When I was eleven years old I started to develop a severe stutter in my speech. While it was called “age appropriate” by many social workers and speech therapists, it didn’t feel “age appropriate” at all…in fact, there was nothing “appropriate” about it. It felt scary, awkward, and very isolating. Everything from ordering food at dinner to giving a speech in class was terrifying to me. Not because of the stutter, per se, but because of the look people gave me when I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I hated every second of it, and at that point, I think, I hated myself too. A year later I met the extraordinary speech pathologist Kristin Chmela, who runs Chmela Fluency Center in Long Grove, IL. Kristin is unique because she had a stuttering problem herself. Knowing firsthand the suffering involved, she has dedicated her life to empowering people with stuttering problems. During my time with Kristin, I spent a lot of time trying to not “fix” my stutter, as funny as that sounds.
For me, the real work was to not judge myself…to be able to stutter publicly and openly and not be ashamed by it. When I acknowledged my stuttering as a part of who I am and not the curse I had believed it to be, my outlook on the world started to change. But there was another component to my new outlook of the world: dance lessons. Before my stuttering started I had been taking dance classes. But it wasn’t until my stuttering was preventing me from speaking that dance became a form of therapy. It was a creative outlet where I could communicate without speech, and it was incredibly liberating.
Rather than feeling limited and different, I felt superhuman and energized. There were no limits to what I could express and it felt glorious. The beautiful thing is twenty years later, I am still a dancer, happily working with one of the greatest dance companies in the world, the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Kristin Chmela changed my life because she reminded me that I have a voice; I have ideas worth sharing; and I have a right to be heard. It remains one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I still stutter…everyday…and practically on every sentence. And you know what? That’s okay, and believing that is a wonderful feeling.