Would You Take a Magic Pill to Cure 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.

Here’s a new email on an old thread, from reader Alyssa Epstein:

I can recall the exact moment in time when I realized I was different from everyone else, but most particularly (and importantly) from my classmates. My fifth class was sitting in a circle taking turns reading from a book, and as the book was passed to me and I read my passage, something strange had occurred. I knew what I wanted to say, and I could feel myself trying to form the words, but instead, every word came out in a spitfire struggle.

My voice no longer sounded like a normal seamless transition of one word after another, with emotion and inflection intertwined into each syllable. Instead, each word came out like an explosion from a canon.

While that passage was only four or five sentences, I remember wishing it was one. I distinctly recall darting my eyes around the page, silently willing myself to be able to finish the paragraph faster than I knew was possible. What’s more, I can still remember what it felt like after I finished and passed the book to my classmate sitting next to me, how hot my cheeks felt and how tears had welled in my eyes and, without looking, feeling every set of eyes in the room on me.

It’s been 18 years since then, and I have often wondered what life would be like if I was a different person, a person who didn’t stutter. No one has ever asked me what it feels like to stutter, but I already have an answer should that day come: I’d tell them to imagine that their vocal cords have been ripped out, their lips sewn shut. They’d want to scream out into the world but nothing would happen.

The physical energy of actively trying and straining their own body to keep up with how fast their mind was working would exhaust them to the point where they’d have to stop and catch their breath. Words wouldn’t form no matter how hard they willed it, and eventually they would get to the point where it was easier not to try and have a conversation at all.

I have thought that perhaps a cure would be found, a device surgically implanted, or even a magic pill swallowed, that would allow me the freedom of expression I have always yearned for. Would I have spent the last 18 years of my life ordering food I didn’t want, holding myself back from activities, pretending to lose my train of thought during sentences, and hiding behind and internalizing the shame I felt on a daily basis? These moments of defeat have made me a prisoner in my own body, and there was a time in my life where I would have given anything to escape it.

But, on some days, it’s a piece of my soul I would feel empty without. I can proudly say that stuttering has helped me become the young woman I am today, and I often wonder how different I may be without it.

I am quick-witted and sarcastic. Being made to feel so small and insignificant for so long has allowed me a space in my heart for compassion, something so few individuals possess. Internalizing my thoughts and emotions, and only speaking when spoken to, has taught me the importance of listening when others speak.

It has also made me a strong writer, since being unable to communicate verbally fueled my ability to communicate on paper, and my love for reading has left me with a vast vocabulary that I’m quite proud of. I am a source of unrelenting surprise, since I’m smarter, deeper, and more cunning than a shy girl ought to be.

But, most importantly, I stopped pleasing others simply because I felt as though I owed it to them, that I was somehow atoning for the shortcomings I thought I possessed.

For the first time in my life, my answer to “would you take a magic pill to cure your stutter?” would be no. I have finally realized that my life is no less beautiful, no less full of love, and no less important simply because I stutter.

Update from yet another reader to come out of the woodwork:

As a lifelong stutterer, I’ve appreciated the occasional revisiting of the thread on stuttering. As an adult, I’ve been able to keep my speech mostly under control, though I go through phases where I get really thrown off and descend into very depressing low points.

But it’s nothing compared to when I was young and had an average 80 interruptions per minute. During speech therapy in middle school, I had to recite O. Henry stories because of the abundant use of multi-syllabic words. I hate “The Gift of the Magi.” I hate O. Henry.

I descended into my own strange world where I sat around memorizing and drawing maps all day. But it’s knowledge I still have today; I have strange mnemonic navigation skills. And if I didn’t have my stutter, I wouldn’t be surprised if I lacked those strange geography skills. I certainly wouldn’t be able to drive across the country without a map (which I’ve done before).

So would I take a pill to cure my stuttering? Probably not.

Compared to many stutterers, I’m pretty fortunate that I can keep my interruptions mostly in the shadows. In fact, I do an OK job in front of the camera for events I moderate. I have my tricks to forecast trouble spots, avoid certain words and phrases I know that are going to trip me up.

But oddly enough, I’ve been criticized by a former manager that my precise use of language was a sign that I’m hiding my true thoughts and opinions. My methods to avoid stuttering were apparently a sign of workplace deceit. (I could write a lot on this subject.)

I’ve found that D.C. can be a fairly unforgiving place if you have a speech impediment, especially if you’re interacting with Type A personalities, strong debaters, and bold personalities who like to skate circles around those who are not in command of the conversation.

Anyhow, I'm rambling now. Thanks again for the thread.

Thanks again to everyone for their smart, engaging emails on the subject (and for being so amenable to my edits). Reader notes like these don’t get much traffic compared to the professionally crafted pieces for the Facebook masses, but their stories really strike a chord with a subset of readers, and to me that’s immensely rewarding.

Update from yet another reader, Michael Ivan:

Yes. Yes, I would take the magic pill.

I feel a bit ashamed typing that, considering my stutter as a child from 8 - 16 was severe but now is 95 percent manageable, whereas other stutterers still endure much worse. One step further, if you had to pick between a stutter knowingly or a mystery condition behind door no. 1, 2 or 3; you probably wouldn't take on that risk and stick with the stutter.

I am thankful everyday for my health. But that five percent figure I plucked from thin air, those few instances where I get blocked by a word or letter at the worst imaginable time stays with you in a not so positive way. To make matters more interesting, I am a sales representative / account manager tasked with calling, speaking to, meeting with, taking out, presenting, and pitching existing or prospective clients five days and couple nights a week. I embark on so much of my professional life with a little side of worry.

As a child, I experienced what many of the other readers had. In a nutshell: a complete and utter fear of speaking aloud to a group or in public and use all the tricks in the book to be excused to avoid having to read aloud. If a plot to escape failed, doom casts upon you. There is nothing worse than making a complete mess of speaking or reading aloud. Those damn words that start with “w” or “h”—damn them. Stumbling, stammering, stuttering, breathing awkwardly through a passage. When you finish, thankfully, some peers snicker, the teacher mouths “it's okay,” but worst, some of your peers can't even look you in the eye out of some mutual embarrassment.

I was lucky to have many friends through the course of my bad stuttering years stick up for me to the others who poked fun. I had other friends genuinely and curiously ask why? Which I think is pretty neat looking back. From outside perspective stutterers I think are beloved and endeared for. But personally, the anxiety can be crippling, because for god’s sake, why is this happening to me? I’d much prefer it not to.

You can pound the proud stuttering drum, citing famous people of history who also grew up with or had stutters through adult life. But even in it’s pride, you are acknowledging an apparent difference to others. If someone has to say "it’s okay." Does it make it unequivocally so?

I will keep an eye out on The Atlantic for when this fantasy pill passes FDA trials. I won’t mind taking it, even if I stutter just 5 percent of the time.