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Madeline Wahl Headshot

What It Actually Feels Like to Stutter

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I've stuttered for as long as I can remember. Anywhere, everywhere. When answering a question in class, talking to friends and family, giving directions to lost tourists, asking to pass the salt in restaurants. The stutter popped in like an uninvited guest, waving a cheery "hello" and digging its heels into the ground as I tried to push it out the door. The answer to living a stutter-free life should have been simple: Just talk slower and the words would sort themselves out. Just think about what you say before you say it.

But that wasn't the case. Stuttering was more than peppering a sentence with a few extra syllables. It was the heart-wrenching realization that the word wasn't coming out of my mouth no matter how hard I tried. I'd stand there, eyes wide, frantically trying to figure out a synonym to use instead. Some other word -- any word -- that was able to express what I wanted to say while seamlessly placing a band-aid over my damaged sentence. The word eventually came, but with a few modifications. It was distorted, as if a magician took out a bouquet of dead withered roses instead of blossoming red ones. No one knew about the clearly thought-out sentence in my head, or that I'd been silently repeating the correct word over and over.

I recalled some of the worst stuttering moments I've ever experienced and I came face-to-face with what stuttering actually felt like. It's having the blood rush to your cheeks and feeling your ears burn. It's the short breaths and sweaty palms, the occasional light-headedness and the feeling of someone squeezing your heart until it beats wildly in your chest. It's the feeling of wanting to run away and never come back, of dashing to make the connecting flight but being too late or making it to the subway only to have the doors close in your face. It's enough to bury your face in your hands and cry. It's the hot tears streaming down your face and feeling the pressures of the world consume you, of falling but never touching the ground. It's the feeling of reaching for something just out of your grasp, of the helplessness and hopelessness swelling inside until you feel like there is nothing you can do, weighing you down until you can't take it anymore and clench your fists by your side. Only one word manages to slice through the chaos: Why?

Growing up, I've been in speech classes and sessions where I learned different techniques to help alleviate the difficulties which resulted in stuttering. At home, there were more times than I can count where, jaw clenched, I repeated tongue twisters in front of the mirror until memorized. I became best friends with Sally who sold seashells by the sea-shore, Peter Piper who picked a peck of pickled pepper and even Susie who was sitting in a shoe shine shop.

But over time, I've come to terms with my stuttering. I know I stutter. I'll probably continue to stutter until the day I die. But the best feeling related to stuttering? The exhilarating, skydiving-through-the-air moments occur whenever I say a sentence without stuttering. When I focus on each syllable of each word of every sentence and execute it correctly, that's when I feel the adrenaline rush. Everything, from the thoughts in my head to the breath and air in front of me, is just right. When the person I'm talking with replies and we have a conversation, that's when the confidence builds. We have a back-and-forth game of volleyball with the words being passed across the court until it eventually falls out-of-bounds when the stutter emerges. But when that happens, I'm ready. Because I'll pick it back up and serve, and score another point in the game of fluent conversation. And when it's over, and we go our separate ways, I'll continue to perfect my speech and practice tongue twisters in front of the mirror until the next conversation.