Mike Wilson is a person who stutters, husband, father of four, dentist, and entrepreneur. He’s a passionate stuttering advocate, host of the “Stutter with Confidence” podcast, and facilitator of a Zoom support group of people who stutter in which he encourages people to go out and face their fear of speaking.
Mike grew up in Atlanta, GA, and now lives in Syracuse, NY. He is the founder and owner of five dental practices in upstate NY, and he enjoys spending time with his family, playing basketball, tennis, hiking, camping, and reading history.
In high school, I certainly didn’t consider myself a “resilient” person. During freshman year, upon hearing that I would have to give a speech in history class, I distinctly remember the feeling that I was being sucked down into a vortex with no way to stop the free-fall. For the better part of two months, I dwelled incessantly on the fact that I was about to completely embarrass myself and become the laughingstock of my school. I had moved to that area only the year before, and after having been made fun of by a few kids at my previous school, I had decided to mute myself rather than giving people ammunition to use against me. This upcoming speech in history class was a terrifying chance to be completely exposed for the freak that I believed myself to be. I remember spending many mornings looking out of the school bus window and wishing that I had been born a dog, so that there would be no expectation to speak. Since changing my species wasn’t an option, I sometimes wondered if death would be preferable.
After two months of living in dread, it was finally time to give the speech. Reluctantly I stepped in front of the class and started with “Genghis Khan was …” and I couldn’t get the word “born” out to save my life. In those days, I absolutely hated the sound of my stuttering so I always chose to silently block until the word came out “right”. So there I was, silently contorting my facial muscles all over the place for two or three minutes. It felt like an hour, and when nothing ever came out, I finally sat down in total shame. My worst nightmare had played out, and I braced for the story to spread around the school like wildfire.
A couple of weeks after this, I found out that I had to give ANOTHER presentation, this time on an invention we had to do for science class. Once again, dread and anxiety took over. I knew that I could not repeat the Genghis Khan debacle, and that I needed a different strategy going into this presentation. The best plan I could come up with was to say the filler phrase “you know“ whenever a tough word came up, as that sometimes seemed to break words free. Maybe the trick would enable me to fool everybody. When the day finally came, I probably said “you know“ 300 times in a 15 minute speech. “And this is the, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, you know, the water bottle holder”. I believed then that repeating the same filler phrase 10 times in a row, and appearing like I knew next to nothing about my invention, was preferable to people knowing the truth.
Fast forward three years to my senior year of high school, when neither of my only two friends, and the only two people in the school I was comfortable talking to, happened to be in my lunch period. Rather than just finding a lunch table to sit at with other people, I chose to hide in the bathroom stall for lunch that entire year. I made the choice that I’d rather run the risk of being discovered as the weirdo hiding in the bathroom, rather than having my dirty little speaking secret exposed. I also was, in effect, choosing to smell everybody’s stuff who came in to use the bathroom over the course of that year. Good times.
Needless to say, my stuttering iceberg, and the accompanying sense of inferiority, ran incredibly deep during that stage of my life.
Four months later, as a freshman in college at Florida State University, the “bounce back” began. You see, that’s when I started learning to look people in the eye when I stuttered. The head of the FSU speech department introduced no speaking techniques for that entire first semester, he just brought me around campus and made me look random strangers in the eye as I asked them questions. It took several sessions, and he probably had to remind me about a thousand times not to look away when stuttering, but eventually I got to the point where I was able to look people in the eye regardless of whether it was a fluent moment or a stuttering moment.
Within a matter of a couple of months, this changed my entire psychological state of mind with regards to my stuttering.
Once I broke that old habit of looking away in shame, I quickly realized that looking people in the eye made it clear to them that I had a stutter, that I wasn’t finished talking, and that the appropriate thing for them to do was to sit there and patiently listen to me. It shocked me to discover that the vast majority of people complied, once they got beyond that initial moment of surprise and confusion at seeing something that they had never seen before. I realized that I COULD actually say what I wanted to say in this world, even if it took me longer.
Armed with this experience, I promised myself I would never again not say something just because I knew I would stutter. I developed the perspective, “if you have a problem with my stutter, no worries, GO HANG OUT WITH SOMEBODY ELSE. Get out of here, and don’t let the door hit you on the rear end as you leave”. I started using my stutter as a way to evaluate OTHER people’s character, rather than it being the metric of my own self-worth. In other words, “whatever you do here, I’m watching you.” As it turns out, I found it EXTREMELY rare that anybody would show me disrespect because I stuttered, at least after the initial second or two of confusion. Once they figured out that I had a speech impediment, which they realized much faster when I looked them in the eye during disfluencies, they became respectful and patient. I can only count two people in the 25 years since I developed the habit of eye contact who have disrespected me due to my stutter, and both of them were drunk.
The truth is that most fluent people know virtually nothing about this speech impediment, as they’ve never met a person who stutters before. However, they do all know what it means when a fluent person stutters, namely that the person doesn’t know exactly what they want to say or are just stumbling over their words. This is intuitively funny to fluent speakers, as shown by the fact that when they stutter, they often times laugh at the disfluent moment and say “haha I can’t even talk right now“. Therefore, most listeners associate stuttering with that type of stumbling that all fluent speakers do from time to time. That’s what they initially think is happening with us, not that we have a speech impediment. As soon as they realize what’s going on, whether they figure it out on their own or because we tell them about our stutter, they become really nice. Sometimes they even become a little embarrassed about their initial reaction. Either way, space is cleared for us to be who we really are by saying what we really want to say.
As a result of this new knowledge that people were actually way cooler about my speech impediment than I previously thought, I stopped assuming that everybody’s mind was full of negative thoughts with regards to my speech. After all, most people are much more concerned with their own problems than other people’s problems, and anybody who does take the time to think about it logically would realize that it takes honesty and courage to consistently speak up despite having a stuttering challenge. I think every culture on earth respects honesty and courage. By facing our fears, looking people in the eye, and saying what we want to say, regardless of how smoothly it might come out, we become a source of inspiration to others by encouraging them to stop shrinking from their life challenges as well.
After this change in mentality, I still stuttered just about every time I talked, but I was able to become a dentist, get married, start a family, and become the founder of my dental practices, which now have 30 doctors and 210 staff working for me. They’re all fluent.
Stuttering doesn’t have to stop us from doing anything in life.
All of this is not to deny that we will sometimes experience winds of resistance from the fluent world. When I had my mock dental school interview in my last year of college, one of the professors sat forward before it started and said earnestly to me “now Michael just so you know, you’re going to have to talk to people as a dentist“. I said “thanks for letting me know, now let’s proceed with the practice interview“. Five years later, in my residency in Brooklyn, I was questioning one of the lead dentists about the logistical details of opening my first dental practice, and he said “now Michael do you know that as an owner you’re not just gonna have to talk to patients, you’re gonna have to talk to vendors and staff too? There’s a lot of talking.” I thanked him for letting me know and continued with the questions.
While I didn’t hold any hard feelings towards these two professors, because they had seen me battle my way through syllables on many occasions and were probably only trying to make my future life easier, but I decided to use their skepticism about my career choices as motivation to prove people wrong.
As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “no one can make us feel inferior without our consent”. By staying quiet, by not speaking up when we want to, and by looking away in shame when we speak, many of us have, in effect, consented to the idea that stuttering makes us inferior. Consenting to the idea that what we have to say is not important enough to say if it means others will have to listen to our disfluent speech. It doesn’t have to be like this. The world can, and will in the vast majority of cases, sit there and be patient and respectfully listen, but they can’t possibly do this if we choose to muzzle ourselves and stay quiet.
Stuttering REALLY is ok, despite the painful childhood memories that we all carry around with us. It is ok to be ourselves. By going out there and looking people in the eye and speaking up to say what we really want to say, we show the world what a person who stutters looks like, as well as helping to teach people patience, tolerance, and empathy. By doing so we can help turn other people into better human beings, while also spreading awareness that people who stutter are NOT unable to communicate and thrive in this world and achieve as much as anybody else. It just takes us longer to get words out. That’s it. In other words, we can become powerful advocates of equality for both ourselves as individuals, and everybody else who stutters, simply by being ourselves, and by being determined to say what we want to say.
Above all, stuttering most definitely does NOT make us inferior. Dare I say that the courage, honesty, resilience, and ability to bounce back from the challenging hand that was dealt us, has provided us an opportunity to become heroes.
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