I was 21 years old before I ever went through a drive-through. I was 24 before I got up my nerve to complete my master's capstone project and give a big presentation in front of my classmates and academic advisors. We were supposed to invite our friends and family members to sit in on the speech. Instead, I asked all of mine to stay home and brought my speech therapist along instead. She went over my notecards with me in the lobby beforehand and brought lip balm in her purse- anything to help me speak more fluently.
You see, I was born with a speech impediment: I stutter.
I got it from my dad, who likely developed his after being shuffled around between four different dads during his adolescent years. I didn't think twice about it until I was seven years old and my parents decided to enroll me in speech therapy classes twice a week. For three years, I made up excuses to my friends about why I had to leave class a little early. There is only so much covering up you can do until you start repeating yourself, but thankfully when you're in elementary school you only think the best of someone. So when I told them I was being taken out for advanced classes, they believed me, no questions asked.
It went fine like that until middle school when people did start asking questions. As an introvert and generally kind person by nature, I can only one time that someone has confronted me and made me cry. It happened in the seventh grade, during lunch in the cafeteria. His name was Jason and he was sitting across from me. I honestly forget what I did that set him off, but apparently, I made him upset. He looked me square in the eye and said, "at least I don't stutter!" He spewed his food as he said it and it was so loud that the entire, long table turned and looked in my direction.
Of course, he was talking about me. No one else spoke the way I did. No one else kept a hair band on her arm to tug on during class speeches just to remind her to stretch out her words and go slow. No one else turned red and sweaty when called upon to read aloud during popcorn reading. No one else avoided group conversations like the plague. No one else hid in the gym bathroom during cheerleading practice when everyone was taking turns calling out chants.
Yes, I was different. I carried this knowledge around like a badge and for the most part, it made my tween and teenage years pretty difficult. Thankfully, I found a core group of friends who loved me and my high school boyfriend must have been pretty great because we're now married with two babies of our own. My family was apple-pie amazing and my youth group was there for me no matter what. Still, I stuck out and I knew it.
This became even more painfully obvious to me when I started my first job. It was my very first real position and it was in the technical writing department of a contracting agency in my hometown. I took the job not because it was interesting (it wasn't) or could help me move up the corporate ladder (it couldn't), I took it because the job description didn't say anything about needing "great conversational skills" or "answering telephones." Instead, it just required a knack for writing. As an English major and journalism minor, I knew I could do that. Yet, what I didn't anticipate was sharing an office with three others, who looked at me every time my phone rang and I had to answer with "C..C...C...Courtney speaking." Eventually, I turned my telephone ringer on mute so they couldn't tell when I had a call coming in.
I found hobbies that nurtured the silent, introvert within me. I took up knitting. I started creative writing again in my spare time. I, along with a good friend of mine, started making candles in her basement. Then, one by one, those fell by the wayside. I broke my knitting needles. I got a terrible bout of writer's block. My environmentalist brother informed me my paraffin wax candles might smell great, but are terrible for the environment. I was back to square one and needed to do something new. I needed to step out.
More importantly, I needed to start speaking up.
Then, something within me shifted - it happened when I had my first baby, my daughter. She looked up at me that first night like she was meeting her best friend for the very first time. Like she knew me and I knew her. She didn't know that I gave her a short name that started with a consonant because I wanted to be able to speak it fluently my whole life. The other thing? She didn't care.
I started realizing that while I lavish grace and empathy on others, I'm so slow to deliver that same leniency onto myself. I judge myself and my abilities to an unrealistic degree. The truth is, I'm awesome in my kids' eyes and it took delivering them to deliver myself. Now? I still clam up every time I have to make an important phone call and I think I'll always be that way. I'd still rather go in and order than go through a drive-through. I'd rather write a 100-page dissertation than give a three-minute speech.
The difference? My speech impediment doesn't define me anymore and I'm done hiding behind it. I'm Courtney. I'm a daughter, mother, sister, wife, writer, giver, and believer. And I'm done letting my stutter bury the lead.