In the first of a two-article collection highlighting International Stuttering Awareness Day, October 22, Claudine Diedericks writes of her experience with a stutter.
“You stutter, don’t you?”
Four words, four seconds, and my life would never be the same again. These were the words spoken by my closest confidant, words that hit to the core. “I stutter… I stutter?”
For years, stuttering followed me like a shadow, not always present but knowingly there. My first memory of realisation goes back to kindergarten, where I wondered how my friend could so easily ask questions or speak her mind in class, whereas I always felt the words getting stuck before I could even say them aloud. Later on in my school years I became aware of the term stuttering, and perceived that this is a “problem” faced by only a handful, if at all. One of my biggest struggles was related to speaking in front of groups, something I would dread for days or weeks on end depending on when I was informed about an oral presentation I had to give in class. Besides these and other high pressure situations such as telephone calls, sudden questions, reading aloud in class (you get the picture), I found a way to adapt my speech in such a manner where I could almost appear as a normal, fluent speaker. The benefits of this was of course an extensive vocabulary as I more often than not had to make use of several synonyms to replace the “problematic” words. This approach of hiding my stutter got me through high school, but after that it became increasingly difficult to maintain.
Perhaps it was the extra challenges that university brought, or simply just growing up and becoming more aware of my quality of life. Be that as it may, I could no longer pretend that I was a fluent speaker, struggling with saying what I wanted to say and when I wanted to say it on a more regular basis. The first cracks leading up to my breakpoint came when I had to give my final presentation for my undergraduate degree. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and was very well prepared, but no amount of preparation could see me through that day. Standing in front of the whole department, trying to put a coherent word together, let alone a coherent sentence, every sound being blocked and squeezed in my vocal cords before they could be vocalised. Every second was horrendous as I stood in front of that group, not making sense at all. This led me to the thought that my passiveness towards my speech and how it affects me should change; something had to change. And then, breaking point came. I had a conversation with my confidant, one filled with more repetitions than usual, and the unimaginable question was posed to me: “You stutter, don’t you?”
My world came crashing down. I could no longer hide and pretend that I do not stutter. If he knows, how many other people knew? My walls of avoidance came tumbling down, my deception to self and others crumbled. “Who am I?” This question led me to a deep introspection, I was tired of being held captive by my stutter and conforming to the boundaries it imposed on me. For years I allowed my biggest flaw to dictate what I could or could not do, sending me on a different path I would not necessarily have chosen if I had the freedom of fluent speech. The prospects of such a life looked dire, and I knew the time for change was upon me. This led me to an extensive search on the internet, looking for solutions to overcome stuttering and surprisingly finding out that I was certainly not alone. Several websites later with hours invested in my search, brought me to the McGuire Programme, a worldwide speech programme instructed by people who stutter for people who stutter. For the first time I came in contact with many, ordinary, people who struggled with the same “problem” I thought was my burden alone. I joined the programme in May 2010. My life changed, my quality of life changed. I have learned to address the fear associated with stuttering, to speak about my stutter openly and to, with the help of several techniques, practice control of my speech. Waking up every day thinking about my speech, and going to bed thinking about my speech, is now not as frightful as it used to be.
“Who am I?” An age-old question I am still exploring, but with certainty I can say I am not my stutter. My “problem” is now my stepping stone. This is my journey to eloquence.
Feature Image: Claudine Diedericks