I did not know I stuttered until the fourth grade.
That year, following a brief stint in a Catholic academy, I began attending public school. My new classmates found the halting way I spoke peculiar, and pointed it out. When they did, shame and humiliation were borne in on me for the first time. My mother paired me with a speech therapist, to no avail. My first 34 years have included a stutter, as well as an emotional anguish connected to it. Like a sad balloon tied to a car’s bumper, it always hovers in tow.
Few people stutter. (The Stuttering Foundation of America says 1 percent of the world’s population does.) Everyone, though, understands what stuttering is: speech marked by repetitions (“Pa-pa-pa-pass the bu-bu-butter”), prolongations (“Mmmmmy name is Wwwwwwilliam”) or an inability to produce sounds from your lips. I have prolongations and an inability to speak on cue. I can joke about it. Mainly, though, I do not. Ask yourself how often you speak between getting in bed and getting out. Ordering food. Making an appointment. Thanking someone. Introducing yourself. Saying goodnight. Now insert a sense of doom into everyone of those situations. Careful, or every waking moment can be dominated by the thing.
The universe works in head-shaking ways. Find anyone I went to school with, tell them I have made a living for the last decade as a reporter, and they would likely be astonished. It is a job centered on speaking. I love my work. But even on good days — my stutter is a cruel magician that performs vanishing and reappearing acts — talking can leave me physically exhausted.
Eight months ago, I decided to try therapy again. On just about every Monday afternoon since September I have walked from The Dispatch offices to the Mississippi University for Women campus. There, in the Department of Speech Language Pathology, I met for one hour with Dr. Michelle Harmon and two graduate students, Ashley Joyner and Mary Margaret Robbins. It is fair to say those three worked wonders.
One of the first lessons: I will likely always stutter. Muscle memory is involved in speaking and my brain has a tendency to tell my mouth to create sounds in ways that lead to stuttering moments. Instead of training to eliminate my stutter, I worked toward learning to control it as best as possible. There are specific techniques involved, and they are not worth going into, other than to say they involve identifying potential trouble words, approaching them certain ways and never, ever avoiding them. (A stutterer who struggles with “M” words, for example, might want to say “massive” but opt instead for “big.” Do this often enough and you can lose parts of yourself.) Where the techniques are concerned, I am on my way.
But I also learned, with the help of my therapists, that the biggest hurdle I face in dealing with my stutter is snuffing out the lifetime’s worth of negativity I have pinned to the way I speak. It will be hard. My fear of my stutter has affected most areas of my life. I’ve skipped friends’ weddings, for fear of having to introduce myself. I’ve ordered ranch dressing when I wanted bleu cheese. I’ve played dumb when asked questions because the answer involved a trouble word. These things can breed self-loathing, which feeds the stutter.
In short, acceptance is the goal. I am not there, yet. In the company of loved ones my stutter does not trigger an undertow of negativity. In professional settings, though, a stuttering moment has the ability to freeze my marrow. I want to take that power away from my stutter. Unleash the balloon, as it were.
To that end, Dr. Harmon, during a therapy session not long ago, suggested it might do me good to write a column about my situation. This is it.
Mine is not a singular case. Approximately 3 million Americans stutter and each of them, I am sure, grapple with anxious feelings regarding it. I hope you have caught a glimpse of it. Still, I know it is a misunderstood thing.
So let me say this: If you have any questions about stuttering, I hope you come and ask me.
I will be glad to talk.
William Browning is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]