Concealing Stuttering: Is It a Choice?

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During a recent engaging conversation with Dr. Hope Gerlach-Houck, I was able to talk myself through my thoughts on my own definition of concealment in stuttering. Dr. Gerlach-Houck—who is an assistant professor at Western Michigan University and a fast riser in the field of speech-language pathology—posed questions that challenged my long-held belief that I had always chosen to conceal stuttering and its side effects. But, as she prodded, I realized that I never had a choice until I did

Let me explain my reasoning, which appeared to have been an alternative perspective based on Dr. Gerlach-Houck’s reactions and follow up questions. 

First, my stuttering pattern did not allow me to conceal any part of it. Until the last ten years, my speech was choppy and hardly understandable because of long voiceless blocks. Without sound, the struggle to push through the blocks created a significant amount of tension in my entire body, forcing it to escape any way possible. It escaped through rapid-fire sniffing, head jerks, tongue flapping, involuntary arm throws, and a flurry of other visually-observed secondary behaviors. It was impossible to fully conceal all of these as I was stuttering. 

Then what was I thinking as I tried to conceal stuttering?

I wasn’t concealing stuttering. I was concealing my identity, as a person who stutters.

This was how I tried to explain my experience of concealment as I came of age with stuttering to Dr. Gerlach-Houck. Many inside and outside of the stuttering community preach about aligning our actions with our identity without really understanding what that even means. I have thoroughly explored this aspect of self-acceptance and yet it wasn’t until this conversation that I began to pull together my thoughts. 

When I was growing up and into my stutter, there was no choice to conceal. Every social interaction was an opportunity to learn how to survive, protect myself, and escape with the least amount of trauma. In other words, stuttering without a choice was inherently self-preservation. I just had to make it through unscathed.  

We become what we most often do. I became the type of person who could endure any amount of trauma, and live to tell myself to keep persevering. So, that was what I did, without ever really hiding my stutter and all that came with it. 

As a child maturing into a young adult, I was not capable of understanding that I had any other choice. I explained this as the hopelessness that we who stutter experience, stuck in a never-ending wonder of when and how we’ll ever escape. 

I still do not know what sustained my perseverance through the many hopeless years. It carried on and on and on to the point of settling for a life that I didn’t want, and almost took it if we’re being honest. For those who have been to these depths, you know that it is impossible to see choices or opportunities to conceal. You find the easiest way to safety, regardless of its costs. 

Second, stuttering without a choice to conceal is avoidance. 

I hadn’t considered it this way before but since I said it I’ve had a hard time not thinking about it. Imagine being trapped in this world where your first and only instinct—thought and action—was to seek safety. And then not knowing any other reality. I only wanted to figure out how to make it stop—the despair, hopelessness, uncertainty. I avoided life to ensure I survived until the next day. Beyond that, I had no idea what the future held, let alone analyze how I was failing to conceal my physical stutter. 

This may come off as a bit combative, emotional even, and it should because I am scraping the memories from an existence that traumatized me. However, under these emotions lies the truth that I cannot deny. At five or six years old, I did make many choices to conceal stuttering. But, this is what I’ve come to terms with…it was before I knew that what I was doing habituated as avoidance instead. 

Here is where it got interesting. Concealment is avoidance until it’s not. Simply, when I understood that what I was choosing to do was to hide my stuttering was when it became concealment. This was when I could choose to conceal and actually pass as somewhat fluent. The key is in the choice. 

There isn’t a firm marker in my life when I began to conceal. Between middle and high school is probably the best bet judging from the many formative experiences that hang ever present in my memory over twenty years later. Regardless, it was the in between period when I was just trying to make it to the next day. 

Again, to conceal is to completely hide in Latin. I will never be able to rid my speech of stuttering. That is impossible. 

Yet, I tried. I willfully concealed at least some of my pattern and some of my secondary behaviors, largely by opting out of my life. For me, though, this still was an attempt to conceal my identity as a person who stutters rather than my stutter.

My identity aligned with my intention to conceal. I am the type of person who hides my stutter. I am the type of person who can endure anything that stuttering throws my way. I am the type of person who is silenced by his stutter. I became the type of person I never wanted to be but hiding who I was inside.  

Let’s not mince words, after all, we who stutter have to be intentional with our words because of how hard it is to say them, right? Yes, someone has said that to me before. Close…my working belief from my experience is that…

There had to be an intentional choice made to hide stuttering or my identity as a person who stutters.

If I did not have a choice to conceal, or wasn’t aware of the opportunity, then what I was doing or once did was/is not concealment.

Part of the regret that I’m having to work through now is learning how to live with this truth. There was only ever one choice for me, to stay trapped in the endless wonder of how to escape. When will this end? The regret, however, is not in the coming to terms with this sooner, or someone explaining this reality. 

The working through is where I found value. In every moment of stuttering, I no longer feel or acknowledge the choice. It’s just not there anymore. I am 100% out of the closet earning my skin in the game by revealing my stutter in all social interactions. It took over 15 years from start to…present (there is no finish).

The real question I’m seeking the answer to is how to I replicate this discovery to help others who stutter come to similar realizations sooner in their stuttering journeys. While each journey finds its own way, it is truths like these that I wish someone could have explained to me as a young boy growing into my stutter.

A special thank you to Dr. Hope Gerlach-Houck for undertaking such thought-provoking and meaningful research. I look forward to reading your study and the key takeaways for the broader stuttering community.

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