About the Author:
Pamela Mertz is a person who stutters and is actively involved in the global stuttering community. She is a past Board member of the International Stuttering Association, and present Board member of the USA National Stuttering Association. She blogs at www.stutterrockstar.com and hosts the popular podcast “Women Who Stutter: Our Stories.” She was a host for Stutter Social for close to six years and is a country leader for the employment advocacy group, 50 Million Voices.
I love the ISAD theme this year “speak the change we wish to see.” This is so true. We only make change if we speak up and ask for change or be a change agent ourselves. It is also very important to recognize that change can potentially change everything.
What does this mean? Why is it important? What changes might we wish to see? How can change change everything? What does that look like?
Talking about the change that I’d like to see leads me to want to also consider that very often change comes from a change of perception.
A few years ago I reflected on a blog post I had written that sometimes people who stutter try to change the way we speak to make others more comfortable. People who stutter sometimes go to speech therapy to change the way we speak to perhaps conform with the fluent world. Many people who stutter are afraid to acknowledge that they stutter. We fear both judgement and rejection. Feeling rejected is huge among all people, not just those who stutter. We want to be accepted and feel like we belong. Feeling or being different can make us hold back. Too many people who stutter don’t feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work, social gatherings, and even family events.
In order to feel safe to speak about the changes we want to see, two things need to happen. Our perspective must shift, so that we no longer think of stuttering as something that needs to be hidden, or changed, because it is inherently wrong or bad or shameful. We can feel safer to speak about the changes we wish to see when we’re not bogged down by all the emotional baggage many of us have carried around with us for such a long time. It can feel like being in a paper bag and trying to punch through to free ourselves.
The other thing that needs to shift or change, for those of us who stutter, is we ourselves need to stop using negative and self defeating language to describe our stuttering. Media already does a good job with that, when stuttering is used to describe something negative or when stuttering is made fun of (which we certainly see a lot of). We don’t need to perpetuate that.
So if we want to speak about the changes we wish to see, we must reframe our thinking about stuttering. When I hear someone bemoan that they’ve had a bad day because they stuttered a lot, or badly, I like to reframe that by suggesting that one has actually stuttered very well.
Most people think I’m crazy when I say that. Why would we say we’ve stuttered well? Here is where the reframing comes in. We stutter well because we are experts at it and we have stuttered for a long time. When we shift our thinking from bad to good, with a smile, it’s easier to get out of that negative space. And listeners won’t think negatively of stuttering if we don’t.
When we want change, it is important to realize that change will change a lot of things. Making changes and speaking about change takes a lot of courage. You might think that you are climbing a mountain alone. For many years, I believed I was damaged goods because I stuttered and didn’t deserve to speak up or at all. When I had enough of being the one who never spoke, something magical happened. I grew into my skin and began to stutter openly. As I finally became comfortable, I became stronger. I let my voice out, and it was ok, bumps and wavers and all. It was no longer shameful. It just became a different kind of conversation.
As I changed, so did my relationships. For years, I’d been in a controlling relationship where my partner made all the decisions and often spoke for me. I deferred to him almost always. When I began to change and claimed my space and power, he seemed threatened and tried to squelch the independence I now joyously wanted.
As I grew, he did too, but in the wrong direction. He did not want to go with me on my journey of self discovery, even though I’d invited him many times. When I found my voice and the stuttering community, my tribe, I finally found that place of belonging. I was so happy to feel that embrace for the first time in my life. My partner did not want to journey with me, so we (really me) broke up.
It was hard because we’d been together for 20+ years and I feared that I wouldn’t make it on my own. Boy, was I wrong. I could make it and I did make it. Ending that relationship was the best thing I ever did for myself. I felt free and the isolated weight of the world lifted from me. Change changed that, and me.
As I changed and grew, I realized that the only way I was going to speak the changes I wanted to see was by putting my big girl’s pants on. I wanted my family to see that I was OK as a person who stutters and that it no longer needed to be a taboo topic that we never talked about. I wanted that dynamic to change, and it did, because I was no longer ashamed of the stuttering part of me, my identity.
I also saw significant changes in my relationships with friends. Openly stuttering opened the door to authenticity and pride, which I found allowed for friends and colleagues to take a chance and share something they previously had hidden.
If there is ever going to be a world that better understands stuttering, it is we who stutter that should speak up and speak out. We can choose to make changes that will change everything.
Shift happens and that’s a good thing.
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