About the presenter: Gina Waggott write, "I'm an 18-year-old who has stuttered since I was 6. I've been a member of the BSA (British Stammering Association) for two years. I have travelled throughout England to conventions and also managed to attend last year's Nordic convention in Arhus, Denmark. I participated in the BSA's "Helping Stammering Pupils" programme, and have also written articles for the BSA's quarterly magazine, "Speaking Out". I'm currently starting out on a University degree... and keeping on talking! :-)"

"TEENS - The Best Stuttering Years of Your Life?"

by Gina Waggott
from the United Kingdom

MYSELF

By way of introduction, I am a stuttering teenager... and now, with my teenage years coming to a close, I've decided to look back at everything I did right and wrong with regards to stuttering. I'd like you, all the teens out there, to learn from my mistakes (or make exactly the same ones and learn as much as I did!). I'd like you to try and gain the knowledge that I only gained in retrospect. I'd like you, the parents, the teachers, the friends, the family... to get inside a teen's head (scary, huh?), brush aside all the junk (yes, it exists), and get to the good part - what stuttering means to a teenager.

There's no statistical evidence in here, no research, no solid proof to give you except for my own humble experience, and the experiences I have shared with the people around me - especially with other teenagers like myself.

All you elder fellow stutterers out there have been teenagers once. No doubt you can probably relate to everything I'm about to touch on. Your knowledge and experiences are invaluable - one thing I've noticed is that stuttering can dissolve generation gaps and forge lifelong friendships instead. This brings me to the most important thing I ever discovered - I'm not alone. And neither are you!

Throughout my teenage years my stuttering was the source of constant worry. What if my stuttering never went away, or never improved? How on earth could I make a successful career for myself, or get a job? What about relationships with my family? Going on dates? Giving presentations? Speaking in class at school? How to handle the teasing and bullying? The list went on and seemed to get bigger the older I got. It appeared to me that stuttering was standing in the way of everything I needed to get on with my life. That put great fear into me. I hadn't a clue what to do about it. I had given up before I began. I supposed that stuttering would always make me socially inferior. To me, it was a drawback, an impediment, a limitation, and a disability.

But things haven't turned out that way. I'm afraid this isn't a great "look at me, you can do it too" story. I still feel ashamed sometimes, and the fear of stuttering in any situation is still there. The only difference is that I didn't let it take over. Stuttering no longer rules me. It doesn't make my choices. That, I think, is the only thing I need at the moment. Running back over my past ideas, here's what my teenage mind was filled with, and how I (somehow) lessened my worries...

FLUENCY

This would eat away at me for a VERY long time. I wanted so badly to be able to talk like everyone else. I tried everything to stop stuttering. I thought fluency was the only answer to my problems. That's possibly one of the biggest mistakes - you've probably heard the debate that "good communication does not necessarily mean fluency". There are such things as really dysfluent non-stutterers out there. Ever spoken to a stranger who has been awful at getting their point across? Or watched someone being interviewed on TV leaving you with the feeling that neither you, nor they, know what the hell they're going on about? And yes, they're fluent, but then they've also got dire communication skills. On the other hand, if you've ever been to a stutterer's convention, and listened to a speaker - in most cases the stuttering hardly detracts from their speech. Some very severe stutterers have given speeches that have left me enthralled. Time for an age-old-but-true cliché... "It's what you're saying, not how you're saying it".

It took me ages to get that through to me. Now, I no longer feel such a great "need" to be fluent. Sure, it would be nice, but for the time being - hey, I stutter, and there's not much I can do about it. Until there's some groundbreaking research and a better understanding of why we stutter and what causes it, the best thing to do is to accept it... and yes, that's a hard thing to do. There's a difference between "giving in" (deciding that all is fruitless and hopeless), and "surrendering" (accepting that you can't win - and stopping the fighting).

If we never win, there isn't any point in carrying on fighting, is there? By 'fighting', I'm talking about all the stuff I used to do (and I can still catch myself doing it) - avoiding, substituting, and feeling shameful about words, situations, and people. You all know what it's like. You want a "h-h-h-hamburger" but you order "chicken" instead. You really want to join in a conversation but you keep silent because you think stuttering devalues what you are about to say. You think the school registers and presentations were sent from Hell to torture you, and you wished they didn't exist, and avoided them at all costs. Or then there's denial... won't talk about stuttering, get offended by the whole notion of it and sweep it under the carpet (Been there, done that). Stuttering starts taking control - you plan your life around it.

I did that, and so have many others. Some have reached the retiring age and now regret that stuttering made all their choices for them. I listened to someone tell me that, and that was when I decided that while I'm young, I'm going to do what I want to do, instead of taking the easy route and letting stuttering get to me, and control my lifestyle.

Someone once told me: "what's the worst thing that can happen? You can stutter." The world wasn't going to end, my heart wasn't going to stop - the worst thing that could happen in the situation was stuttering. And I've done that almost all my life! I don't know why I took such extremes to avoid it. Instead, I accept it now, and if I stutter, so be it.

SCHOOL & SOCIETY

It sounds so easy doesn't it? "Accept that you stutter, that you'll probably stutter in difficult situations, and then get on with your life in peace."

Here's the greatest reason in the world to hide and hate stuttering: because society seems to hate it too. I don't know why, but teenagers around the 13-15 age bracket seem to take great pleasure in making their peers' lives a misery. I don't know about the States, but bullying is a pretty well documented problem over here in the UK. I doubt there is a single high school where it doesn't exist. There are some who can shake it off, and not let it get to them... then there's people like me who felt like it was daily torment and could hardly bear it. Unfortunately I took the hard route and "just lived with it" (or didn't - I contemplated suicide at 14) until I was about 16, and then people grew up a little and realised their own mistakes. Now I realise that there was no need to have gone through that agony if I had just told someone. Around the same time, one of my friends was suffering racist verbal abuse because she was black. She went straight to the headmaster, and the bully (who, incidentally, was also on my case) never bothered her again. My torment only carried on because I was scared that I wouldn't be taken seriously, or the bully would ignore the teachers. One thing I realise now is that these people who tease us are usually terrified by any authority, and talking to teachers, parents (try talking to the bully's parents anonymously - e.g. a letter - great results!), and other people who can put an end to needless abuse, even if it's just verbal. OK, end of lecture :-)

Next we have the issue of speaking out in class. I know, I know, most of us would run a million miles away from any such presentation, given half a chance. I would physically shake when I knew my turn was coming around to "stand up and say something".

Let me tell you a little story. Before I started my Advanced English Literature course, having completed everything to A Grade standard up through school, my teacher took me to one side and told me I was "Oxford Material" (Yes, Oxford University... the best in Britain alongside Cambridge). She had high hopes for me to be the first from our school to read English at such an institution. But no, it was stuttering that took my priority. I skipped an awful lot of my English Literature classes because we had to read plays and literature out loud, and also had to give presentations. Bye bye Oxford. Hello disappointed teacher. I later approached her and explained why I had done what I did. "Why didn't you say so? We could have worked it out! you didn't have to put yourself through all that! I thought you hated my lessons!" was her astounded reply. Not only had I let myself down, I had let my teachers down too. It was the same through the last years of my high school education. Teachers got increasingly frustrated, and most didn't know I stuttered because I did my best to hide it.

"The things you write..." they used to say, "proves that you know most of the answers, so why are you so quiet when I call on you in class? You know the stuff...why don't you ever say so?"

But stuttering had got me - it wrecked what could have been a great end to my years in high school. So if you're still in school, I hope you manage to take that step that I only took a few months ago. Throw yourself into the situation - it's scary, it's awful, and you'll hate it - but once you've done it, the reward is greater than any degree of fluency. I took a public speaking course and it helped a great deal. You don't get grades deducted for stuttering, but you do for lack of contribution. Explain to your teachers how you feel, and what you want out of your lessons. Most teachers are at a loss concerning what to do with a stuttering pupil. It's severely misunderstood - and who's going to educate anyone if we don't? Some go to the extreme: calling on you in class more in order for you to "get used to it", or just seem to ignore you completely in order to protect you from the struggling and leaving you vulnerable from your peers who might tease you. I remember wanting to be treated "the same as everyone else" at school... and stuttering won't stop that. In fact, do a presentation about stuttering! once you explain it, not only have you prevented being misunderstood, stereotyped or having to hide it - you have done every stutterer a favour by making another person understand.

Then there are the career worries we all have. What can I say? I haven't launched a full-scale career yet myself - University is as far as I've come. The job world can be compared to school in a way - interviews, presentations and talking to people are even more common during your working life. I've been told that letting stuttering affect job prospects is "tying your own hands behind your back". I can't think of any job that stutterers can't do as well as an "average" speaker (I was going to use the word "normal" there... but we're not abnormal, are we?) :-) Granted, some jobs will be harder than others - but then look at all the famous people who stutter... actors, singers, politicians, scientists... in fact, most are in the entertainment business where the "communication" factor is at its highest. It's great to have a role- model, and for me personally, the famous stutterers of the world are a great inspiration (John "Scatman" Larkin - I salute you), as are most of the stutterers I meet from all walks of life!

FAMILY & FRIENDS

This might not be a big issue for many people, but it can be - depending on the situation. Most families are, thank God, very accepting and understanding about stuttering. Parents want you to be happy. They can be a gift - they'll help with therapy, problems at school, and an abundance of other stuff. However, there are some exceptions. Firstly - denial. This is my particular situation that has never been resolved and probably never will be in the near future. My immediate family deny that I stutter because I have spent 12 years in the closet trying to hide it, and making a convincing job of being fluent though word and situation avoidance, substitution, etc.

Now I'm paying for it dearly... I don't have parental support, though I have managed to convince my family that I LOVE going to conventions and talking in front of groups, and writing articles, and doing all I can for the stuttering community. That's enough for me right now. Stuttering is often a taboo topic... nobody acknowledges its existence. Sound familiar? If it's true that most stutterers are perfectly happy to talk about stuttering, then those boundaries ought to be pushed down. I guess people just don't know what to say. The very fact that stuttering isn't talked about makes it feel that we're even more "different", or it's a "dirty secret", or simply, a negative thing. Parents can't bear to see their children suffer, and it must hurt if a parent who stutters begins to notice stuttering in their child. Though I think that just might be a good thing, - someone who has been through life with stuttering can help someone about to go through the same things. I know that if my parents stuttered (which they don't - but who's perfect?) :-) , I'd be thankful if they talked about it with me... the understanding would be great.

When it finally is talked about and brought into the open, it must be a great weight off everyone's shoulders. One thing I try to do now is to add a little humour to the situation... when people see that you are not "hung up" on stuttering, and you're OK with it, they relax and you stop getting those "looks" (you know what I mean, right?) :-) People often don't know how to respond to stuttering and usually, it's up to the stutterer to take the lead and give themselves, and the listener, a break from the tension.

What about friends? Real friends are the ones who would still be there if you stuttered or not. I finally gave my friends an explanation of my stuttering and how I felt, and their reaction was great. In fact, they were relieved... one pointed out how she had watched me read in class - always clearing my throat, coughing and apologising for blocks. Oops. I was then able to correct those mistakes, and felt fine about stuttering because the class soon got to know that I was going to do it anyway! I wish I had talked about stuttering with my friends earlier... they are usually the greatest people to be around in difficult times.

Naturally, the one other relationship which worried me endlessly was the "going out on a date" thing. I heard stuttering was cute! :-) Think of it this way... do people really want you for your voice?! If you're into bad pick-up lines, try: "Sure I stutter... but lips aren't just for talking" (one of my favourite personal quotes - but I'll let you have it).

Seriously though, I was never convinced until I met guys who loved me as a person regardless of how I talked. I've seen hundreds of happily married stutterers out there. Besides, if a person decides they don't like you because you stutter... then they're giving you every indication that they are shallow and insensitive. If you're happy with yourself, other people admire it. Corny, but true :-)

THERAPY & CONVENTIONS

My therapy didn't help very much at first. I felt useless at the best of times... my therapist made me feel awful about stuttering, and looked upon stuttering as a disease that I had infected myself with. Other teens there (in the group sessions) stuttered more severely than I did, and I thought I was going to get more severe the longer I carried on.

That was until I realised that it was probably my therapist, and not me, who was the problem. I asked for a different therapist (who, incidentally, stuttered too), and boy - what a difference. Instead of being taught that fluency was the only good thing I could ever hope for, I was just taught how to stutter "more easily". My blocks shortened and I attempted various ways of making stuttering more bearable. Of course I had the problem of not being able to discuss it and practice techniques etc. at home, but still, it helped.

On a side note - here's a strange psychological tip - if, like me, you hate the phone with a vengeance. I came up with this grand idea in a group session. I brought in an old telephone and a hammer and we smashed the thing beyond all recognition, while simultaneously screaming abuse at it. Each of us took a piece home and kept it. It sounds weird, but I didn't feel quite so daunted by the phone any more. Perhaps it has something to do with channelling all your fear, hate and frustration and letting it all go. But if it doesn't work - don't worry, you're probably more normal than I am :-)

Well, I never got fluent, and yes, I still stutter. The best thing I got out of therapy was meeting other teens in the same situation, to share experiences with and to talk to. The same applies to conventions of any stutterer's association in the world. To meet other people who stutter is the greatest experience and I can't recommend it enough. Just by reading this paper, you're taking an interest in other stutterer's experiences. There is nothing quite like walking into a room full of stutterer's intense conversation.... and never shutting up! :-)

T-T-THAT'S ALL, FOLKS

This brings me to the end of my little discussion.... Please feel free to ask me anything during the conference - I'll try and answer everything thrown at me, and I'm open to most bribery and corruption ;-) Best to you all, and here's wishing you the best stuttering years of your lives...

-Gina Waggott


September 6, 1999