Behind the Stutter

Jen HartIt was a typical morning in the bustling streets of downtown Toronto. I had yet to speak to anyone outside of my home that day. With every step to work, I thought about my initial “listener” who lurked just a few blocks away: an anonymous coffee barista at Tim Hortons.  

When I arrived at the coffee shop, I stood outside for a minute to warm up my diaphragm. One hand cupped my stomach as I took a few slow and deep breaths. Then, I stepped inside and I took my place in line.  

…Four people before me: I ran my order, “Double-Double”, continuously in my head.  

…Three people before me: I stretched my mouth, my tongue, my jaw. 

…Two people before me: I whispered the words “Double-Double” over and over to myself. 

…Next in line: I envisioned ordering that “Double-Double”. 

…My turn: I inhaled deeply as I began to speak, “Can I have a D—“  

My tongue froze…My throat closed...My jaw locked...My shoulders stiffened...My chest ached…And then finally, my entire body filled with shame. 

In a silent panic, I scrambled for any synonyms to replace the lagging word “double”, but even the words “two” and “cream” were completely blocked by the choke-hold that had my upper body paralyzed. 

My muscles were ready, loaded with all the potential energy required to annunciate the next vowel sound. I could even feel the words loosening from the tip of my tongue as they approached the firing stage of an utterance. “Double-Double” cycled faster through my head, but I just stared blankly at the barista as the entire world waited for me with exhausted anticipation. 

I sensed the line of people expanding behind me. Eyes penetrated my back as I became the elephant in the room. They only saw the surface of my stutter; No one could see the havoc that stirred behind my blocked speech. 

I started again. Feeling pressured by a social interaction that most people take for granted, I took a shorter breath and began to speak, “Can I have a black coffee, please?” 

No one could see the havoc that stirred behind my blocked speechAs a person who stutters, I often order something I can say rather than something I truly want. As a person who stutters, I have difficulty breathing while I speak: My airway forcefully closes while my voice turns on-and-off during conversational speech. Therefore, my speech is routinely interrupted by silent blocks– a biological malfunction that most people are unknowingly spared of. Thus, I often switch my words around to avoid the embarrassment of looking stupid, slow, hesitant, indecisive, shy, rude, or forgetful… because I am NONE of those things. 

Although Stuttering is a biological condition, it is often made worse by anxiety. I assembled a collection of affirming phrases to help battle the anxiety of social interaction. These affirmations help me relax and speak with more confidence… 

They are: 

1. Stop dwelling on a potential stutter while waiting in line to speak. The more you think about stuttering, the more your brain and nerves focus on it. Instead, deliberately occupy your mind with something else (like your grocery list) to distract your stutter. 

2. Look at every speaking situation as an opportunity to practice improving your speech techniques and to raise your confidence. 

3. When you stutter in front of strangers, then who cares? Those people don’t mean anything to you, You don’t mean anything to them, and you will never see them again 

4. Be prepared that you may stutter and feel upset, but that moment passes… and life goes on. 

5. If a stranger is impatient or mocks your speech, do not take it personally. It is due to their lack of exposure to people with speech impediments, which reflects their lack of education or their poor character – NOT yours. 

6. Many people who don’t stutter are also nervous about meeting new people and speaking in public. 

7. Many people who don’t stutter also don’t like the sound of their own voice. 

8. People suffer from all sorts of afflictions. There are far worse conditions than having a stutter.


Jennifer Hart lives in Toronto. 

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