|About the author: Derek L. Mitchell is a writer, speaker and person who stutters. Derek joined the National Stuttering Association in 2013. Since joining, he has hosted workshops at two NSA conferences and now leads the NSA Atlanta chapter. Derek has overcome a multitude of challenges related to stuttering to earn his MBA in international business from Georgia State University, begin a successful career in IT project management, become an active member of Toastmasters and join the National Speakers Association. He recently turned his attention towards sharing his experiences with stuttering with his blog, YouTube channel and speaking engagements. Derek’s ultimate goal is to inspire people to phase out fear in their lives and turn their biggest challenges into their best assets.|
I have observed that people who stutter (PWS) often place the challenges that we face in a separate category than the challenges of people who don’t stutter (PWDS). I have heard many PWS say things like “the world will never understand what we go through”. After hearing statements like this enough times, I began to ask why does the world need to understand? I don’t have to understand what it’s like to be blind to know that it makes like difficult. In the end, we are all human and face challenges regardless of what those challenges might be. Is stuttering really such a unique challenge, that only other PWS can recognize that having a stutter can make life difficult? I don’t think so. I believe that people who don’t stutter, while not being able to empathize with our specific challenges, can see that living with a speech impediment in a communication-driven world could be problematic. My journey to overcome stuttering has made this perspective very clear to me. When I reflect on how I came to a point of speaking freely and living fearlessly, I realized that the methods I used to overcome my stutter also helped me overcome other issues in my life. If this is the case, is stuttering really so different from other challenges outside of stuttering that I or PWDS face? The rest of world doesn’t need to understand the specifics of stuttering, because they understand what it is to be human. Being human, in an imperfect and challenging world, is what binds us all together regardless of fluency.
How to overcome stuttering and anything else
How do I overcome stuttering? That seems to be the main question asked by people who stutter. It’s the question that I began asking at a young age and, two decades later, I finally got my answer. Answering this question was prompted by an invitation to speak to a class of SLP (Speech-Language Pathology) students at Georgia State University (GSU). This opportunity was important because it gave me the chance to give back to the program that helped me years ago. I did a deep dive into how stuttering has impacted my life and what resources have helped me the most to prepare. Once I was done examining my life, I began to question whether I had overcome my stutter and what overcoming really meant.
I realized that over the past eleven years I had taken some critical steps to go from living in fear everyday of how my stutter would affect me, to living with confidence. How did that happen? I still stutter, so how do I feel so comfortable with myself and live my life with little regard to my stutter? These are the questions I asked myself and once again I did a deep dive to find some answers. The first epiphany that I had was that you don’t have to get rid of something to overcome it. You can overcome something by understanding how you live with it, how you feel about it and your perspective on it. This is what I have done over the past eleven years to start and make progress on my journey to overcome stuttering.
2006: In the Beginning
This journey started in 2006 when I realized the promise that I would outgrow my stutter was a false hope. I still believed that a fix or cure was still possible, but I knew that it would take action on my part to make it a reality. The first thing I sought was a good speech therapist. At this point, the last time I worked with a speech therapist was thirteen years prior when I was twelve years old. I ended up working with a graduate student of the SLP program at GSU. Working with the speech therapist was a great experience. I was reintroduced to some fluency techniques I learned years ago and introduced to some new ones. The most beneficial thing from those sessions is being introduced to the National Stuttering Association (NSA). The annual conference was in Atlanta the week I had my last session at GSU and the therapist strongly recommended that I attend. I was not ready to admit that I would have a long-term issue with stuttering and politely declined.
2011: On the Therapist Couch
After years of dealing with a hair-trigger temper, it occurred to me that stuttering might not be my biggest issue. I had a lot of negative experiences as a result of my stutter, and the way I handled the resulting feelings were to stuff them down, instead of working through my emotions. The company I worked for offered free mental health services and I reluctantly took advantage of those resources. I now see that this is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I felt the burden of all those years of emotional baggage lift after the first session with my therapist. I couldn’t believe how much talking about my past helped me. I only intended to see a therapist for a few sessions because at that time I thought I only had baggage the size of carry-on luggage to deal with. After a few sessions, I realized that I had enough baggage to check for a flight and be charged for going over the weight restriction. I went on to see my therapist for four years. I wouldn’t be the person I am now without the work that we did.
2013: Back to Speech Therapy
The progress I was making resolving my past was allowing me to turn my attention more towards the future. When my attention began to shift, I realized that despite the work I was doing to improve my mental and emotional health, my insecurity about my stutter would compromise how I moved forward. I decided that I needed to give speech therapy another try. I need to put this decision in context in order to make it clear how critical it was to get a handle on my stutter. At this point in my life things were looking great on the outside. This was the condition of my life at that time:
- Completed my MBA in international business;
- Traveled to 3 continents and 7 countries while in graduate school;
- Finished a great internship;
- Met my future wife;
- Feeling hopeful and excited about life in general;
Despite these positive things happening in my life, my stutter still had a hold over me. I knew my life would never reach its full potential if I didn’t face it. Luckily, I found the best speech therapist for the job. This was my best experience with a speech therapist and it completely changed my view of stuttering. The most important lesson my therapist taught me is that it’s ok to stutter! This was a big revelation for me because I always thought I needed to completely eradicate my stutter in order to deal with it.
My therapist did one more thing for me that I had passed on years earlier. During our last session, she suggested that I go to a support group for people who stutter. This happened to be a local chapter of the NSA. I remembered this is the same NSA that the therapist at GSU had mentioned to me seven years prior. I attended my first NSA meeting the summer of 2013 and it was as excruciatingly uncomfortable as I expected. Watching other people struggle to speak gave me an external look at my internal struggle. That experience, while uncomfortable, was exactly what I needed. I’ve remained involved with the NSA since that day!
2015: Let’s Make a Toast!
This was the breakthrough year all of my previous experiences had prepared me for. The perfect opportunities seemed to line up at the perfect time to change the course of my life. Shortly after I started my new job, I realized that the company had a Toastmasters club. Toastmasters had been on my list of goals since 2008, but I was never able to muster enough courage to make the commitment. This time would be different due to the club president’s persistence to have me join. I eventually joined and made the commitment to Toastmasters.
My first challenge was the icebreaker speech. I was terrified, but determined to do it. When the moment came, I was standing in front of a crowded conference room with my colleagues staring at me waiting for my first words. After my speech was done, I felt a sense of power and achievement that rivaled my graduation day! I knew I had started a special journey that day.
I gave my first speech in May 2015 and by November I found myself on a stage in front of ballroom full of people competing in the final round of a speech contest. I came in 3rd place!! After the contest, I was looking at my trophy thinking how did I get here? How did I go from being afraid to visit Toastmasters to speaking in front of a few hundred people? I was grateful for what started out as a terrifying journey and ended in an incredible personal victory.
In the midst of my progress with Toastmasters, I also attended my first NSA conference in Baltimore. My involvement with Toastmasters gave me the confidence to also host a workshop at the conference. This was a life-changing event during the course of a life-changing year. By the end of 2015, I felt a sense of freedom that I couldn’t believe. I knew my stutter would no longer dictate how I live my life.
The Formula for Overcoming
I reflected on and analyzed this period of my life, with one question in mind. Why did this period of my life lead to a breakthrough while other times didn’t? I begin to see a pattern emerge from these life events. This pattern is the basis for the process/formula that I went through to overcome stuttering. My formula for overcoming is:
Acceptance + Leverage + Exposure + Expectation = Freedom & Power = Overcoming
Accepting the reality of the challenges I was facing was the first and most critical step to overcoming anything. Until I came to grips with reality, there can be no effective solution to a problem. My refusal to accept my stutter lead me to seek something that couldn’t and didn’t need to be fixed. The reality is that there is no cure for stuttering. I tried to ignore reality, but reality didn’t ignore me. Reality didn’t need permission or acknowledgment to have an impact on my life. It wasn’t until I accepted reality that I made significant progress in my life on core issues I was facing.
It is important to have clear goals to overcome anything. I had to ask myself, what did overcoming actually mean for me? I had to identify what I wanted, then figure out why? The why was my leverage. The leverage is what motivated me to endure obstacles between me and what I wanted. The key is that the leverage must be bigger than my fear, doubt, lack of resources, or anything else that stood in my way.
When I had leverage, I started to take action and exposure comes naturally. What exposure meant for me is speaking more, stuttering more openly, and talking about how stuttering has affected me emotionally. Exposure taught me that I never had a problem with my stutter. My real problem is how I have felt about my stutter for most of my life. I had felt shame. Once I started to speak more freely and stutter more openly, the shame started to subside. The way that I live my life now versus eleven years ago is completely different, but my stutter is the same and might even be worse. It’s the shame that changed and made all the difference. Like my favorite preacher always says, “it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you feel about it that matters”. Once the way I felt about my stutter changed, I was able to change my life.
Once my life started to change, my vision for what the future could hold also changed. The expectations that I had for my life exploded. After I graduated from business school and began planning my career, I was advised to choose a path that would require as little communication as possible. What was worse than someone suggesting it, was accepting it myself. I accepted that settling for a career that would keep me hidden and quiet was the most my stutter would allow me to hope for. Now I have goals and ambitions that I could not have imagined a few years ago. I demand a lot more out of life, myself, and the people I encounter. Expectations is the last part to the equation. It set me up for a brighter future after I reconciled the past and made the most of the present.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EQUATION
After acceptance, leverage, exposure and expectations I felt FREEDOM & POWER. These two words now embody how I live my life and what I feel each day. I have freedom over the control stuttering had over my life. I have the power to change my life in any way I see fit. As you can see from my story, overcoming is not a quick or easy journey, but it’s WORTH IT!
I often hear people say, “what one man can do, another can do”. I believe this is true and that anyone can have their own journey of overcoming. Regardless of the impact that stuttering is having on your life, you can overcome it in your own way and begin living life on your terms. There is freedom and power waiting for you if you are willing to begin your journey.
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