Unlike most stutterers I know, I do not have any experience with speech therapy. I have never been to a speech therapist and I have never had my speech diagnosed. As a child, I was never told that the cause of my speech differences had a name, or that it happened to anyone else. I do know that I began stuttering at a very young age, as even my earliest memories include dysfluency and frustration.
I can recall very clearly an incident in third grade when, after witnessing me navigate an impressive block, a classmate asked the teacher to explain why I spoke so strangely. The teacher looked at me, laughed, and told the student that I had just become too excited, and should slow down when I talk. I remember very little else from that year, but I remember that day perfectly. I remember feeling like I couldn't explain how my mouth felt when I spoke, that even if I found the words, no one would listen long enough to understand. I remember that day as the moment I became an active participant in my own silencing.
Without exposure to other stutterers or to the therapeutic world, I had no context in which to understand my stutter. I knew it was a problem, because it didn't happen to anyone else. I knew I could hide it by avoiding certain words, by answering questions incorrectly on purpose, or pretending not to know the answer. I knew I could hide it even better by not speaking at all. For more than a decade I accepted there was something odd about my speech but I regarded it as just one more thing that made me weird.
When I was 18 I saw a trailer for The King’s Speech and recognized a piece of myself in the story. I watched it, locked alone in my bedroom in the dark. I was searching for answers, and I thought I had found them. In the span of that film, I went from knowing nothing about stuttering to knowing that I did was called stuttering, and believing that it was caused by being left-handed and by repressed psychological trauma. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what trauma I was repressing. It took several years for me to learn otherwise, when I met another stutterer and suddenly realized that my experience with speech was part of a larger story.
Which brings me back to the difficulty of writing about stuttering; for so long this has been such an individual concern, a thing I had no way to talk about. It is tricky now, to think back and isolate the influence of speech. How is my experience stuttering different from my experience as a woman? How is it different from my experience as a queer person with atypical gender performance? Or my experience with depression, or chronic illness? Surely, the man on the train who runs his hand up my thigh while telling me to smile is responding to my outward appearance. He knows nothing of my speech, but what about the job candidate I am interviewing? When he interrupts a question, is that because he is confused by my stutter? Is stuttering the reason I hate small talk, or is that just part of my personality?
Stuttering is such a central part of who I am and how I interact with the world. I do wonder if this would be different had I spent my childhood in a therapist’s office, had I been taught to dissect and analyze that part of myself as separate from the rest. The idea of speech therapy, with the goal of reducing or eradicating dysfluency seems absurd to me. Why should I allow someone to make me dislike such an innate part of myself? Those who advocate for speech therapy wouldn't suggest that I try to ‘cure’ my gender or sexuality. They wouldn't imply that I could ‘overcome’ kidney failure if I just tried hard enough, so why stuttering?
Sure, it was frustrating to grow up being so markedly different from my peers. I hate how well I trained myself to stay quiet, how I carried my mouth like a loaded gun. But I also recognize that I was battling larger demons than my stutter back then. I have hated every part of myself for most of my life, and that is not something a speech therapist could have changed. When I began conceptualizing my stutter as a positive facet of my personality, it felt like I was finally being honest with myself. I was finally communicating authentically.
Now, I live in a new city. I have friends who value me for the content of my communication rather than the method, who still laugh at my jokes even when I have to repeat the punch line three times, and who listen to me out of interest and not pity. I have found an artistic community that has helped me grow into an honest writer and a confident performer, and allowed me to compete at the national level. So much has changed, and yet I when I write about my history of silence it is as if I am still living it.
It has been 13 years since third grade, but the image of that teacher laughing is permanently seared into my mind. Even now, when a customer looks at me strangely or a barista chuckles at my garbled order, I hear that laugh. I am reminded of how arrogant that woman was, to dismiss my speech as hurried and make no further effort to understand me. How embarrassed I was, to not be able to control my speech. How obvious it seemed that I didn't belong.
And I also remember my voice, and the visibility I am afforded as a poet. I remember the capacity I have for change. I am proud to be dysfluent and to advocate for the voices silenced for being atypical. I am determined to use my voice and my visibility to become a new kind of stuttering resource.