on my big girl pants and tackled avoidance reduction therapy. Over time I began to push myself to tolerate the sound of my stutter. I never expected to feel good about it; I was just aiming to tolerate it in order to live my life with more confidence and less anxiety. I simply wanted to give myself a future with fewer controls and more possibilities for happiness and fulfillment. The support I received from Vivian and my fellow group therapy members was invaluable during this time, and continues to be 10 years later.
Many years into doing this work, I am in an entirely difference place. I have realized that fearing peoples’ reactions is far worse than experiencing uncomfortable listener reactions. Sure, at first, when I would show a big open stutter and the lady giving me a pedicure would laugh at me and start talking to her coworkers about me in a foreign language….well, it stunk. But then it stunk a little less. And then a little less. And I began to feel EMPOWERED! I have come to a place where I truly feel that at the end of the day, if the nail technician has pumiced my heels and painted my toenails “The Thrill of Brazil” red, well, then I don’t really care if she laughed at me along the way. Truly. I don’t care. And that is an AMAZING feeling.
It is also clear to me now that I have been my own worst critic all along. In reality, all of the things I feared the most about interacting with the world as a person who stutters actually lived inside of me. This intense self-criticism has been far more damaging to my psyche and my life than any reaction I have received while interacting with others. And because these old beliefs are so strong and so embedded in my mind, it continues to be daily work to combat them.
Sometimes I’m quick to judge myself about this daily work. I question how far I’ve really come on my path toward self-acceptance if I still have to work everyday to remind myself that I am a person worthy of success and happiness, stutter and all. But you know what? In order to stay healthy, I have to eat, drink, and brush my teeth everyday. I can’t skip these things just because I did them the day before. I’ve decided that working on self-acceptance and self-love is like that. It is a daily practice that I must do even though I worked on it the day before. So where has all of this work gotten me? Well, I got a Master’s degree and became an art therapist. I worked in a tense environment with very sick children, and throughout the day I interacted with families in crisis. I stuttered openly with them and was great at my job. In my mid-twenties I met the love of my life, dated him for a few years, and then got married. I stuttered openly with him, so he fell in love with all of me. Almost three years ago I became a mom. I love my daughter with all of my heart. I stutter openly in my role as a parent, and she loves me fiercely just the way I am. My family and I moved from Washington, DC to Colorado three years ago. I have made innumerable new friends in the time that I’ve been here. I have stuttered openly with all of them, and they accept me as I am.
Being a person who stutters certainly leads to challenges. It has been my experience, however, that learning to accept myself totally was the best antidote to the struggle that stuttering brought to my life. I could never have gotten this far without Vivian and all of the amazing peers I have met through her group therapy sessions. Is the road toward self-acceptance easy? Definitely not! But for me, the rewards have been well worth the effort.
Thank you, Vivian. I love you more than words could ever describe and I am forever grateful for the positive impact you have had on my life.