Think about your biggest insecurity and picture it hovering above your head for the world to see, 24/7. Think about how sharing that with others might make you feel. Embarrassed? Vulnerable? Nervous? Anxious? Fearful of being judged?
Often, that’s how I feel when I open my mouth to speak.
The title of my story isn’t a joke or a hypothetical question…because the answer is yes! I’m actually a person who stutters.
Stuttering is technically classified as a disability, albeit one that not a lot of people accept or view as a disability. Some see it as a “quirky personality trait” or something that’s “cute” or “endearing.” (All things I’ve been told, by the way.)
There are different types of stuttering, and most people are familiar with the repetition of words or sounds. While that does happen to me sometimes, my stuttering typically comes in the form of blocking, which are long pauses in between words or sounds. I liken it to the phrase “there’s a frog in my throat,” where the darn word just won’t come out. I know exactly what I need or want to say, but the neurological pathways connecting my brain to my mouth don’t always function in the way they’re supposed to. It’s frustrating when you know exactly how you want to say something but you physically can’t.
In society, the connotation of stuttering is usually associated with incompetence, uncertainty and not being confident. In TV shows, movies and even books, a character who stutters is commonly utilized as comedic relief, or is deemed meek, shy, introverted or dumb.
I’m a pretty outgoing person, who loves meeting new people, trying new things and being an overall goofball. Even though I knew I was an intelligent, friendly and confident person, I eventually started to mentally deteriorate. As a half-Filipino-American and a member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, it’s also common in our culture to not show weakness. (Not-so-fun fact: Asian Americans are less likely to use mental health services than any other racial group, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (Racial/Ethnic Differences in Mental Health Service Use Among Adults, 2015). The more I hid my stutter from family, friends and co-workers, the worse it got, which is typical for someone who “internalizes” or hides their stutter.
I played mental gymnastics constantly. B’s are a particularly hard letter for me, so to avoid stuttering in work settings, I would say the word “ad spend” instead of “budget” because it was easier. Because I swapped around words and phrases so much, I sometimes didn’t make sense. Simply put, doing this all the time was exhausting. And it made me feel super alone.
I carried the weight of my stuttering secret, terrified that my work colleagues would think I was unfit for my role because I wasn’t articulating myself in a “normal” way. I was afraid to go on dates, not sure if men would be attracted to a woman who didn’t “seem confident.” In social settings, I was afraid of embarrassing myself in front of my peers. I avoided Starbucks and fitting rooms in clothing stores because I knew they asked for your name. And phew! Introducing myself to people (Mallory) is hard, y’all. M’s are my least favorite letter.
My breaking point was when I was on the phone for a job interview in fall 2018. I was stuttering so badly that I couldn’t form a complete sentence and ended up having a panic attack during the interview. (Luckily they still hired me – thanks University of Colorado Boulder!) After that moment, I decided to seek speech therapy to combat all the shame and anxiety I was feeling. It honestly saved my life, and my mental health has improved tenfold.
Four years later, I have accepted that while I do stutter, it does not define me. I still stutter daily and experience off-putting or rude comments from strangers, but they don’t affect me as much as they used to. I’ve learned that my worth is not tied to others’ perception of me. As a normally very impatient person (I’m a Type A kind of gal), I’ve learned how to be more patient with others. As a natural storyteller and someone who loves to talk, I’ve learned how to be a better listener. I’ve become more empathetic and learned to be less judgmental since you never know what someone is battling internally.
During a conversation about diversity and inclusion on a Slack “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) with the team just one month into my role, I already felt comfortable disclosing to everyone that I’m a person who stutters. They welcomed me with open arms, and I could not be more grateful.