I was in my college boyfriend’s dorm room the first time I spoke openly about my stutter.
Though I had stuttered since learning to speak – my deficiencies with spoken language were so evident, my mother rushed me to the pediatrician before preschool even began – I was never comfortable confronting what everyone else could hear: the repetitions, the prolongations, the blocks that lasted so long it felt as though I was falling.
I was mortified to stutter and tried constantly to avoid it. I substituted words, made bizarre facial expressions – anything to prevent stuttering.
Dating seemed unfathomable to me. How could I establish a real relationship if I spent every moment afraid to speak?
While I spoke, he waited and listened, and I felt a surge of gratitude, as if I had found the one man sensitive enough to attempt to understand my speech disability.
Much later, after our lives headed down separate paths and we broke up, I would enter the complicated world of dating again – and find myself surprised. Turns out, my college boyfriend was not the only man who would overlook, or even embrace, my stutter. He was just one member of a much larger group of good-natured and compassionate people eager to connect.
I began to understand that my speech impediment, which had tortured me since childhood, was actually a useful tool in deciphering the quality of a person.
Did the guy at the library give a look of panicked discomfort after I openly stuttered? Did the man at the party ask for my name, only to mockingly joke, “W-w-w-w-what, did you forget it or something?” Though I left these interactions feeling flustered, my mind was full of clarity. I knew the kind of man I wanted to pursue. Judgmental, impatient types wouldn’t make the cut.
Those who do make the cut aren’t obvious saints – they’re mostly just patient, perceptive and curious. They aren’t afraid to ask straightforward questions: How long have you been stuttering? Are there treatments available? Is it difficult to deal with?
They maintain eye contact even when I’m taking time to get the words out and my eyes unintentionally seek the ceiling or the floor, searching for a way around a word. They don’t interrupt, guess my meaning or complete my sentences. They engage in conversation as if there’s nothing unique about our exchange, as if stuttering isn’t a problem to be fixed but simply another form of speaking.
The men who are patient with me don’t fit a particular profile. Over the years, I have found goodness in people I normally would have dismissed as romantic prospects, and for this, I thank my stutter completely. Sometimes they’re in the military, or Postal Service or stocking shelves at a liquor store. There’s even been a punk-rock musician, a gym rat, a hipster, a guy who worked at Lowe’s.
Once I do become romantically involved with someone and the relationship makes room for my disability, there’s an instant sense of transparency between us. Because my biggest insecurity is on full display every time I speak, the people I’ve dated begin to feel more vulnerable and more open about their own shortcomings.
I’ve had close friends begin relationships with men seemingly (and suspiciously) perfect, only to learn much later that their boyfriends are privately debilitated by something. That’s a situation I find foreign. Because my disability isn’t something I can suppress or camouflage on first dates, I characterise myself as honestly as I can – and those who take the time to know me often follow suit.
A few months into dating my college boyfriend, I began introducing myself as person who stutters. By the time a new semester began and the class went around the room for introductions, I said, rather nervously, “Hi, I’m R-R-R-R-R-Rachel, and I have a s-s-s-s-stutter. But don’t worry, I w-w-w-w-won’t make a big deal out of it if-if-if-if-if you don’t.”
It turned out that the editor of my college newspaper was in the room that day. After class, she asked whether she could run a feature on me in their next issue. When the article was published, the host of a popular stuttering podcast reached out and asked whether I would be a guest on her show. My college boyfriend lent me his laptop, hooked up a microphone and sat silently for an hour while the podcast was recorded. I could tell that he was wholly, and wildly, proud of me.
When it comes to dating, I certainly have no more luck than the average 20-something. But thanks to my stutter, finding a good match has become easier done than said.
And I’m starting to feel thankful for that.