Changing Career Paths

by Lucy Reed
from New Jersey, USA

People often tell me how awestruck they are at the courage it must take for someone who stutters to choose to change careers and become a speech-language pathologist. Yes, it has been a challenge, one that I sometimes questioned whether or not I could meet. In many ways facing this challenge has given myself back to me because for so many years I lived in a world in which I sacrificed my true identity for the safety and security which hiding from stuttering so conveniently provides. The courage wasn't there to begin with, but was something that developed as the challenges presented themselves. You see, my decision to become an SLP was one that was made without knowledge of the personal demons I'd be forced to face in the process.

Like many stutterers, I limited my career choices to fields in which I thought stuttering would not interfere. The only problem was I couldn't think of any. Paralyzed by the fear of not being able to function in the work world and not being able to support myself, I had convinced myself that no one would hire me because I stuttered. Jobs in teaching, nursing, and the business world seemed out of the question for me because they all involved speaking. The thought of going away to college was too frightening to even think about, so I lived at home and completed a two-year junior college program that prepared students to work as technicians in veterinary offices or with animals in research laboratories. I love animals and would have enjoyed working in a veterinarian's office, but I was so afraid that I wouldn't be able to interact with the public, was so sure that a veterinarian would never hire me, that I never interviewed for such a job. Instead, at the age of 19, I went to the safe haven of the research laboratory, where I found myself in the distasteful job of working with research animals. My self-esteem was very low. I wanted to continue my college education and complete my bachelor's degree, but was afraid to venture out on my own; afraid of speaking situations I might encounter at a 'real' college.

To make a long story short, I was quickly promoted out of the animal lab and into a cell biology lab. I married, was blessed with three children, and took college classes part-time toward a BA in my real interest, social science, all the while continuing to work in basic research. As my laboratory skills and knowledge grew, I found myself to be a highly valued member of the research team in which I worked, but something was missing. While the scientists with whom I worked were all passionately involved in the projects we worked on, I was not. I was jealous of the fulfillment they found in their work and wondered what I would feel so passionately about. To me, the job was nothing more than a paycheck. For more than twenty years, I'd enjoyed job security and the respect of others. The problem was, I didn't respect myself because I knew I remained in the field not out of professional interest, but because I was too bound by my fear to seek change. As important as basic scientific research is to mankind, I realized the fulfillment I wanted would come through helping people in a more direct way.

Five years ago I took an experiential psychology class dealing with the topic of personal growth. Through the class exercises, my eyes were opened to the reality of how I had allowed stuttering to keep me from experiencing life to it's fullest. About that same time, my son who stutters began seeing a new speech therapist. After a short while, I decided to seek therapy from her as well, resuming therapy after a more than twenty-year hiatus. As my speech therapy progressed, I became amazed at how much she was helping me. Each week, I'd return to her with questions about stuttering, which she could not answer. One day, it occurred to me that becoming an SLP and being able to help others the way this woman had helped me would be the most fulfilling thing I could do with my life. Stuttering had surely become a passion of mine and I wanted to know all the answers. In my naiveté, I thought that by studying speech pathology I'd learn all the secrets about stuttering that SLPs know and would be able to be cured of stuttering. The day I received the letter from Temple University telling me I had been accepted into their SLP program was just about the happiest day of my life. I thought I had arrived. How little did I know that the most challenging journey of my life had not yet begun.

In two years that have passed, I've learned and experienced so much, while undergoing tremendous personal growth in the process. The biggest change has been realizing that the 'cure' for stuttering I thought I'd find does not exist, but that doesn't matter in the least because what I've found has been worth a million times more. Looking for a cure carries the connotation that stuttering is something bad that needs to be wiped out. The most important thing I've learned, and the one, which I feel IS the 'secret' is that running from stuttering - wishing it would go away, will only perpetuate it. There is no magic cure, but recovery is possible through a lot of hard work in terms of facing the fear, losing the shame, taking personal responsibility, losing the helplessness, and stopping the fight. The most helpful lesson I've learned is that you can't fight with yourself and win. The healing I've undergone has come through accepting myself as someone who stutters, not as a 'happy stutterer', but as an honest one. These are the secrets to recovery from stuttering that I pass along to my clients.

As I look toward graduation next May, I feel very fortunate to have been forced to face the challenges I've faced and to have had the opportunity to learn the lessons I've learned, because through this journey I have truly found myself. I feel as though I've been given a new lease on life. I can't imagine a more rewarding life than helping others to do the same.

September 23, 1999