The time between taking my seat and the teacher taking attendance never got less stressful. When my name was finally called, sometimes I’d brutally stutter a hyperventilating, choking “h-h-h-he-he-here” that would usually elicit smirks and laughs from classmates, or worse, no response from them at all. Other times, I was completely fluent. But the anticipation always killed me. There was never any way of telling how I’d do. That’s what’s important to note about stuttering: The actual incidence of it is bad enough, but the dread it creates in you is far worse.

I was an attention-seeking, showoff-y kid. My sister says she could never get me to shut up. Mom never got tired of hearing me say the alphabet backwards, read Dr. Seuss books aloud, recite Kevin Spacey’s opening scene in A Bug’s Life, etc. I obsessed over dinosaurs, bugs, lions, hyenas, trucks, Star Wars. I’d watch or read something, memorize it, then repeat it aloud for others to hear. In a word, I was talkative.

And, if I remember correctly, I believe I did all this talking with perfectly good fluency. Sure, I’d stumble on a sentence or let my mind get faster than my mouth every so often, but no more than the average kid. I was confident. I would say I felt I had control, but does the idea even occur to a 6-year-old? I didn’t think about talking. I just did it.

This lasted until 5th grade. One day in social studies class, we were reading a chapter from our textbooks aloud. Something about Theodore Roosevelt, I think. I sat in the middle of the classroom, maybe three rows back. One student would read a paragraph, then the one sitting behind them would follow. When they got to the back of the class, the next column of students started. Watching this chain of readers creep closer to me almost made me shake. Eventually, my turn came. The final paragraph, and a big one at that. I read it. I don’t remember stuttering, but it was the first time I remember being nervous, if not afraid, of speaking.

The first time I stuttered loud and clear in front of others (I remember it with painful clarity even these 10 years later) was in 6th grade social studies. Same teacher, same activity, with one alteration: instead of determining reader order by who sat where, our teacher chose randomness: The names of everyone in the class were written on popsicle sticks, all put in a cup on her front podium. She would pick one out, that person would read. At least last year I had time to brood and psych myself up for my turn. Now it could come at any time.

My name was drawn. I started reading. All went well for the first few sentences. Then I hit a roadblock. I remember the word: “government.” I couldn’t seem to push past the “g.” G-g-guh-guh-g-g-g-guh. Finally forcing the word out brought a blissful sense of relief, of finishing a challenging task, but this was quickly dampened by the laughs directed at me. Even my best friend at the time joined in. They stopped eventually. The teacher did nothing. The next person read.

This single embarrassing moment that lasted maybe 10 seconds defined my state of mind in school for the next seven years. My number one objective was to keep people from hearing my stutter. A good way to keep from stuttering is to not talk much. I spent most classes humble, well-behaved, and silent. I kept in my close circle of friends from elementary school and made only one or two new ones. Girls simply didn’t factor in. The thought of going on a date, let alone having a girlfriend, was so foreign, so obvious in its implausibility. After-school activities were nonexistent. I saw my friends during the school day, not at all after 3:30. Another great way to not stutter is to spend a lot of time alone.

Being a shadow could be fun. I wouldn’t say a word all school-year until a perfect opportunity would present itself. I’d crack a joke or make an insightful comment, and everyone would turn around with a look of “where the hell has this guy been?” Of course, whatever I said or kept to myself depended entirely on if I thought I would stutter saying it. It’s hard to emphasize how isolating this was.

There are advantages, believe it or not. My vocabulary grew as I scrambled for synonyms when I had a hunch I’d trip up on a more common word. I started thinking a few sentences ahead in conversation, anticipating tricky words and phrases and planning on how to cope. My empathy for those with depression, OCD, ADHD, anxiety, anyone whose struggle is invisible but present, skyrocketed.

But alas, the unavoidable bottom line: nothing has caused me more unnecessary stress and frustration than stuttering. For every comeback, joke, compliment, or observation I managed to get out, there are countless others I held onto. There are so many things I haven’t said. There is so much I hid.

Things are improving. After high school, they had to, right? I write for the student newspaper. I started attending speech therapy. I’m dating a communication disorders major. And I still stutter. It comes easy, clear, relaxed, as much so as a blink or a cough. I don’t hide it. It’s just something I do. It’s me.