Make Room For The Stuttering

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This is the time of year that I visit schools and do a lot of presentations about program options for students entering their junior and senior years of high school. Over the course of 2 months, I make about 50 presentations.

I usually hesitate to disclose that I stutter to these high school students because I worry that it will detract from what I’m talking about. I’m not going to make a presentation about stuttering so I don’t ever plan to talk about stuttering.

Sometimes though it’s unavoidable!

Yesterday while doing my second presentation of the day, I was stuttering exceptionally well. Like on almost every word. I felt really self-conscious and was ultra aware of how I sounded. I worried that the kids were going to think something was wrong, as I was in full-on repetition mode and also hesitating and pausing a lot.

So I decided to stop for a moment, took a deep breath, and said to the students, “Hey guys, I want you to know something. I stutter and I’m having a real stutter-y day. So if you hear stuttering, that’s all it is, just stuttering. OK?” And then I went right back to where I left off in my presentation. And it was OK.

The students didn’t bat an eyelash. No one commented or made funny faces or anything. They just took it in stride.

I was so relieved. Putting it out there like that made it easier for me to continue stuttering and actually I noticed that I gradually stuttered less. And I was relieved that I actually disclosed, because I’m not really comfortable doing that while making work presentations.

Now that I did it like this, I feel like I’ll be more comfortable doing it again if need be.

The disclosure was for my benefit, not my audience. I said what I did to make myself more comfortable while stuttering so well. It was a small form of self-care that I really needed to do.

What do you think about how I handled it? Have you done something similar?

Earlier this week, I gave 4 presentations to high school students about career planning and options for scheduling for their last two years of school. This is something I do every year as part of my job as Outreach Specialist. Every November and December, I go out to school districts in my area and present about vocational programs that students can choose.

As I’ve been doing this now for many years, you’d think I would be totally used to the challenges of public speaking with a stutter. Right? Wrong! I still feel self conscious when I have lots of stuttering and sometimes my mind wanders with thoughts that the students are thinking there is something wrong with me.

Monday happened to be one of those days where I stuttered a lot and was very aware of it. I did not disclose to the audience ahead of time like I sometimes do, because I didn’t want students focusing on my stuttering. I wanted them paying attention to the information I was sharing.

In between two of the presentations, I overheard two students whispering (loudly enough for me to hear) and laughing about speech impediments. Clearly they had heard me stutter and were talking about it. I felt very uncomfortable but didn’t react or say anything to them. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have disclosed that I stutter at the beginning of the presentations and just trusted that the students would take it in stride and act respectfully. Maybe I didn’t give them enough credit.

It bothered me that I let stuttering and someone’s reaction to it bother me as much as it did. I did a pretty good job of not letting it show though. I’ve always believed that when you’re speaking in public, you should never let the audience know that you’re uncomfortable or “sweating something.”

Someone told me yesterday that there will always be another day where I’ll have a more positive experience. He’s right. I’ll have plenty more opportunities to present in the coming weeks and choose to disclose my stuttering if I think that will be helpful.

What do you think? How do you handle the challenges that come with public speaking and stuttering?

I am so happy to have a piece published today on The Mighty about stuttering. It’s called 5 Things I Wish My Younger Self Knew About Stuttering. The older I get, the more I appreciate what I’ve learned about stuttering. And I often think how things would have been different if I knew some of these things when I was growing up.

Here is the piece:

When I was growing up as a kid who stuttered, I felt so isolated. I didn’t know anybody else who talked like me, and no one ever talked about my stuttering. My father would yell at me when I stuttered, which made me feel scared and ashamed. When I started school, I remember my kindergarten teacher also reprimanding me for the way I talked, which again made me feel so ashamed.

I got teased a lot for my stuttering. Kids mimicked me and laughed and I began to not want to talk at all, because of the reactions I got and the feelings I had. It was a very lonely experience growing up thinking I was the only person who talked like this. I felt weird and awkward and like somehow stuttering was my fault.

I worried about stuttering all the time and constantly figured out ways to not stutter openly. I developed a huge vocabulary as a kid, and became an expert at substituting words that I knew I would stutter on with words that were safer to say. And I also avoided speaking situations a lot. Sometimes it was just easier not to talk – then it was guaranteed that I wouldn’t stutter.

As I got older, things changed. Dealing with stuttering became a little easier, because I learned to not care so much about what other people thought. And I met other people who stutter, which changed my life dramatically. I realized I wasn’t the only one and there was no need for me to feel so weird and awkward anymore.

These are the things I know now about stuttering that I would have liked to know when I was younger.

1. Stuttering is no one’s fault. It is a speech disorder that interferes with the normal flow of speech production. It is widely thought today that stuttering is neurological and also genetic. No one in my immediate or extended family stutters, but it definitely wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything to cause my stutter, and neither did my parents.

2. When you get older, stuttering is easier to deal with. It’s a bigger deal in our heads than it really is to other people. Adults have their own issues – they don’t care that someone else stutters.

3. Stuttering does not mean that we are less intelligent than others or that we have emotional problems. We are not nervous or shy. We just stutter. We’re as smart as anyone else and can do anything that anyone else can.

4. There are lots of people who stutter. In fact, there is a whole community of people who stutter, from all walks of life. People who stutter are very successful and have careers as lawyers, doctors, educators and many more. When I was growing up, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get a good job just because of the way I speak. That’s just not true.

5. Stuttering make us unique. Only 1 percent of the general population stutters, which means I have something that 99 percent of the world doesn’t have. And that’s kind of cool.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending a one-day NSA conference sponsored by the Boston chapters of the NSA. The conference was held at Boston University, where one of the coordinators of the stuttering program arranged for space to be used for the day.

I drove over to Boston from Albany, NY where I live. It was about a 3 hour drive, and most of it, both to and from, it rained. It even snowed a little on the way back, which I was totally not ready for in October.

I had no expectations of the one-day conference, except that I was looking forward to spending the day with other people who stutter. And what better day for this than International Stuttering Awareness Day (ISAD) which is recognized every October 22. I met lots of people from the Boston area as we spent the day together in workshops and at lunch. I really enjoyed hearing so many Boston accents!

The first workshop of the day was on self-advocacy, something that is near and dear to my heart. I believe that everyone who stutters should advocate for themselves because no one else is going to do it for us. Jess facilitated this workshop by sharing some scenarios she created to use as discussion points. Our group only got through 3 of 8 scenarios because we all shared our experiences with advocacy – both what we found easy to do and what may be more difficult.

The next workshop focused on choosing activities that we could participate in that would stretch us out of our comfort zones or be a real peak performance for us. People shared what they were willing to try when they got back home. One guy said that he wants to get up the courage to ask a question at a meeting that usually is comprised of 200 people. He wants to be able to do that with no shame of stuttering openly. Another guy said he wants to check out a Toastmasters meeting. Another guy said he wants to make more phone calls than always relying on the internet or email.

The last workshop that we attended was the screening of the short film “Stutterer.” We watched it as a group – adults, parents and SLP students. I had already seen the film but delighted in seeing it again with people who were seeing it for the first time. We had a great discussion about whether we thought the film portrayed stuttering realistically. We also talked about how it made us feel and what we thought about the ending, which had a surprise twist.

It was a great day of coming together, sharing experiences and supporting each other. We wrapped up with watching a video the kids had made about stuttering and how they want to be treated by others when they are stuttering. The kids were amazing with their open and shame-free stuttering.

The Boston NSA chapter leaders Sarah and Jess did an amazing job putting this conference together. I was very glad I went and got to spend time with other amazing people who stutter on International Stuttering Awareness Day.

On the last night of improv class, one of my classmates came up to me to talk for a minute. She had a sheepish look on her face, as if she was wasn’t sure how I’d react to what she was about to say.

She said, “You know, how, like you stutter” and she had her hand cupped over her mouth as if she didn’t want anyone else to hear it. She went on to say, “I have a friend who stutters too and I really think you two should meet. She’ll be here tonight.” I said, “OK.”

Well, we got busy with the show and performing and all and before we knew it, the night was over and I was saying my goodbyes. My classmate mentioned that I hadn’t met her friend. I told her I had to get going, as I was driving my mom home. She said maybe another time then, as she was sure we’d hit it off.

I laughed to myself. How many times has this happened to you? That someone wants to introduce you to someone just because you both stutter. Like we’d be fast friends because we have stuttering in common.

Note to readers: just because two people stutter doesn’t mean they will be best friends. Just like with anyone else, you may not like each other, one might rub the other the wrong way or maybe one is a jerk, (not me of course!) despite being a person who stutters.

It is true that people who stutter definitely have something in common, but it doesn’t automatically mean they will hit it off and become best friends. I just think it’s funny that people automatically want to introduce me to someone else who stutters because they’re sure we’ll hit it off.

This has happened to me several times. What about you?

Last month, I wrote about how I had joined a beginners improv class. I was nervous and apprehensive at the beginning of the class, for several reasons. I had zero experience with improv and was afraid I’d make a fool of myself. And I worried about how my stuttering would play into it.

Well, last week I completed the class and actually performed with my group in front of a live audience, after just four weeks of learning and practicing. Guess what? It was fun and I really enjoyed it.

I had disclosed that I stutter in the first week of class, so got that out of the way quickly. Then I just went with the flow and let myself be creative and have fun with my classmates. My worry about making a fool of myself was unfounded because that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in improv.

Here’s what I learned in improv. You  don’t have to be funny to do improv. You just have to be open to what a partner says and respond and build on what they’ve said. One of the rules of improv is “Yes, And.” This means to agree with your partner and add to what they’ve said, whether or not it makes contextual sense.

I also learned that I have the ability to be a deep listener, which is an essential tool of improv and of life. I think stuttering has taught me to be a great listener, because I used to always prefer listening to talking.

And I learned how to be more mindful and in the present moment, which is also helpful in all aspects of life. Being grounded means we can develop better relationships and we need that more than ever in today’s world.

The performance went great. Our group was called the “Slippery Alligator Udders.” We had a supportive audience who laughed and enjoyed our show. My initial nerves dissipated right away as I relaxed and leaned into the creativity and playfulness of our group.

I never thought I’d say this, but improv was good for me. it helped me get out of my head and enjoy something without worrying about stuttering. I’d recommend it for anyone looking to push out of their comfort zones.

I am looking forward to taking the 201 level class and seeing what I can create next.

 

Well, I took a big risk and joined an improv class. I had heard improv was a great way to get out of your comfort zone, practice being in the moment and have fun.

My first class was this week. I had googled a few articles on improv so had a general idea as to what it was, but really had no idea what to expect when I walked into the classroom. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I was nervous about looking foolish in front of others and about how to handle the fact I stutter.

It was important for me to find a way to let my classmates know that I stutter so they wouldn’t be surprised when they heard me stuttering.

We started out with doing some warm-up exercises to get to know each other. They were a combination of saying our names and doing a fun action. Before we knew it, everyone was laughing and seemed somewhat comfortable. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who was nervous.

We then moved into learning some of the basics of improv, like establishing relationships and places so that onlookers can get a sense of the scene you’re creating. We worked on collaborating with each other, using the improv strategy of “Yes, and.” This strategy has us agreeing with what our partner gives us and adding to it, forging onward with what we are given. In other words, much of improv is going with the flow.

At one point, the teachers wanted all of us to get to know one another, as our selves, not characters we were creating. We paired up and just talked to each other, asking questions to get to learn about each other.

My partner asked me how my summer was and if I had done any thing fun. Here was my opening to talk about stuttering. I mentioned that I had gone to Atlanta for a conference and naturally she asked what type of conference.

I told her it was the annual NSA conference for people who stutter and that I stuttered. She went with the flow and said that was very interesting. Everyone was watching our “introduction piece” so I advertised it to the group as well. After that, I felt more comfortable letting my stuttering out and just going with the flow.

I am really looking forward to seeing how this class goes. I’ve been looking for something to challenge me since finishing with Toastmasters and this definitely will be a challenge. I’ve been worried about the fact that I am not naturally funny and I’ve read that I don’t have to try and be funny. I can just be natural and work with classmates and think in the moment and work as a team and funny will naturally happen. I’m hopeful that’s true.

Wish me luck. We do a performance in front of an audience at the end of the class, live on stage. I’ll really be stepping out of my comfort zone and hopefully having a blast!

 


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© Pamela A Mertz and Make Room For The Stuttering, 2009 - 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Pamela A Mertz and Make Room For The Stuttering with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Same protection applies to the podcasts linked to this blog, "Women Who Stutter: Our Stories" and "He Stutters: She Asks Him." Please give credit to owner/author Pamela A Mertz 2016.