I guess I was 23 the first time I heard this simple yet life-changing truth: “It’s ok to stutter.” It seems simple now, some ten years later, but at the time it was a radical — even revolutionary — idea. And as with most radical ideas, I resisted it. I even sought to dismiss it.
How could it be “ok” to stutter? The concept seemed so naive. Sure, when people learn that I stutter, they say it’s ok; but they don’t actually mean it. If it’s ok to stutter, why did kids laugh and make fun of me in school? If it’s ok to stutter, why do people react so awkwardly when I do it? If it’s ok to stutter, why did my mom’s eyes well up when I would struggle reading aloud as a kid? I had a solid two decades of evidence that said stuttering was, in fact, not ok at all. So I lived my life with the belief that if I was going to have a “normal” life, stuttering was going to have to go. Because it’s most definitely not ok to stutter.
The preceding two decades had been a quixotic quest for fluency, and I had no intention of stopping. Long periods of aimless drifting were punctuated by intense, though often short, embraces of the latest fad — “try this breathing technique,” “try this device,” “try this speaking pattern,” “try this other device.” Nothing ever delivered on the much sought-after promise of fluency; and with each passing failure, the pit got deeper, the light got dimmer, and hope became more fleeting.
I had graduated college and spent almost a year as a professional before deciding, once again, that it was time to get a handle on my stuttering. The frequency of day-ruining stuttering incidents had increased, I was avoiding most any situation that required speaking, and my social and professional lives were suffering as a result. Somewhat serendipitously, I happened across a public access channel on TV one night, where a woman was talking about her journey with stuttering. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone stutter comfortably. There were no breathing techniques, no devices, no tools. She explained that she used to fear stuttering so much that she essentially became mute. She’d quit her job. She could barely communicate with her family. She spent a lot of time crying and being ashamed. She was basically telling a dramatized story of my life. And yet here she was, confidently addressing an audience. The story of her transformation was incredible, but the concept behind it was actually fairly simple: stuttering was, at its core, actually the manifestation of the reaction to stuttering. Lowering fear and reactivity lowered the impact of stuttering. It was an intriguing concept, but I had no interest in implementing it. Facing fears? Stuttering on purpose? Opening up about stuttering? Owning up to shame and embarrassment? Yeah, no thanks. I’m sure it works for some people, but that can’t be for me. It’s fluency or bust for this guy.
But then she said it: “I learned that it’s ok to stutter.” The needle scratched off the record. Hold on, you learned what now? It didn’t compute. My entire life up until that point had been dedicated to not stuttering, to hiding it as much as possible. The idea that it was ok to stutter would mean that I had spent a substantial part of my life and incalculable amounts of energy fighting a battle that didn’t actually need to be fought.
“It’s ok to stutter.” It was like the discovery of dark matter. It was a realization that I had been missing something my entire life, and I didn’t even know it was there to be missed. But suddenly my entire perspective changed. It suddenly made sense. I finally understood why, regardless of what I tried, I was more disappointed and frustrated with my speech than when I started. Every therapy I had tried, every device I had used, every technique I had learned, they were all missing a simple yet vital mechanism: What happens if I stutter?
Breathe better. Stretch your words out more. Speak slower. Increase your volume. Decrease your volume. Take a breath. Take a deeper breath. Practice more.
They all had one thing in common: Stuttering was failure. Stuttering was an indication that I was doing something wrong. I wasn’t trying hard enough. I wasn’t using my tools. I wasn’t doing what I’d practiced.
I had all of these supposed tools and tricks to prevent and avoid stuttering, but none of them offered any advice on how to handle the act of stuttering itself, or the feelings afterward.
“It’s ok to stutter.” In all my years of therapy, that thought simply hadn’t occurred to me. Stuttering was a problem to be fixed. A foe to be defeated. Stuttering was something to be feared, a source of shame to be hidden. The idea that it was ok was encouraging. I certainly wasn’t prepared to jump in headfirst, but I jotted down the name of the woman’s therapist. You know, just in case.
Even if I wasn’t ready at the time to jump back into therapy, I was motivated enough to join a support group. So I googled stuttering support groups in my area, and got in touch with the local chapter of the National Stuttering Association. I attended my first meeting a few weeks later, where one of the group members was discussing a therapy she was trying, and how much she enjoyed it. She was also stuttering comfortably, which, coupled with the woman I had seen on TV, was like seeing a unicorn and Bigfoot in the same month. I asked for the name of her therapist, and perhaps it was fate, but it was the same therapist the other woman had seen. Not being one to ignore signs from the universe, I contacted Ms. Sisskin and expressed interest in the therapy.
During one of my early sessions, the idea was presented again: “It’s ok to stutter.” By then I was ready to concede that, fine, it’s ok to stutter. But I didn’t have to like it. And I was still going to do everything I could to avoid doing it.
I would quickly learn that those ideas are incompatible. It’s impossible to accept the idea that it’s ok to stutter while simultaneously seeking to avoid it. More importantly, accepting that it’s ok to stutter is merely the beginning. As radical of an idea as it is, what follows from it is even more radical. Not only is it ok to stutter, but I should expect to stutter. Stuttering isn’t a sign of failure, it’s simply a function of my neurology. And on top of expecting to stutter, I should embrace it. As counter-intuitive as it sounded, so much of my struggle with stuttering was the result of my trying to hide it. The more open about and accepting of it I am, the less I will fear it. The less I will be ashamed of it. And the less fear and shame it produces, the less control it has over my speech.
So what happens if I stutter? Well, I might be embarrassed. I might feel shame. But that’s ok too. Acknowledge those feelings. Digest them. Understand that it’s not fatal, and keep showing up. Treat speaking situations as opportunities rather than burdens. Accept my role as a person who stutters, and stutter openly. Don’t apologize. Most importantly, understand the one thing that took 20 years to realize but started me down the path to comfortable speech: it’s ok to stutter.