“Hi, my name’s Tiffani and I’m a person who stutters.” This phrase probably doesn’t mean much to most people but for me, it’s a perspective altering statement. Since I was a very young child, I have stuttered. It’s been a part of me for more than a decade now and it’s a part of me that I’ve just recently started to accept.
For the majority of my life I have been what’s called a covert stutterer. So instead of r-r-repeating sounds or words, I learned to avoid words that I knew I would stutter on. I would, instead, replace them with words that I felt that I could say without stuttering. I became really good with synonyms and, if I couldn’t think of one, pretending that I couldn’t think of the word, in hopes that somebody else would say it for me. I also learned to talk really quickly so that even if I did stutter, people would just think it was due to a normal disfluency of speaking too quickly, or maybe they wouldn’t understand me at all…either way, they wouldn’t know I was stuttering. I also learned to change the way that I spoke, altering the pitch, intonation, quality, and even adding an accent if the word was particularly difficult. Perhaps my best covert strategy, though, was the use of filler words. Although speaking with lots of um, uh, like, um, filler words in your daily speech isn’t what one would consider eloquent or professional, it is something that everyone does on a regular basis. Therefore, it’s something that would not only prevent me from stuttering but, also, it wouldn’t draw attention to my speech. I would seem almost normal, unprofessional and ineloquent, but at least normal. This was something that I strived for. Of course I wanted to be special and unique and important but only in a positive way. I didn’t want to be different, I wanted to be unique. Different was a bad thing in my 11 year old brain. And that was reinforced very strongly throughout my childhood.
I was not encouraged to stutter as a child. Stuttering was viewed as a bad thing that should not be done and was worthy of punishment. It was viewed as something that I did when I got too excited or spoke too quickly (hence why that covert strategy developed) and, most importantly, it was viewed as something that I could fix. If I only worked harder and thought about my words before I spoke, I could prevent this from happening. As I tried to work harder and really think about my words, I quickly became frustrated and ashamed that I couldn’t get them to come out fluently – no matter how hard I tried. Once I learned my covert strategies, I found some relief in this regard, but I still wasn’t saying the words I wanted to say, how I wanted to say them. Before I learned these covert strategies, I chose to speak as little as possible. The less I spoke, the less I stuttered and then at least I wouldn’t have to deal with the negative consequences of stuttering. Silence became my comfort zone, my safe place. When I did speak, I whispered (I didn’t stutter when I whispered!). For the most part, though, my twin brother did enough talking for the both of us, and, often, he did all of the talking for the both of us. This worked at least until I learned my covert strategies.
Once I learned these strategies though, I became a lot more outgoing and talkative. I became less shy because now I had a way to say the things that I wanted to say without fear of the repercussions. It still wasn’t ideal but it worked…..for a while. It wasn’t long before I was obsessing over my speech. I spent hours reading dictionaries, just trying to know as many synonyms as possible. I began to develop a valley girl like personality, saying the word, “like” every other word in my fake, high pitched, nasally voice. I hated her – this person that I was portraying. People thought that I was dumb and high maintenance – two traits I absolutely hated. Even though I was considered more “normal”, I didn’t like it. This wasn’t the person I was. So I sought to find a way to be the person that I really was. I became involved in leadership training, in musical theater (where I usually found a relief from stuttering). I poured my efforts into non-verbal activities like sports, music and homework. I loved learning but hated talking in class. I wanted to get through school as soon as possible so I poured my efforts into my studies, skipping grades and graduating early. I finished high school classes at 15 and dual enrolled in college. I loved college and quickly fell in love with Academia. And this is when things began to change for me.
I felt more like myself at college than anywhere else. I felt comfortable and safe; it energized and inspired me. I was a sponge, soaking up everything that anybody (especially professors!) told me! My professors mostly supported me and believed in me. They encouraged me to choose my own destiny and to be the person that I wanted to be, rather than letting other people or my past determine that for me. I ate it up and I began to, again, question who I was and, now, who I wanted to be. I wanted to be successful, inspiring, motivating, and impactful. I wanted to make a difference in the world and help large amounts of people. I quickly developed a passion for helping persons who stutter. This was in part due to my own stuttering and my curiosity about what causes it and what can be done to fix it, but, additionally, I wanted to inspire persons who stutter to pursue their dreams and design their own destinies, like these professors had been encouraging me.
So, my sophomore year of college, I chose a major in Communication Disorders. I took the introductory class for this and loved every minute of it. By this time, I was very set in my covert ways and really good at hiding my stutter. Nobody knew this and I was beginning to develop a personality that I liked a little better. I had lots of friends and was very involved. I was still trying to prove myself by overachieving in multiple areas but, nonetheless, things were going well for me. That is, until towards the end of the semester. At this point, I was told that I would fail, and that I would be a terrible speech therapist because I stuttered. They strongly cautioned me of pursuing the field. Therefore, I finished up the class much more poorly than I had started and I switched my major. My excitement had been crushed, my dreams deemed unrealistic. I gave up. Even with my covert strategies, I wasn’t good enough, my speech would never be good enough, even while I was being covert.
Instead, I majored in Anthropology, emphasized Linguistic Anthropology and learned about language and speech from a different viewpoint. I loved it and my department, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. What I really wanted to do was research stuttering and work with persons who stutter. I wanted to empower persons who stutter in hopes that they will have different story to tell than mine. I want their story to be one of empowerment and overcoming their fears; one of support and encouragement. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do that with a degree in Anthropology. I spoke with several people about what I should do and, at the beginning of my junior year, for the first time, I came out of the “stuttering closet” and acknowledged the fact that I stuttered. It was a difficult time as everyone in my life had no clue that I stuttered. Many were skeptical at first but once I told them about some of the things that I did to hide my stuttering, they understood and, for the most part, they were very supportive and encouraging to me. I didn’t lose any friends because they found out that I stuttered, in fact, nobody really seemed to care. It was such a relief to be open about my stuttering. Shortly thereafter, I began to see a speech therapist regularly. Over the course of the next couple of years, I went to several different speech therapists. I learned fluency shaping techniques and stuttering modification techniques. Most importantly, though, I began to start stuttering more openly and slowly, stopped using my covert techniques. Of course, this was not a perfect journey, I definitely struggled a lot and would often fall back into my covert ways, but I managed to keep getting back on track. I still hid my stuttering from several people, most notably, my parents. The idea of telling them terrified me. The struggle to hide it from them became harder and harder as more people found out and articles about me and my stuttering came out. I grew extremely anxious that they would find out one way or another but I, nonetheless, continued to hide it.
The summer before I left for graduate school, I got an opportunity to work as a student clinician at the Successful Stuttering Management Program (SSMP), at Eastern Washington University. Working at this program changed my life. Not only was I able to see some amazing changes in my client but I was able to work on my speech and the impact that it has on my life as well. During this time, I decided that I was done with living in fear of my stuttering and, specifically, of my parents finding out that I stuttered. I told them. Their reactions weren’t particularly negative but it wasn’t exactly supportive either. It clearly made them uncomfortable and confused, they refused to talk about it for a while, but it was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Later, I was able to have a couple of meaningful conversations with them about stuttering and I explained a little bit about the disorder generally, and my covert stuttering.
I thought telling them would enable me to be completely open about my stuttering and not afraid of it anymore. I thought it would free me of the burden to be covert. It did do that, to a degree, especially during the remainder of the SSMP. However, following that, I moved home for a few more weeks before moving going to graduate school and, in addition to that, I traveled across the country for a couple more weeks with my mother. During most of this time following the SSMP, I went back into my covert ways. I became frustrated with myself, not understanding why I was still being so covert.
I still struggle with this, even while I’m 2,000 miles away from them at graduate school. Every time we talk on the telephone, I fall back into my covert ways. I’ve also fallen back into being covert while at my job as a server and, occasionally when I meet new people. I don’t particularly understand why I am still struggling with this so much, especially when I want to be open and overt with them so badly. I understand, however, that it is all a process and this is just a part of that process. For the most part, I’m back on track, working on accepting my stuttering and avoiding being covert but it’s still a struggle – especially when it comes to my parents. I have analyzed the issue in depth, understanding that there are some negative emotions that I hold due to my past negative experiences of stuttering as a child in front of them. However, I have made the commitment to work on my stuttering, accept it fully – even embrace it as something that I believe has made me a better person – and not try to hide it. In addition, I have committed to leaving my past behind me and moving forward. This is much easier said than done and it is a process that will inevitably have its ups and downs but I think the key to all of it is perseverance and support.
Through retrospection, I have noticed that the times that I feel the most at peace with myself and my stuttering are when I feel supported, both in general and, specifically, to be working towards an acceptance and openness of my stuttering and myself. I received so much support of this kind while at working at the SSMP and, during that time, I was more at peace with my stuttering and myself than ever. The goal, then, for family members or friends of persons who stutter is to support them. Support can be in a variety of forms, including encouragement, reproach, setting goals and helping them make plans to achieve those goals. Another key element when working towards anything is to set goals for yourself – achievable, mini goals on the way to bigger, broader goals. Finally, it is also important to have self-compassion. During this journey of self-acceptance (or anything really!), there will be ups and downs, triumphs and struggles, and it is important to have compassion towards yourself. You are not perfect – nobody is, nor will we ever be – we are bound to make mistakes and have some setbacks. Just remember that you are doing this for you and nobody else. If you’re doing this for you, why would you get frustrated at yourself? That’s not helping you, or anyone else for that matter! So be nice to yourself and just keeping looking towards the future.
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