|About the author: Courtney Luckman is a 24-year-old person who stutters and a graduate student studying Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Maryland in College Park. She attended the University of Virginia for undergraduate studying Psychology and Cognitive Science with a concentration in Linguistics. She is on the National Stuttering Association “20 something’s” board, founder of the Charlottesville chapter and has served as co-chapter leader for the City of Chicago chapter. Before deciding to pursue a career in Speech-Language Pathology, she was a research intern at a zoo in Chicago studying great ape behavior. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, baking, writing, reading nerdy books, watching Grey’s Anatomy, being outside, college basketball, and educating people about stuttering. Check out her new blog at www.courtingcourage.blogspot.com|
It is 2006, in a high school English class. I can’t listen to the presentations before mine. I can’t sit still. My body turns into panic mode and my thoughts race. My hands begin to tremble. Tick tock….tick tock shouts the sound of the clock. Our class is doing 10-minute oral presentations that we’ve been preparing for weeks. Students with last names beginning with ‘J’ are going now. I add up the time and I was safe. The time would run out and I would do my presentation next week. My stomach settles and I can relax. Until I hear, “Courtney Luckman.” All eyes are on me. I look at the clock. It is 1:55, 10 minutes until the end of the period and the end of the school day. It is a race between me and time and I know only one can win. I slowly get up and look around. Eyes glare at me. The room is silent. Pencils are tapping and book bags are zipping. Everyone is ready to go home and no one has patience for another presentation. I walk to the front of the room. My hands are shaking and I can barely hold my note cards.
Seconds pass that seem like hours.
I hear the faint giggles in the distance. My chest and throat freeze. I try to speak but a sound won’t come out. The teacher jokingly says, “Would you like to introduce yourself?” But I am still frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. “……..My…” I begin. “……….My” I repeat. ………….“….My name is…um……..um…..um” I say before I run out of breath. The giggles become louder and turn into laughter. They can tell that I saw them so they bury their faces in their desk. My eyes fill with tears. Here I am, a laughing stock, a person who can’t even say her own name.
A mixture of anger and confusion ran through me. I didn’t understand what this thing was, why it was happening, and why it wasn’t going away. So what do you do when you don’t understand something? You Google it. That night, I typed in not getting your words out and what Google gave me was horrifying. I came across pages and pages of stories of lost opportunities, depression, and dealing with this thing called “stuttering.” The last sentence I read was, “It sucks, your stuttering will never go away.” My hand ran to my mouth and I closed the screen. The monster that was haunting me was immortal.
I decided to name my stuttering Monster, because that’s what it was to me: A giant, ugly, frightening creature that was determined to take over my life. Why was Monster after me? Why was he only picking on me? While everyone was out there living their lives not worrying about how they talk, my thoughts were consumed with what I would have to say and if I would be able to say it. What did I do to deserve this?
Like we do with bad things, I hid Monster. I went to great lengths to avoid stuttering. I substituted words, or just did not talk. I had tricks I used in order to appear fluent. I was known as shy, introverted or quiet. I accepted F’s for projects that required an oral component. I hid Monster from my family, my friends, and the people around me. I woke up every morning hoping this was some kind of nightmare.
Hiding my stutter became a vicious cycle. I was happy that I was able to hide Monster and appear normal. The majority of people did not know about Monster. That is how I wanted it. But as I pushed Monster deeper and deeper inward, the emotions, pain, and struggle pushed outward. I used avoidance and then felt an intense amount of guilt. Or, I would be in a situation I couldn’t avoid and have a multiple second (or multiple minute) block, and afterwards feel an intense amount of shame. I would never acknowledge what happened.
Monster won. I became a voice trapped. I remember vividly one day on a skiing trip with my family:
The bright, yellow sun fell, and the silver moonlight rose. Darkness soon surrounded me. I’m skiing slowly down the snow-covered hill. I’m a cautious skier, looking out at everyone and everything around me for danger, just like I live my life. It’s quiet. All I hear are the owls howling and my skis carving the snow. My thoughts turn to my future. How am I going to get through my Bat Mitzvah? How can I accomplish anything in my life if I can’t communicate? I think about my recurring dream. The dream where I’m stuck on the steps, screaming to my family, but nothing comes out.
It wasn’t until my second year of college, 2011, when I decided to take action. I picked up a book that I had bought several years prior called, Redefining Stuttering by John Harrison. I saw that he offered therapy services over Skype, so I contacted him. We began Skyping just a couple weeks later. Although he is not a speech-language pathologist, John Harrison made me realize a lot about my speech and where these blocks were coming from. However, I knew I needed more. I realized that I wasn’t only hiding my voice; I was hiding who I was.
John Harrison recommended the Successful Stuttering Management Program (SSMP), a three-week intensive therapy program. Four months, a scholarship, and a trip across the country later, I was beginning my journey.
It was a terrifying but rewarding experience. Here, I confronted Monster head on. I learned that I would always be a person who stutters (PWS). Although I can’t change that part of me, I can change how I manage my stuttering. Instead of trying to hide it and pass as fluent, I had to stutter openly and embrace Monster. The SSMP changed my life. It taught me courage.
At the end of the program, we were all sent home with maintenance plans. On my maintenance plan, it was recommended that I get involved with the National Stuttering Association (NSA). I looked up where the closest chapter was from me, and realized it was an hour away. So, I started a chapter at my college. Since then, I have been featured on the local news, on StutterTalk podcasts, and was a recipient of the Virginia Legend award all because of my stuttering.
I have attended four NSA conferences and have met hundreds of other people who stutter who continue to inspire me. I have been involved with NSA chapters everywhere I have lived. There is something so special about having a community of people anywhere you go who just “get it.” I owe a huge part of who I have become to the NSA.
I attend Stutter Social via Google Hangouts weekly. My Sundays are never complete without it. Annie Bradberry, Heather Najman, and Pam Mertz have served as mentors to me and have inspired me to serve as a mentor to others.
No longer do I wake up hoping that Monster was just a nightmare. Today, I wake up thanking my lucky stars for my stuttering. I think about the beautiful community and network that I am part of because of my stutter. It truly amazes me.
It was not easy getting to this point. It has taken a long time for me to get from the “should” to the “I am going to do this.” There was a long time where my thought process was, I know this is important; this will help me feel comfortable about my stuttering and help alleviate the shame. I should go into this situation and advertise and talk about my stuttering. In the past few weeks, I’ve had a huge change in my thoughts. Now, instead of thinking that I SHOULD be doing this, it’s changed into, I WANT to do this. I enjoy talking about stuttering and letting people see the real me.
It’s not about fluency, but rather about effective communication. I was recently told by my former boss, “I am very impressed with how you interact with customers. You have a speech impediment and you have far better customer service than my employees who don’t stutter. That’s just something you can’t teach.”
I have done things these past four years that I couldn’t imagine I would ever do with a stutter. I love talking. I love interacting with people. I love public speaking. Wait, did I just say that? Shy, introverted, or quiet no longer describe me. I am outgoing, confident, and brave. These are the parts of my personality that I allowed Monster to suppress.
All the pain, difficulty, and tough times that stuttering caused me gave me power. When we get rid of the demons, the struggles, and the hard times, we also get rid of the hope, the inspiration, the courage, and all the qualities that make us who we are.
Stuttering me is the real me. I embrace it as a huge part of my identity. Thanks to Monster, my parents, the SSMP, the NSA, and an amazing speech-language pathologist, friend, and mentor Katie Gore, I have found my passion. Two years and a career shift later, I am pursuing a masters at the University of Maryland to become a speech-language pathologist so I can give back what was given to me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that the monster that haunted me for years would be the fuel that ignited my passion.
“I challenge you to find what it is that you are really ashamed of and bring it out into the open. I challenge you to figure out what it is that you really want to do and do it, here and now. I challenge you to reframe your fear and turn it inside out from shame for yourself into action for others and spread the word.” –Leana Wen
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