About the presenter: Pamela Mertz is a person who stutters who is recovering from a lifetime of being Covert. Pam has a background in Counseling and Social work, and works at a career-technical high school as a Career Specialist. She is an active member of the National Stuttering Association, and has presented at several NSA conferences. She is also involved with Toastmasters, presently serving as her local club's President. She edits and publishes a monthly newsletter called "Let's Talk About It," for the College of St Rose Fluency Council. She lives in Albany, NY with her husband Gene.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2008.

The Way Found Me

by Pamela Mertz
from New York, USA

What I have to say is important. Wow, just being able to say that is huge. You see, for a very long time, I didn't believe it. I felt people wouldn't like me because I stutter. For many years I allowed fear and shame to control me, and I usually stayed quiet. The words were there, in my head, for I always knew what I wanted to say. Sometimes, I just couldn't get them out -- like having a hand around my throat, squeezing the words in. When I tried to push, my speech became worse. No sound would come out, and I would be caught in an embarrassing block, which was even worse than stuttering.

Bad experiences held me back. I had teachers that yelled at me when I stuttered, and kids who were cruel and made fun of me. My father made me feel like I was doing something wrong and was a bad kid because I stuttered. He yelled at me to shut up, or told me if couldn't say it right, then don't say anything at all. I learned disapproval early. I also learned that when I didn't talk, I didn't stutter and I chose that route most of the time. By keeping quiet, I didn't have to deal with "those looks", which were actually worse than having kids call me "stutter box" or say things like, "She ca-ca-can't talk right!" I also didn't have to feel the embarrassment or shame when people would look the other way, avoid me, or felt sorry for me. My face would get flame red when I stuttered, and sometimes I'd get teary-eyed and gulp back sobs.

As I grew older, things got easier. I developed self-preservation strategies and became expert at hiding the fact that I stuttered. I scanned ahead and switched words. But I still avoided speaking situations. For years I was able to "pass" as fluent, keeping my secret all to myself. But the secret took its toll. The energy needed to constantly switch words or come up with excuses for not talking was exhausting, and I increasingly felt that I was not being true to myself. I wanted to find a way to come clean and present my true self to the world. And then the "way" found me.

Two years ago, I was fired from a job I had held for over twenty years. It was a devastating, traumatic experience. My new boss had repeatedly disrespected me when I stuttered publicly, and often would roll his eyes and slap his face in disgust when I spoke. He told people that I was an ineffective communicator, and gave me below-average ratings in "interpersonal skills" on the appraisal that spelled the beginning of the end. Because I was ashamed of stuttering and was afraid to disclose, I let him assume I was nervous and anxious. That boss clearly wanted me gone, convinced others I was not meeting performance expectations, and recommended I be terminated. I was stunned!

Surprisingly, being fired became what I needed to finally admit what I never could before -- I am a person who stutters. Faced with unemployment and feeling very isolated, I decided I did not want to live like this anymore which lifted a huge weight from my throat, my mind, and my heart. I felt free for the first time.

I joined a local chapter of the National Stuttering Association that meets monthly. I met other adults who stutter, and for the first time, I felt like I belonged. I did not feel embarrassed to speak and allowed myself to stutter freely. I was not struck by lightening, nor did I sink into quicksand. Although it was very emotional and I cried a lot, (A LOT), these were tears of happiness and gratitude that, finally, someone understood. I was talking and expressing myself, and people were listening.

I joined Toastmasters, an organization for people who want to improve communication skills, making speeches about stuttering. I couldn't believe what I was doing at first. Sometimes I found myself looking down, wondering "Who is this person?" I was actually educating people about something I had first-hand knowledge about, but had always been too embarrassed to mention.

As I talked more, I realized something quite remarkable was happening - I stuttered less! The same thing that had kept me silent most of my life was now fueling my liberation. I was learning that what I had to say was important, and that I was not defined by my stuttering. Actually, most people seemed to genuinely respect that I was open and honest and true to myself. When you are authentic with yourself, it signals to others that you will be real with them as well, and that is how relationships are built.

Since being fired two years ago, I have completed several milestones in Toastmasters and currently serve as President of my local club. I have presented workshops at the National Stuttering Association, and have done TV and radio interviews, raising awareness about stuttering. I am involved with my local college's Fluency Council, editing and publishing a newsletter called "Let's Talk About It". I have a new job, where I am usually open about stuttering and contribute to a diverse workplace, where differences are valued and respected.

One of my job responsibilities at the high school where I work is serving as advisor to the new National Technical Honor Society. As a new chapter, we needed to have an induction ceremony. It was decided that we would do this on our school Awards Night, in front of all the students, parents, district big-wigs, etc. As advisor, I would be on the big stage, speaking and orchestrating the whole ceremony. That meant using a microphone, horror of all horrors. This group of kids to be inducted was the cream of the crop, but I didn't know them well. We had only practiced twice. I had agonized how we would do the "Honor Society Pledge," which was one of those things that I had to recite one line at a time, and they were to repeat after me. I was in a tail-spin, because I knew I would stutter, and I was worried about what would happen when I stuttered after saying "repeat after me." To a person who stutters, this was a potential nightmare.

I gathered my courage, got the kids together in a football-like huddle, and said, "Look, most of you guys don't know this, but I need to let you know, I stutter, and probably will stutter up there on the stage. When we get to the part where we do the pledge and I say Śrepeat after me, please don't repeat the stutter', OK?" Those kids were great ­ they didn't bat an eyelash. When we went on for real, I stuttered on many of the words, and the kids said their lines clearly and fluently, and did not repeat the stutter!

What a relief! That little act so put me at ease, and really hit home that I make a much bigger deal of my stuttering than other people do. And that little act made me realize how much I can really accomplish just by being authentic and doing something anyway, even if it is scary or way outside my comfort zone.

Not only did I have to facilitate the induction ceremony, I also had another substantial speaking role at the latter part of the awards ceremony that same night. I was asked by the guidance counselor to announce the scholarship winners. I agreed, but secretly, I obsessed about how this would really work out, and if I was going to make a fool of myself.

Fortunately, there were approximately 45 minutes between when I handled the induction ceremony and when scholarships were announced. During this time, I was on the stage with three of the administrators, and I was part of the receiving line. As students came up to receive their awards, we all had to stand up and shake their hands. I was able to pretty much relax at this point, and mentally prepare for my next moment in the spotlight. During a lull, one of the administrators leaned into me and whispered, "Don't worry. We all get nervous our first time up on stage". I wanted to say to him I hadn't been nervous, it was just stuttering, but it was neither the time nor place for that.

I re-introduced myself and commenced calling the names of the students. I was OK with the first few names, and then began having minor repetitions on the last ten or so. I was not nervous, I was stuttering. I was pretty OK with it, but wondered how it was being perceived. I could not tell, because there was such thunderous applause from the audience as the students were recognized. This was, after all, their big night, not mine. When I finished, the principal made final closing remarks and it was over. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and secretly congratulated myself for getting through a challenging night.

The next morning when I reported for work, my manager called me to his office and offered me a "critique" of my "performance" (his words). I thought, "Wow, he's going to congratulate me for a job well done." He began saying "You were braver and more courageous than most people would have been". (He knew I stutter). He continued saying there "was no need for you to have climbed to the top of the mountain, and tried to ride your bicycle up it too all in the same night". The smile quickly left my face, and I asked him what he meant. He said, "Well, administration would have been OK if you had bowed out of announcing the scholarship winners. They would have understood." I asked him what he meant. He went on to say, "If you knew you were going to butcher the kid's names, you should have bowed out". I was stunned.

"How do you figure I butchered the names?" He replied that I had mispronounced half the names, and when I denied it, he started challenging me, by pulling names off the list and pronouncing them as he saw fit. I calmly told him, "That was stuttering you heard ­ I pronounced every name correctly. You know I stutter ­ is that what you had a problem with?" He said of course not, but that administration might not have liked the image I had projected. I said, "Well, I would hope that the school sees someone working through adversity as an admirable thing to do, and sees me as a role model."

I don't think my supervisor understood what that night meant, and how important it was for me not to back down, taking the easy way out. His comments stung, and I was dangerously close to slipping back into old habits, where I would have taken this to heart and deemed myself an embarrassment to myself and the school. But I didn't! And I learned valuable lessons from this experience. I can hold my head up with pride, knowing that I am not letting fear run my life. But I also learned that the world might not be ready for someone who stutters to be on stage, representing students, parents and administrators. So what that means to me is that there is more education and advocacy to be done, and I am in a good place to do that. We can all help the world be more able to accept people who stutter, one person and one event at a time.

I am so glad "the way" found me two years ago. Even with all of the bumps, turns and pain on this journey, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way! It has made me a better person.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2008.

SUBMITTED: August 29, 2008
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