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An illustration of a feminine face with water coming out in the form of a stream surrounded by stylised trees and foliage. various words such as "Like a fingerprint", "stillness", "beauty", "failure, shame, embarrassment" are woven throughout the illustration

Illustration: Eloise Grills

It is 3 o’clock in the morning and I am lying awake in bed with my eyes wide open. In less than six hours, I am supposed to give a live webinar. It is not the fear of public speaking that is the cause of my insomnia, but something else, something very familiar and yet unknown.

Like on so many other sleepless nights, I try to put my occupied mind in peace by listening to an audiobook. I stumble across a children’s book by Jordan Scott, its opening sentence a warm welcome: ‘I wake up each morning with the sounds of words all around me, and I can’t say them all.’

The narrator of Scott’s book is a small boy, but I can relate to his words as an adult. I have lived with this condition for almost my entire life.

My stuttering started at age four after I witnessed all the windows of our house shattered in the bombing of Tehran, during the eight-year war that began with Iraq invading Iran in September 1980. Like so many unnecessary wars around the world, it caused irrevocable damage to Iranian society both economically and culturally. For myself, the war left an invisible but undeniable scar.


Stuttering has various phases and can appear at different points throughout one’s life. There is no miracle medicine or surgery for it, however, it can be managed. Smooth Speech (also known as Prolonged Speech) is the most widely used speaking method that can reduce stuttering in adolescents and adults. It is a combination of various speech patterns such as sliding, stretching and linking, to help stutterers overcome the block in their speech.

As straightforward as different speech techniques might look on the page, it is a constant challenge for stutterers to use them in real situations.

However, as straightforward as different speech techniques might look on the page, it is a constant challenge for stutterers to use them in real situations. That is why Smooth Speech is often taught and practised during an Intensive Speech program, where the participants are guided by qualified speech pathologists in a supported environment. In 2014 I attended a two-month program at the Latrobe Communication Clinic in Melbourne. Out of fifteen participants, I was only one of two women; studies have shown that stuttering affects three to four times as many men.

The first stage of the program was a week-long intensive, each of us supervised by academics as we completed a series of reading, conversation, and monologue tasks. After nearly seven years, I still remember every moment of that week. The frustration, the challenges, the anger, the attempts, the hopes, the laughter and the sadness. Parents, partners and friends of the participants in the program often attended the end-of-day sessions to show their support. I had nobody—my family lived in Iran and at age 31, I was embarrassed to ask friends for support.


Stuttering is like a fingerprint—every stutterer’s patterns and circumstances are unique. Four months after the intensive Speech Program, I was recommended to join a weekly Speech Easy group, where I met Damien, Collin and Nick.

Stuttering is like a fingerprint—every stutterer’s patterns and circumstances are unique.

‘I was constantly teased through primary and secondary school,’ Damien, the oldest in our group in his late 60s, told me. ‘I became a bit lost in my youth, and I could not meet my father’s expectation for becoming either a lawyer or a medical doctor.’

The obstacles were different for Collin. A father of two and happily married, he said that his stuttering was not significant when he was younger, but got worse in his late teens and early twenties.

‘I was anxious and frustrated at losing my confidence when I visited a local speech pathologist for a few months,’ Collin said. ‘It helped a bit, but not enough to have me feeling in control in many situations.’

My story brought another perspective. At age six, my parents, desperate to fix my intense stutter, took me to a GP, who prescribed mental illness medication. A week after taking the tablets, I suffered a reaction resulting in a series of muscular spasms and was admitted to the hospital emergency department. I was almost taken to undergo surgery when a responsible doctor told my furious and extremely worried father: ‘There isn’t a physical illness with your daughter that would require medication or surgery. She needs speech therapy.’

At age fifteen, I went to a speech therapist in Tehran for a year, although I still kept my distance from everybody except books. When I started my undergraduate degree, I had to break the glass wall around myself and use my techniques to interact with people. I was not fully fluent and had many good and bad days. It was in my mid-twenties when I made the biggest decision of my life to come to Australia, to study a PhD in computer science. I remember my aunties criticising my mum: ‘How could you let your young daughter go to a foreign country on her own, with her situation?’

My mum would respond: ‘There is no situation with her. If this is what she wants to do with her life, I support her.’ And she did.

To everybody’s surprise, the moment I arrived in Melbourne, my English speech was smoother than my Persian had been. It seems my mind naturally is slower in second language and more deliberate in choosing words and phrases, compared to my mother tongue.


In a world where there is an explanation for everything, the causes of stuttering remain unclear. One theory is that it is a learned behaviour, driven by the fact that many children at the development age for learning speech and languages can occasionally show some signs of disfluency, including repeating certain letters or prolonging certain sounds before the word is said. Another suggests that stuttering has psychological roots driven from the fear of failure, shame and embracement, and it might be treated with psychotropic approaches. The third theory suggests that there are neurophysiological differences in the brain of those who stutter and those who do not. Finally, genetics and family history are also counted as possible reasons for stuttering. It is said that if you stutter, you are about three times more likely to have a close relative who stutters.

While it is not formally categorised as a disability—it is regarded as a symptom and/or a disorder—it inhibits the stutterer’s ability in the most crucial of basic human needs; that is, communication.

‘But it is a disability!’ said Nick, a father of two, who has suffered from stuttering from the time he started talking. ‘Once you stutter, you stutter. There are tools and techniques to manage it, but we can never say that I no longer stutter.’ In particular, he went through a difficult patch with his speech in his thirties when he attended intensive programs at the Australian Stuttering Research Centre in Sydney. Nick has since written two books on managing a stutter in the workplace and navigating social interactions.

For me, managing my stuttering took almost 20 years. Up until high school, I was very shy and antisocial. That probably explains my passion for books and writing: Writing opened a window for me to talk to the world, when the common door of communication was broken.

Writing opened a window for me to talk to the world, when the common door of communication was broken.

After all, there is a beauty that comes with stuttering. Like so many other challenges, it adds other aspects to one’s life which are unique and special. For me the difficulty of speech has given way to more fulfilling writing experiences; for Damien, Collin and Nick it has other positive effects. I still remember the comments they made during the interview almost five years ago.

‘Stuttering has taught me mentally to feel more compassion for others. I am a big believer in seeing the person, not the disability. It no longer defines my life. If I am not good some days, I can work on other parts of communication, like listening, smiling, acknowledging and empathising,’ Damien said with a smile.

‘I must force myself sometimes to get into social situations especially when I am feeling like I probably won’t be fluent. This requires courage. We have to be resilient and also be kind to ourselves when we are not successful in our fluency,’ Collin said.

‘It is very difficult if you are somebody fighting the world,’ Nick continued with a determined look, ‘Stuttering is giving me enormous resilience. When some people worry about stuff, I remember at the age of 24-25, when I could hardly say my name. This gives me strength and toughness, and also humanity.’

In 2016, I moved to the UK for work, but have still maintained contact with them in Australia. Damien’s highlight of his smooth speech came when he was best man at his friend’s wedding. Collin is proud to be able to coach his son’s basketball team with an almost fluent speech. Nick has built up his self-esteem and now invests the first few minutes of business meetings to inform the audience about his speech approaches.


It is 6 am, and I have thought, listened and written about one of the most private challenges in my life. I look at the weak light of sunrise, which touches the glass of the bedroom window. In those lingering gold moments, my whole body screams for an awakened state, an unconscious dream. I watch as the light enters the room. A new day has arrived, another long night is over. I decide to go for a walk to shake the sleepless night.

The track near the river is my favourite path. At age 38, while not denying the challenges that remain, I have come to think of my stutter as a companion who constantly reminds me who I am. I have become a fighter over the years, and have found the strength to overcome the obstacles with determination. At the same time, a type of kindness and understanding towards other people has grown deeply inside me. I think of Damien, Collin, Nick and all the stutterers around the world who have endured many bad days to celebrate a good day of speech fluency in their lives.

I stand by the river with its contrasting movements and stillness. A cheerful thought comes to my mind and brightens my day: ‘I talk like a river.’