On being a “freakin’ unicorn” (aka a stutterer)

I found out recently that I’m a “freakin’ unicorn.” A TEDx speaker had described herself as one, and I realized I was part of her esteemed group. 1% of the population stutters. 80% of that 1% are men. I’m a stutterer, and I’m a woman. Yup, I’m a “freakin’ unicorn.”

It always surprises me when people say, “Wow, when I first met you, I had no idea you stuttered.” Being a stutterer is so ingrained in me, that it’s impossible to get away from. It makes sense that some treat themselves by becoming actors, like James Earl Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. They had to play people who were not themselves.

Others treat themselves through brute force. Vice President Joe Biden recited poetry in front of a mirror for hours as a boy. Winston Churchill and King George the 6th would practice rousing speeches, planning out every pause, until as Churchill said, “My impediment is no hindrance.”

Clearly, some very famous people long ago stuttered. Have we come any closer to a cause or cure? Well, we have certainly tried to find both. European treatments in the 1800s involved cutting the tongue, or muscles in the neck. Those practices went out of favor, because patients sometimes bled to death, or kept stuttering. Modern brain scans show that there are physical differences between people who stutter and people who don’t. There is increased activity in the region that controls emotions, and decreased activity in the region that connects speech planning with speech motor control. That makes sense to me, since when I talk, it often feels like it’s not coming from me. The words form in my brain and I can hear them aloud in there, but there’s this distance between that and what comes out of my mouth.

Stuttering is also partly genetic. My father used to stutter, but like King George and Winston Churchill, he treated it by giving rousing speeches. Try asking him for directions, it’s fun!

My personality also had to be a factor. My fearless sister doesn’t have problems speaking in front of hundreds. But I was her complete opposite as a kid. I worried too much about what people thought of me. I was a perfectionist, and the pressure only made it worse. I only spoke when I had to. I was too afraid to ask salespeople for help, or to ask people where the bathroom was.

I was afraid that people would think of me as stupid or incapable. I knew I wasn’t stupid, but at the very least, I thought I was incapable of presenting my ideas. After I struggled mightily through a Spanish presentation, (because English is hard enough, let alone a foreign language!) my teacher referred me to the school’s speech therapist, who referred me to the McGuire Programme. It’s a 4-day program for stutterers by stutterers, and uses the basics of opera singing to control our breathing. Taking purposeful breaths mimics singing, and curiously enough, we don’t stutter when we sing. It was the first time in my life that I was fluent, and that was an amazing feeling.

But I’m not cured. Stuttering doesn’t have a cure, although I can detect patterns. I KNOW I’m physically capable of fluency, thanks to the McGuire Programme – it’s now figuring out the mental environment that makes it happen.

When I’m relaxed or tired, I’m better. Muscles tense up when I’m anxious. Being put on the spot can be good or bad. Sometimes I have no expectation over what comes out of my mouth, and that’s good. When I’m expected to make sense…very very bad!

I worry more about how uncomfortable I’m making people rather than how I’m coming off. If I sense I’m making someone uncomfortable, I put more pressure on myself to fix my speech, and of course, that makes it worse. Even if you have to fake it, smile at me. It helps! 🙂

I know these things about myself, so it’s manageable. But most importantly, I’ve learned that it doesn’t say anything about my intelligence or capability. I still have something to say, even if my ability to say it isn’t the greatest. Stuttering is something that I do, but it doesn’t DEFINE me. I’ve learned to trust that the world will see me as a smart, capable person, and look beyond my impediment.

Another thing is that I don’t assume everyone has it so great. It goes back to what people tell me: “I didn’t know you stuttered when I met you.” You can’t tell by looking at me. You can’t tell looking at anyone, what they’ve struggled with, or what they’re struggling with now. It makes it easier to reach over and say, “Whatever is making you hurt, I’ve felt it too.”

I was at a conference last year, and met an older gentleman at a booth. I knew he’d had a stutter. He tensed up as he stumbled over some words, but you could barely tell. I asked him something, and I must have stuttered, I don’t even remember. He took my hand, and confirmed that he stuttered too, and it had been so hard for him growing up. Companies assumed people like us were a liability. They wouldn’t hire us. One time, he told me, a young salesman pitched his group and stuttered very badly. He called off the meeting for 5 minutes, told the young man that he stuttered too, and to take a breather and get a drink of water. The meeting reconvened and the young salesman did much better.

Now, telling a stutterer to relax usually doesn’t help. But knowing that there was someone there who understood – that helps, a lot. Reaching across to take their hand. “It’s okay, I’ve been there too.” We’re a tiny community, but our lessons can extend to our much larger world. Then maybe we aren’t such mythical unicorns after all.


This was originally a speech I gave at Crown City Toastmasters.