I've perfected masking my stammer, but at what cost?

A woman looking at the camera and smiling

Devon Tipping talks about the pressure to be fluent and her conflicting feelings about managing her stammer.

My life has been about hiding so many aspects of myself, including my stammer. Ever since I started to speak I have stammered, diagnosed as moderate to severe. Even with years of extensive speech & language therapy and all my efforts at home, I still stammer and will do for the rest of my life. Some children grow out of stammering but I was not one of them.

For the longest time my greatest life's wish was to appear as someone without a stammer. My speech is hardest to manage when I am stressed. Like a canary in a coal mine I know that I am struggling when I stammer more. Exam seasons, job interviews, business presentations. All environments where there is pressure to be a fluent and eloquent speaker.

Like a duck, I appear calm above water but underneath my feet are swimming wildly. It is exhausting."

Well-intentioned people often interrupt, speak over, finish my sentences or change the conversation topic. In a society where conversation is about being quick-witted I hope there will be more space for people who struggle to communicate with the eloquence that society expects. While managing my stammer is a miracle that allows me to communicate with the world, as much as it benefits me, it also keeps others comfortable. They don't have to be patient. If I don't stammer the conversation can flow as society expects it to.

It is ironic that I am writing this at a time when my speech is the most fluent it has ever been. I even sometimes have entire conversations where I don't stammer, a reality that past me could only have dreamed of. And yet this is when I want to be most open. Stammering affects me so much less that it used to, but it is still exhausting to manage each and every time I talk. I am so grateful for speech therapy and how it gave me the tools to find my voice, but I also want to be more open that it is still a struggle even if now a more invisible one.

Emotional toll

In the autistic community there are discussions about masking and its emotional toll of performing. I relate to these discussions because I mask my stammer all the time, constantly adjusting my speech so I appear fluent. But it is fake. I do not naturally speak fluently. Like a duck, I appear calm above water but underneath my feet are swimming wildly. It is exhausting.

When anyone asks me to present in a work meeting, or read out loud the instructions of a boardgame, I always have a momentary panic in my head: 'can I manage it?' before using all my energy to implement the necessary techniques to avoid stammering. And I am incredibly lucky as I can now manage my speech enough that most of the time people wouldn't notice. But in the past I would stammer heavily despite using the techniques I learnt in therapy. I would feel such failure, shame and embarrassment of people painfully waiting for me to struggle through.

I know that I will always stammer. After so many years of hiding, I want to embrace it."

What makes me sad is I would rather appear stupid or forgetful than stammer. I have pretended to forget my name, faked not being able to pronounce words, or changed the meaning of what I wanted to say, all to avoid stammering. And I have gotten good at it. 

In terms of speech therapy I am a success, and it makes my life so much easier. People understand and listen to what I have to say because I can communicate my thoughts. Having had times in my life where this wasn't the case, I am so grateful. I cannot describe the frustration of not being able to communicate your thoughts. Of missing out on friendships because you cannot manage to get any words out. Of people thinking you shy, disinterested or rude.

I have perfected masking my stammer, but at what cost? To not say what I actually want to say? To end the day exhausted by the mental toll of managing my speech? I no longer want to hide or exhaust myself with mental gymnastics to avoid stammering, because whether I stammer or not my thoughts are important enough to be listened to, the same as anyone else's. I can use the techniques I have learnt to make sure I can say the things I want to say, but when it comes to masking my stammering at the expense of changing what I wanted to say, I want to let this habit go. I know that I will always stammer. After so many years of hiding, I want to embrace it.

I write this for anyone else who struggles with their speech. I know how hard and lonely it can feel. But whether your speech is fluent or not, your voice matters.

Read more Your Voice articles from people who stammer and their allies. Would you like to write something? See Submit Something For The Site or email editor@stamma.org for details.

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Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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