In the song “Imagine,” John Lennon sang about a world where everyone could live together in universal peace. It was a hopeful vision of what the future might look like. But I imagined a place where I could express myself freely and share my thoughts about what I wanted to do with my life. Instead, I would experience the same routines every day. I would open my mouth and freeze, with the “oral vices” clamping down on my vocal chords as harshly as humanly possible. Every Saturday night when my family went out to dinner, I would dread that moment as the server asked me what I wanted, with their pen ready to write…only I knew they would be there for five minutes, if not more. Others would have to wait, and it would be my fault. I would ask to volunteer in classes in high school and junior college, and be the last one chosen because it would be me who would hold up the class. This is what I had to look forward to as a person who stutters. Stuttering brought me to attempt suicide, but it also led me to a special funeral in my life-the death of all my anxieties and anger about my speech, and a new rebirth as an assertive, confident person who would develop into a leader. It showed me that hope exists and it gave me a purpose in life; a destiny to help inspire others that I now understand is a gift because of my stuttering.
My story is probably being lived throughout the universe. It doesn’t matter what city you live in, or if you’re “across the pond.” The journey I am on will have no ending, because we all undertake our path to self-acceptance every day. Yet there are a few things we can do that can help empower us to look at our stuttering in different ways. I used to be full of rage for the first 35 years of my life because of something I couldn’t control. But I learned to channel those feelings into giving myself a voice. I now speak loudly with authority and passion. I’ve done motivational speaking as well as lecturing at numerous colleges and universities. I want to reach as many people who stutter and show them that your speech really can work for you, if you let it. Here are two valuable lessons I have learned that I want to share with you:
- Attitude: How High You Fly. No one could blame you for being angry with my speech. It consumed me to the point where I was just so miserable that I wanted to make others feel the same way. I keep thinking back to those cartoons where there is always one character who chronically walks around with a dark cloud around them. Negativity is the biggest turnoff there is. You can smell it a mile away, and it will make others run away from you very quickly. One of my favorite analogies is to use online dating web sites. I have seen so many advertisements placed by women which have the following sentiments, or something similar: “If you don’t like me because I’m black, don’t waste my time. If you don’t like women who have children, leave me alone.” Messages like that scream bitterness and frustration. You can’t change your race, you can’t change the fact that you have children, but you CAN change your attitude. I vividly remember interviewing for a job with a visible agency in the federal government. One of the human resources specialists who interviewed me said “You can’t teach attitude. You either have it, or you don’t.” It’s never too late to think positively and represent yourself in the best manner you can. Some people only see Porky Pig as an example of people who stutter, and in fact they may never have met a person who stutters in real life. What if you were the first? If you are, then think about it. You owe it to yourself and the stuttering community to say “I stutter…but it’s only one part of me. And I am proud because I OWN it!”
- The Power Of Support: In 2006, I flew cross-country to attend a life-changing conference hosted by the National Stuttering Association (http://www.westutter.org). It was the first time I had ever seen another person stutter in front of me. When I walked up to the counter at the Westin Long Beach and heard the blocks that I desperately tried to forget, I knew that those 3,000 miles I had spent flying at 40,000 feet had all been worth it. Those days went by in a blur, but I was introduced to mentors who pushed me to be more than I was at that moment. To this day, I still keep in touch with them. The “NSA Nation,” as I refer to it, has allowed me to be a chapter leader in the Long Island metropolitan area, an advocate, and as of now, a regional chapter coordinator. Serving as a chapter leader was one of the biggest honors of my life, but even more so than that, it was a privilege. I cannot emphasize how important it is to be involved in a support group with other people who stutter. One of the cardinal rules I live by is that there is no such thing as a “stutterer” or a “stammerer.” It is always a person who stutters. I understand there are a few people out there who might be intimidated or ashamed to come to such a meeting. I was in that position once. But if you are prepared to walk through that door, you should also know that you are taking a very big step that will bring you many personal rewards in the future.
I want to close my paper by sharing an anecdote that should show that the stuttering community isn’t going anywhere. At the 2011 NSA Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, we were elated to hear from David Seidler, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The King’s Speech.” As he stepped to the podium to begin his speech, he uttered these words with great humility:
“My name is David, I’m a stutterer, and I’m damn proud of it.” The room shook with a one-minute standing ovation. I get chills thinking about the night he won the Oscar and he ended his speech by saying “We have a voice. We have been heard.”
You can be heard too. This is YOUR time!
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