About the presenter: Barbara Wimpee grew up in St. Petersburg, FL and has lived in California, Georgia, New York and Wisconsin. Growing up on the beach had an enormous impact on Barbarašs life. She started competitive swimming as a preschooler, and turned her fascination with aquatic life into a career in marine biology. She received her Bacheloršs Degree in Biology at UCLA, and her Masteršs Degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is presently a researcher in aquatic toxicology.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

My Life as a Covert Stutterer

by Barbara Wimpee
from Wisconsin, USA

I am a covert stutterer. I only recently learned that a technique I thought I had invented, and have practiced for decades, actually has a name. I am 50 years old and have only recently sought out others who have shared my experiences. I recently went back to school for my master's degree in Biology and went through my oral exam a little over a year ago. As evidence of my "covertness," I think I surprised everyone on my committee because they did not know I stutter. I have known many of them for 18 years!

I was not always a covert stutterer. I can remember as a child rolling my eyes back in my head and spitting and having terrible blocks. I was so afraid to talk in first grade that I wet my pants because I was afraid to ask to go to the bathroom. I was the youngest of three and had a brother four years older than me. As an early "solution" to my stuttering, I learned how to fight at a young age. I used to beat up anyone who made fun of me at school. I gradually learned how to cope with my stuttering by avoiding words I knew I would have trouble with. I was so happy when I learned what a thesaurus was. Now, I actually have trouble catching myself substituting words. I am trying not to do that now. My whole life has been manipulating around situations to disguise my stuttering. I have ordered things in restaurants, not because I wanted the item, but because I could say it. I have become a wallflower at times in my life when I am having a harder time being fluent linked to hormone fluctuations, lack of sleep, stress, etc. I know when I am having those times and my behavior becomes more hermit-like (in contrast to my usually more extroverted personality).

I am normally very outgoing. I was a cheerleader in junior high school. We moved when I was in 9th grade and I changed my name from Barbie to Barb, it seemed easier to say and it actually didn't seem like me at the time, so it was easier to pretend to be someone else. It also seemed more grown up; something a lot of kids I think struggle with at that age. It seems that if I detach myself a bit from who I am I can cope better. It is a bit like acting. I think there is a ton of baggage that goes with the covert stutterer. Those who find out you stutter think that you have misled them, as if you have been caught in a lie. Then you go through periods of shame and embarrassment. I am only getting comfortable now with my stuttering for a couple of reasons. One reason is that I found the NSA chapter in Milwaukee and people are helping me to be more accepting of myself, helping me to openly stutter and not be ashamed of it. The other reason is that I am 50, menopausal and pretty much not caring as much what others think of me anymore. I am getting over thinking everyone else is more valid than I am on this earth. That is a place we put ourselves in with lots of help from the "fluent" world.

I have horrible stories of speech therapy from my childhood and decided never to seek help again after 9th grade when I refused to go anymore. One story is when I was in 7th grade and at a new Junior High School where a lot of new kids were coming from other elementary schools. I wanted desperately to be one of the cool kids and my covertness was working very well for me for the first few months of school until in my English class, the teacher was randomly picking people to read out loud. I was panicked. I was, of course, called upon to read. I got up to read and it was a disaster. I could not get anything out of my mouth. I was so totally blocked. The teacher went to her desk drawer and got out a bag of Bazooka bubble gum and in front of the whole class made me put about twenty pieces into my mouth and then attempt reading again. The whole class was in hysterical laughter. It was then that I learned to hold my head up and keep going. I used my cousin, Carolyn, as one of many role models for me. She seemed so confident and pretty, and would not put up with much from anyone. That may have been due to her having three brothers. She was two years older, popular and cool.

I moved in 9th grade twice! I left my home in Florida where my Dad was an engineer with the space program. We had lived there for my whole life. To face all of these new people, I had to kick my covert stuttering methods into high gear. We moved to a high school in Phoenix, AZ for a few months. My Dad lost his job on his 49th birthday, Feb. 7th 1969. I am not sure what the problem was, but he was able to get another job from a very dear friend in San Jose, CA. I just wanted what all 14 year olds want: friends and to fit in. My Dad advised me that to meet new people, they really do not want to hear about how great it was where you came from; they really just want to talk about themselves. I became a good listener. I bent over backwards to be liked. I wanted to be perfect. My own feelings were not relevant. Everyone else was more valid than me. I also worked all the way through high school. The job my Dad had in San Jose paid a lot less than we were accustomed to. I always had to figure a way to keep employed. I was convinced that if I stuttered, I would not be thought of as a good employee. My covert skills continued to improve. I could completely hide from most people in the world. I was on many competitive teams in high school. I was particularly strong in swimming and gymnastics (that was when tall girls still did gymnastics). My mother always described me as a competitive and sensitive person. She said these were two traits that are hard to live with together.

I went to UCLA for my undergraduate Biology degree. I loved the ocean and dreamed of doing marine biology. I avoided an invertebrate class that was taught, since there were many oral reports required for the class. I envied my sister and my (now) husband who took that class. I felt I wasn't good enough to take that class since I stuttered. I had horrible memories from my 7th grade experience (and numerous others) that I feared would be repeated, but with even scarier people: professors and fellow college students.

I graduated from UCLA and got my first job as a laboratory technician in Athens, GA. I worked with a very shy man who was going through tenure. I worked very hard there and loved my time there with him. I was able to talk with him more fluently than most professors since he was shy and seemed sensitive to others (kind of a rare trait among the PhDs in the Sciences - I can say this now since I have been in this field for almost 30 years).

I have had a wonderful family life and career for all of these years. I have three wonderful daughters who are very sensitive, well-adjusted people. Through my work, I have been able to continue to learn and I have even been able to travel to the Bahamas, Lake Baikal in Russia for research, and to international meetings. I have been an organizer of numerous scientific workshops which have attracted people from all over the world. Even though I have always worked full time, I was a Girl Scout leader, a girl's softball team manager and volunteered for many activities as a parent volunteer. Only recently, after the girls had gone to college, did I decide I have time to return to get an advanced degree. It was not easy to put myself into that realm of being graded and judged after all of these years. The fears of all of the stuttering revisited me again.

My graduate preliminary exam over a year ago left me in a puddle of nerves. I actually went to the chiropractor 3 times in one week to deal with my neck spasms. Within the week I found the NSA website and found the Milwaukee chapter. I am sorry that it took me so long to get to this point in my life of seeking support, but at least I finally am getting there now. With the NSA I felt like I would be welcomed and someone would finally understand my pain. I was right. All I could do was cry when I went to my first meeting. The pain is really deep.

I recently defended my master's thesis and attended my graduation in May. My master's defense was one of my first formal public speaking events. I had been told that I could never get this far in my field because of my stuttering. But you only live once, so I went for it. I was so happy to have friends, family and three members of my NSA chapter there at my presentation. At the end, I surprised everyone by doing a cartwheel.

People have asked what I'll do now that I have a master's degree. 'Nothing different' is the answer. I did the degree for myself. It was something I always wanted to do but felt I would not be able to do because of my stuttering. I have trained many students who have gotten masters and PhD degrees, but I was always the assistant and "surrogate advisor" to them and never earned a degree for myself. The underlying reason was fear. I had convinced myself that I would never be as worthy as other people. I am undoing some of that thinking now that I accomplished my goal. Before, I let the world dictate what I couldn't do, and I let the world convince me that was the truth. It is hard to believe differently.

I recently attended the NSA Conference in Chicago. After grade school, I have not had any speech therapy and so I feel completely uninformed in the modern world of speech pathology. Up until a year ago, I only knew about my own experiences. Through NSA, I have learned a lot about myself and others who stutter. I am amassing energy to help somehow in the stuttering world. I feel a real connection to the struggles I had with my stuttering, especially as a teenager. I am hoping I can contribute in a useful way to others' lives and help them accept themselves as I am learning to do now. I am glad to have found "my people".

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

August 11, 2005
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