Episode 014: Sarah Cocciardi

Episode 014: Sarah Cocciardi

Advertise Your Imperfections

There is a practice called “advertising” that Sarah Cocciardi was taught to do from a very young age. She has no choice but to use this tool. It is a means of naming up front in interactions that she is a stutterer in order to protect herself and others from projections, disillusions, and lies. Advertising is Sarah’s way of speaking her truth: she is a stuttering speech and language pathologist that works with geriatric populations in Saratoga Springs, New York. As a woman who has struggled her entire life to speak with ease and fluidity, she is filled with an unbelievable breadth of wisdom on the topic of inner guidance and deep inner knowing. 

When Sarah and I had our interview, she shared with me that she was coming up on seven weeks of being sober from alcohol and drugs. It’s not that Sarah would consider herself an addict, rather she started using substances as a teenager as a means of masking and hiding from the anxieties she faced from stuttering. Her decision to become sober unfolded as an impulse to increase her quality of life. She states, 

“You hear a voice in your head and you’ll hear it for awhile. But until you’re ready to meet it, it’ll just be a whisper. My sober voice had become louder than a whisper.”

The thread of our conversation is woven by Sarah’s connection to her imperfection. We speak on the beauty that can come from suffering and struggle—your Achilles’ heel is often your super power when you choose to own it in its entirety. Sarah notes, “To be a speech pathologist and have to own and discuss and advocate in this realm that was once my most inner secret, that was my most shameful, is the most liberating … It still has moments that are painful and awkward and I feel like my mouth looks very silly. But there are those other moments when you take ownership that it is the most rewarding experience.”

Sarah tells me the single most important request from a stutterer: they want to finish their own sentences. Although it is human nature to see something uncomfortable or awkward and want to try to fix or smooth it over, completing someone else’s thoughts robs them of the opportunity of using their voice and showing up in a fully empowered way. Sarah brilliantly explains, 

“To let that stuttering window of huffs and puffs and blocks and lisps and all of these funny sounds and [still] look at that person in the eye and wait for them to finish is probably the most awkward but generous thing you could offer a stutterer.”

Sarah has been a stutterer since speaking her first words. It was something that she felt a lot of shame around while growing up as she made her way through elementary school, middle school, and the dreaded reading out loud of essays in high school. Much of her experience was tinted with shades of humiliation as she shares the intensity of what it was like as a high schooler to be introduced to a new circle of teenagers: Two groups meet. Everyone goes around and shares their name. Sarah’s turn arrives and her tongue is stuck on the sound of the letter “S” for long enough that discomfort arises in the group, and someone inevitably jokes that she must have forgotten her name. As she recounts this interaction she notes that this has happened at least 1,000 times in her life. The person she is meeting loses patience, or becomes uncomfortable, and then makes a joke of forgetting one’s own name. Not only is this something that all of us know is total bullshit, it’s the way we have been trained as a society: cover up and hide your imperfections—no one wants to see or hear what’s “wrong” with you. 

After years of working in my field, I know that the clamor of social training has lead us so far from our own truths and intuition—to places of deep despair, depression, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness. As I speak with Sarah, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. 

This is the part of the conversation in which Sarah introduces me to the concept of advertising. After years of going along with the lie that she had forgotten her name in order to fight the anxiety, she now advertises her stuttering with pride. Not only does she no longer allow a single person to believe that she forgot her name, but she starts her conversations by transparently naming that she stutters and may need an extra moment when speaking. Additionally, she has been mindfully working on never allowing her anger to be expressed toward others for their ignorance. She states,

“We can only educate others with love or people won’t hear it. Let’s not fill space with things that don’t feel authentic; let’s fill space with things that are meaningful. Imperfection is the most human.”

In many ways, Sarah is quite lucky. She is aware of how easy it is for her to have quick intimacy with strangers on a verbal level as her imperfection is exposed right away. This admission allows others to feel more comfortable and safe in exposing themselves and their truths because she has already, without choice, put herself out on the line. She metaphorically compares a stutter to an iceberg. The stutter—or the physical manifestation of the imperfection—is the little bit of ice you can see above the water. Everything under the water is the emotional layers that one has constructed over the years. Sarah shares, 

“Old wounds: when [they] start, your focus is really narrow. But as you evolve and use the gut—you can see it from many angles and it actually loses its strength. So while my stuttering is still very relevant, it has all these angles now [that] offer it this rich life form, not just hardship.”

Our conversation ends with me asking Sarah what she has to offer to people who may be scared to advertise their imperfections to the world. Without a moment’s hesitation, she quotes Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” to welcome it all...

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes. Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

Some constants in Sarah Cocciardi’s life have been stuttering, a love of young and old people, and a zest for travel. Sarah taught geography and ballet in Sydney, Australia, in 2006. In 2007 she taught kindergarten in Seoul, South Korea. From 2008-2010 she taught at the American International School in Libreville, Gabon. Sarah then went back to school and got a master’s degree in speech language pathology. She now spends her days helping the geriatric population with speech, swallowing, and cognition and dreaming of a better way to care for our elders. Her website on aging is launching soon.


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