Would You Take a Magic Pill to End Your Stutter? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Samuel Dunsiger, revives the series sparked by Jillian’s story:

About four years ago, I was interviewing for a PR internship at a non-profit organization. I disclosed the fact that I stutter—which is something I normally do at interviews. But this time, the employer’s reaction shocked me.

“I actually stutter too,” he said.

When only one percent of the world’s population stutters, the odds of sitting across the table from someone who also stutters are incredulous (unless you’re at a National Stuttering Association conference). The interview turned into a 40-minute conversation about stuttering. Later that afternoon, he emailed me. I got the internship.

I asked myself that famous magic pill question and talked about it with others many times. Stutterers, like those with other disorders, are splintered into many ‘camps.’

There are those who seek ways to manage their stuttering; there are those who are ‘covert,’ who try to hide their stuttering; and there are those who simply stutter openly and actually embrace it. I’ve honestly embraced my stuttering.

However, if you asked me when I was a teenager, I would’ve accepted the magic pill in a heartbeat. At the time, I wasn’t as open about my stuttering. On the contrary, it was dreadful. Among the plethora of issues I was dealing with while growing up—puberty, acne and others—the last thing I needed was to talk funny.

In my fifth grade class, we took turns reading aloud. I would count the number of spots ahead of me, dreading my turn to read—and praying I would be given a short paragraph. Participating in class was equally as agonizing. I would rarely raise my hand to answer a question, even if I knew the answer.

Outside the classroom, stuttering continued to affect me. Picking up the telephone was kryptonite. For most of my teens and early 20s, I avoided parties and most social gatherings. I was shy because I stuttered, not the other way around.

As I got older, I realized something: stuttering is only a disability if we let it be one. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s true. Dr. Mitchell Trichon, assistant professor of communication disorders at La Salle University in Philadelphia and a stutterer too, once said that “so much of stuttering is the way you think about it.”

In other words, the issue may not be the fact that we stutter, but our feelings and perceptions about it—the avoidance, the anxieties, the shame and the fear of people’s reactions. Those were the issues, not the stuttering itself.

In summer of 2011, the way I thought about my stuttering changed. I ventured to Fort Worth, Texas for the NSA conference. It was the first time I met anyone else who stutters. I met so many people who have thrived despite their speech issues—actors, lawyers, fellow journalists. They were stuttering openly and didn’t care. They were proud to stutter. That’s when I learned to embrace it too.

While I used to see my stuttering as a disability, now I see it as something I just happen to do. It’s a characteristic. I have brown hair, I’m left-handed and I stutter. I don’t talk weirdly, just differently. And it has its benefits. It makes us compassionate and unique, and it motivates us to become great communicators and the best version of ourselves. And, such as the case of my interview-turned-stuttering chat, it can make us memorable. It really can enrich our lives.

This notion of enrichment extends to other disabilities as well. In fact, Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychiatry, called having autism itself an “advantage.” He suggests the disability brings people with autism benefits such as memory recall and an affinity for identifying patterns.

“Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it’s time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear,” Dr. Mottron wrote. “…Most [people with autism] are willing and capable of making sophisticated contributions to society, if they have the right environment.”

The same goes for people who stutter. We just need the right environment—and the right people in our lives. So, when Kenny Koroll, chairperson of the board of the NSA, said “we are the cure” at this year’s NSA conference, he’s right. Sometimes, a disability doesn’t have to be a disability.

One more reader:

I was truly inspired by the thread on stuttering, which I have struggled with my entire life. I finally put everything down and wrote about it. The feedback has been incredible thus far, so I thought I’d share it with your readers. Thank you again!

Thanks to Jillian for one of the best threads in Notes thus far. Update: Okay, one more reader:

A common thread in the “I wouldn’t take the pill” group is that stuttering is a part of their identity, and they can’t imagine parting with such an integral piece of who they are. Well, for me—a covert stutterer ever since I started speaking—stuttering is an unfortunate part of my life and not a part of my identity I’d mind parting with.

In fact, I feel nearly the opposite; in situations where I am perfectly fluent, I finally feel like my true self. The biggest conflict I have on a day-to-day basis is not simply that I can’t say what I want to say, but that I know the version of myself that I’m showing to the world is not my true self. The true self is the one freed from the neuro-psycho-socio-emotional confines of the stutter, and the stutter is an obstacle between my true self and the rest of the world.

I’d go further and say that accepting stuttering as an integral part of who you are rather than something that you happen to do is a huge, potentially insurmountable block to overcoming one’s stutter. Perhaps letting go of that “part of your identity” is exactly what needs to be done.

This is in no way meant to take away from the messages of acceptance and understanding that the NSA conference seemed to be pushing. Obviously, clearly, unambiguously, society could do a hell of a better job showing empathy and understanding for stutterers. And despite my different view from what seems to be the central theme of that conference, I am filled with empathy for my fellow stutterers; I literally know exactly what they feel like.

So anyway, would I take the pill? Well, that magic pill would have to cure all the myriad and interconnected causes at the true root of my stuttering problem. If taking it would do that, and leave me imbued with all the knowledge that came from it (not least so I can validate some of my own theories about the causes and treatment of stuttering), hell yeah, I’d take it.