A staple in Daily Mail work days is what the bosses call “Conference” — a brief meeting between the writers, editors and sometimes photographers to discuss the day’s progress.
On most days, for me, those little meetings were simply a break from a monotonous work day. I’d listen as my bosses and the top dog, Martin Clarke, discussed the day’s stories. This was routine. Until one day, Martin asked me a question.
It was a simple question that I don’t even remember. What I do remember, though, is how my mind raced. I searched for words that I could substitute for the ones I knew I’d have the most difficulty saying— there were none.
What came out was a series of choppy “uhs” and “ums,” before Martin cut me off and went on to the next topic. To the about 20 people crammed in Martin’s office, the disfluency lasted only a few seconds, but to me, those moments lasted an eternity.
As I stuttered, I could feel the tension in the room. In my peripheral vision, I saw several of my coworkers look down uncomfortably. I caught my bosses looking from Martin to me and back with panicked expressions on their faces.
As quickly as the question came, so did the anxiety. I felt my stomach drop as if I were coming down on a roller coaster; I lost my breath and my knees nearly gave out. The meeting finished a few minutes later, all of which I spent struggling to catch my breath, leaning against a wall so my weak knees wouldn’t cause me further embarrassment.
During my time at the Daily Mail, everyone typically relied on email and instant messaging to communicate. The phones hardly rang, and I was able to remain covert as a stutterer — very few people knew I stutter and so I was able to hide. But despite the comfort hiding brought me during my nine months there, I lived in constant fear that I’d one day have to speak in front of everyone, one day my phone would ring, or one day Martin would ask me a question. It was exhausting.
So, what does this have to do with stuttering at People Magazine?
When I started my freelance work at People Magazine a few months ago, something changed. The job itself was different — the environment, my work and I, I guess, changed too. I don’t know how or why, and I don’t know when I made the decision, but somewhere in the days between my last day at the Daily Mail and my first day at People Magazine, I decided that I didn’t want to be covert anymore. I’d like to think that I simply decided to be brave.
They say that when we are faced with troubles we choose either fight or flight. For me, there was only one option.
Flight, to me, meant settling for a mediocre life, wondering what my world would be like if I didn’t stutter. I know and always have known that fighting would bring embarrassing encounters and possible rejection, but I know I could never forgive myself if I settled for defeat.
So, I fight.
Since my first day at People Magazine, I have stuttered openly and freely. Whether it takes me two seconds or two minutes to finish a sentence, I am honest about my speech. Yes, there are many times I am overwhelmingly embarrassed and I have to remind myself that it’s okay to stutter, but those moments are becoming both fewer and easier to deal with. I don’t experience major anxiety anymore. I mean, I still get glimpses of it, but I’m not leaning against walls and struggling to steady my breathing anymore (yay).
I speak and I disregard what my coworkers may think of my impediment. My coworkers are polite, though, they smile and nod. They look interested as they wait for me to finish speaking no matter how long it takes (this is what I deem polite, other stutterers mayor may not agree). They don’t mention my stutter, and it is as if it isn’t an issue at all. But, of course, this is only my view of the situation.
One of my coworkers, who is literally the sweetest person on earth, told me that I am the first stutterer she’s ever met. She said my impediment did cause her to question my competence as a journalist, though.
“When you first came on, I did wonder if you’d be able to effectively do your job,” she told me one day. “But honestly, you’re really, really, really good at what you do and I’m so impressed that you’ve managed to achieve so much. You’re awesome.”
She added: “I feel ashamed that I judged you even a little bit.”
Her words were both humbling and motivating. I will admit, her initial statement stung a little, but it birthed in me the urge to work harder, to be better, to demolish any question of my skills, not for her, but for me.
To my knowledge I am the only stutterer in the office — so little victories like answering phone calls in front of everyone and getting through a sentence with almost no disfluencies go unnoticed. But I understand their importance, and I never fail to pat myself on the back.
I’m not afraid when I walk into the People Magazine office— as was the case at the Daily Mail. I’m no longer consumed by the fear of stuttering, because I know I will. And that’s okay.
There are many aspects of stuttering at People Magazine, and I’ll unfold them as the weeks progress. But the change I discuss in this post is, to me, the most important part of being a stuttering journalist. Choosing to stutter openly and freely at People Magazine has freed me in ways I never imagined.