My name is Matthew Dorn, but I prefer to be called Matt. I am 30 years old, male, and I am a person who stutters. I live in Pennsylvania, in a small city called Telford. I come from a large family of 6, and I am the only one who stutters. I’ve been stuttering since I could talk and like many my stuttering has gone through periods where it was better at times, and worse at others. I’ve gone through many avenues to work on my speech, but none have been the “cure.” I realize now there is no cure, just management and acceptance. I am currently on the journey towards full acceptance and discovering who I am. Currently, I work as a package handler at an Amazon distribution center. I also belong to the NSA Philadelphia chapter.
I’d like to tell you a story about how it’s never too late to find support. I grew up in a household with four brothers and two sisters, and I am the only one who stutters. I am also the youngest in my family. This instantly made me a target for bullying, for getting treated differently because of my stutter. Living in that household, I never felt like I had a voice or value. My childhood had good times, but they weren’t often with my family. I do cherish some family memories. Those younger years growing up were the hardest. I had ADHD as a kid. I was very loud, but my voice was hardly ever heard. When it was, I was either mocked or avoided.
I recall instances where my family would be playing board games and I wanted to join in, but I wasn’t allowed. Any moment I started speaking, one of two things would happen: my family would either mimic my stuttering and call me hurtful names or they would just tell me to shut up and leave the room. I always came back to annoy them because when you said no to me, it just made me want to do it more.
All this mocking and avoidance affected me greatly. When I went to school, the kids would make fun of my stuttering too. At school I was mocked and at home I was mocked. My mom and sisters were the only ones who never did. That role went to my brothers and occasionally my dad, but my sisters also didn’t come to my aid. They said nothing. Doing nothing was almost as harmful. I felt like nobody cared except my mom. She would tell them to stop but she was often outnumbered and felt helpless.
When I was into my teens, the in-laws also started making fun of me. I remember one specific instance where we were all sitting at the dinner table. I was telling a joke and I got in a bad block before the punchline. I can’t remember what my brother-in-law said but it was hurtful. I remember my face was red, looking down in shame, and tearfully expressing “He’s making fun of my stutter.” My family was silent. Nobody came to my aid. I ran out of the room, crying. In the other room, my mom came to console me. I didn’t show my face for the rest of the night. These incidents were re-occurring and as a result, I closed down and used covert strategies when I did have to speak. I had been in denial and didn’t want to face my stuttering. I never wanted to address it and I never talked about it.
Eventually, I realized I couldn’t be in denial. I heard about the Hollins Communications Research Institute. At this point, I was desperate and just wanted an out, so I took it. The night before the course, I was up all night just watching speech testimonials from other clients. “That’s going to be me in 2 weeks,” I thought. I didn’t know what to expect. The first day there changed how I looked at stuttering from that point forward. The instructor for the course was very strict with her instructions on that first day. You learn what are called “Targets” which are speech skills. Very vividly, she said “While you are here, you will always be on target. You can NEVER go off target.” I, being a perfectionist, took this advice to heart, perhaps too much. Success occurred through conditioning. Stuttering was treated as bad and wrong. I was successful in my completion of the course and by the end of those 2 weeks, I had fluency. I could speak. I could express myself and it all felt great…for a time.
My first week home from that program was the hardest week. I had gone from that environment of learning my skills, back to familiar territory. Old speech habits and the triggers for those habits were taking hold. I remember being home, in my room, feeling those old triggers. I can only describe it as this: A demon hovering over my shoulders, consuming me, swallowing me into the darkness. I’ve never felt more scared in my life. It felt like a constant fight to use my new speech skills and avoid the old ones. The demon was the metaphor for the old habits. Eventually, I adjusted, and the demon’s grip was less over time. I got better at using my speech skills, of staying on target, of having conversations and it felt fantastic! If there were moments where I had an off-target day, I would spend the next day practicing harder for a few hours. It was how I bounced back from those days. I did this quite often because I knew I could. I knew I could bounce back. I knew this until one day I couldn’t and from there, it was a gradual regression into the demon’s grip.
Time passed and I had lost my speech skills. Gone completely back to my old ways and my family didn’t have a clue. To them, I could always appear to be fine but, deep down, I was hurting. I remember staying up until 4 AM watching videos of people who stutter who were able to overcome it. I watched several TED talks on people who found success with a stutter and I was comparing my life to theirs. I concluded their life was better than mine and I cried myself to sleep. I did this for many nights. I think my mom could see something was wrong, but she never said anything.
Eight months was how long I maintained my speech skills. When I’d gone back to my old habits completely, I still attempted to practice the skills. I don’t know why. I guess I thought I could still bounce back. Around this time, my parents had been planning a vacation to South Carolina with my brother and his family. I thought maybe a vacation could be good for me to clear my head. So, I went along on this venture, but I may as well have stayed home. I wasn’t very sociable, and I didn’t participate in the games my brother was playing. We stayed at a condo and I just locked myself up in my room, trying to practice my speech skills. It was harder being away from home, feeling so alone. The 3rd day into this trip, I lost all control and had reached my breaking point. All the practice wasn’t working, and I just cried uncontrollably in my room. I cried and I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stand to feel this way. The demon had won, and I felt defeated. I called my brother, Chris, who stayed home for this trip and I broke down. I was vulnerable to him. Crying, I told him everything I was feeling, and these are things from me he’d never heard before. I told him I felt like my life was over, that I’m a failure, that I’ll never be able to beat this thing, to change the course of my life.
For the first time, my brother actually listened to me and he knew how I felt. He’s been through his own path of darkness and I felt like he really could relate. What he said to me during this long phone call helped me realize he’s in my corner for support. He said “Matthew, you are a fighter. I know you can beat this because you have been through so much and no matter what life throws at you, you always come back. You come back because you know you can. You are one of the strongest people I know, and you were actually the inspiration for me beating my darkness. I’m here for you, brother.” He offered to come take me home, but I stuck it out. I decided to wait until I got home to tell them all the truth.
When I got home from our trip, I sat down at my computer and I wrote a very long letter to all my family. This letter contained everything. Everything I’d been feeling, been hiding, been thinking. This letter was the most raw and emotional I’d ever been. I did not hold back. I explained, very specifically, how it feels to be a person who stutters and the challenges that I face. I explained the ways that I would hide my stutter as well as the iceberg effect. I explained, in detail, my time at Hollins and that period of regression I went through after. I said everything that was in my heart and it felt so good to do so. I sent the letter via e-mail to everybody and awaited their response.
What came next was unbelievable. My family responded in different ways to this letter, but everything was overwhelmingly positive. First was my brother, Ryan, who said “Matthew, it takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable like you did and I had no idea you were suffering so much. I am so sorry that I couldn’t be there during that time, but I am so proud of you, proud to be your brother, and if you ever want to talk, I’m here. I love you, brother!” Then came my sister, Shari, who called me and said “Matthew, I just read your letter and I was in tears. I am so sorry you never felt like you had support growing up. It couldn’t have been easy but it’s never too late. I’m here now and I will help you in any way I can. You don’t have to do this alone.” My other brothers responded in similar fashion via text to a group text Shari sent out. She said “Guys, Matthew needs our help, and we weren’t there for him growing up, but we’re going to be there for him now. We are all so proud of you.”
The next response is perhaps my most memorable one of all. My sister, Tara, did not call, did not text. Tara drove over to my house personally. I was in my room and I could hear her talking to my mom in the kitchen. I opened the door and I saw her standing there. No speech required. She stood there in tears and gave me a long, heartfelt hug. We spoke afterwards and had a long conversation. I could feel her sadness, her regret, her tears, and I knew she was deeply sorry for not being there for me, for not coming to my aid. Tara was the one sibling in my family who I could never really connect to or to feel close with. In that moment though, I felt closer to her than I’ve ever been. From letting it all out, I feel closer to everyone in my family. I felt like I finally had a support system after 26 years battling alone.
It didn’t take long for that support system to spring into action. At family gatherings we were talking about stuttering. It was no longer the elephant in the room. They were listening to me. I had value. Sometime later, I took another speech course. My family practiced with me every day. I had them on a practice schedule. I regressed just like Hollins. I didn’t feel like a failure because my family was there to pick me back up. They are still there for me to this day and we are closer than we have ever been. My family was the first of my ever-expanding support system.
For 26 years of my life, I thought it was too late to find that support. I thought the demon had beaten me. I hope my story shows proof that it’s never too late to find that support, to start your journey. It’s never too late to bounce back from defeat! I did and you can too!
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