I didn’t get a chance to mention it yesterday but October 22nd was International Stuttering Awareness Day. To be honest, I’m not totally sure how these “awareness” days are supposed to work or how they’re supposed to change the world. According to Wikipedia, Central Michigan University actually observes an International Stuttering Awareness Week. However, the problem isn’t that the world is not aware of stuttering. The problem is that the world continues to mock and stereotype those who do stutter.
People who know me now never seem to believe me when I tell them that, from the age of five to almost twelve, I very rarely if ever spoke. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything I wanted to say or that being quiet was ever, in any way, a part of my nature. Instead, it was because I knew that if I spoke, someone would hear me stutter and immediately, I would be shunned. I would be the outsider. I would be branded as being stupid and damaged and worthless. I lived my days in terror of being called on in class and forgetting to speak very carefully and slowly because if I actually relaxed and just started to talk the way everyone else did, my stutter would come out.
At home, of course, you couldn’t shut me up. At home, it didn’t matter if I stuttered. If anything, I was almost proud of it because my mom had been a stutterer too and it gave me an extra bond to her that nobody else in my family had. She always told me not to be ashamed when I couldn’t get the words out as perfectly as others.
I guess that’s why it was such a slap in the face to go out into the “real world,” and to be told that no, I should be ashamed. I can still remember every time that someone — whether it was a classmate or the occasional adult — replied to whatever I had said by repeating my exact words, all the way down to the stutter. I can’t remember their names but I can remember the way they hurt me. I can remember the way they’d smirk when they would do it and the sound of their laughter. Everyone had an individual laugh but the pain it brought always felt the same.
I would just sit quietly and try to fade into the background. For someone like me — who was smart and who did have a lot to say — this was torture. If you asked me what I mostly remember about my childhood, it was being angry at those who could step into the spotlight and being scared that strangers would discover why I couldn’t.
My stutter has gotten better over time, to the point where now it rarely, if ever, comes out. Just as it’s difficult to explain what causes someone to stutter, it’s also difficult to explain why some people stop stuttering and others don’t. In my case, I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons why I no longer stutter as badly as I once did.
Some of it, undoubtedly, was due to a lot of speech therapy.
My own personal theory is that a lot of it is due to the fact that, physically, I was an early bloomer. Ironically, the discovery that as long as you have boobs, most guys won’t listen to a word you’re saying anyway, actually served to boost my confidence and — though I don’t want to support the idea that stuttering is just a result of insecurity — that discovery did make me a lot more comfortable with speaking to other people (or, to be honest, to members of the male sex). Even if I did occasionally still stutter, nobody seemed to notice. And, as I grew more comfortable with the idea that I actually could speak, I found myself stuttering less and less.
(Of course, many years later, I came to realize that this presented a whole new set of problems and frustrations.)
Also, much like my mom’s, my stutter just grew less and less severe as time passed. Unfortunately, I never realized it was just naturally getting better because, in my mind, I was always that little girl who was so scared of saying something just to have it thrown back in her face of evidence of her own stupidity and worthlessness. In many ways, that’s how I still see myself and I guess that’s how I always will. Those years of silence left me with scars of insecurity that I doubt, regardless of how confident I otherwise am, will ever truly heal.
As I said earlier, I’m still a stutterer. My stutter still comes out occasionally, usually if I’m tired or just unusually flustered. I wish I could say that it doesn’t hurt to hear it in my voice but honestly, every little stammer — no matter how rarely it’s actually heard anymore — still feels like a small death to me.
What’s ironic though is that I’ve grown up to be someone who, literally, can not stop talking. Not only do I have a job that requires that I spend almost every minute of my workday speaking to others, but I’ve also been involved with various community theaters and I love being in the spotlight. Now, I spend most of my time actively seeking to be the center of attention even if it means that I might occasionally trip over my words in public. And it’s all because I spent so many years in a self-imposed exile of silence.
I know the pain of being anonymous. I know the pain of not having a voice and of being ignored and forgotten.
That pain left me with one goal: to never be anonymous and invisible again.
And I won’t be.