31st March 2021
James Hayden, our regular contributor from the USA, writes about the benefits of telling people he stammers. He just wishes he started doing it sooner.
What advice would you give your younger self?
One thing I would tell my 18-year-old self is to disclose the fact that you stutter as soon as possible. 18-year-old me would've looked at 27-year-old me and said, "Yeah…no. Why would I do that?" However, telling people I stutter would've saved me a lot of embarrassment and shame. Yet, learning the beauty in disclosure is a lesson I don't think a younger me would have been able to appreciate.
I never used to disclose. My reasoning was, "If you talk to me long enough, then you'll figure it out." The first time I remember telling someone I stutter was in 2013. I was in my second year at college and had to take a public speaking class. Before I was due to make my introductory speech, I met with my professor to tell him, with shame, nerves and embarrassment, that I stutter.
Learning the beauty in disclosure is a lesson I don't think a younger me would have been able to appreciate.
On the day of my talk I was nervous, which makes my stutter more severe. My professor called my name and I stood in front of the class of roughly twenty five others, about to give my speech. Before I began, he told everyone, "This is James and he stutters." If you're ever wondering what not to do to someone who stutters, then look no further than this example. I wanted to run out of the room and never step foot in there again. Instead, I swallowed that lump in my throat and stuttered my way through my speech.
A few months after that, I worked at a sleep-away camp. Each week we got a new set of campers and in one of the orientation sessions I decided to say something. "I'm James and I stutter," I said. "Some people are tall and some people are short. We all have differences, but we all respect each other and treat one another with kindness." This was the first time I disclosed and owned my stutter to a room full of strangers. Saying the words "I stutter," may not seem like a lot, but when you’ve spent most your life wanting to say anything but those two words, it’s a massive deal. I disclosed during every orientation after that.
Becoming comfortable with disclosing
What helped me slowly turn the corner towards becoming comfortable with disclosing was getting involved with a support group in 2015. I was in a new city and wanted to meet people. I also wanted to accept my stutter. Internally at the time, I was starting to become OK with the notion that stuttering wasn't the worst thing on the planet. Externally, however, I wasn’t quite ready to show it. Yet, when I stepped through those meeting room doors that night, something changed. I willingly talked to strangers about the one topic I never wanted to discuss or acknowledge. In hindsight, I think that meeting planted the seeds of me becoming comfortable with disclosing. However, it took a couple of years for those seeds to bloom into what they are today.
When I started a new job in 2018, I still didn't disclose my stutter in my interview. A couple of weeks in though, I decided to tell my assigned mentor. When I did so, her response was, "I know," and we continued my training. My nerves and anxiety about disclosing were all for nothing.
Now whenever a new person starts, I disclose at the first opportunity. I typically tell them, "You may have noticed that I stutter. All I ask is that you don't finish my sentences. If you have any questions about it or need me to repeat what I said, then don’t hesitate to ask."
Social media & dating disclosure
As I became more comfortable disclosing to people at work and socially, my next step was disclosing online. I rarely posted any stuttering-related topics on social media. The few times I did, I wouldn't check the reaction for hours because I was afraid of negative comments. Most of the time, though, the post would only get one comment and two 'likes'. But over the past five years, I've become more and more comfortable with talking about it on social media. I think I've become more comfortable with this part of myself and stuttering advocacy has become my passion.
Firstly, I'm telling my audience that it's more than OK to stutter and discuss it. Second, every disclosure presents a new opportunity for me to further accept and embrace this part of myself.
My comfort in disclosing has transcended my social media to my online dating profiles. I put that I stutter either in my bio or as an answer to the prompt 'What's a fun fact about yourself?' It's also a good way to weed people out. If me taking a few extra seconds to say what I want to say is going to be a dealbreaker, then why bother wasting our time and energy going on a date?
As I've become more comfortable with this part of myself, I've become more comfortable disclosing to strangers. My main method is this: whenever I meet someone new and they ask what I do for a living I respond, "I'm a medical technologist and a writer on the side." If they ask what I write about, then I say, "My journey with stuttering." In situations where I have to do an icebreaker I say, "My fun fact is that I’m a person who stutters."
By openly disclosing, I accomplish two things. One, I'm taking ownership of my stutter. I'm telling my audience that it's more than OK to stutter and discuss it. Second, every disclosure presents a new opportunity for me to further accept and embrace this part of myself.
My long journey with disclosure has thus far culminated in two life lessons. Firstly, I've learnt that I care about my stutter so much more than anyone else does. The bigger and more important lesson is how powerful and beautiful it is to own all of who you are.