DOER. LISTENER. ADVOCATE.
I remember pointing to restaurant menus and ordering food that I didn’t actually want; I remember silently walking away after someone introduced himself to me; I remember the panic of wanting to audition for a play and then deciding I couldn’t; And I remember the fear of learning school grades were based on class participation.
While I have many memories about stuttering, most of them are actually not about the stuttering at all, but about the silence and fear related to stuttering.
WHEN SECONDS BECOME AN ETERNITY
I first became aware of my stuttering when I was eight years old. My third grade class sat in a circle and we went around reading paragraphs from a textbook. When it was my turn to read, I was not prepared for the words to get stuck in my throat. No matter how hard I pushed, it seemed like the words in my head would never escape. While the stutter probably only lasted a few seconds, the silence felt like an eternity. This was the first time that silence felt painful. In those few seconds of silence I felt confused, frustrated, embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t know why my words didn’t flow like they always had in the past, but I did know that I sounded different than everyone else and that it was not seen as a positive change.
COMFORT IN SILENCE
As the stuttering began to occur more often, my teachers and parents became increasingly concerned. It was soon decided that I would not be called on in class and wouldn’t have to read aloud. While at the time I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to confront my stuttering, avoiding these difficult situations later taught me that staying silent is the best way to cope with stuttering.
Stuttering made me afraid of my own voice and made me question the worth of what I wanted to say. I had so much shame around how I spoke and felt that stuttering defined me. On the inside I had so much to say, but it seemed too hard to force the words out. Even when I mustered up enough courage to talk, the thought of how others would perceive me consumed my thoughts. If someone were to laugh or mock me because of the way I spoke, I would be devastated for weeks. Because of this fear, I spent ten years trying to be as fluent as possible. I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, and living in fear that someone would find out that I was a fraud. I let that fear control my life.
I went to a few speech-language pathologists throughout my school-age years looking for an easy fix, but when I realized that wasn’t possible I would inevitably drop out. While I wasn’t happy and felt that my stuttering was holding me back, confronting my thoughts and feeling related to stuttering seemed too daunting. I wanted things to change, but the risk involved in letting my stuttering out just seemed too high.
FINDING MY VOICE
It wasn’t until college when stuttering began to affect me socially and academically, to such an extent, that I was truly ready to do the hard work and make a change. Stuttering was preventing me from making friends, holding me in back in school, and affecting my self-confidence. I did some research and found a nation wide self-help group for people who stutter and registered for their annual convention. I remember walking into the hotel lobby, being surrounded by strangers, and hearing nothing but stuttering. Everywhere I turned, my biggest vulnerability was staring at me. But, as I was exposed to more and more stuttering (and real stuttering, not people trying to hide their stuttering) the more comfortable I became. It was the first time in my life that I saw people openly stutter. I met people that I respected, people that seemed cool, people who had successful jobs and relationships and they were all talking and saying whatever they wanted. It appeared as if they had no fear. They were stuttering more than I ever allowed myself to and yet communicating more effectively than I ever had. It was the first time that I realized while I had been passing as fluent, I wasn’t communicating well. As my perspective of successful stuttering management changed, so did my personal stuttering goals. I slowly began to talk more and let my stuttering out, focusing more on communication rather than fluency.
As I relished in my newfound freedom to speak, I also became frustrated that I had allowed stuttering to hold me back for so many years. I became driven to educate others about stuttering with the hope that maybe one less child would be laughed at and silenced for being different. I hoped that I could help others find their voices and embrace themselves. With this in mind, I pursued my masters in speech-language pathology, dreaming that I could one day work with children and adults who stutter. I have now been a speech-language pathologist for four years and it has been the most rewarding experience. I have the opportunity, everyday, to meet incredibly brave children and adults who stutter and watch as they discover their self-worth and the importance of what they have to say.
BECAUSE MY WORDS MATTER
It has been eight years since that first conference at The National Stuttering Association (NSA) and a lot has changed. I continue to strive to live everyday as authentically as possible. I am a person who stutters and what I have to say is important. It may take me a little longer to get my words out, but I now know (and believe) my voice deserves to be heard. While accepting myself for who I am and embracing my stuttering has gotten easier over the years, that scared little girl, who lived in silence, is still inside of me. Every time I get hung up on while making a phone call or mocked ordering a coffee, the eight year old me wants to lock herself in her room and never speak again. But now, rather than hiding, I take that tinge of shame and use it to motivate me to educate the world about listening, patience and acceptance.
— CARYN HERRING x UDD
Stuttering once prevented me from doing what I wanted to do and it may have been easier to just stay silent. With perseverance, I fought through the fear and shame to succeed.
“Whether it takes you two seconds or ten seconds to get it out, take your time. The world will wait.” - Caryn Herring
After I learned of Caryn from The Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY), I felt so excited to speak with her, because her story was somewhat personal for me. You see, I have a younger brother who developed an auditory processing disorder at a young age, which affected his comprehension and speaking ability. But the only thing our family knew at the time was that he was 5 years old and still unable to properly speak.
It was heartbreaking. We saw him try his hardest to communicate, and still fail at it. I saw his struggle stifle his personality and send him retreating into silence time and time again. I was embarrassed. I became the big sister who finished his sentences, spoke up for him—who pounced on anyone who teased him.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that people with a disorder don’t need our saving. They need our patience and understanding. Their disorder is not a reflection of who they are, their intellect or their capabilities. Two minutes with Caryn and you will quickly discover that she is a highly effective communicator—better than most, and I don’t say that lightly. She is eloquent of speech and always seems to have the right word, even when you’re still searching for it.
Speaking with her is like listening to a Chicken Soup for the Soul audiobook. She indistinctly drops these little nuggets into conversation that completely change your perspective toward yourself and others. Her quiet confidence exudes graciousness and kindness unparalleled by many. She is very much aware of her voice and the power of words. She’s the kind of person that makes you think, “What am I using my voice to say?”
Do you know how this feels? We’d love to hear from you. If you’ve connected with this story, tell us your experiences.