I started stuttering when I was about four. My parents didn’t panic since my father also stuttered, but they did put me in speech therapy starting in kindergarten. I continued all through elementary school and some of middle. I decided to quit in 7th grade because it wasn’t helping me, and frankly I hated it. I could use certain techniques in the therapy room, but as soon as I was out in the real world, they seemed impossible. By the time I was in high school, I had figured out how to come up with sentences that avoided words that I knew I would stutter on. I was quiet in class and antisocial with my peers. I even ate lunch in the art room where I could be alone and draw.
In art school I was plagued by anxiety. It was the first time I was away from home and the feeling that I lacked control over my speech returned. My mom pushed me to try speech therapy again. This time I learned how to identify tension and how to relax using pauses and slow starts. I was able to apply this outside the therapy room and added it to my arsenal of ways to keep from stuttering. I lived like this for years, more than a decade in fact. I still had words that I knew were off limits and I stuttered at times, but I was able to pass them off as ‘typical’ dysfluencies.’ I lived outwardly as a fluent person. On the inside, however, I was a nervous wreck. I was always in fear of revealing myself as a person who stutters. Because of this I avoided much of my life.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment when I decided I’d had enough. A lot of events coincided, starting with the sudden and unexpected death of my mother. This was such a stressful time that I couldn’t be covert. Another was my father’s diagnosis of Alzheimer's and subsequent move from Chicago to be near me. Hearing him stutter made me more aware of my own struggle.
But the single most important event was that my colleague who stuttered moved into my department and I suddenly had to talk with her on a daily basis. Like everything else that involved stuttering, I had avoided her for years. I worried that she would recognize my odd way of talking for the fraud that it was. I thought she would ‘out’ me or at least confront me and ask me why I never told her that I stutter. I spent weeks trying to read her expression every time I opened my mouth. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I sat down and finally made my teary confession to her. She told me she honestly hadn’t noticed because she’s always so focused on her own speech. She also told me how happy she was that I’d been able to talk to her. Her gracious response helped me to see that I had nothing to be ashamed of. It was this confession, and the immense sense of release I felt after, that helped me realize I needed to end the charade.
The stuttering community immediately embraced me the moment I was willing to identify as a person who stutters. I first reached out to folks from the NSA and StutterSocial. I started reading everything I could find (much of it useless) and spent hours listening to podcasts. I sent messages to people whose ideas interested me and got a chance to meet many of them when I attended the National Conference last summer in Atlanta.
Through all these conversations, I found so much common ground, especially with the other woman, many of whom had also lived as covert. In fact, nearly all the women I spoke with had been covert for at least part of their lives, and many, like me, for a large part of their lives. I wondered if this was merely a coincidence or if women tend to become covert more often. I talked to a friend who has done research on covert stuttering (though not in this specific area) and he supposed that perhaps women have different societal standards than men, especially involving appearance and presentation. Along with standards of beauty, body shape and reputation, women’s voices have been a subject of scrutiny for generations. No wonder women who stutter feel the added pressure to conform to social norms of how they should sound. Women are expected to be delicate and poised. Stuttering can, at times, be in direct conflict with this.
The other factor this friend suggested was that women may have stronger verbal memories. I did a little research and actually found that any differences in cognitive performance between women and men are more likely the result of society and cultural factors, rather than actual differences in gender, but this doesn’t really change the outcome. Women may be able to change words more easily or have larger working vocabularies. Becoming covert may be the result of social pressures and women may be encouraged to use the avoidance skills they develop over time. What really strikes me as sad is that once a girl or woman is covert, she belongs to neither world: stuttering nor fluent. We are caught in a limbo of denial and dishonesty. This is a painful and debilitating place to be.
I’m quite happy to say that I’ve reached a point where I am not just comfortable with being a person who stutters, but also proud. I see it as one of my more unique and interesting characteristics as well an asset. I try not to dwell too much on the choices I made about how I lived the first part of my adult life, because I didn’t know another option. In a sense, I was just conforming to cultural expectations. I can’t help but wonder, though: If women are more likely to be covert and, like me, spend a good part of their lives this way, could there actually be more woman who stutter than are being currently statistically identified? If data is collected only from people who self-identify or people who participate in studies, then covert stutterers would presumably be excluded.
Society must change how it criticizes all voices, but women’s voices in particular. We are often held to a higher standard and encouraged to alter how we look and sound to conform to social ideals of beauty and presentation. Women and girls who stutter are particularly vulnerable because we have an added difference in the way we speak. We are censored and silenced because of ableist expectations of how we should sound. We are convinced to buy into the idea that fluency is the ideal and as a result, many of us resort to avoiding large parts of our lives. Improvements have been made in terms of beauty and body image. It’s time to tell girls and women that their voices are worthy of being heard just the way they are.