The Kitten in my Throat

It was a sunny spring day in the fifth grade, my hair cut to my ears, my head almost reaching the mark of 4’ 8”, when it started. It was only a whisper of what it would come to be, a fragment of its true potential, but it affected me just the same. I was talking and walking with a friend down a canyon trail when suddenly, BAM, I couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. It was as if there was a small kitten living in my voice box, just covering the opening to my mouth with its paw. I could cough, hack, and push all I wanted, the kitten had no plans of moving anytime soon. My friend looked at me, concerned, as I turned blue from trying to shove the simple word “we” out of my mouth. I tried and tried, but to no avail. Defeated, I mustered a small “sorry” and changed the topic to something the kitten didn’t seem to mind. I thought nothing of it at that point in time. I was only, what, 10 years old? I had no idea that a small kitten in my throat, seemingly just part of my childish imagination, could take such an overwhelming, and yet interesting, toll on my life in the years to come. 

The problem with the kitten was, even though it was small, it was rambunctious, messy, and bored easily. There was no way to control or contain it, I could only shift its focus to something that caught its interest more than the topic at hand. If I had tried to say something that it didn’t particularly enjoy, it would simply prevent me from saying it. If I got too excited about a topic, it didn’t like it. The same would go for any time I had anxiety or worries about a subject. The old saying of a frog in my throat was a dream for me, as a frog would have been calm and collected. This kitten was much too intrigued by stopping my speech to be calm, and it was still young and unable to collect itself when feeling strong emotions. Sometimes, it would play around, moving its paw to make me repeat a singular word or phrase over and over, just for its own amusement. It was as if I was its plaything, forced to follow the fearsome, yet tiny beast that controlled my speech. I just told myself to bear with it, and that it would shrink soon. But, unfortunately, I was wrong. 

As I grew into a tween, the kitten grew into a cat that was independent, but just as impulsive, and kept growing with no one truly noticing until months later, in the summer before my final year of elementary school, when it reached its peak ability. I was on a hike with a friend, and could not keep it together. I was doing my best to cough up a few meaningless words to move along like nothing was happening, when she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Zara, I think you have a stutter.” No words ever conflicted me as much as these. I thanked her, said I would ask my mom, and went home. There I researched until I knew everything there was about stuttering. Could this be what I am? What finally defines and fixes me? I ran downstairs and screamed to my mom “Look at this! This is what I have!” and, thanks to much searching on her end, I was in speech therapy right before the sixth grade started in the fall. It felt as if my speech therapist had put the cat in a collar, calmed it down, and taught it basic commands. It was still as disorderly as ever, but now I had ways to soothe it to sleep in its worst moments, and it was practically invisible in its best. On the whole, it was now tamed.

I started school, and to my surprise, the cat was slightly well behaved. Nothing compared to a well trained cat, of course, but now at least it was beginning to learn. Of course, there were still challenges. People who didn’t understand it made fun of my kitten, or stutter, and even people who did would try to stop me, or tell me things that they thought were helpful. My closest friends understood me to a point, but only people who had similar experiences could truly understand what I was going through. I went a little while longer just ignoring comments and pretending to use other’s incorrect strategies until I finally snapped. I told everyone who commented on my stutter that I was a stutterer and even went as far as to do a presentation for my class to help them better understand me. Well, it worked, and people started treating me normally again. I finally felt content with the cat in my throat, and was ready for middle school when my application got accepted in the spring. Months later, I was able to walk into seventh grade with a smile on my face, and no fears of stuttering in my head.

Scientists define stuttering as a speech and communication disorder, causing repetitions, prologations, or blocks. It is normally found in 2-5 year olds, and mainly men. I mainly struggle with blocks, which basically means I cannot speak or push out words. I have places where I stutter more, like the car, words that are harder, like “we” or “I”, and situations where I have a hard time speaking, like places with loud background noise. I started stuttering in the spring of 2020, a little after COVID-19 broke out. I was 10 years old, and needed an easy explanation, so the kitten came to be. My stuttering started much later in life than most, most likely because mine was caused by a traumatic incident, as this is one of the only causes of developing a stutter later in life. To this day, I’m not sure exactly what it was that caused my speech impediment, but my best guess is that COVID shook me so much that I developed a stutter. I was definitely scared when I started therapy and had to go back to school, but I learned quickly and was able to control it for the most part. Even now, three years later, I still have bad days and bad blocks. It’ll never be fully gone, but it can be managed. About a year into speech therapy, I created a youtube video with three other female stutterers, talking about how being a PWS (Person Who Stutters) has affected our lives. I was able to share my experiences and challenges to help others. I was and still am proud to be a PWS, and my little kitten will always be a part of me, no matter how big it grows or how tame it becomes.