For many of my fellow people who stutter, the feeling of disappointment, numbness and simultaneous relief after a tough presentation is all too familiar. I was 19, an undergraduate at Stanford, and I had just finished a 20-minute presentation that should have only taken five minutes – not because I had more content, but because of a relentless barrage of stuttering and vocal blocks. It was the worst stuttering episode I’ve had and no amount of friendly encouragement from classmates or reassuring pats on the back from my professor made me feel better.
That night, after soothing my aching throat from the presentation with some green tea, I watched hours upon hours of YouTube videos on stuttering. Amid the inspirational videos of fellow stutterers like Joe Biden and the emotional videos of struggling children and adults, I was trying to find something to latch on to explain and resolve my stutter. I didn’t understand why, despite having the most loving family, plenty of supportive friends, and access to incredible educators, my speech was deteriorating. I began to doubt how, as someone who aspired to become a physician, I would be able to handle the depth and efficiency of communication required in the medical profession. Then, amid the countless YouTube videos, something caught my eye that would begin a journey of gradual transformation in my speech. The answer that I was seeking, did not lie in the videos themselves, but in the oft-forgotten comments sections, which were full with thoughts from mainly teens struggling to find solutions like myself. Their unfiltered calls for help flipped a switch in my mind – from seeking solutions I began to think of designing and providing solutions to these children and teens.
No doubt I still sought ways to help myself, but from that evening on, I vowed to help those who stutter who did not have the loving support and constant encouragement that I was blessed with. I founded the Stuttering Association of Stanford University, whose main mission was to provide mentorship and encouragement to local kids who stutter. We didn’t need to create a group with a fancy name, but I wanted to show these children and their parents that people who stutter can lead fulfilling lives, achieve a world-class education, and give back to their communities while doing so. I want to share some key thoughts that I found helpful in my life and that resonated with children & teens who stutter and their parents. The key theme is the balance of perseverance and adaptation.
For most individuals, the key elements of character – finding one’s voice, establishing self-esteem, overcoming fear, and more – are built over a span of decades in life. Every individual faces these, but people who stutter are put to the test earlier. Often this happens in our most formative and vulnerable ages of development, where seemingly small interactions and experiences can cascade deeply into our view of ourselves and our habits.
I remember a moment in middle school that made me realize this. I remember I stuttered particularly heavily one day when I raised my hand and answered a question to the class. On the next question, I hesitated, fearing it would take too long and make others uncomfortable, and so I let it pass. Letting it pass felt so relieving. I could feel my heartbeat return to a resting beat, my hands drying from the clamminess moments before. However, that same moment, I felt I was on the precipice of a slippery slope. One more question I forgo out of fear of another stuttering attack, and I would slide to complete passivity. Unfortunately, I had seen that happen to a fellow friend of mine who stuttered, too. I decided to keep raising my hand and wrestling out the answers, not to show what I knew – I did it for myself. I did it to protect myself and my future from inaction and submission. There was no other option but to put myself out there every day and improve. Any step back felt like it could result in a free fall. So, I encourage you, to not shy away from the discomfort you feel that stuttering brings to you or those around you. Stuttering is your crucible – it will be put to high heat, but in that crucible, you have a choice to succumb to its pressures or to use that pressure and heat to forge an unbreakable identity and persevering spirit that will serve you well in all aspects of life.
This statement may seem to contradict the theme of perseverance and ownership of one’s development that I mention above. However, there is a caveat to this second point. The “break” I mention is more of a tactical retreat, meant as preparation for a stronger counter-offensive against whatever challenge stuttering is bringing to your life. I will share an example.
When I was in high school, I was required to take an entire semester class dedicated to public speaking. My stutter was so severe back then, that on the first speech, I stuttered for 30 minutes of a presentation that was supposed to be 4 minutes. To this day, I am amazed by the patience of my teacher and classmates. On the next speech, as my turn to present crept up, I went to the teacher and simply apologized and said, I can’t do this today. While it may seem as the definition of defeat, the reality was that my speech was nowhere near ready for public speaking. In my mind, I viewed it as a tactical retreat. Over the course of the semester, I made a plan and gradually improved – delivering my speeches at first solely to my teacher, then in front of my basketball team of friends, and then finally to the class. I had to go back to the building blocks and it led to success in the long-term.
The reason why this example is not in contradiction to persevering through raising my hand, is because both examples are focused on growth. There was to be growth in raising my hand, but I certainly felt there was to be no growth in my speech class unless I started building gradually from the foundation. I encourage you to keep the focus on growth, not only in speech, but also in your character. Raising my hand was a turning point in developing grit. Adjusting my speech class presentations showed me the value of planned patient adaptation.
Understanding the relationship and nuance of perseverance alongside patient adaptation was instrumental to my development as someone who stutters. In my life, stuttering developed discipline and creativity, made me comfortable being uncomfortable, and developed empathy for others’ struggles. Stuttering became a key driver of the merits of my identity, not a hindrance to it. Today, as I take care of patients in graduate school as a medical student, some patients don’t notice I have a stutter. Once in awhile, when they do, it has only added to the depth of connection my patients and I develop. As you grow and test yourself through the crucible of stuttering, I encourage you to be self-aware and cognizant of the importance of protecting your identity and being open to adaptations as long as they help you grow and take on the next challenge. It was paramount in my life and I hope it will bring a foundational approach for growth to you.
Author: Galym Imanbayev