SocietyMade possible by

Just let me finish my sentence: life with a stutter

Today is International Stuttering Awareness Day. Spinoff staff writer Sam Brooks has a stutter; this is what it’s like.

Sometimes I can’t be bothered cooking. It’s been a long day of spinoffing at the Spinoff office, I’ve written a lot of hot takes and considered the left-wing agenda.

On those days, I might go outside my flat in the CBD and think of where to go to eat, with my disposable income and general urban privilege.

A thought stops me. I’m tired. I don’t want to have to talk to somebody. Where can I go where I won’t have to talk to somebody and order food?

This is not an abnormal thought – lots of people don’t want to talk to strangers after a moderately hard day at work.

It’s not quite the same thing for me.

I genuinely cannot remember when I first stuttered. A stutter, if you don’t know it, or if you haven’t seen The King’s Speech, is a disfluency in speech. You might have a block, you might repeat words, you might do any number of verbal tics. You don’t talk like other people do.

I remember being fluent – the opposite of stuttering, the natural state of being for most people – at around ten years of age, and going into intermediate school without a stutter, although rationally this is unlikely to be the case. Most children who are going to stutter start stuttering at the age of six, or around that age, and many of those children undertake speech therapy to ‘treat’ it, so it isn’t an issue in later life.

I vaguely remember going to therapy as a child, but I couldn’t tell you what impact it had on me or my speech.

I remember going into high school and having a stutter – and having to deal with having a stutter.

I remember people interrupting me. I remember people trying to guess what I was going to finish a sentence with, and invariably being wrong. I remember people asking if I could write something down.

I can’t give a lot of universal tips on what to do when you encounter someone who stutters, but I can give one: don’t do any of the above. Let them finish their sentence.

There’s one person on the planet, my best friend, who I would ever let finish my sentence. And somewhat ironically, he would never ever do that, because he’s my best friend and he would let me finish my sentence.

Source: GettyImages.

I stutter as an adult. Spoiler: It’s why I’m writing this. It’s a severe stutter. I wouldn’t know how to quantify it, but I would say that I stutter a lot and it affects a lot of my speech, meaning a lot of my speech is disfluent, lacking fluency. People who don’t stutter speak fluently, when they start a sentence they can finish it without difficulty.

(This is how I define it, none of this is scientific, but is based entirely on my own experience. My experience as someone who stutters represents only my own and is not, in any way, intended to reflect anybody else’s.)

I wish I could say it doesn’t bother me. I suppose in the scheme of things it isn’t a big thing. I say what I want to say. I say what needs to be said. I also say a lot of things that do not need to be said, as many people do. In saying many of those things, I stutter.

On those nights where I don’t want to talk to somebody it’s not because I’m socially awkward. I’m not! I talk to strangers all the time and have no issue in making them uncomfortable.

I just can’t be bothered stuttering.

I don’t want to get to an item on the menu and not be able to say it. I don’t want to have to order something I don’t want just because it’ll be easier to say it. I don’t want a queue to form behind me. I don’t want the person serving me to think I’m anything less than normal.

I know places around my flat where I can do that. I know where I can just point; or the person knows me well enough that I have a usual order; I know where I won’t have to make a complicated order.

Sometimes this means I can’t have Zambrero or Subway; where you need to speak for every single ingredient you have. But sometimes I really want that. (More Zambrero than Subway, because the last time I went to Subway was when the BNZ banks went down for like a night and I ordered a sub and then couldn’t pay for it with my card and now I’m far too embarrassed to go back there.)

It is my cross, my tiny made-of-fake-wood cross, to bear. It’s something I have to think about. Sometimes I just don’t want somebody to think I’m less than, or anything other than, normal.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate that my stutter has not been a huge debilitating factor in my life; it hasn’t deterred me from the things I want to do, which is write plays and write about television shows that I watch and nobody else does.

I got through high school fairly unscathed, or no more or less scathed than any other person gets through high school. I got through university unscathed. I get through my day-to-day life without any events. Actually, that is not true.

There are little micro-aggressions that I gloss over in my own brain because it’s nothing compared to what other people deal with. But let’s be real, this is a day for being real, and this is a piece for being real. It’s a rare occurrence when I can make an appointment over the phone without being hung up on. About a year ago I tried to sort out some tickets overseas over the phone, and had to get a friend to ring up the ticket-sorting people and pretend to be me.

This kind of thing happens a lot. It’s easier to do. When I went overseas with my best friend last year and we had to pick up tickets for shows (which we did often, because I wanted to see a shit-ton of theatre), he would do it for me. It would save the awkwardness for me, the awkwardness for the ticket person, and it would get the whole transaction over faster.

This doesn’t bother me. Maybe it should. It’s an adjustment I’ve made to my life – chosen to make to my life, not had to make – to make life easier for other people, and myself.

Sometimes I don’t stutter when I talk. These are strange moments. My stutter is essentially, fundamentally, and somewhat frustratingly, random. Sometimes I don’t stutter in moments that should be very stressful for me. Sometimes I stutter around my best friends who have seen the worst parts of me and for some reason still love me. There is neither rhyme nor reason to it.

Sometimes when I don’t stutter, normally when I’m embarking on some mindless monologue about this actress or this play, there’s a moment where I’m like “Oh shit I’m cured it’ll never happen again.” This happens too much for me to really count. I’ll get through a conversation fluently, without stuttering, like every other person, like every other normal and I mean normal in quotation marks person. And everything is fine.

Sometimes these moments happen in places where I would normally stutter lots, like on the phone or when I have to defend a terrible take I have had, and I feel like a normal person talking for a bit. It’s seductive and misleading.

Because eventually I do stutter (because I have a stutter and that is the way both my brain and body are wired) and it gets in the way of my talking, as stutters tend to do. But there’s still that moment, that moment of thinking I’m normal and then that crushing – and over time it gets less crushing – realisation that no, I am not.

I still have a stutter. I will always have a stutter. Nothing I do – nothing in my life – will change that.

Source: GettyImages

My stutter has changed over the years. It doesn’t sound like the stereotype of what stuttering sounds like. It’s not a repetition of sounds, it’s nothing like Porky Pig or Colin Firth in that one movie I think is quite boring and bad. It’s a consistent, overt, block, and a repeated effort to get through that block.

It’s strange that my stutter has changed. That is strange to me. I can pick out when it happens.

And honestly, it’s not even my stutter – it’s the specific actions I take to avoid a stutter. These can be introducing buffers (saying ‘like’ or ‘yeah’ a lot to throw people off the fact that I might have a stutter) or just taking a lot of breath to interrupt a potential stutter.

It’s changed though. I remember a time when I said ‘um’ and ‘like’ a lot. I remember a time when my buffer was ‘oh yeah’. What does that mean? I don’t know. I wish I did.

I mean, realistically, it probably means that I’m in some lifelong con of tricking whatever mechanism between my brain and body that is involved in stuttering into not thinking that I’m stuttering. But I don’t know that for sure, unfortunately.

My stutter changes. My speech changes. It keeps me on my toes.

Occasionally, shamefully, it might make people – or at least a new person – think that I don’t have a stutter. For a few lines of conversation, and sometimes even a whole conversation, I pass as a fluent person. Which makes the jolt and the crush when it does happen, when I do stutter, all the more present.

I’ve been to speech therapy over the years. It didn’t take.

Or at least it didn’t take in the way I thought it would. I was under the assumption that speech therapy would cure my stutter, an assumption entirely put on by me and none of my other therapists. I would do my hour of therapy every few weeks or so and eventually I’d be fixed.

As an older, mildly wiser, person I realised that what I wanted out of therapy was entirely unrealistic. I wanted a cure, I wanted to not stutter anymore, and I wanted to do that without changing the way I talked.

That’s not going to happen, mostly because not stuttering would involve changing the way I talk entirely, and at some point between stuttering and not stuttering I would need to apply techniques that I never felt comfortable with because it would be changing how I talked to appeal to the masses. Meaning, to make communication easier for them rather than make it easier for me.

What I got out of speech therapy was an acceptance of my own speech.

I stutter. I will always stutter. That’s fine. I’ve dealt with it (not entirely, but for the most part), so can everybody else.

I’ve been extremely lucky to be surrounded by people who don’t care if I stutter.

I work in theatre, largely – a profession that collects people and people’s dysfunctions like a sports bar collects people who like to start drinking at 1PM. Me having a stutter is a little bit odd but people are patient. I start talking – it might take a bit longer than everybody else – but people wait for me to finish.

But even when I’ve ventured out of theatre at no point have I ever felt discriminated in my work as somebody who stutters. For all the shit actors get, they’re actually pretty understanding of other people’s issues and limitations. I am thankful for this, I am endlessly thankful for this.

A big part of this, I think (perhaps incorrectly), is that I am clearly someone who can put words together. People who I run into professionally generally know that I can write, and that I can write well, so people are willing to hear me out.

(It’s incredibly likely that I generally associate with cool people who would be willing to hear me out even if I wasn’t good at writing, but it feels good to attribute that to my talent, even if it isn’t super healthy to do so.)

Many people who stutter aren’t so lucky. Or maybe they are. I wouldn’t know, actually. I’m not proud of that, I’m not proud of not knowing.

I really wish I had some big statement to make people aware of people who stutter. But the reality is you probably won’t know until they tell you or unless you’re pretty attuned to it.

Fuck, even I wouldn’t know someone had a stutter unless I was told. I don’t know many other people who stutter. Perhaps by choice, perhaps by convenience, perhaps because it’s really hard to be confronted with your own issues refracted through somebody else’s person.

But I don’t have some big statement. I stutter. It’s made my life different – perhaps markedly different – but it’s not a massive deficiency. People get over more with more grace, and people get over less with less grace. We all have our burdens. I’m lucky to be able to put a name to mine.

Honestly? It sucks sometimes. It sucks a lot of the time. It sucks to know exactly what I want to say and not be able to say it or to only be able to say it with an extreme amount of difficulty. I don’t know what I would’ve said or what I would’ve been if I didn’t have a stutter. I’m sure my life would be different. I’m not sure my life would be better but it would be different.

Sometimes I do go to Zambrero though. (This is not a sponsored post by Zambrero. I just live very close to Zambrero, Hollywood Café isn’t open at night, and I am very lazy.)

And sometimes I do go through the effort of doing all the ingredients. I ask for the nachos. I ask for double meat, because I deserve extra chicken that has been in a heating tray for some unspecified amount of time. I make sure they don’t give me any salsa because I’m not in this meal for vegetables. I do more talking than is reasonable.

And I don’t stutter, sometimes.

But also I do. Sometimes I stutter when I say that I don’t want any salsa, not even onion salsa. And I don’t want any guacamole, because I’m one of the three people on this planet who don’t really like avocado or avocado-derivative products. And that’s fine. The people wait. This person who has never met me before exhibits something – maybe it’s the awkwardness of not knowing what to do when someone is visibly struggling to speak, maybe it’s the enforced politeness of being in customer service. Or maybe it’s, I hope, because they realise that sometimes you just wait. You wait for someone to finish their sentence. Because you don’t know people’s shit.

And I guess that’s the closest thing to a big statement I have: You don’t know somebody’s shit, but now you know my shit, at least a bit. (You know the shit related to stuttering, at the very least.)

Don’t make fun of somebody because they sound different. Don’t make a joke to fill the silence. Just let somebody say what they need – or want – to say.

People let you finish your sentence, let them finish theirs. This isn’t my problem – people generally let me finish their sentence – but it might be someone else’s problem.

So for the sake of somebody else: If they can’t finish their sentence immediately, fucking let them. Whatever they’re finishing their sentence with is more important than whatever you have to interrupt it with.

The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.