I watched myself stutter for the first time in June 2001.
On the TV monitor, my face contorted as my voice staggered and stumbled, struggling to push words out, my eyes desperate for anything but the lens. I was ashamed.
As a teenage girl embarking on boys and college applications, I was horrified that this thing I’d tried to stifle for so long not only was an actual disorder -- it had no specific cure.
I am able to hide my stuttering fairly well. I don’t always have repetitive blocks, or sharp inhales of air to try to force the word out; sometimes it’s just a simple, “SsssssssssSamantha.” I could be a brand ambassador for Early Onset Dementia with the number of people who have told me they legitimately thought I forgot my name.
Usually I brush it off and respond with a gentle, “Actually, I stutter.” Sometimes I’ll tack on a helpful, “So sometimes it takes me a while to say my name,” if I feel like the person needs some extra convincing.
This is usually met with a horrified apology or a well-meaning, “Oh, I stutter, too. Don’t worry about it.” Right.
I started stuttering when I was six years old. Nothing traumatic happened and my parents were super chill about it. Yet eventually I realized I spoke funny, constantly having to substitute words and worrying about if I’d be able to say things.
I began to fear certain situations. I remember sitting in 7th grade English class, working myself into a near panic attack as I waited for the reading turn to be mine, knowing I’d be mimicked. Or at a party in high school, where I’d get a little lax with my avoidance techniques, and the beer would cause me to let out some weird blocks.
“YOU’RE TRASHED!” they would laugh. I didn’t protest. Better they think I can’t handle my liquor than I talk like a freak.
Words that are expected to come easily cause the most trouble. Fear signals anticipation, which signals physical tension. Stuttering is not caused by fear, but it is sorely aggravated by it. One’s own name is a safe bet for being a nightmare in any social situation.
So the thought of actually telling someone that I stutter was a far-off fantasy; hell, I wasn’t even sure what stuttering was -- how would I advocate for it? At 15, I didn’t realize that therapy, or at least the physical tools of it, were not going to give me the cure-all I craved. But that’s what I convinced myself when my mother coaxed me into a three-week intensive speech therapy program at the American Institute for Stuttering in New York City.
The program would end just in time for my Sweet Sixteen soiree. I envisioned myself beaming, in my black and white dress, my words flowing like syrup as my friends sauntered over to light their candles to the sweet sounds of TLC, Eve 6 and the Jackson 5.
But that’s not how it went down.
I walked into the first session of that program terrified; I’d tried to hide my stuttering for so long and had never met anyone else who stuttered before.
I learned that stuttering is a neurophysiologic disorder. So when you tell me to “slow down” or “take my time,” not only do I want to punch you in the face, it does not help. Instead of the vocal chords opening to produce speech, as they do in “fluent speakers,” they slam shut, causing desperate secondary behaviors, which range from facial contortions to strange sounds and breathing patterns.
I was accustomed to avoiding actual stuttering by looking upwards as I spoke to feign thinking, using the filler word “um,” and subtly stamping my foot. I was no longer allowed to do any of this.
Just like it would be a pain in the ass for you to have to stutter every time you spoke, consciously utilizing these skills to speak fluently was exhausting. No fucking way was I mastering this in three weeks.
I felt like I’d let everyone down as I watched my Mom read the names of my friends’ candles for me at my Sweet Sixteen.
I was leading a double life -- half the time I was advertising my stuttering like an AIS program spokeswoman, and the other half I was still terrified of being outed.
Eager for support, a friend from the program (my bestie to this day) introduced me to a new kind of group. When I walked into my first National Stuttering Association Conference (Do these names sound hilarious to fluent speakers? I have decided they must.), I was blindsided.
Trusty breathing techniques in hand, prepared to “turn on my skills” as soon as I had to introduce myself, BAM! I was ambushed by the teen program volunteer.
“Hi! I’m M-M-M-MMMMMegan. Is th-this your ffffffffirst c-c-conference?” She was stuttering somethin’ fierce -- and homegirl did not give a jack shit.
Everyone there was stuttering -- almost joyfully so. People had smiles on as they waited patiently for the person they were chatting with to finish. Sentences like, “Hey, catch ya later!” could take upwards of two minutes, but it didn’t matter. Time stopped for them.
I had finally become OK with talking about stuttering with strangers as a way to allow myself more time to use my techniques. But here, it was finally okay to stutter. Period.
It felt like coming home.
Eleven years later, the National Stuttering Association has seen me through college, grad school and most recently a career in advertising. I’ve told the entire MTV sales team that I stutter and need an extra moment to make my introduction. I even used the fact that I guest appeared on “True Life: I Stutter” as a nice segue, which was awesome (true story).
What I learned from the start, from that first day at the American Institute, is to feel the fear, and do it anyway. The best part is I get to impart that wisdom on hundreds of teens and young adults every year.
I still have fleeting moments where I truly can’t imagine how my listener could find me anything other than pathetic: when I’m fighting to get words out on an interview, or totally embarrassing myself at a party (sometimes with a quick, “I stutter, I need a sec” educational interjection), or -- the most excruciating -- striving to maintain eye contact with a guy I’m trying to impress, as the words just refuse to smooth themselves out, eventually resigning myself to talking about stuttering on the first date lest he think I am actually that nervous. (Please.)
But hangups usually make no sense. My girlfriends who stutter are smart, assertive and have great eye contact (that’s a stuttering joke). But most of all, they are sexy. The way they handle themselves, when they look the hot bartender square in the eye and say, “I’ll have the Sssssssauvignon b-b-b-blanc please,” followed by a crushingly hot smile. They are the mirrors that remind me of how sexy I am, how far I’ve come and how hard I’ve worked.
I’ve met many happily open stutterers that will tell you they would turn down a cure if one arrived, because their stuttering has shaped them so positively. Some days I can relate, and some days, I think, "Fuck that." Maybe if the world understood that telling a stutterer to slow down is like telling a blind person to squint a little, I’d reconsider.
But if a magical pill meant giving up everything I’ve experienced on this adventure, I’d have to say, "N-n-n-no, thanks."
In loving memory of Catherine Montgomery, founder of the American Institute for Stuttering, and the first one who truly "got it.”