Back From The Brink

When the ASHA Leader approached me to write an article about suicide amongst stutterers I was honored to be asked and petrified that I wouldn’t be able to do the subject justice. To say that I am thankful for the people who spoke to me for this article, is a huge understatement. It was their honesty, their strength and their willingness to relive to some of the darkest hours of their life, that shaped every word of the piece. Hopefully their stories will offer some hope to others out there, and guidance to those who want to help.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

As a kid, Tim found it hard to swallow a single pill. His mother had to crush them up to get him to take them. And yet here he was, at the age of 26, throwing back handfuls. Almost 20 Zoloft, followed by a fistful of Celexa. Then he started on the second bottle of vodka. Always the perfectionist, he was determined to do it right.

He’d been researching for months. The Celexa had been prescribed by his psychiatrist to help with depression and he’d ordered the Zoloft illegally from Canada. Planning had given him a release when things got really bad. It had been that way since he was 16, since he’d first stood on a bridge and thought about jumping. Since he’d first imagined an escape from stuttering.

It was hours before dawn, the bars were long closed. No one was walking past the street corner he’d chosen and no one knew he was there. His mind became lucid—too late, he realized the enormity of what he had set in motion. He thought about his mother, he thought about the life that he was leaving behind. It stopped, he went numb. Then nothing.

Listening to the unspoken
Roughly 1 million people kill themselves every year worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent over the past 45 years and someone in the United States takes his or her own life approximately every 14 minutes. It is estimated that more people die by suicide than by car accidents.

We do not know how many in those statistics are people who stutter, but we know that they are among those numbers. We know that stuttering can breed its own fatalities. And yet, we do not talk about it. Just as stuttering itself has long remained taboo, the convergence of stuttering and suicide remains largely unreported and shrouded in guilt.

We are not alone in that silence. As David Satcher, the U.S. surgeon general, puts it, “As a society we do not like to talk about suicide.” Perhaps we want to maintain the illusion that suicide is rare, that it is a rash act done only by the cowardly, the selfish and the permanently unstable. Perhaps the survivors want to look ahead and leave their experiences unearthed in the past. Whatever our reasons, the result is an epidemic that remains misunderstood.

We need to debunk those myths and open up the conversation. In truth, it is hard to take your own life. It takes a sort of overwhelming desperation that most of us are lucky not to have known. And yet, no one is exempt from pain and suffering. All of us have known darkness at some point in our lives. So what combined state of mind drives someone to believe that life is too painful to go on living, and what saves people from the brink?

To read the full article go to the ASHA Leader website.

30 Years

They met in the Yemen. Of all places. My mum was on holiday and my dad was working out there. I’ve heard the tale enough times that it took on an Arabian Nights quality long ago. There were years of long distance love letters to follow, a year in Greece and a life to start again. Then, on March 22nd 1984, they got married in London’s Chelsea Town Hall. They celebrated over lunch with all the friends and family that could make it and drove back to their new home that night. 3 weeks later I arrived.

I’ve always thought of us as the three musketeers, the three of us taking on the world. But today is all about the two of them. I wish I was celebrating with them but instead I’ve raided my photo albums as a toast to my two favourite people…

With parents age 5

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IMG_0250Folk music always makes me think of my dad, of the toddler version of myself watching him strum his guitar strings, and there’s a Simon and Garfunkel song playing in the background this morning, “Still crazy after all these years”. Perfect timing, as always.

Dreams and Patience

Here’s the thing: making your dreams come true isn’t a speedy process. Or a painless one.

There are teary nights talking to people who are far too many miles away.

There are obstacles you would have never expected.

There are days when paying rent seems nigh on impossible.

There are moments when you want to give up. To retreat to some safer, quieter place.

There are people who will disappoint you. There are times when you disappoint yourself.

And then there are bouts of shocking good fortune that arrive out of nowhere.

There are people who make you laugh so hard that your troubles seem impossibly far away and insignificant.

There are kind strangers who give you more than you could possibly deserve.

There are moments of triumph that you hold onto and burn into your memory, amulets against some future struggle.

Truthfully, making your dreams come true takes more grit than I ever imagined. And I’m far from there yet.

Patience is both a desirable, and a necessary, quality to have. And it isn’t the easiest for me.

I want to fix things, I want answers, I want certainty in this very uncertain life that I have created for myself.

So I do the best with the rubbish patience I have. I learn from people far ahead of me: I try to show up, to rise up, to lean in.

I hang tight and believe that this being comfortable with being uncomfortable malarky will grow with time. I remind myself that I have created a big, complicated life for myself because I was afraid of the alternative. And I celebrate the wonderful moments when it all seems so brilliantly clear:

OUT WITH IT - paperback

The paperbacks of OUT WITH IT have arrived just in time for the launch party we’re having  tonight at Booksmith in San Francisco. I can think of nothing better than celebrating with all of you. We’d love you to join us!

Owning Your Own Story

What happens when we own everything we are?

By ‘owning’, I mean speaking up about the pieces of ourselves that make us unique, without any expectation of praise or pity.

There is no harm in speaking about the pieces of ourselves that we are proud of, and yet doing so does little more than inflate our own egos. The more powerful part of ‘owning’ our story, is speaking about the those pieces that make us feel embarrassed or ashamed. Bringing our greatest weaknesses out of the closet and into the spotlight.

If we are lucky, there is a certain catharsis in doing so, the sense of a burden being lifted. But, perhaps more importantly, there is the potential to form a connection with our listener, or our reader. To show them how fallibly human we are, to crack ourselves open for a moment and make all of us feel a little less alone.

Owning your own storyIt is an idea that I have been thinking about for years, and yet it was thrown into sharp relief this past week, through the lens of anxiety.

First there was Scott Stossel’s article in the Atlantic’s January magazine entitled, “Surviving Anxiety.” A harrowing, hilarious and deeply thoughtful piece about the life he has spent living in the shadow of near-overwhelming fear. Stossel explores his own complicated relationship with therapy and medication, and he invites us to witness some of the most painfully mortifying moments of his life. As Stossel writes, “My anxiety can be intolerable. But it is also, maybe a gift…as often as anxiety has held me back…it has also unquestionably spurred me forward.”

And then, on January 6th, we saw a visceral example of the anxiety that Stossel had described, with film director Michael Bay’s panicked exit from a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The CES audience, followed by over a million Youtube viewers, watched as Michael froze and then almost ran off the stage saying, “Excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Twitter duly trended, and not always in the nicest way. One commenter wrote, “I’ve often wanted to walk out of a Michael Bay [movie]…Can’t blame him for seizing the opportunity.” A few, more charitable souls expressed sympathy at that too familiar sensation of panicked stagefright.

Later that day Bay wrote on his blog:

“Wow! I just embarrassed myself at CES – I was about to speak for Samsung for this awesome Curved 105-inch UHD TV. I rarely lend my name to any products, but this one is just stellar. I got so excited to talk, that I skipped over the Exec VP’s intro line and then the teleprompter got lost. Then the prompter went up and down – then I walked off. I guess live shows aren’t my thing. But I’m doing a special curved screen experience with Samsung and Transformers 4 footage that will be traveling around the world.”

I wonder if the public’s reaction to Bay would have been different if he had written more genuinely about his fear, and rather less about advertising a product? It is hard to know but it is clear that the reaction to Stossel’s article was overwhelming empathetic, with the Atlantic inviting readers to submit their own stories of anxiety and running a longform piece detailing many of their stories.

Much like the Atlantic, I am excited to launch a place on my site for people to share their stories about difference, stuttering, vulnerability and identity. I invite you all to share your stories here.

By far the best part of publishing Out With It has been the hundreds of messages I have received from people telling me how my story made them feel less alone. And yet I believe that is just the beginning of the conversation. I believe that together we can create a compendium of what it means to live with ourselves, we can reach out and connect with one another.

As Stossel writes so profoundly in his conclusion, “in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism or redemption.”

I invite you all to start owning your stories today at http://www.outwithitbook.com/communityvoices

American Hustle and the art of reinvention

American HustleWith our New Year’s resolutions freshly spoken and champagne still trickling through our bodies, we capped off our New Year’s Day by going to see American Hustle. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you stop reading and go watch it immediately. Because, beyond the fact that it is so good and so uniquely itself, I can think of no more fitting movie to start off a new year, no movie that better embodies the reinvention that all our new year’s resolutions seem to evoke.

I’m not going to give away any of the plot but, as the main character Irv would say, it is a movie directed and acted ‘from the feet up’. A movie that starts with Irv’s grand, bloated belly emerging from his unbuttoned shirt and a meticulous ritual that creates his elaborate comb-over. A comb-over that fools nobody and an appearance so incongruous with the intelligent, deceptive con-man that we are to meet. From the start we know that these are not simple people, these are not even good people, but they are very much raw, alive and fully-realised.

The characters in American Hustle are operatic, almost Shakespearean, and yet they are also immediate and instinctive. They make up stories and con each other as a survival mechanism, and it is their gritty, determined reinvention that makes the film so addictively watchable.

In the words of the film’s director David O Russell, “The currency of humanity is the belief in dreams or narratives.” And it is that idea that makes American Hustle so fitting for the start of the new year. Because whenever we think of all the things that lie ahead of us in 2014 (be it a new job, a new baby, a new project) we have to present them to ourselves in a way that sells them. We have to buy into the narratives that we create for our lives, in order to realise them.

Irv’s motto in the film is that people believe what they want to believe. It is that understanding that makes him the successful hustler he is. And yet, his motto is also relevant when we direct it at our own lives. We believe what we want to believe about ourselves, about our commitments and about our lives. So why not choose to believe that all our hopes and dreams and goals for 2014 are possible and probable?

With that in mind, what narratives are you looking to manifest this year?

The Gift of Listening

When was the last time you truly listened to someone?

I’m not talking about the listening that you do as you jot down your shopping list, or the listening that you do while you prepare what you are going to say in response. Rather I’m speaking about the experience of listening to someone without any distractions or any impatience. Listening with the express purpose of bearing witness to their story.

Can you remember how you felt the last time you really listened? Can you remember how you felt the last time someone really listened to you?

There is something about being heard that fulfills a heart-seated human need for connection. And it seems to go both ways: the experience of telling someone vivid stories about our life changes us, and it changes the perspective of the person listening.

When I set off to do all my interviews for Out With It, I did a huge amount of research into the oral history tradition. In particular, I became borderline obsessed with the work of Studs Terkel, and with the man himself. In all his books, and his interviews, I got the sense that he loved people, that he listened to them with genuine interest and fascination. Somehow his very presence allowed people to open a floodgate within themselves, and it allowed him to write books that became portraits of the human condition.

Studs Terkel listening
Studs Terkel witnessed stories that too often remained unspoken, or overlooked. He spoke to people who I imagine saw their lives as too mundane or unmemorable to be of interest to the outside world, and he unearthed a vivid, captivating wealth of stories within each of them.

I did my best to emulate Studs in every interview I ever conducted. I thought that I was prepared for the experience of listening deeply, but there was one piece that all my research never touched on. I never imagined how cathartic the experience would be for me, how listening to the rich details of someone’s life could change my own life so profoundly.

And so Out With It became an amalgamation of all of us. It became a testament to their stories, and a telling of my own transformation.

I am proud of the book I have created but there is something final in the completion of the book that makes me nostalgic for that year of interviews. For all the hours spent listening, and all the changes I watched in others (and felt in myself) as they told me their stories.

We all lead extraordinary ordinary human lives, we all have stories that are waiting to be told.

Seeing as we are in the season of gift-giving, can you think of someone in your life who you can give the gift of listening to?

United by Difference

Earlier this month I explored the complexities of parenting through Andrew Solomon’s passionate and affecting book, Far From The Tree. Today I’m looking at all the ways that we can foster identity from a peer group if we inherit or acquire a trait that is foreign to our parents.

stuttering community

Growing up in England I never lacked for love or understanding, but I imagined myself as a slim minority. I knew precious few stutterers. Those I did know I kept my distance from. It was only when I moved to America to start researching Out With It, that I saw I was in, what Solomons calls, “a vast company.” Not only with the millions of other stutterers across the world, but with the multitudes of people who had some so-called flaw or strangeness that they were coming to terms with. As Solomon so gracefully puts it, I realised that “difference unites us…(that) the exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”

In Far From the Tree Solomon describes the sense of pride he witnesses amid the attendees of a dwarf conference and he reflects upon about the validation many deaf children feel when they stumble upon Deaf identity in their adolescence. He talks about the complex unfurling of his own identity as a gay man amid “Gay Pride’s Technicolour fiesta”. It is a familiar sense of discovery. I remember walking into my first stuttering conference, the warm cacophony of stutters and the fiercely pride-laden conversations.

Becoming a part of the stuttering community has not mitigated all the difficulties of my speech. Neither do I spend my life inside the cosy confines of that community. There may be people who see my stutter as ugliness, but the stuttering community safeguards against any tendency I have to internalise those perceptions. It teaches me to be kinder to myself and it nourishes my hard won contentment. As Solomon writes about the Deaf community, “General culture feels that deaf children are primarily children who lack something: they lack hearing. The Deaf culture feels they have something: they have membership in a beautiful culture.”

Solomon does not trivialise disability of difficulty, he does not politely shy away from all the humiliations and hurts. He gives us both the wrenching pain of a difficult life alongside the story of Temple Grandin and her ability to make “what the world calls illness (her autism) the cornerstone of her brilliance.”

There is a certain solace amongst the pages of his book, a sense that we constitute a boundless, coherent clan of misfits. We are all flawed and strange, we all have our darkness. As Grandin proves “the trick is making something exalted of it.”

It took years for me to give up my once-endless search for normality. To realise that all I was striving for was a banal mediocrity. It took finding a community to understand that I couldn’t be someone else, but I could be a better version of myself. 

Interested to learn more? See Part 1 of my exploration of Far From the Tree in Parenting a Stranger.

Parenting a Stranger

“Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger,” Andrew Solomon states on the first page of his compassionate, generous and immensely wise book Far From The Tree.

far from the treeSo begins a book that explores the families of exceptional children with so-called “horizontal identities”. As Solomon puts it, “there is no such thing as reproduction, only acts of production”. Never is this more obvious than with children whose identities are profoundly different from their parents, those children affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences. “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” There is no mention of stuttering, and yet so much of the book feels germane to my experience.

A lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell, an insightful journalist and an award-winning author, Solomon spent over 10 years interviewing more than 300 families to create this weighty tome. We can imagine that he spoke to these people with the curious, non-judgemental and frank tone that he uses to guide us as his readers. We can imagine that his profound intelligence and evident compassion lead to the emotionally resonate, and often shocking, stories that he recounts over the book’s 700 pages (1000 if you count the notes, bibliography etc). We know that he is a man not outside of the people he interviews, but very much a part of them.

The book is book-ended by intimate accounts of his own upbringing (as a gay man born to straight parents) and his awed transformation into a father. It is a book that welcomes conversation and today’s post will explore the subject of parenting through Solomon’s lens (later this month I’ll similarly explore the notions of community and identity).

Children with marked difference from the rest of their family demand knowledge, competence and action that typical parents are often, initially, unqualified to supply. So how do you nurture a child who is alien to you and unlike anything you have ever experienced? As Solomon puts it, “parenting is no sport for perfectionists”, and yet “the parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.” We learn about a mother who loves the child she conceived in rape but can not bare to be touched by her; the Klebolds who love their son and struggle to comprehend the mass tragedy he inflicted in Columbine; and the parents who feel unable to fully understand the complexities of sign and their son’s Deaf identity.

In my own research I heard stories of both awful and extraordinary parents and could imagine the truth behind Solomon’s argument that “having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies.” When I think about my own parents I imagine all the ways they they must have come to terms with a child whose condition was so strange and unexplored for them.

I can imagine how elusive and out of reach the answers must have seemed; whether they should push me into speech therapy and how far they should hold firm against my ferocious insistence against it. And yet there was never any doubt that they accepted me without reservation, that they loved me with all my imperfections intact and on display. I always felt as if my stuttering was somehow secondary to them. That I was first and foremost their child, and one they were zealously attached to. I never felt apart from them, rather my identity began with the fact that I was a “fully recognised citizen of the tiny nation that is family.”

And yet I continue to ask myself what happens moving forward? What happens to the child that I may one day conceive?

In Out With It I explore my own feelings toward parenthood, how my interview with Michael Palin made me wonder if having a stuttering mother would make my putative fluent children vulnerable to ridicule or shame. In hearing stories of teenage years spent fending off bullies, I worried about foisting a version of those experiences on to any stuttering children I may have. I couldn’t decide if it would be better if I had a child who stuttered or one that was fluent.

As if I had that choice.

If nothing else, Far From The Tree teaches us how little control we have over the children that we create. And how strong our capacity to love remains.

Luckily the world is changing. Stuttering is no longer some unspoken strangeness. There are stuttering heroes in movies and protagonists in books. The conversation is evolving and my fears are, gradually, becoming less necessary and less relevant. As a society we are changing our perceptions of normality and learning that we all live on a spectrum of difference. As people we are realising that “we should not be reduced to our disabilities” and “we should not make assumptions about an unborn child’s ability to cope with the world.”

We can nurture our children to become most fully themselves. And we can be ready to meet them, to embrace them, whoever they may be.

The triumph of giving someone the confidence to speak

Anyone looking for proof that vulnerability draws us to people, should watch Channel 4’s recent documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

As part of the British TV show we are introduced to Musharaf Asghar (aka “Mushy”), a 16-year-old preparing to take his GCSEs and dreading the oral part of his English final. Mushy is a polite and popular kid with a keen sense of humor and an acute stutter.

Mushy stutterNothing is whitewashed and Mushy is open about his frustration, explaining that he feels like “someone is keeping my mouth closed.” And yet his English teacher, Mr Burton, tells the camera that he always puts up his hand in class to answer questions “even though he knows that the result will be an agonising silence as everyone waits for the words to come out, and it would be much easier to stay silent.”

Tellingly, Mushy has been that way since year seven. Back in year seven he was cutting school and close to dropping out, beaten down by bullies. His teachers “clamped down on that teasing right away” and watched as he “absolutely flourished” in the new safety net of his school.

It is clear that they are not exaggerating. With his stutter in tow, Mushy is brave and funny and full of self-belief. On the show we watch him time and time again put himself in positions where he has to talk. We watch him put his faith in the teachers that respect him in turn.

None more so than his English teacher, Mr Burton. In an effort to help him get through his oral exam, Mr Burton draws on a ‘technique’ he saw in the movie The King’s Speech. He encourages Mushy to put on headphones and listen to music while he talks. We watch as he takes his teacher’s advice and his stutter decreases. The program ends with a clip of Mushy delivering a speech to a cheering assembly of 200 classmates with large, white headphones framing his beaming face.

While the program turned both Mushy and Mr Burton into national heroes, the reactions of some stutterers and speech therapists have been more circumspect. They are not surprised that his stuttering decreases with the headphones playing music into his ears, it is well known that masking your voice tends to increase fluency. Rather, they question how sustainable it is to speak to the rhythm of a song. Some point to the way Mushy taps out his words with his hand hitting his leg throughout the show, and question the speech therapist who taught him to do so.

I think their sentiments are laudable and yet I also think they miss something about the show. Mr Burton says he is well-aware that the technique is not the answer (as, we may imagine, is Mushy). In a BBC Radio interview after the show aired he does not mention the ‘technique’, instead he thanks Mr Burton for “giving me the confidence to speak.”

Rather than a show that depicts the latest ‘miracle cure’ for stuttering, Channel 4 has created a program that teaches us how to love each other a little better.

Mushy is not ‘fixed’ at the end, that is not the story arc we are watching. But we are talking about triumph, about those small, everyday triumphs that accrue over the years. Mushy, just like the rest of us, is in it for the long haul. For all the minutes and hours and days after the camera has stopped rolling.

The journey to take our struggles and make something exalted out of them is virtually impossible to do in a vacuum. We need others to see us the way that Mr Burton sees Mushy, as “a lad who should rightfully be very very proud of himself.”

How David and Goliath redefines the underdog

“Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through tough times & you discover they aren’t so tough after all”, writes Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book David and Goliath.

David and goliath
Today is International Stuttering Awareness Day, a day when those words, and Gladwell’s new book, are well worth exploring.

David and Goliath argues that for the strong, “the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often sources of great weakness,” whereas for the weak, “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”

It is an attractive idea (one I believe in wholeheartedly) and the most intriguing piece of the book focuses on the theory of “desirable difficulty.” Gladwell argues that people have the potential to succeed not in spite, but because of their disorders. That they can learn something in their struggle that proves to be an enormous advantage.

As an example of desirable difficulty, Gladwell highlights a man called David Boies. Boies is dyslexic and he went from being a construction worker to “one of the most famous trial lawyers in the world.” Whether or not it is true, Boies attributes his success to the ways his dyslexia forced him to adapt. Because he found it hard to read, he became a phenomenal listener. Because of his need to simplify issues to their basic components, he presents a case that every juror can easily understand. For all of its difficulty, his limitation has fostered certain great strengths.

It is an idea that I have heard over and over in the stuttering community – the idea that stuttering has the potential to make us more empathetic, more humble, more resilient, more driven to succeed. I know that, in my own life, stuttering has forged an obsession with the rhythm and complexities of language that makes me the writer I am.

And yet, beyond those qualities, David and Goliath introduces another, somewhat unexpected, strength: the willingness to be disagreeable, to exhibit a lack of concern for social norms. We need to play by own rules in order to succeed.

It reminds me of the joke about a stutterer who applies for a job as a bible salesman. His would-be bosses are sceptical so they give him a challenge. They give him 20 bibles, more than their best salesmen sell in a day, and ask him to try and sell as many any possible in an hour. He agrees. With one condition. If he sells them all, they must give him the job. They shake hands and he sets off. 30 minutes later he returns empty-handed. Shocked, the bosses give him the job and ask him to tell them his secret. How did he do it? “It was no trouble at all”. He tells them. “Aaaaaaat every h h h h h h house I knocked on the dddddddddd d d d ddoooooor, introduced my my my my my my my my myself and told them that they c        could either buy a bible from m   me or I cccccccc c ccc c c cccccould stand there and rr r r r rrrrrrr r ead it to them.”

However silly the example, it takes a certain amount of courage to be the man in that joke, to own your limitation and work within its strengths. As a society we need people who take that idea one step further, people who have used whatever difficulty they have and turned it into a form of greatness.

We need those people who are courageous by necessity.

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