I attended my first NSA Conference in 2011 and my life hasn’t been the same since.
Back then I was a very different person. I always felt out of place, like something was wrong with me. I knew I was smart but it is very difficult to prove it when you can’t ever say your name on the first try.
“Ddddd…. ddddaaaa….. dddd-d-d-d-d-d-daaaAAAVID!"
A short name that would take me anywhere from 5 seconds to an entire lifetime to get out.
By the time I would finish saying my name I could see the effects of my speech on people. When you stutter people look at you differently right away. You see confusion in their eyes, and confusion is a terrible place to start a conversation. Stuttering is weird and I hated talking.
Because of my stutter I would try to be quiet most of the time. On the school bus I would wear my headphones or read a book. In between classes? Headphones or a book. Heading back home? Headphones or a book. Always headphones or a book. People don’t try to talk to you when you have headphones or a book.
In class I would play dumb. I would not raise my hand even when I knew the answers, and I probably knew them 96.2% of the time. (Why? Because I read the book!)
I would make decisions based on “would I have to talk if I do that?” And that’s a terrible way to live.
For the people that know me today it’s very hard to picture me like the quiet guy, or not having something witty or sarcastic to say at all times, but I was that person. And it’s not that I was an introvert, I toooooooootally wanted to talk. I wanted to tell jokes, share stories, and talk to that cute girl over there… but I never knew if anything would come out when I opened my mouth. Stuttering is incredibly frustrating!
Imagine waking up and your brain is like:
“Ok, today you are going to take 3 seconds to say every M. Every M, no exceptions, so get those synonyms ready. You are also going to have trouble saying the D in David but not the D in delivery, and it won’t make sense to you. The presentation you worked on all night is going to start with a mega-block on the very first sentence… it’s going to suck, and you’ll think about that moment for the next 6 hours. You also might spit on somebody’s face trying to say an ST sound, so keep an eye on those. Have a good day!”
Stuttering is so taxing, mentally and physically, that it makes speaking a very demanding task. The rules change every day, and might or might not be affected by who are you talking to, the time of the day or even the place.
Every. Speaking. Situation. Feels. Out. Of. Your. Control.
And you choose to speak less.
You feel alone.
And then I found my stamily.
The National Stuttering Association is the largest non-profit organization dedicated to bring support to people who stutter, and every year they have a conference in a random city in the United States. I attended my first one in Ft. Worth, Texas in 2011, and I just came back from my 8th in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
I know Disney has copyrighted “The Most Magical Place on Earth” and they’ll probably sue me just for typing that…. but the NSA Conferences are THE most magical place on Earth! (Fight me, Mickey Mouse.)
First of all: YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!
If you are a first timer it’s a complete mind fuck. Walking into an NSA Conference is like entering a parallel universe: You grow up believing you are alone, that nobody gets you, and suddenly you discover that there others like you. Like, A LOT of them. You meet people who stutter from all ages, races and backgrounds. You discover that we are in every city, in every country and in every language, and for one magical weekend you are in a beautiful hotel, in a beautiful new city, surrounded by around eight hundred of the most beautiful people you will ever meet.
Like I said, a mind ffffuuuuuuuu… (I stuttered)
At the conference you hear speeches and attend workshops. You share stories and make each other laugh with terrifying tales of phone calls and drive-thrus. You are constantly inspired and brought to tears by stories of bravery, persistence, and success. You go to have dinner in big groups and confuse the hell out of unsuspecting servers. You start your day talking and go to sleep at 4am, still talking. You talk about things that scare you and everybody gets it.
The NSA is the place where “I stutter” becomes WE stutter, and it’s amazing!
And to make it even better, if it’s not your first time, it feels like the best family reunion ever. That’s where the name stamily comes from, stuttering + family = stamily!
The 2019 NSA Conference started in an odd way…
The hotel didn’t have electricity for like 12 hours on Wednesday, which meant no lights and no AC anywhere in the hotel.
I was scheduled to lead a workshop on Wednesday, and the lack of power put a wrench on my plans and my confidence. I had prepared what I thought would be nice presentation, with a beautiful Powerpoint, and even a song… only to get to the hotel and find out that I was going to present in a dark room, with no AC and no projector. Crap…
You can prepare all you want, but every now and then life throws you a curve ball, and if that’s not a metaphor for stuttering, I don’t know what is.
So I did what I could, and presented a sweaty workshop in front of a sweaty and uncomfortable audience. If you ask me, my workshop went terrible, but all throughout the weekend I was approached by many of the people that were present saying that I had done the best out of a really bad situation, and that even with all the drawbacks, my talk had inspired them.
In any other occasion I would’ve dwelt on that for days, and have a pity party for planning months for this and then have a sucky presentation, but when you are surrounded by so many people that love and encourage you… still sucks, but a lot less.
(It is late, but if anybody wants to check my presentation, together with all my notes, you can download it HERE.)
I think it’s time to introduce you to some members of my stamily:
One of my favorite things about my stamily is that we come from every place you can imagine. I remember at some point I was talking to a group of people and I stopped to point out that we were seven people from six different countries: USA (2), Kuwait, Canada, Egypt, Bolivia, and Mexico. I love that.
Stuttering is why my Facebook today looks like the United Nations (hej Danmark!) and why even though I’ve never been to Canada, this year I was named “Honorary Québecois”, which I believe gets you a free glass of wine from any dude named Jean-François or something.
Hearing people stuttering in different accents and languages is fun, and hearing your exact same experiences coming from the mouth of somebody that lives a thousand miles away is unexpected, but incredibly heartwarming.
It also makes me feel that no matter what city or country I visit, all I need is to post the Stutter Signal on social media and within minutes I will have a local come to my rescue with recommendations, advice or even a place to stay. It’s pretty freaking magical.
Talking about magical, 4th of July next to the beach was pretty sweet:
Back to the conference, some highlights included a general session called “Fred Talks,” a tribute to the late Dr. Fred Murray, to whom our conference was dedicated. Fred Murray was one of the pioneers of our stuttering family, writing a memoir called “A stutterer’s story” in 1980, and later becoming a Speech Language Pathologist himself.
Fred believed that it is important for people who stutter to develop a willingness to experience stuttering, rather than suppress it. As Fred would explain, this ability takes years of self study, practice and patience in order to understand how to stutter in a new way, but, Fred believed, it is important for people who stutter to work on developing themselves, completely, as people, instead of agonizing about speech forever.
I read A Stutterer’s Story a few months before my first conference in 2011 and to my surprise I had the honor of running into him on my first day at that conference. We are never alone indeed.
Fred Talks was kicked off in an impressive manner by Dr. Tracey Wallace’s talk called “The other side of fear”, in which she talked about her desire to be an ER doctor. She knew that an emergency room is a place where seconds matter and she feared her stutter might end up being fatal for somebody else. “Is my stutter going to kill people?” was the question on her mind. Those are real fears that a person who stutters worries about.
But now she has a “Dr.” added to her name, and she learned that with perseverance and a commitment to the journey, not the outcome, you can succeed. Her speech was powerful.
Luckily, just as we share fears, we also share strengths. On “We really need to talk”, Michael Trichon talked about the real problem with stuttering: The words never spoken. He talked about the importance of sharing our stories, good or bad, because they can be the words that end up changing someone else’s life down the road.
Mitchell shared with us the story behind a poem titled “The bridge builder”, by Will Allen Dromgoole. In said poem, a man on a journey comes to a deep, wide river. The man was old and experienced, so the river didn’t present much of a challenge, but as soon as he reached the other side he decides to turn back and start building a bridge. A fellow pilgrim sees him and ask why is he doing that, since it is unlikely that he will have to pass that way again, and the old man raises his head and replies “Good friend, I am just trying to make it a bit easier for the next person in the same journey.” Mitchell nailed the power of the NSA with that story.
Next was Holly Nover with her talk called "Fear is greater than the consequences."
Holly, a person who stutters and an SLP, talked about something many of us have thought about: having kids who stutter. Going through life as a person who stutters is hard enough, but what happens when one of your kids starts stuttering and you feel it’s your fault? How do you deal with that? “Being a parent of a kid who stutters is harder than being a person who stutters,” she said, and it really put me to think about how would I handle such scenario.
Before the NSA I was terrified of the idea of having my hypothetical kid go through the same things I went through, but to be honest, I think that now I wouldn’t mind as much. I know he/she would not have it easy, but the NSA and I would be there from the beginning. My kid would never feel alone, or so I hope. But still, something to think about…
And that was my 2019 NSA Conference in a nutshell. A weekend in paradise with people that would even make Hell feel cozy, welcoming and fun. The workshops and keynotes are incredible every year, but to me, the best of the whole weekend are the conversations and the stories you hear.
From Mollie, the eighteen year old school shooting survivor turned activist, who doesn’t let her stutter stop her from facing politicians who oppose gun reforms (“they are scared of me now,” she said), to Dennis, the 62 year-old first timer brought to tears by the confidence and enthusiasm of children.
From Sharon, our keynote speaker this year, who told us that sometimes “courage is just seeing your vulnerability as an opportunity,” to my new friend Blessing, from Zimbabwe, a first-timer that brought the house down with a POWERFUL speech that made me feel like MLK was in the room.
Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, and now that you know that you are not alone, go on and talk fearlessly. Share your story, do it for the 14 year old you.
See you (somewhere) in 2020!
And remember that as the J.K. Rowling said “The ones that love us never really leave us.”
Love you, Stamily!
P.S. English is my second language so excuse my typos and occasionally weird grammar. Please share, and leave me a comment below or contact me at email@example.com!