By Sarah Rohrs
People who stutter are generally not known for being garrulous, and what so many don’t like to talk about is, in fact, stuttering. Take it from me. I’ve been stuttering since the second grade. I’ve spent nearly fifty years confounded by my speech, trying to keep my stutter a secret, and berating myself when it pushes its way to the surface. On particularly bad days when my voice seems to squeeze through a crack in my throat I despair. Those are the days I long to know what it’s like to speak without thinking first. Those are the days I really wish I didn’t stutter.
But those thoughts pass quickly now that I moved to Salem and opened the drapes onto my speech. That happened after I saw “The Way We Talk,” a documentary feature about stuttering by local filmmaker Michael Turner. As the lights dimmed and Turner’s stutter filled the Salem Cinema theatre on Broadway, something broke free in me. It felt and sounded so familiar. He spoke of feeling like something was wrong with him each time he opened his mouth. When he said his family never spoke about stuttering, I realized neither did mine.
Stuttering Awareness Week, the second week of May, gave me a chance to do just that. It was a great week for me, a time for me to learn more about stuttering, seek out support, and be more open about my speech. Sponsored by the National Stuttering Association, the week gives stutterers the opportunity to express themselves about stuttering and consider how it has impacted their lives. It may be a time to come to a place of acceptance.
At one point in “The Way We Talk,” a young man says he is not sure he would give up stuttering as it has become so much part of who he is. Love me, love my stuttering, he seemed to be saying. It was a radical but exhilarating thought. As I sat in the theater, I let it sink in. Could I be proud of my stuttering, and feel proud to be among those who stutter? Yes, I could! This must be why gay and lesbians hold gay pride parades, I thought. Many have lived years in the closet and now they want to proudly proclaim themselves. In our case, we stutter and we’re okay. We’re not going to hide anymore.
A few months after the film Michael and Salem-Keizer School District speech-language pathologist Daniel Rhoads convened a monthly stuttering support group. It was not the first support group I had attended but it was the first one I went to feeling empowered to stutter freely and proudly. It was also around that time I spoke on the radio for the first time (a big deal for a stutterer) with Michael in a KMUZ show about his film and our support group. More than a year later I co-lead the group with Daniel, and we are a chapter of the National Stuttering Association.
In our group, our goal is not to work for a fix, but to come to a place where we can accept the way we talk without shame, humiliation and embarrassment. We do talk about speech therapy (which can help), and the options of using speech controls. We talk about our frustration with people finishing our words and sentences. We grapple with the expectations and limits we place on ourselves. We wish people would be more patient with us when we talk. We express how great it is to know we are not alone.
There is no known cure for stuttering. Nearly three million in the U.S., and 67 million more the world over, stutter. Famous people like James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader) and former Vice President Joe Biden stutter, and so do teachers, police officers, janitors, retail clerks and dental hygienists. Chances are good they’ve been ridiculed when they talked. What’s important to note is that the biggest parts of stuttering are the not the words, but the feelings and thoughts below the surface. Stuttering is an important part in those of us who stutter, but not the whole. Stuttering is a beautiful, complex mystery as unique as each person who lives with it.
Sarah Rohrs is a former long-time newspaper reporter, and current freelance writer, poet, and photographer living in Salem.
For more details and to join our Salem Stuttering Support Group go to “Salem Stutters” on Facebook or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. The group meets the 2nd Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Broadway Coffeehouse, 1300 Broadway in Salem.