About the presenter: Cathy Olish lives in Ferndale, Michigan and works in Human Resources at Ford Motor Company. She has been a member of the NSA for over ten years, has facilitilated over 18 workshops and is co-chapter leader for the Royal Oak NSA Chapter and the Dearborn Kids/TWST Chapter. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the NSA as Special Projects and Volunteer Coordinator

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2009.

Hello My Name Is Cathy, But You Can Call Me Anne: A story of a covert person who stutters

by Cathy Olish
from Michigan, USA

My name is Cathy, but I sometimes go by Anne because it's easier to say. I am a covert person who stutters (PWS) and will do all I can to avoid stuttering, I sometimes change my name in situations where I will never meet or see that person again (i.e. calling for information, dinner reservations, casually chatting with a stranger). Up until five years ago, I would use "Anne" quite often to avoid stuttering. I still change my name at times based on the circumstance, but not as often as I used to.

This is all due to the National Stuttering Association (NSA), a support organization for people who stutter in the United States. Since my initial involvement over ten years ago, I have slowly accepted myself as a PWS. Do I like it? Heck no, but I have learned to live with it and not to let it upset me as much as before.

Some of the other crazy things I have done to hide my stuttering are: record over parts of home movies that show me stuttering as a kid; holding my hand up like a glove and pointing to the lower right when someone asks me where I am from (being from Michigan, I can do that ); spending countless hours practicing saying my name out loud when preparing for a meeting; rerecording a message on someone's voicemail dozens of times until it is perfect; changing what city I live in; having nicknames for many of my friends if I can't say their name; developing acronyms and "cool names" for places we go (i.e. I call 'Starbucks' 'S Bucks'); using the mailing address of our chapter leader as my address to receive NSA publications so my roommates would not find out that I stutter; never returning books to the library 20 years ago because they changed it to a manual drop-off and I didn't want someone to know that I checked out books on stuttering.

My journey toward acceptance of my stuttering began when I was 26 years old, which was the first time I talked to anyone about my stuttering. Most of my life I wouldn't even say or write the word stutter because of all the pain associated with it - I referred to it as "the S word". One day I was having a tough time at work making phone calls, so I searched the Internet for information on stuttering. I discovered that there was an organization for people who stutter - the NSA - and a local support group chapter in my area. I printed out all the materials, even the information about the local meetings, but then hid it somewhere in my house where no one could find it. Months went by, when a person told me about his friend's daughter who stutters and how she was having a hard time. So, I made copies, gave them to him to give to her and viola....we decided to attend a support group meeting together.

The first time I attended these meetings I did not feel like I fit in. Everyone was stuttering openly, some worse than others. I could not find anyone there who talked like me but yet, I could not find anyone outside of that room that talked like me either. It made me wonder if I really did stutter. Then the next day as I went to answer my phone, I realized that my stutter is real. I continued to go to the meetings and slowly realized how much they helped me and that I was not alone. It wasn't until about two years later that anyone in the group actually heard me stutter. It took me that long to even let a small repetition be heard. To me, it is more exhausting pushing through my stutter than hiding it.

After attending the support group meetings for a year, I decided to attend the annual NSA conference with other chapter members. I was amazed by everything I experienced - workshops, ceremonies, keynote speakers, the children's activities, and just hanging out with other people who stutter. I couldn't believe a place like that existed, where people who stuttered were the majority. But still, I didn't feel like I belonged. I was asked many times "are you an SLP?" because I was totally fluent. I would not let my guard down, even in that environment. I felt like I didn't stutter enough to fit in the stuttering world but was too disfluent to fit into the "real world". It was like I was on an elevator caught between two floors and I was stuck all alone.

Shortly before attending my second national conference I was asked to be a panelist on the first ever Covert Stuttering Workshop, which now has been going strong for eight years! I unenthusiastically agreed. While giving my presentation I was as smooth as can be the whole way throughŠuntil I got stuck on a word I could not change. I started to say it, I stopped, started again while beginning to stutter, stoppedŠthis went on for what felt like an hour but was actually two minutes. I tried to write the word on the board but the audience would not let me get away with that. With the audience screaming, "just say it" over and over again, I just said it - N-N-N-N-N-N-N-N-NATURAL. That was the end of my presentation as I was so embarrassed. But it was the beginning of my becoming more open about my stuttering because everyone finally heard me stutter for the first time and I actually felt like they truly knew I belonged there.

After this HUGE break through, I spent many hours becoming more involved in the NSA, more time getting to know my friends who stuttered, pushed myself a little bit more out of my comfort zone, but still....I was so fearful of anyone hearing me stutter. I allowed my stuttering to continue to be in the forefront of every thought, conversation and situation. I was frustrated as I watched others become more accepting of their stuttering but after three plus years of attending support group meetings, I still fought it with all I had.

One of my turning points and most shameful incidents that made me realize I needed to stop putting so much extra time into hiding my stutter happened about six years ago. My grandmother was put into hospice and on that same day, my step-dad was involved in a horrible car accident which put him in a coma for over two weeks. I knew I had to call my boss to let her know that I would not be at work the next day. I needed to be there for my mom. I waited until late at night so I would get my boss's voicemail and no one was around to hear me make the call. The entire process took me well over an hour. I spent several minutes writing down what I wanted to say, calling my voicemail to practice, replaying the message, rewriting what I wanted to say, calling back again to practice - over and over again. When I was ready, I called my boss's voicemail left a message, listened to it, rerecorded it, listened to it again, rerecorded it over and over until I got it just right.

Here I was, worried about my speech when two members of my immediate family were barely alive. This is when I realized I had to stop wasting so much time trying to sound perfectly fluent and I had to stop letting my stutter control my life so much.

Some say that stuttering is stuttering and overt and covert are all the same - if you stutter, you stutter. While many of the traits, behaviors and feelings are the same, I disagree on some levels. Many PWS have told me they can be covert by avoiding a situation or just not talking. But to me, that is not what defines being covert. Being covert means that when faced with the situation I can usually get my point across and talk fluently without the listener suspecting I stutter. This is achieved by much word substitution, rephrasing, an occasional little cough or sneeze somewhere mid sentence or an "I forgot" and a few minutes later an "ah, I remember now!" when I feel I can say what I want to say fluently, and several other tricks and techniques I have developed over my lifetime of avoiding. True, I do hear pauses here and there, and breathing mid-sentence when listening to a voicemail I may leave someone, but I truly believe that most would not peg me as someone who stutters.

When someone tells me 'just stutter', it does not work for me. I do tend to say what I want more often now and a stutter may slip out here and there. I may have an experience where I say my name horribly and although I still feel embarrassed and ashamed in the moment, I don't carry that feeling with me all day as I did before. I deal better with the negative emotions but my actions are usually the same - to try to avoid stuttering all together. I can practice my name alone for hours and be fine but in the situation, something takes over and I have no control. If I stuttered badly while introducing myself to this person or in this situation so I believe I will do so again. It's like I associate my name with stuttering and that takes precedence over all the mental work I did to prepare for that moment.

Over the years, friends have found out I stutter thanks to the Internet (they have 'Googled' me and find out that I stutter by the various articles I have written and of my involvement with the NSA). When I ask them if they were aware that I stutter, only one said they knew, a couple said they never knew and a few said they thought I just talked differently but that they wouldn't label me as a PWS. Even though these few know that I stutter, I still try my best to hide it when speaking with them. Just because "my secret" is out of the bag with them, I do not let the stutter out of the bag too often. The shame and embarrassment has been embedded in me and although that has become a little less of an issue, I feel I will always try to hide my stuttering in someway. Habits are hard to break.

However, it is nice to talk to these friends who now know I stutter and be honest about where I am going. For so long, (and I still do this with those who do not know that I stutter) every time I went to an NSA meeting or event, I would tell people I was visiting with friends or at a work event.

I do not advertise that I stutter, talk about it with friends, family, coworkers or others I encounter because for so long, it has been hidden. How do you all of sudden let this secret out of the bag? Hiding my stuttering has been such a big part of my life - a daily occurrence - that if it becomes visible, will I still be the same person in people's eyes?

I have become more accepting of my stutter because of the unconditional love and support from the NSA and all the great people I have met who also stutter. Some of my best friends are people who stutter. There is a special bond we have, this commonality (stuttering) that is unique. It has been a long journey indeed, and I have a ways to go but it is nice knowing I have so many by my side who can relate to the real me - a person who stutters.

I am also the group moderator for the Yahoo Covert Stuttering on-line group. This group consists of over 400 people who are either covert or have an interest in covert stuttering. It is a place where we can share our stories, triumphs, tribulations, fears and support other covert people who stutter. Participation is encouraged but feel free to join and just read the posts. If interested, join us at http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/Covert-S/.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2009.

SUBMITTED: September 9, 2009
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