The words wouldn’t come out. My fingers fidgeted under the table and my breath caught in my throat. Their eyes lingered on me longer than I’d like, and I could sense my colleague’s discomfort. I smiled and tried again, this time succeeding at getting the words out. But the heaviness of failure, of shame, lingered in my mind for days later.
I had always felt like a victim of my stutter. It was this black cloud, this monster living inside of me, refusing to leave no matter how hard I prayed to be left alone. My university professors never remembered me because they barely ever heard my voice in class. My mother gave me looks of pity and spoke over me when I stumbled over my words while speaking with family members. My friends looked at me quietly as I struggled to say the word “apple” or “immediately.”
My stutter started to control me, and I wouldn’t speak unless I felt sure it wouldn’t happen. I avoided specific words, especially ones starting with vowels. I suffered from anxiety and panic weeks ahead of planned presentations or speaking engagements. My life started to feel like a living hell because I was obsessed with speaking perfectly and maintaining a level of fluency I deemed appropriate.
But I refused to give up. I wanted to fight this monster and I wanted to win.
I had done some speech therapy as a child but never continued because of how expensive it was. Unfortunately, in most cases, speech therapy is not covered by insurance and this is a huge barrier to stutterers like myself seeking support from a professional. My parents simply couldn’t afford such pricey treatment no matter how much they also wanted me to get help.
Throughout the spring of 2019, I delved into researching speech therapy and started reaching out to speech therapists who could potentially help me win this war against my speech impairment. It took months for me to find a speech therapist who offered their services at a price that wasn’t beyond my budget and who wouldn’t mind doing sessions online. I started my speech therapy sessions in September 2019 and finally completed them in March 2020.
I had focused so much on speech therapy being the solution to my problem, but what I learned is that it isn’t my stutter that is the issue, but rather my mindset about it. My stutter isn’t a dark cloud or a monster and I wasn’t supposed to fight or be at war with it. My stutter does not define me. It is only a part of me. A small part of who I am.
I began to realize how important it was to be gentle with myself and my stutter. Fighting it was only making it worse.
Perfect speech isn’t possible, even for non-stutterers
This was a big “aha” realization for me. I began to listen a bit closer to how my friends, family, and colleagues spoke, realizing that they also hesitated and even stuttered a bit while speaking. They weren’t stutterers and still didn’t have perfect fluency!
When speaking, I learned the importance of focusing on the message I wanted to share, rather than whether I would stutter while sharing it. If I could speak clearly, loudly, and look into the person’s eyes while I delivered my comment or question, then my stutter could fade into the background.
So far, people are always surprised when I tell them that I stutter. A lot of the time your stutter can be seen as completely normal and chalked up to nervousness or even just the way you speak. Again, perfect fluency isn’t possible, even by non-stutterers.
Why do you care if someone hears you stutter?
This one took me a bit deeper into examining and analyzing why I was so stressed about being disfluent. I would find myself anxious and nervous for days before meetings and presentations. It was negatively impacting my mental health and destroying my self-esteem.
I recently started letting myself stutter and it has transformed the way I deal with speaking. I focus on speaking slowly, sometimes even preparing what I want to say beforehand, and this has already decreased the chance of me stuttering in the first place. I decided to let go, to stop striving for a standard of fluency that was causing me to choose silence over speaking my truth and connecting with others.
Speak as slowly as you need to
My speech therapist noted several times during our sessions that I spoke way too fast and that just speaking slowly could greatly improve my stutter. I loved her anecdote about a client who ended up tattooing the word “slow” on his wrist to remind himself to slow down while speaking!
We all feel the need to race through our words and fear the other person getting bored or losing interest in what we have to say. My speech therapist even went as far as to send me a video of one of Obama’s speeches. He spoke very slowly, took several pauses, and I found myself hanging on to his every word. Speaking slowly can actually be a great way to capture your audience’s attention. It isn’t a race!
It’s a bit more complicated when you speak multiple languages
I speak 3 languages and my level of stuttering varies depending on which language I’m speaking. I stutter the least in English, somewhat in Arabic, and the most in French. When you speak multiple languages, you will find yourself needing to use different techniques to manage your stutter.
In English, just speaking slowly makes a world of difference in how much I stutter, while in Arabic and French, using the Camperdown Technique as well as taking longer pauses between words is necessary for me to effectively guide my speech. Recognizing what I needed to do, based on what language I was speaking, has helped me immensely in learning to be gentler with myself as well as not give up as easily as I once did.
We all stutter differently. Some of us have more severe stutters, others much milder, but what we all have in common is fear. Fear of stumbling over our words, fear of being seen as inadequate, fear of not living up to others’ expectations. These fears will only hinder you.
Living your life to the fullest is much more worthwhile and important than worrying about what others think of you. Be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Seek professional help if that is the best route for you, but do not suffer in silence as I did for years.