A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Stuttering Conference: Finding Community and Resilience through Storytelling and Humor – Darcy Galane

About the Author:

Darcy Galane is a person who stutters and has been active in the stuttering community in the United States since 2010. She has attended 10 consecutive National Stuttering Association annual conferences, and sometimes participates in activities with NSA chapters in the New York City area. She is also actively involved with Passing Twice, a network of LGBTQ+ people who stutter and allies. Darcy earned a B.A. in Political Science from UCLA and a J.D. from the University of Connecticut. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife, daughter, and two dogs.

At my first National Stuttering Association conference, I told an old story in a new way, and it kind of changed me. To use a tired (yet accurate) cliché, it was the first moment of the rest of my stuttering life.

I had attended the conference specifically to find community. At age 41, I wanted to change how I felt about stuttering, but I did not know a single other person who stuttered. Once there, however, making friends and finding community was proving more difficult than I had anticipated, so when a group of self-identified “Old Timers” invited me to join them for dinner, I felt happy to be included. Conversation turned to sharing funny stuttering stories, and I tensed up because I could not think of one. At that point, for me, stuttering was still being made fun of as kid, enduring damaging speech therapy in sixth grade, being asked if I had forgotten my name, not knowing whether I could say “hello” when the phone rang, ordering the food I could say instead of the food I wanted, getting “the look” from listeners when I blocked, and all other manner of shame and anger and fear. I could not find the humor in any of this. Yet.

So, I went with the story I had told frequently before when I was going for a laugh: the time I ended up in the promo for a tabloid talk show episode about “lipstick lesbians.” The story legitimately had a significant stuttering element, but I did not find that part funny, and I usually glossed over it during the telling. This time, I decided to lean into it. 

Here’s the story I told: in 1992, as a recent college graduate, I was working for an LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization when I was tasked with leading a group of volunteers to be audience members at a taping of The Montel Williams Show. When Montel elicited audience questions and comments, I was expected to relate “lipstick lesbians” to LGBTQ+ media advocacy and mention the organization and its work by name. In the days before the taping, I lived with debilitating anxiety and anticipatory shame at the prospect of blocking or getting stuck on filler “ums.” But I did my job and gathered the volunteers and found my opportunity to speak. I sat back down afterwards feeling both relieved that I was done and sick because I had no idea how fluent or disfluent I’d sounded.

The weeks until the show aired were just a blur of preparing for the humiliation of watching myself stutter on national television. The day came and I found watching was not as bad as I expected. I could see my struggle and it was uncomfortable to watch, but I had employed all my stuttering avoidance tricks and probably just seemed ordinarily nervous to the untrained eye. I finally exhaled. And then later that day I lost my job for unrelated reasons, thereby rendering all the stress a colossal waste of energy. When I reached this part of the story, the crew at dinner empathized with the stuttering angst and appreciated the irony of the timing.

Then I moved on to the usual thrust of the story: what happened after the show aired. Although I had been out to my liberal parents for a couple of years, they were still uncomfortable with me being gay, and our relationship was strained. After a prior awkward incident, they had explicitly asked me to forewarn them if I was going to be “gay on television.” Nevertheless, I did not mention Montel to them because I was just an audience member, not a featured guest. Plus, I was confident they didn’t watch the show and, frankly, I was too busy worrying about the stuttering. Unbeknownst to me, however, the show aired again a couple of months later – which I learned when my mother called. My parents’ neighbors had called to share that they had just seen me on television! Apparently the “Tomorrow on Montel” teaser featured my comment. Oops. So, my parents watched the show. 

At this point in the telling, someone at the table asked, “How did your parents react to seeing you on the show?!” I replied, “Well…they certainly didn’t mention the stuttering.” And everyone at the table broke out laughing.

Mine was just one story among many that night, and there was nothing inherently special about the moment or the laughter, but 10 years later I can still feel it. It was the first time in my life I had ever found the humor in what had previously just been an unpleasant stuttering memory, and it opened something in me. Everyone was laughing with me, not at me; it was the first step towards finding the community and developing the resilience I needed to more forward.

The significance of telling what turned out to be a funny stuttering story was striking to me. To take humor a little seriously for a moment, it has power and can provide enormous benefit to people feeling marginalized. It’s possible to use humor to simultaneously protect oneself, put others at ease, and create intimacy. While I know I often present as serious and earnest, I grew up in an environment in which affectionate sarcasm was the norm, and gallows humor was generally appreciated. I also know that I use humor to connect with people and to demonstrate that I don’t take myself as seriously as my demeanor might otherwise suggest.

Finding the humor in a previously painful experience can take some of the power from it. And the inability to find humor can imbue something with more power than it warrants. There was a reason that I had often told the Montel story to other LGBTQ+ people. My parents’ discomfort wasn’t funny at the time; it was painful. But in the retelling, I could appreciate the absurdity of ending up in the promo and how that led to my parents’ embarrassment. And I could take the sting out of my parents’ disapproval by laughing with people who approved of my openness and advocacy. But I’d never been able to do that with stuttering experiences, because I had no one with whom to share and empathize.

I’d actually had an epiphany about this almost 20 years earlier. As a UCLA New Student Orientation Counselor, I had volunteered – as expected – to present about LGBTQ+ student life as a member of the Diversity Panel. As the only out lesbian undergrad on staff (and the first in the history of the program, which I was quick to mention at the time), I tended to step up when representation was needed. But what most of my friends didn’t know was how seriously, albeit briefly, I considered speaking about what it was like to be a student who stuttered. I had spent college not talking about my stutter and fearing situations that would trigger a block, such as being called on in class. I wanted to challenge myself to change the narrative and to let other students who stuttered know they were not alone. Ultimately, I abandoned this idea because I realized – and the realization was stark – that I had absolutely no sense of humor about stuttering. None. If I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t prepare myself to handle any nervous laughter or silence from the audience. And I couldn’t put other students at ease by showing I didn’t take myself – or stuttering – unduly seriously. In hindsight, it was the right decision, but it was a decision rooted in fear, and in humorlessness, and it felt like failure. 

The reason I was comfortable presenting as a lesbian but not as a person who stutters was abundantly clear to me even then: community. While I had found my LGBTQ+ people, I was stuttering – or trying not to stutter – alone. Before I came out in college, I felt afraid and angsty much of the time. When I gathered the courage to come out to my closest straight friends, I still felt afraid and angsty, but a little less so. Then I sought out an older, gay student who listened to me and supported me and mentored me a bit, which helped me build confidence and bolstered my incipient sense of safety. And then I found a life-changing, close gay friend. Rob lived on my floor in the dorms, and early in our friendship, we sort of accidentally stayed up until dawn one night sharing all our coming out stories and crying and laughing and, for the first time, finding the humor in telling stories that had been difficult to experience alone. Thirty years later, we still talk about that night and how it was a turning point for both us – how that was the start of us finding more gay friends, and coming out to our families (at almost exactly the same time), and eventually becoming resources to other LGBTQ+ students. In fact, we were Orientation Counselors together, and I knew that if a Diversity presentation bombed, Rob would blunt the impact afterwards with a shoulder to cry on and a humorous observation to make me laugh. And it wasn’t just Rob; I had lots of LGBTQ+ friends. And eventually, years later, I had a wife and a whole chosen family of LGBTQ+ friends and allies, in addition to my family of origin (who, for the record, were eventually able to laugh about the Montel story.)

When it came to stuttering, however, almost 20 years after I couldn’t present about stuttering in college, I still felt stuck. I had no stuttering friends, and no stuttering role models. Even as I learned more and started to advocate for myself and opened up to my friends and my wife, I still felt so isolated and so brittle and so vulnerable when I blocked or when I “um’ed.” And I realized that to effect change, I needed to do something different. So, I went to the conference. And then I seized the opportunity to feel included, and I told my story, and laughed with my new acquaintances. I went back to my room that night and called my wife and sobbed because I could feel that it had been a before-and-after moment. I had taken the first step towards understanding that stuttering did not have to be this humiliating thing I tried not to do; it could be something I accepted, something that was a part of who I was, something that could connect me with other people worth knowing. By the end of that conference, I had begun friendships that would sustain me as I figured out who I was as a person who stuttered. At subsequent conferences, I would spend late nights talking with these friends, sharing our stories, and laughing at things I couldn’t have imagined finding funny for most of my life previously. I had found my people, my resilience, and me. So, I guess I owe someone on The Montel Williams Show production staff a pretty big thank you.

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Comments

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Stuttering Conference: Finding Community and Resilience through Storytelling and Humor – Darcy Galane — 31 Comments

  1. Hi Darcy,

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, and your story, with us.

    Indeed, attending that first conference, and then learning that we can laugh with our peers about our experiences with stuttering, is liberating. These steps that we take help build up our resilience to be able to face the next time, and the next time.

    Thank you.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the essay. And yes, finding community with our peers is life-changing. You and I both did that in middle-age and can appreciate the before-and-after nature of it.

  2. Hi Darcy. Thank you for highlighting the importance of humor in the process of resilience. I too broke out laughing when you said your parents didn’t mention the stuttering after your Montel appearance. I am Mom to a 24-year old who stutters and has a wicked sense of humor – about stuttering and everything else. I’m so grateful for that. Humor has helped all of us! Great paper.

    • Thank you! And I’m glad your kid has support and the perspective to be able to find the humor in stuttering — and in everything else. It makes life more pleasant. 🙂

  3. Thanks, Darcy, for making me smile. Stuttering itself might not be funny, but the situations we wind up into, can be. To be able to see the difference is a great way to find resilience and those stories might even open doors in others, even non-PWS. As we all have something we would like to silence, so your story might have been ground-breaking. It’s evening here in Sweden, and your story made my evening, going to bed with a smile.

    Stay safe and keep smiling

    Anita

    • Thanks, Anita. Yes, I hope we take lessons from each other’s experiences — even if they’re not identical. And I’m glad I could bring you a smile. Thank you for all you do for the stuttering community.

  4. Hi Darcy, what a great paper. I read it during the review process and again just now and it so resonates with me. It is crucial to see the humor in all life situations, otherwise we would just be overcome with negativity and self-defeating thoughts. Seeing, reading and hearing the humor in everyday situations helps build our resilience. Thanks for reminding us of that in such a fantastic way.

    Pam

    • Thanks, Pam. I’m glad my essay resonated with you. And I definitely agree that humor can play such a huge role in developing and maintaining resilience. It can play such a huge role in connecting with others.

  5. Darcy this is great! It is fascinating how you were able to relate to your LGBT side but not your stuttering side, but completely makes sense about not having a support system with stuttering to enable you to embrace it.

    You make a great point about the humor. So much of stuttering experience is focused on trauma that we forget that if we find ways to bring humor into our life, that helps with our overall happiness and enjoyment in life which is something we all want and need and deserve!

    • Thanks, Kunal. Humor and community can be such a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Community is kind if necessary (for me, anyway) to find the humor, yet humor is so helpful in finding community. I’m certainly glad I took the leap to seek out a stuttering community eventually. It’s changed my life so much for the better.

  6. Hello Darcy thank you for writing this thought provoking and heart warming paper I feel so many of us could relate to it .What understand and empathy you show yes humour goes a long way.I could also relate to your joy of finding the conferences and stuttering comunitiesSo thanks again .Phyllis.

    • Thanks, Phyllis. I’m glad you could relate to the experiences I shared in my essay. Yes, community can make such an enormous difference. I know it has for me and I’m always encouraged when I see it happening for others at conferences.

  7. Thank you for sharing your story Darcy
    I love the comparisons with your LGBTQ+ identity,finding it helpful to have support as part of the LGBTQ+ community and finding the stuttering community. I’ve found it so helpful to realise I am not alone and sharing experiences.

    • Thanks, Christine
      Finding community and not feeling so isolated is really something, isn’t it? Especially as women who stutter. Without wanting to diminish the importance of my male friends who stutter, I found meeting women who stuttered to be really life-changing.

  8. Darcy, Thank you for sharing this.
    I could relate to this in so many ways (i.e. being asked, “You can’t remember your name?” among them) but I love your story and even the way you tell it.
    I didn’t find anyone else who stuttered until my mid-30’s and when I did, it was great, especially as someone who’s had his share of difficulty fitting in.
    The level of empathy and humour you show is wonderful and I’m very happy to hear how much you’ve accomplished.
    Thanks again, Darcy.

    • Hi Ryan, Thanks for your observations! Yes, finding other people who stutter as an adult is really life-changing, isn’t it? For me, it really affected how I experience the world. I’m glad you’ve been able to experience that as well.

  9. What a great story, Darcy. A great example of finding the humor in our struggle, (and it can be a struggle to get to that point.) I also appreciated the parallel of coming out, and the crucial importance of finding community to help.

    • Thanks, Heather! Yes, community can be so dramatically life-changing — and humor can make such a difference. At least it does for me. I know that a couple of the “Women Who Stutter” workshops you helped run also made a difference for me. Hearing other women’s stories made such a huge difference!

  10. Hi, Darcy, I so enjoyed your paper – thank you for making me smile! One of the most impactful elements for me as a speech-language pathologist graduate student was when you addressed some common experiences people who stutter face. You mentioned the anxiety you felt about saying your name, speaking on the phone, not being able to order the food you wanted, dealing with looks from others, and, unfortunately, scarring speech therapy memories. We are taught as future clinicians the importance of respecting a person’s feelings, reactions, and preferences as one of the most basic tenets to treatment. I wince at the fact that therapy has been a compounding negative experience for many. I look forward to sharing outlets such as the ISA annual conference with future clients. Having a platform where you can share stories and laugh with others can be liberating. Your candor, humor, and openness to learning more at every stage of life are uplifting!

    • Thank you, Meagan! It’s really great to see SLPs and SLP’s in-training listen to the experiences of people who stutter and incorporate that into treating the whole person. I hope it’s becoming less common for kids who stutter to receive counterproductive therapy. When SLPs understand that stuttering treatment is more than counting disfluencies or forcing kids to employ unnatural breathing patterns, kids benefit.

  11. Hi Darcy,

    My classmate and I are graduate students from the University of South Carolina, and we want to thank you for sharing your story as we are here to learn more about stuttering. We find it immensely inspiring that you’ve found humor in stuttering and how it helped you develop your inner strength. In your story, you mentioned that you didn’t have any stuttering friends or role models. I think having a mentor or a friend who also stutters can help one feel understood and accepted in a community. Additionally, it’s extremely important for one’s mental health. What advice would you give to a person who stutters that may be feeling isolated or alone? What resources can he/she access to find a mentor to avoid feeling that isolation?

    Delara & Liz

    • Hi Delara & Liz, I think it’s very helpful that there are so many online stuttering resources these days. I’m most familiar with what’s available in the United States, so I’d probably suggest the National Stuttering Association (westutter.org) or Friends (www.friendswhostutter.org) as starting places for Americans. But there are groups in other countries who offer self-help and community, as well.

      In non-Covid times, there are national and international conferences that provide excellent opportunities to meet other people who stutter. Plus there are Facebook groups and online chat through Stutter Social (StutterSocial.com).

      It’s really kind of amazing how many resources are out there now.

  12. Hello Darcy! I fully enjoyed your story. Thank you for allowing us into all of those intimate moments. it was refreshing to hear your story, as not only are you a person that stutters but you are also a member of the LGBT+ community. Being a spokesperson for any community is no easy feat, but you handle both roles well. Your resilience and strength are very present in your words! Thank you so much for sharing.

  13. Hi Darcy! Thank you so much for sharing your story and for being vulnerable about what stuttering is like for you. I so enjoyed reading about your connecting to not just a great LGBTQ+ community, but a wonderful stuttering community as well. I also really related to what you said about worrying about how other people are judging you based on your behavior. While I don’t stutter, I do have social anxiety, so I am constantly thinking about how others perceive me. However, you also reminded me that strength can come from having the courage to embrace who we are and maybe focus more on the humorous side of life. Thank you again for sharing!

    • Thank you! I don’t know that I’d consider myself a spokesperson for either community but I’m glad my story resonated. 🙂 I think sharing our stories with each other can make such a difference.

    • Hi Llile, I’m glad my story resonated with you. I definitely agree that our experiences don’t have to be identical for our stories to feel familiar. I live with generalized anxiety and I appreciate how anxiety can distort our self-perception and our perception of our relationships. And, yes, humor can definitely help with perspective!

  14. Darcy,
    This was a great insight and story of how you overcame not only the acceptance of stuttering, but also as well as being apart of the LGBTQ+ community. I love how vulnerable you were and how true you are to yourself. This is very admirable. I have learned a great deal from this website and have enjoyed hearing many stories like yours, but honestly I did get a good laugh at the point “Well… they certainly didn’t mention my stuttering.” Thank you for sharing!

  15. Darcy,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I think it’s so important to see the humor in life situations. I believe that being able to laugh at yourself shows that you have a strength to embrace who you truly are.

  16. Hi Darcy!
    Thank you for sharing! I’m a future speech-language therapist and I loved learning how large of an impact humor can make on an individual who stutters. It was especially intriguing to learn how critical it was for you to find not only your LGBTQ+ community but your stuttering community as well. You’re story has been very helpful in helping me better understand the needs of individuals who need that support from two different communities.

  17. Darcy,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I really enjoyed reading this. You have encouraged me to seek more support/side-fighting friends for my medical condition… so thank you for that. Keep being you and being amazing.

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