Slice of Life: I am more than my stutter

March 21, 2018
Carl Herder, M.A., CCC-SLP, BCS-F
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Bibi is one of the many unique personalities with whom we've come into contact since establishing our new office in Atlanta, GA. Near the end of last school year, she was feeling tired of the impact stuttering was having on her life, and decided to ask a speech therapist at her high school if help was available. That therapist had recently learned of the new AIS office and she and Bibi spent time together watching videos on our site, considering whether it was going to be an option. Two weeks later, Bibi joined our first ever intensive program for teens in Atlanta. Since then, she's worked hard to live life more authentically, speak more freely, and be more open about her experience with stuttering.In a profound gesture of courage, she recently took to the stage in front of her entire high school to deliver a "Slice of Life" speech about being a covert stutterer.Take some time to watch and/or read her speech below. We are in shock and awe of Bibi and we think you will be too.

Bibi's Slice of Life: I am more than my stutter

Written and Presented by Bibi, age 17I will not talk about the things you think I am here to say. I will not talk about being Muslim or black or even a woman. I am here to talk about something I have tried to keep hidden for many years now. A part of myself I was in denial about for way too long. For as long as I can remember, speaking was always a difficult thing for me yet it may not be obvious due to the fact that I can’t ever shut up. Before this past year, speaking, specifically speaking fluently, was one of the hardest things for me. For years I tried to act in a way that I understood to be “normal.” I was the only kid I knew who stuttered and I felt as though it was something that needed to be hidden. I felt as though I had to hide my stutter because I thought stuttering made me stupid and that it was something that made people look down on me. Because of this, I became a covert stutterer. As a covert stutter, I did anything and everything possible to hide my stutter from everyone. From stomping my feet to slapping my thigh as I spoke, to analyzing every single word I could say. Stuttering controlled me more than I like to think it did. Talking was always a burden for me, one that could not be avoided completely. For years I allowed myself to become caught up in my own head. I would think of every word I could possibly say and concentrate on the ones that I thought would lead to a stutter. I knew that words that started with certain letters such as M, S, and O would most likely lead to a block and I would try change that word right before I said them. Proper nouns had the same effect on me. I would try to avoid them by acting as though I couldn’t remember it or giving a vague description.The constant act of processing and filtering out words became a norm for me. I could sift through words in my mind rather quickly or act as though I couldn’t remember something to pass as fluent. This was better than being made of fun in my mind. I did not realize how exhausting this was. I was constantly thinking of ways to hide my stutter and would always be on edge. Every conversation I had made me fearful because the thought of stuttering in front of another person was horrifying. I felt as though I had no safe space. I was never really myself with anyone, including family and friends. For years, I attempted to be someone I knew I wasn’t. I somehow developed the ability, in some situations, to speak for long periods of time without stuttering, so in my mind, I “cured” my stuttering. For a couple years, I went on like this, until my second semester of sophomore year, when all my tricks failed, all at once. I was left feeling isolated and honestly, I thought I would never find a solution. This took a huge toll on me mentally and it showed academically. I stopped participating in class and slowly began to just give up. Once again I felt like everything I wanted to do couldn’t be done because of my stutter, and that this would inhibit me from being the person I’ve always imagined myself to be. My stutter became too much to handle and I felt as though I had no one to help me. The idea of speaking out made me nauseous and I had no idea what to do next. All seemed doomed until it was time to do a spanish presentation. Stuttering is hard enough in English and with everything going on, I knew things were going to get ugly in class. Let’s just say the presentation never happened and tears were shed later on. Shoutout to my partner though, because throughout that cringey process, they never made me feel as though I was stupid.

After that experience, I talked to my teacher and realized that it was time for a change. At this point, I was over keeping it hidden. I was fed up with the way I was making myself feel. I about it a lot and the thought of asking for help never crossed my mind until the that very day. I realized that it’s okay to need help, and its okay to need a lot of it. I thought, maybe I could be open about my stutter, at least with my teachers, and not take on all this alone. As things happen in high school, a new presentation was assigned in a different class and as much as I would love to say I stood in front of the class and did my presentation without being afraid of stuttering, that didn’t happen. However, I did well on the presentation, despite me thinking that if I say something with a stutter it changes its value and means that what I said wasn’t important. For many people who stutter, the physical part of it is not the problem, it’s mostly everything else, especially the reaction. I used to think that in order for something to be meaningful, it had to be said a certain way. This was big for me. Never have I ever stood during a presentation and allowed myself to make eye contact during a block. Never have I told someone, specifically a teacher, that I stuttered and would need an accommodation. For the most part, I held myself back due to what I said. I was so afraid of how people would react to my stutter, and to face the humiliation that came with that. I think what comes with getting older is realizing that some things are not in your control, and it’s important to focus on what you can control. After that sliver of relief, there was no way I could go back. This teacher took it upon themselves to help me find help, and to them I am incredibly grateful for.

Towards the end of the semester I was working with Danielle Moore to help find a way for me to get speech therapy, something I’ve never heard of for people who stutter. Thanks to Danielle’s research, we found a company known as AIS, American Institute for Stuttering. One of their speech pathologists had just moved to Atlanta. We stalked their website and watched some videos and decided to get into contact with them. Next thing I know, I’m signing up for a one week intensive with Carl Herder with three other boys and no warning as to what I was getting myself into. It’s not called an intensive for nothing. I don’t know if it was because I was fasting and riding Marta and doing all this stuff, but it was one of the longest weeks of my life. I went from no speech therapy experience to a 10:00 am to 4:30 pm seven week day where we did whatever Carl decided. From phone calls to random restaurants to talking to strangers at Piedmont Park, the intensive was all about learning to accept your stutter and to learn to live with it. The intensive was all about speaking freely, and saying what you want to actually say without all the negative thoughts. We debated, we talked, we laughed, and overall, we all were given a space where we could talk how we wanted, say what we wanted, in a room where everyone understood how difficult it is to do that on a daily basis. At the end of the week, we invited friends and family to talked about what we learned in the intensive. Here’s an excerpt from my speech back in June:

“Until this week, I always thought having a stutter was a negative aspect of my life. I kept it from friends, teachers, and even family members. Not only was I blocking in my speech I began blocking a part of myself out. I decided that I will not let my stutter have that much control over me anymore. I am more than my stutter, and I have more to offer.”

The week ended, and I was faced with the reality of what to do next. With most of my summer left, I began to talk about school and set goals for myself. I was able to point out the center of my "onion diagram," those who I am most comfortable speaking with, and look at myself in a different light. I am not going to stand here today and say that I am completely done with my speech therapy or that I am completely confident in how I speak. I will say that I am working on accepting who I am, for how I am. When the school year started, like most do, I understood the phrase “easier said than done.” Aside from a small group of friends and family, no one knew I stuttered. Coming back to school meant coming back to a place where everyone thought I could speak fluent. It was hard. 99% of what I dealt with had nothing to do with my stutter and more to do with everything else. The expectation we have around speech fluency and the negative stigma we attach to stuttering is one that is restrictive, and as a stutter, it leaves me hopeless. From a very young age, speaking fluently was always my number one goal because that was what society has as the norm. When I was not able to do that, I felt as though something was wrong with me, and that it was my job to change that. The reality of it is that I will most likely never speak fluent and that trying to hide my stutter only makes things worse for me.

One time in a session, Carl, my speech therapist said “Stuttering is a communication disorder, not a speech disorder. Communicating things is a different mental process and it's different every time.” This means a lot of things obviously, but the main thing is that stuttering is dependent upon the stutterer. Some stutter more when reading something verbatim, like me, or stutter more in a conversation while they may read rather fluent. What I do in speech therapy is most likely the exact opposite of what you think it is. Besides that one time Carl made me talk to myself in a mirror while he stood off to the side asking questions, we talk about ways to help me become a better speaker that stutters. We talk about how what I say matters, regardless of how it comes out of my mouth. I hope to convey that to you all now. We are living in a time where teenagers are in a paradoxical standing, yet it is important for us to remember that we have more to offer than what people may first think. As AIS says it, speak freely, live fearlessly. Thank you. The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY and Atlanta, GA, and services are also available Online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.

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