From Shame to Courage – Mike Wilson

About the Author:

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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Comments

From Shame to Courage – Mike Wilson — 34 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. Your experience in high school making the speech and silently blocking then using filler words really hit home. I confess that I use “you know” when I anticipate a stuttering moment coming up and am working towards decreasing the number of those filler words to embrace whether I stutter or not on the next word. I appreciate your point about hearing the doubts of others but also embracing it and moving on. Not everyone will be a cheerleader and that’s okay. Congratulations on your business and personal growth. It’s very inspiring!

    • Thanks Lisa! I’m glad it resonated with you. Yes, people are of course free to think what they want, but their reactions don’t have to invade our inner space and dictate our happiness.

  2. Hi Mike – thanks for this! I will encourage my son and parents from the Voice Unearthed FB group to read your wise and encouraging words. Thank you for making your voice heard, both within the stuttering community and in the rest of the world. I’m so glad we’ve crossed paths.

    • Thanks Dori. Likewise I’m glad that we crossed paths. Keep up the good work with your group!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. I loved Roosevelt´s phrase, it is really true! Congratulations for everything you have achieved! Regards from Peru!

    • Yes that E Roosevelt quote is one of my favorite quotes ever. When I fully realized the truth of it, it was truly liberating to be the conductor of my own inner space.

  4. This part of your speech is so powerful: “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.”

    Our minds are so distorted thinking that everyone in this world are bad people who want to hold our speech against us but the truth is that they just need to be educated and they will be compassionate

    • Absolutely Kunal. It is so easy to fall into that pattern of thinking that believes that everything in our world, including what others think about us, revolves around our stuttering.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing! I was curious, when would you say your insecurities regarding your stuttering started or do you always remember being insecure/”inferior” about it?

    • I remember starting to care excessively about my stuttering when I first started getting made fun of, which as far as I remember was in the sixth grade (11 years old or so).

  6. Mike,

    Thanks for your contribution to ISAD 2020. Wonderful, thought provoking submission.

    Your last line really stood out to me:

    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.

    What qualifies as a hero? Sports stars who are paid millions are referred to as heroes.

    What about “inspiration porn?” Do you think people who stutter who are engaging in conversation, albeit a different kind of conversation” held up as heroes to those who don’t?

    Pam

    • It’s a good question Pam. I think the definition of a hero can vary pretty greatly depending on the time and culture and context that one is referencing. I generally associate heroes with people who overcome adversity while doing something for the greater good. In this case, when we speak up and courageously show the world that a PWS can be confident, intelligent, competent, etc we are benefitting not just ourselves, but others who stutter and future generations who stutter, as we prove the stereotypes wrong.

  7. Michael,

    ABSOLUTELY AMAZING and well said and well written. I am encouraged anytime I speak to you about or, in this case, read anything about stuttering from you. Thabk for submitting this!

  8. I love the last 2 paragraphs
    It is ok to be ourselves
    We also MUST be ourselves, it is a mandatory condition to be happy
    I agree, we are heroes of modern time. We do great things that nobody thinks by nit accepting the hurdle that life has put in our way.

  9. Hello,
    My name is Mary and I am currently in an SLP undergraduate program. Your message is truly inspirational. Not only to people who stutter, but to anyone with any difference seen by others as “abnormal” or “wrong”. I appreciate your courage to speak out in support of others going through similar situations. Do you have any suggestions on how to raise children to be accepting of others who stutter?

    • Thanks Mary.
      My thought would just be to educate them on what stuttering is and to have them meet some folks that stutter (or showing them some YouTube videos of PWSs might be the next best thing).

  10. Hi Mike!

    I am a speech-language pathology student and I loved hearing your story, thank you for sharing! Your story was really inspirational, resilience and courage to bounce back from difficult experiences is something we can all learn to do. I really love to learn different peoples experiences so that I can try and empathize with future clients. Your story helped me learn some things. Thank you!

  11. Hi Mike,
    Thanks so much for sharing your story. I enjoyed reading about your resilience and your journey to courage. It is so encouraging to hear and I know that your story has helped many people, including me. I am currently in graduate school for speech-language pathology and love learning and gaining wisdom so that I can be the best future clinician. I know that you mentioned that reframing your mind and view is something that was super helpful for you, and something powerful that can be applied to so many areas of life. Thank you again!

  12. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing. I’m currently working on my masters in speech pathology and I have a client in the 3rd grade who is a person who stutters. He’s really my first fluency client and I had no idea where to start. I love your take on your perspective of stuttering and the quote you shared. I’m trying to help him with his confidence to talk to people and make new friends. I’m for sure going to refer to your story and give him some hope and something to look forward to! Thank you for coming out of the bathroom stall and sharing your story!

  13. Hello Mike,
    Thank you for sharing your story! I know that it was probably difficult to reminisce on your childhood, but from a student perspective it gives me great incite on how the children I will work with as a future Speech Therapist will feel. Middle and high school are tough without fluency issues, so I could only begin to imagine the way that felt. I was so stoked to hear that you went from hiding in bathroom stalls to stay away from conversation to telling your professionals in college that you can and you would be able to speak to your dental patients and staff in the future. You definitely proved the two of them wrong and it makes my heart smile that you are as successful as you are. You decided to not allow it to hinder you and that is commendable! I enjoyed your story and claim that everything is going well.

  14. Hi, Mike
    Thankyou for sharing your story it was amazing and very inspiring to me. I’m very happy you found a happy place with your stutter and you developed courage, love, and perseverance for your condition after going most of your life trying to hide it from the world. I loved every bit of your article and this really opened up my eyes to what people with stutters have to actually go through.

    Thankyou, Destiny Shavers

  15. Thanks to the speech therapy students for your comments, and for taking the time to read the papers on this site. I think that you are definitely doing the right thing by trying to understand, at this early stage of your career, the 90% of stuttering that is largely invisible and that lies beneath the surface of the iceberg.

  16. Hi, Mike,

    Thanks for sharing your story of transformation. High school can be brutal and I’m sorry you had to constantly hide your stutter and avoid speaking situations. It was great to hear how your life started to turn around after the FSU speech professor took you around campus and coached you. You seem to have taken it from there and are truly thriving. Had you listened to outside voices that tried to make you succumb to fear, you would have missed out on all the success. It’s a great lesson for all of us to follow the voice that tells us we can.

    • Thanks for your comments Meagan. In my experience, the self-stigma (the stigma that I was putting on myself from within) was so much more powerful and oppressive than any stigma that was coming from the world outside of me. Once that self-oppression was gone, the sky was the limit, even with the pretty severe stutter that I had.

  17. Hi Mike! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!
    As someone dealing with a mental illness, even though I don’t stutter, I can definitely relate to your past behavior of avoiding eye contact when speaking. However, you also gave me a great reminder that learning to find that confidence and honesty to look people in the eye when speaking with them will change your perspective on your own shortcomings; instead of focusing on myself and my own issues, I can use my anxiety as a way to judge the character of others, which is time much better well spent. Thank you again!

    • Well said Llile. I think of eye contact as the “great equalizer”, because it really seems to create equality between the speaker and the listener. It signals that we are not a terrified shrinking violet and that we believe in what we’re saying, which makes people much more likely to listen and respect what we have to say.

  18. Hello,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I think that it is great that you stayed resilient and you didn’t let it bring you into a negative head space. I love the quote you put in there about how no one can make us feel inferior without our consent. It really put stuff in a new perspective for me.

    • Yes, that Eleanor Roosevelt quote is one of my favorites of all-time! The idea that we have a choice of how we’re going to feel was a novel concept to me in my younger days, as I thought it was all controlled by other people’s opinion around me. To realize that my mind could be like an unshakable rock, no matter what waves were crashing in, was a total game changer in my life.

  19. Thanks Mike!
    I loved your paper, so I cut and pasted parts of it to use in my therapy sessions (citing you of course!)As an SLP who specializes in stuttering therapy I look for different experiences to share with my children and adults–yours is rich and needs to be shared as much as possible.

    Although I have worked with people who stutter for over 40 years and feel I have a good sense of the experience, I don’t stutter–so, I can’t truly know that experience. Your story of hope and resilience will resonate (while being genuine) and encourage many. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Yes, feel free to use it with clients! The realization that there is a completely different way to look at this whole stuttering thing could potentially help some people.

  20. Thank you to everyone who participated in this conference, and who took the time to read my article (and others). I really believe that we shouldn’t let our childhood traumatic memories surrounding our stutter dictate our perception of stuttering for the rest of our life. The world is WAY nicer, and more accepting, than we thought it was so long as we are determined to be ourself and to keep speaking up when we have something to say, because people gravitate towards those who show courage and confidence (and don’t forget about that eye contact to facilitate both 🙂 .