The struggles and joys of a bubbly, silly, smart young lady that stutters.
It’s fourth grade and the morning bell rings, slowly herding the students from the hallways to Mrs. Savage’s homeroom class. I love coming to school. I love to learn, I love to see my friends, hear about their lives, and play games together. I find that I get along easily with others, and enjoy being surrounded by my peers. I’m good at school. I’m a fast learner and school makes sense to me. Mrs. Savage is a very kind teacher; she’s the teacher everyone hopes for when coming to the fourth grade. Much better than Mrs. Stick – my brother, Adam, had her. We start the day with a timed activity in which we have to complete series of math problems on half sheets of poorly cut paper. Math is my favorite subject and I’m exhilarated by the challenge of improving my calculation time and accuracy. Especially since it’s a regular competition with the boys who sit in my desk-quad; the winner always gets bragging rights for the day. Mrs. Savage asks us questions, and like any elementary, American classroom, we raise our hands, waiting to be called on to say the answer. But, for the other 1% of the US population that stutters, including myself, an extra step in this simple thought process is required. The last step: “Can I say that word?” If the answer is yes, easy breezy. My hand shoots up to the sky, smile beaming on my face. If not, or even worse, maybe, this is the most difficult step in the process because it kickstarts a lengthy, anxiety-building analysis of the day so far. My brain sifts through any stuttering occurrences that had happened that day – Were they bad? Did someone make fun of me? When was the last time I said this word? Did I get it out? How bad was it? Should I just answer it? If I get up the courage to answer the question even though I might stumble over it, another student obviously is chosen. I don’t hear the answer as I recoil into my desk, my stomach unknotting as the momentary panic dissipates. The process is similar for reading aloud. Sometimes we go in columns, each student reading one paragraph and so on. Once I figure out how Mrs. Savage is winding the columns, I can count ahead and find my paragraph, and feverishly scan through for difficult words. The student before my turn is reading and I’m entirely tuned out, reading through my paragraph for the fifth time wondering about the word “city-state”. Too late, it’s time. I start reading and things are going great. My hands are sweaty as I read through the words, but I love every second that I can speak smoothly. Reading out loud is one of my favorite school activities, but it’s one that causes me the second-most anxiety. My eyes linger ahead and I know “city-state” is approaching. Maybe I can just skip it. Maybe no one will notice. I suppose I can’t act like I can’t read it. My teacher isn’t that dumb. I start the word, and I’m hooked on the sss sound for three seconds before I stop. I don’t look up, I stare at the word and go again, …ssss…. Hurry up! I see heads start to look up, but I keep my head down between the pages. It feels like hours go by. I muster up one more breath, and city-state squeaks out just as I’m nearing oxygen-depletion. I continue the paragraph, rushing through to the end just so we can move on to the next student. I say the last word and plop back into my chair, physically exhausted.
…the adrenalin within me, the anxiety within me, the sadness within me, that I couldn’t just say it…
The day ensues. On the way home from school, I take the bus with kids from my neighborhood. My classmates and I find our seats, and a boy from Mrs. Savage’s class sits behind my seat. I can’t recall anymore what exactly was said, but I remember my throat going dry, and my concentration on full power, willing myself as best I could to hold back tears. I hear a similar sound, a sound that comes out of my mouth so often – only it’s not coming from me. It’s from the boy behind me. Stuttering in a sing-song voice, in between giggles. It’s so easy for everyone else, to say what they want to say. My ears get hot, and the ridicule continues. I’m unresponsive, quiet. Unsure of what I would say, if I could say it. I see his stop coming up, and I can’t wait for the moment that he gets off the bus. But I won’t let him get away with it, no matter how defeated I feel. After we turn onto Lexington Avenue and we come up, 100 feet from Old Hunt Road, I jump out of my seat, tears streaming down my face and begin swinging my arms. I jump onto his seat, and pushing him into the side of the bus, I release all my anger I have towards myself through my fists into his face. This isn’t to say I actually hurt him. I am a fourth grader of very petite stature, made of mostly skin and bone. But the adrenalin within me, the anxiety within me, the sadness within me, that I couldn’t just say it came out in this physical spasm, uncontrollable and unstoppable.
Flash forward to seventh grade and I am one of the finalists for the Fox River Grove Middle School Spelling Bee. After school one day I load the bus with four other of my friendly classmates and we head 30 minutes away to a neighboring school where the spelling bee is taking place. We chat on the way there, joke about what words we’ll have to spell, and who will get eliminated first. I’m excited. I love school and I love an educational challenge. We arrive and setup with the other twenty or so schools in the cafeteria, sitting around listening to the judges discuss the rules and the general process for the competition. My cheeks flush when I hear the man with a few balding patches say, “Each time you come up to the podium, please state your name and the school you’re from. Then we will give you a word…” I obviously stop listening after this. Say my name? Please, no. For anyone who stutters that is reading this, I know you can empathize with me. Being asked my name is quite possibly the easiest trigger to get me to stutter. Well, as you can imagine, I get up to the podium and after a three minute struggle to spit out my name and my school in front of 300 people, I’m finally ready for the word. But now that I have adrenalin racing through my body, I’m shaking, on the verge of tears, and am praying for the moment to just step off the stage. I know before I even start that I won’t be able to make an understandable letter sound in the current state of my speech mechanism. Each time I begin, I have to start over since it sounds like I’m repeating letters, so the judges can barely judge my spelling. The audience looks confused. A judge asks, Can you just start over again? A member from the audience yells, She’s stuttering! My cheeks flush. They look impatient. I start over once more and in my head I’ve spelled the word twenty times already. It’s an easy word, I know it. I know I’m smart, I know I can spell. Why can’t my mouth just express that? After stumbling through the first few letters, I blurt out a random letter and walk to my left towards the stage stairs, calling it quits. It’s not worth it.
the battle to express myself in a body that resists expression
The days of my life ensue, all the while my “fight or flight” response lies dormant, ready to jump to action at any momentary speech trigger. Of course this is all written from my, now, 23 year old perspective. These instances from fourth and seventh grade have stuck with me for years, and I could lay out hundreds more from eighth grade, high school, and college, but I think you get the idea. I didn’t write this in search of pity from the 99% of relatively easy-speakers out there. I wrote it because it’s my particular struggle, the battle to express myself in a body that resists expression.
I am making a conscious decision to say what I want to say, and take as much as I need to do that.
I felt particularly compelled to write this post after a beautiful vacation in Colorado with my boyfriend, Jake. A vacation during which, meeting new friends and spending time with old friends, I stuttered a liberal amount compared to my usual stuttering self. This spike in stuttering can be explained by my nervousness in meeting new people, in hoping I make a good impression, along with the stress of traveling – Did I bring my hat? What if I forget my boarding pass? Upon arriving home in Urbana on Tuesday evening, I hopped in the shower to scrub the camping smell out of my hair when I became suddenly aware that my jaw was clenched tight. I released it and felt a slight pain spread through my cheeks and neck. What am I doing to myself? The fear of stuttering has manifested itself so deeply into my body, that I no longer feel in control. The stuttering controls me. I thought back to my high school speech therapy sessions with Miss Kristin, a stutterer herself who was my guiding light in a time of true weakness. While we did practice some speaking tools in our discussions, the main focus of my therapy were my emotional triggers. These emotional triggers can set off my stuttering depending on the person I’m talking to, the environment I’m in, my current mental state, how quickly the response is needed, etc. In general, times of emotional stress increase my stuttering, which increases my stress, which increases my stuttering, and the cycle continues. You should hear me during finals week, especially during our semester project presentations! Yikes! Stuttering feeds on fear, and I have recently found myself reduced to silence. Moments where I’m simply too tired, or too embarassed to say what I’m thinking, because I know it will take me five minutes. Unwilling to push through the words, I am trapped in my body, pounding to get out and explore and contribute. A sure sign that I need to help myself now. Realizing that my personal expression has been compromised has launched a new energy within me, not only to practice my speech, but to stutter freely and openly, without apology. I am making a conscious decision to say what I want to say, and take as much as I need to do that.
All is progress
These last few days, I’ve been visualizing my stuttering as an open pit, blocking a road from connecting. Each time I stutter, I mentally repeat a positive affirmation: All is progress. In my head, I sprinkle a little soil in the pit. The pit grows taller. Eventually the pit will be tall enough, and I’ll move on to start planting flowers on either side of the road. And then maybe I’ll add a little bench. All is progress.
I have asked my close friends to regularly check in on me and find out how I feel my speech is going. If you want to ask me too, you should ask me! If I want to accept myself, and accept my stuttering, I better get comfortable talking about it. It will no longer be an embarrassment; it is simply a piece of the Nora-pie. Every time I talk openly about it, I am more aware of my speech, which can only serve to help me. So, if you find yourself in discussion with me someday, and I’m fumbling over a word, don’t look away from me. Stay connected with me, just smile, and wait patiently. I know I’ll get through it eventually. I may even pause to catch my breath and start over. And then we’ll probably laugh about it together.
There is something within us all that, at one time or another, will attempt to squash who we are, will tell us to be quiet, will say you’re not worth it. But I encourage you to give whatever that is a big hug. And talk about it. Get it out of your head, and you will see how small it actually is. We are all beings with battles. Battles do not define us, battles make us human. They empower us to seek a new perspective, a new understanding of all of life’s gifts presented on this Earth. Stuttering is my battle. Stuttering is my gift. All is progress.