IT HAPPENED TO ME: I've Had an Embarrassing Stutter for Most of My Life

“She probably stutters like that because her father tickles her too much,” my grandmother said once.
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Destiny Johnson
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“She probably stutters like that because her father tickles her too much,” my grandmother said once.

"Slow down."

I heard this over and over again from family, friends and even myself as my heart would race, my hands would perspire, and my tongue would attempt to say a consonant or vowel to no avail.

T-t-t-t-t...

I knew what I wanted to say. I literally had it on the tip of my tongue, but the communication between my tongue and my brain had been disconnected. It’s as if my brain was teasing me with a word and holding it over my tongue to try and catch it.

I never could.

In a panic, I would look for synonyms to continue my train of thought even though the flow of conversation had already been interrupted.

I got used to people looking at me in confusion as if I was speaking another language, then slowly nodding their head up and down with a baffled look on their face as I struggled with my failed dialogue. Sometimes I’d get, “Just say it!” from friends who became too frustrated with listening to me trying to force myself produce a common word such as the.

Talking on the phone made me nervous. Having no eye contact and not knowing what the other person’s expressions were made me become overly self-conscious about what I was going to say.

Once, when I was on the phone with my elementary school best friend, I began to casually talk about our day and other mundane elementary-school happenings. All of a sudden, I began to get stuck on a consonant and repeat the initial sound with my tongue several times.

“That’s c-c-c-c-cool.”

On the other line she would tease me singing, “I can tell you’re lying, ‘cause when you’re replying, you stutter, stutter… st-st-stutter, stutter.” Those were the lyrics to a popular R&B song at the time.

I legitimately hated that song for a long time.

I would be so embarrassed and feel so awkward, but there was nothing I could do but live with the fact that I had trouble finishing sentences, especially when I became nervous.

Me around the age that my stuttering became apparent.

Me around the age that my stuttering became apparent.

As a child, my mother and especially my grandmother noticed my stuttering and thought it had to be due to some external factor. My grandmother blamed my father. 

“She probably stutters like that because he tickles her too much,” she said once.

I was embarrassed when I overheard her say that, but I was sure it had nothing to do with being tickled mercilessly as a child by my dad. 

Nervousness and excitement were usually the fuel for my stuttering fits, but even when I calmed down, I would stutter because I was so focused on being calm enough to not stutter.

When I was in middle school, my mom worked close by, so she was sometimes able to take me to school or pick me up. There was one ride in particular when I was so excited to tell my mother about the upcoming dance recital and how I would be trying out. With her eyes on the road, she’d listen to me but turn the radio down so I wouldn’t get distracted as I spoke.

“Mommy, at school they said the d-d-d-d-d-d-dance r-r-r…” I would get nervous and sigh out of frustration, ending my attempt to communicate.

“Slow down, Destiny. Just say it,” my mother said calmly, but it only fueled more stuttering as I became more cognizant of it.

I then proceeded to take her advice and slow down. “Mommy… at… school… they…said… the… d-d-d… you know, where we’re going to be doing ballet and stuff in the auditorium?”

“Dance?”

“Yes!” I blurted.

I was able to somehow ease myself out of that one by circling around the subject and describing it since I knew that I was going to have trouble with being able to pronounce the letter D.

I felt trapped. Every time I became too excited, nervous or didn’t mentally prepare what I was going to say beforehand, I would have trouble speaking.

In college, my stuttering was beginning to become more apparent in situations that made me nervous. I can recall being in the dining hall with friends. I used to go with my roommates, usually at the busiest times of the evening, and there would be hundreds of students in there eating, talking, laughing, and walking around. 

My roommates were talking and laughing and every so often asking me questions so I could join in. I really wanted to talk, and I had so much to say, but the busy environment made it difficult for me to focus. I could feel the stuttering coming when I tried to chime in.

“Yeah I saw that movie, too. It was um... um... um... good.”

I had learned to replace repeating consonants over and over with saying “um” or pretending to try and find the word I was looking for. I knew exactly what word I wanted to say but I just couldn’t say it for fear of forcing my tongue to speak and embarrassing myself with remnants of what I wanted to say and ending up with “g-g-g-g-good”.

As a result, I usually just didn’t speak at all when I felt intimidated by my own brain and tongue. I would listen intently and only chime in when I had absolutely practiced what I wanted to say in my head. I felt as if speaking was a much more conscious effort for me than it was for anybody else. I was very sure that no one else thought this intently about what to say and how to say it. I was always working twice as hard in order for my disability to not be so obvious so I could fit in with everyone else.

I envied those who could just blurt out anything they wanted so quickly. Speaking for me was a process of constant self-examination and shame. 

I later learned that being in a large crowd or in a situation that was not pre-planned encouraged more stuttering. Rarely did my impediment happen in class because I had already pre-meditated exactly what I was going to say in my head before I raised my hand. 

Spontaneous speech, as which the majority of communication is labeled, was nerve-wracking.

My family would still tell me to speak slowly, but no matter how slowly I spoke, my heart kept beating and my brain couldn’t decide if it wanted my lips to say this word. It was a constant battle between my thoughts, my lips and my brain.

Usually, my brain won.

I would be left with fragments of speech to put together into a word. If my brain handed me a C instead of an S, I had to take it and figure out a synonym or a new topic altogether.

Eventually, my mother spoke to a speech therapist and practiced giving me eye contact while I spoke. This simple technique somehow soothed my nerves and allowed me to have better focus while speaking.

Most of my stuttering fits decreased as I aged. Ever so often, a noisy room full of people would induce my juggle with consonants and vowels, but eventually, that stopped, too.

Me on my college graduation day.

Me on my college graduation day.

Unexpectedly, stuttering allowed me to have the ability to focus on what I say rather than blurt out anything that came to mind. I was forced to become more of a listener than I was a speaker. I developed patience and realized that no disability would stop me from speaking my truth.