Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In the Mind of a Stutterer Before Speaking

I want to try to keep this blog as a way to keep all of my friends and family back home in the loop with all of the interesting things that happen to me while I'm out in Maine for med school.  I wish I could individually tell everyone all the great stories, but I'm realizing that is way too time consuming so I'm doing the semi-impersonal thing and just writing my feelings for the world to read.

A part of me actually finds it easier to tell personal anecdotes to large groups of people instead of more intimate groups (the only exception here might be a one on one conversations).  About two weeks ago, during our last class on a Friday, we had a lecturer who wanted us to think of something that we don't like that we can't control and to think of what we do to resolve that.  Immediately, my stutter came to mind as a perfect example.  He first wanted us to talk about it in our small groups (our main classroom is set up as a bunch of round tables with 6 chairs at each for members of our small groups so we can do more interactive learning), and then he was going to ask some people to share their thoughts to the class.

My thought process went as follows:

"Man, my stutter is a perfect example of that. I should really share it.  I don't really want to share it with my small group...I want to share it with the whole class.  Wait. That involves speaking into the mic.  I'm pretty sure I've only met about 40% of the class so far... that is a large majority that has no idea that I stutter.  What are they going to do when I start speaking and 0.1 seconds later I hit a block?  What is the professor going to do? I've never met him before, will he realize what is happening? Will he be one of those people that recognizes stuttering or will he be confused? I shouldn't care.  I know I shouldn't care."

I'm mostly silent the whole time my small group is talking this over, and then he starts to ask for volunteers to share.  I'm listening to a few of the examples and getting continually more agitated because of how much I want to speak and how badly I also do NOT want to speak at the same time.

More thoughts rattling through my head:

"I have to do this.  The next time he asks for a volunteer I'm going to raise my hand.  Okay, the NEXT time he asks for a volunteer I'm going to raise my hand.  I can't let this opportunity pass me by.  It is literally the perfect way to actually tell my whole class I stutter in one shot.  I'm not going to do it.  I don't need to.  No, I do need to.  The ONLY reason I'm not doing it is because I'm scared.  I'll be really mad at myself if I miss this opportunity.  No, I'm not doing this."

Then, as someone is talking I realize my heart is racing:

"Woah, what is happening, I'm not even definitely speaking in front of the class and my heart is freaking out.  Damn, not only is it racing, but it's also pounding furiously in my chest.  Okay, this is not great for a person with congenital heart disease.  Shit, I have to calm down.  Okay, take deep breathes.  Deep breathes.  Everything is fine.  I am fine.  Is this working?  Um.. maybe.  It doesn't matter I can't have my heart working this hard.  Fuck, calm down!  When did this even start?  This is annoying.  More deep breaths.  Maybe deeper deep breathes will help.  I think that might be helping a smidge. Okay I have to do this.  My heart is only going to calm down if we move past hearing from volunteers or if I just do it.  I WILL be mad at myself if I don't do this.  Damnit, I have to do this.  I'm going to start out as "Well I stutter."  "Well I stutter"  "Well I stutter"  I don't know what I'll say after that.  Do I even need to say anything else, that seems pretty self explanatory to me.  That is a cop out, don't think like that, tell the story.  Um... something about speaking up in front of people is really hard and I've gotten over it by making myself do it and meeting other stutterers.  Or whatever.  "Well I stutter." I'm going to get stuck on that "W" and then it's going to be terrible.  "Well I stutter."  Okay..next time he asks for a volunteer.  Damnit..okay if he asks for one last volunteer. Okay.. Okay.. here we go.  Putting my hand up.  Cannot turn back now.  Does he see me..my hand is straight up."

My mind finally silences as he points to me.  I ask for the mic from the people at my table, pointedly not looking into anyones eyes, wondering if they are all dumbfounded that I rose my hand to speak.  I put my hand on the button to turn the mic on and begin speaking.

"Well, I st-st-st-st-stutter."  Man my voice is shaky, I sound like I'm near tears.   I don't exactly know what I said after my opening phrase, that was all I had planned and one of the main things that stuck in my memory.  But I realized a lot of what I said were thoughts that I think to myself all the time (you can now see that I think about stuttering and perseverate on phrases way too much for my own good).  I talked a little about how just the act of speaking on that mic is actually terrifying for me but I have to make myself do stuff like this everyday because not speaking hurts worse.  When I said this is terrifying the class erupted (may be an exaggeration) into applause and that made my heart want to swell and burst, in the good way--with feelings.  I really wish I knew more of what I said, I touched on the fact that I have learned things through my stutter and the one way that I cope with it is making myself do frightening things.  By the end, I was elated.  I thought, Wow, I sort of love this.  And the last couple words I said into the mic were with PERFECT technique and I was just so proud of myself, because after the fear was gone I could actually use my speaking tools that are so damn elusive normally and speak in my favorite voice of all time.

That was a defining moment for me.  I will never forget it.  I was suppressing a smile for a good 15 minutes after that.  It was crazy how easy it actually ended up being, how much I loved doing it, but more importantly how amazingly my class responded.  I had mentioned to my speech therapist within the first week of me meeting everyone how really well everyone has been receiving my stutter, more so than I'm used to by a long shot. But then, speaking and stuttering in front of 180 people and them applauding me and getting messages from people afterwards saying how awesome that was, I never in a million years imagined that.  I was on a major life high that whole day.  So much so I decided to run for one of our class reps ! (spoiler alert: I am now one of our class reps)

It's not even just the students.  Every Monday in Anatomy lab we have oral quizzes where one of the faculty members comes around to our little anatomy groups and asks us questions they give out the previous Friday.  I was initially really scared of this, but after the first one and I stuttered my way through it but still explained things decently well, and I started to allow myself to care less about my stutter and just let it be.  Then this Monday, my favorite anatomy professor was quizzing us again (really awesome retired surgeon) and I noticed he didn't really give me a real question and was asking me sort of one word answers, and then right before he left us he asked me to find him after class.  And I did one of my bad habits and tried to spell out a word I was stuck on so I was thinking, damn, I shouldn't have done that I know better than to do that.  But I tried to just put it out of my mind because he's a really nice guy, who knows what he's going to say.

After class he finds me, and I go to walk away with him and he says "Lets just stand over here.  I notice when you get stuck on a stutter you sometimes try to alphabetically get yourself out of it, have you ever tried writing down what you're trying to say?" This is it? Man, this guy is awesome.  We then spent a good 10 minutes talking about neural pathways and Pittsburgh and confidence and he told me the hardest part of medicine for me will be patient interviews and when I'm in residency and everyone decides to act like jerks and ask impossible questions on the spot.  Then he said, "If I could punch anyone in the face who gives you grief about your stutter I would, because your patients are going to see who you are and they are going to LOVE you." I even asked him if he would want me to go over the questions after class so he knows that I know them and he said, "I know that you know them.  I can see it in your eyes.  They dilate when you know the answer.  I know you know the answers."  That, right there, is another reason why my stutter is the coolest thing about me, because one of my best friends from Pittsburgh confirmed that she knew exactly what he was talking about.  My stutter might suck a lot, but if it leads to people noticing little things about me like how my eyes change when I know exactly what I want to say but my mouth won't let it come out, then I think it's actually pretty awesome.

I just cannot believe my good fortune--to go from being told by multiple people I'll never get into medical school with my stutter, I'll never be a doctor if I don't fix my stutter, to a retired surgeon on faculty at a medical school giving me the most incredible boost of confidence after only a handful of (admittedly, awesome) interactions.

 Maine is beautiful, the weather has been awesome.  So much enjoyable outside studying, studying on the beach, the stars!!!  Sure, I have a handful of mosquito bites on my person at all times, but from everything that has happened so far I feel really fortunate to be here, and really glad that life brought me here because I think it's going to be really great for me.  Especially if I keep making myself face my fears.


  1. I remember EVERY word you said :D This was indeed an amazing moment.

  2. Mia, I finally got around to reading this. You speaking up in class was probably the most powerful thing that has happened in our class. You talked about how it's better to speak up when you're scared than to not have your voice be heard. I almost cried because it was so good to hear you talking into a microphone. Just so you know, you're not the only one whose heart races before they talk into the mic. Mine did too for the first two weeks or so. It's probably not so significant for me, because my heart seems to be quite tough, but I wanted you to know that I share the feeling! Loving your writing, and to be honest I really liked it when the spin me thing landed on you, haha. You did a great job. What a great story about Dr. G too!