First Person: How my stutter challenges me yet helps shape who I am

When Joseph Ferguson, a social media producer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, interviewed Carl Herder, Atlanta director of the American Institute for Stuttering, for a recent episode of the accessAtlanta podcast, it was a topic that was personal to him. Here, Ferguson talks about his own experience living with a stutter:

When I think about my stutter, it’s as much a part of me as my left arm. What makes it different, however, is learning how to live with it. I’ve had a stutter my whole life, but around the time I hit the first grade, it became legitimate. And by that I mean it became enough of an issue for my school to enroll me in a speech class. Looking back on it, I am so grateful I went to a school that was able to recognize my stutter and get me into speech therapy. This was around the same time the bullying really started. I won’t bore you with the details, but I heard that “T-T-T-Today Junior” joke more than a few times. As much as I hated my stutter at the time, I can see how it was and still is so integral to my formation as a person.

First and foremost, I learned that you have to work hard to get the things you want. It gave me grit. I wanted the skills to communicate my ideas as well as fluent people do. Because of that determination, I went to speech therapy three times a week for eight years. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I was there — working on my fluency and learning techniques to help me detect a stutter and navigate my way out of one. Being fluent always felt like catching the wind in your hands. You can feel it when you catch it, and it feels like it slips through your fingers just as easily. When I was younger, the more I was fluent, the more I was praised. I equated it to being the best, most thought-through, and prepared Joseph.

The “therapy” aspect of speech therapy helped me wade through the waters of K-12 madness. I simply cannot say enough good things about my speech-language pathologist. On days when we weren’t going over specific techniques, she was still helping me. She helped me work through the realization that I can’t communicate as well as most people. While I can’t pinpoint it exactly, this probably was when I fell in love with words. When I found a letter or sound that was making me stutter, it was extremely helpful to be able to pull out a backup word and get out of the stutter.

There is a specific kind of dysfluency we in the stuttering community call a “block.” That is when you are physically unable to utter a word. It can be demoralizing, especially when it comes out of nowhere. Working in speech therapy helped me understand blocks will happen. It just comes with the stutter. How I handle blocks is 100% up to me. It taught me the importance of understanding your situation and trying to make the best of it.

It’s not lost on me that part of my job is speaking publicly now. It’s not lost on me that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution saw a kid who stuttered and still believed in me enough to take a chance. If you could see how many takes I do of a single sentence just to get it right for the In Context videos, you would know the only reason I do this is because I Iove it.

I say all that to say I would not be the same person without my stutter and the people who helped me through it. My parents, close friends, and speech therapist have helped me in ways I can’t really put into words. But naturally, there are days when I hate my stutter. There are days when I wish I could just say what I want to the first time and not have to go over it in my head. There are times when I embarrassingly struggle with a consonant sound in front of family, friends, or colleagues. But it makes me, me. And if there is anything I can tell a younger person, or anyone struggling with a stutter, it would be that. It doesn’t make you weak, unintelligent, or Porky the Pig. It makes you, you. And that’s something I need to hear every once in a while.

About the Author