Sometimes I get stuck. I can be comfortable, confident, and prepared and yet be completely unable to speak. I know what I want to say, how I want to say it, but it won't come out. A sentence turns into a fragment, thoughts are abandoned, and I reach out to grasp any form of a coherent word.
This doesn't begin to capture what it feels like to have a stutter.
It's ironic, really... I'm a communication major looking for a career as an on-air talent interviewing celebrities and delivering entertainment news. On campus, I'm a peer advisor, tour guide, thespian, and even supervise phone calls in our university's polling center. Truthfully, communication is one of the hardest and most debilitating parts of my life.
There are times when it's worse. Phone calls could be considered the bane of my existence. There are also words that come much harder than others. The words I stutter most often are the ones I'm forced to use all the time: My name, my hometown, and my college. Rather than saying I'm from Centereach; "I'm from Long Island." This works until someone asks what part. When I know a stutter is coming, I'll end up saying something like "near Port Jeff or Ronkonkoma," even lying if I'm asked of my exact town. To say that I'm a student at Western New England University, I'll preface it with "I go to this small liberal arts school you probably never heard of, called Western New England University."
I haven't gotten to the point where I change my name in conversation, but countless times I have avoided an introduction when it would have otherwise been appropriate -- because I know I will stutter.
In a recent TEDx Talk included below, Megan Washington said:
Proper nouns are the worst. If I'm going to use the word Wednesday in a sentence and I'm coming up to the word, and feel that I'm go to stutter, I can change the word to: 'the day after Tuesday.'
This technique is one that a person who stutters is all too familiar with. This almost jumpy, jarring sentence structure that lacks cohesiveness or simplicity. There's something in your throat that just closes, your anxiety peaks, and the words you planned out simply get stuck somewhere.
That's not to say I'm not grateful for my stutter. After explaining what it's like, that probably comes as a surprise. In reality, it's taught me so much. My stutter has pushed me to do things that felt unimaginable. Speaking on a panel to over 1,000 people at Accepted Students Day; doing a TV broadcast; even being a tour guide. I knew by forcing myself into communication scenarios, I would have no choice than to confront my stutter.
Last semester I worked on a political campaign. I called somewhere near a thousand registered voters, and knocked on about 400 doors. Every I time I picked up the phone, or heard someone coming to the door, I was terrified. I was embarrassed, but I trekked on. I canvassed more voters than any intern that semester and was invited to work in the State House.
Now, I'm the one answering the calls. Sometimes I sound like a cross between a voice-recording robot and someone who's learning English for the first time, but I get the job done.
This post isn't meant as a pity piece, but rather an example of what a stutter looks like. I would by lying if I said it never got in the way ("How about you order the Chinese, I'd rather not"), but I try not to let it hold me back. I jump into situations where I will stutter, because so what?
People will forget, I will hopefully forget, and almost everyone has blunders in their speech. I could freak out in advance about a phone interview, or I could accept it, own it, and realize that if I pause nobody will suspect a diabolical stutter.
I've also now gotten to the point where I'm comfortable with it. I tell almost everyone after getting somewhat close with them, so that I no longer feel pressured to hide my stutter. Once I can joke about it, I feel much more comfortable -- therefore stuttering less.
Sure I may never be able to say "fiscally conservative," "secretary of state," or my hometown without saying a prayer and taking a deep breath, but I have no reason to be humiliated by it. I mean at the end of the day, my grandpa says "terlet" referring to a toilet, by father can't say "aluminum" and half of New England pronounces it "ree-cee's pee-cee's." You win some, you lose some, right?
A version of this story first appeared as a listener essay on WAMC.