Eye contact

I am writing this because I have just read Katherine’s book and although what I am about to describe is not to do with my speech, it is still to do with communication and the massive disability that it can cause in one’s life…in this case, mine.

In 1998 I noticed for the first time in my life (I was 19) that I was beginning to struggle with eye contact. Actually it was more like one minute I was fine, then the next minute it had become a problem for me. As I look back at this time I can see the possible driver for it. I was just starting the second year of university in North Wales and my friend, who was supposed to be living in the room next to me, dropped out of uni without any warning. I thus found myself living on a corridor full of rugby/football playing lads all doing a teaching degree, all mates…and there was me, apparently friend-less, doing a completely different degree and struggling to fit in. I know now that I felt incredibly lonely and just the perception that I had ‘no friends’ was incredibly painful.

Eye contact is an incredibly intimate thing, or at least it is when you become conscious of it. That’s what happened to me. I became incredibly conscious and self-conscious. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening and fought against it and did everything I could to hide it. It’s not that I couldn’t meet peoples’ eyes, but it was painful for me to do so. I would force myself to do it, but I could see the confusion or perplexity in their reaction as they unconsciously knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was definitely fear in my eyes.

One of the most painful things of all was that at school, I remember eye contact being one of my strongest attributes. I was a fairly quiet lad, but I was popular and was confident about my identity. This all changed come 1998.

Bringing it up to the present day (the bit in between is a book in itself!) I am now a self-employed Personal Counsellor, working one-to-one with people and their emotional difficulties. I have been on a very long journey with myself to get here and you may suppose that my eye contact problems are now over. How else could I work face-to-face, one-to-one, in the very intimate setting of a counselling relationship? The reality is that I face it every day, sometimes fight with it, regularly grapple with it, but each day and each person I speak with, the fear of eye contact looms large for me.

I continue to work hard at dealing with it and working with it, but overall I am a lot wiser and stronger for it. Yes, it still has the power to knock me to the floor on occasions, but now I am not so hard on myself. I figured that in order to get ‘better’ I had to become my own best friend, in a way. No one else could give me as much support as I needed whenever I needed it, so I learnt to be there for myself. This is opposed to more distant days when I would drown my sorrows by eating too much cake or biscuits (my alcohol at the time) and then feeling physically crap afterwards to boot.

Like many people who stutter, the road to recovery can be long, arduous and down right unfair (or so it feels). But, the journey itself is rich with self-knowledge and self-understanding, the likes of which I would have never discovered if my eye contact had been ‘perfect’. It is great to know that I can turn to myself and be there for myself. Hopefully one day I can do for eye contact sufferers what Katherine has done for people with speech disfluency. Thanks for reading.

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!

Finding pieces of me after making peace with myself

(A disclaimer and an apology: I’ve spent years looking for empathy when all I wanted, as it turns out, is understanding. I just wanted someone to relate to all the things I didn’t know I was feeling and say all the things I didn’t know needed to be spoken. Reading “Out With It” finally got me to own my stutter for an audience, even though I had begun to make peace with its place in my life quite some time ago, which is why I’m leaving my story as one irretrievably intertwined with my review of Katherine’s book: I never knew what a relief it would be to see my experiences mirrored in someone else’s life, or how grateful I would feel when faced with proof that I am far from being alone in this journey.)

I’ve stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn’t mean I’m completely at peace with it. The little girl who was too afraid to assert herself for fear of sputtering all over the difference between what she wanted to say and the tangled ghost of approximation she had to settle for, quickly supplanted the even younger girl who had no problem hamming it up with improvised songs and dances on home videos; the adult she grew up to be, on less fluent days, automatically apologizes for stuttering and will feel a wave of relief no less powerful than the countless ones before when her conversational partner says they’ve never noticed. The wild dream of unblemished speech is just not a realistic one after a certain point, so acceptance is the only viable option: Realizing that one merely chooses to live in fear of their own voice and can just as easily choose not to is a moment nearly as empowering as sudden fluency.

Speech therapy was presented as an option exactly once, in what felt like an ambush when my elementary school’s speech therapist pulled me aside during class a year later. Not being able to withstand the internally embellished embarrassment of a public outing as someone needing to be fixed, while also imagining all the ways I could be reprimanded for interrupting class, I insisted I didn’t need help just to end the inquisition as quickly as possible; I now have to assume that academic professionals wouldn’t let a clueless seven-year-old have the last say, and that my parents (who, after asking my pediatrician how to treat my stutter, summarily ignored his advice and chose to make fun of me for years to come — which did have the benefit of making the surprisingly few schoolyard jabs roll right off my otherwise too-sensitive self) or whatever teacher initiated this encounter didn’t see the worth in pressing on.

The first time I decided I was ready to try speech therapy was in high school. I only wound up seeing the school’s specialist a handful of times, as the sessions pretty much involved me reading aloud from whatever book she had available and her declaration that I didn’t have a problem. At that point, after nearly a decade of living with a stutter, I knew my own patterns well enough to be frustrated with a seemingly optimistic prognosis: I have good days and I have bad days, with the problems mostly flaring up at double consonants or when speaking on the phone, and rarely occur when a book or a script supplies my every word.

I doubt I’ll ever work with someone to “fix” the way I talk just as much as I doubt the possibility of shedding the verbal flaw I’ve sported for more than two decades, as I am now more interested in what I can do to encourage understanding but have been unsure of what exactly my options are. So when I stumbled upon an article about “Out With It”, I had two immediate reactions: “I absolutely need to read this” and “I absolutely should have written this.” (Later, “Why wasn’t I interviewed for this?” would come, but fleetingly and only half seriously.) I have never spoken to another stutterer and certainly never had a chance to ask the probing and probably eagerly invasive questions I’ve been dying to lob at someone else who knows what it’s like to live with an invisible hand at one’s throat: This book was that chance. Here is someone offering up not only her own experiences but also those of so many others.

“Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice” is a story in two parts. It is an unflinchingly honest account of its author’s nearly lifelong battle with her stutter as well as a study of how the condition manifests itself in others, the schools of thought proposing various coping methods and solutions to hide behind, and the search to understand just what exactly causes this particular speech impediment. It is the need for inner reflection happening in tandem with outward-focused curiosity that turned Katherine Preston’s debut into exactly what I expected a stutterer’s memoir to be, as the affliction makes it impossible for a person to remain in ignorance of how his or her faltering speech affects and is perceived by every single person who serves as our audience. To stutter at an early age is to find out what happens when childhood’s blissful lack of self-awareness is replaced, with a callous prematurity, by adolescence’s almost paranoid perception of harsh scrutiny.

It is a book fraught with disappointment, frustration and embarrassment, but also determination, hope and self-discovery. Stuttering is, as Katherine quickly points out, not a fatal disease but it is a decidedly unexplored and misunderstood one. It is a condition that is unpredictable and humbling, that lays the afflicted vulnerable to the slings and arrows of society. It is a childhood bully who tends to retreat by adulthood, though not all of us will reach the wonderland of fluency: “Statistics will later break us into two groups,” Katherine writes. “Those who “recover” and those who don’t.”

Katherine traces her journey with an unwanted passenger whose mission it is to mangle her every word — her phonetic renderings of a voice made exasperatingly arrhythmic brought to mind another stutterer, the estimable David Mitchell, and his personification of the impediment through the inimical Hangman in “Black Swan Green” — from its first appearance at the age of seven through the already daunting terrain of adolescence to finding a place in the adult world that will accommodate her years of accrued baggage. It is a personal voyage so punctuated with objective reflection and the slow growth of inner strength that any stutterer would be proud to call it their own.

For all my knee-jerk self-reproachment at having been beaten to the punch in terms of penning the definitive stutterer’s memoir, Katherine’s is by no means the path we all have followed. Despite her numerous attempts to find “success” in speech therapy, her gradual shift in knowing that she would give anything to divest herself of a speech impediment that makes simple verbal communication grounds for a panic attack (let’s not even approach the unique horror the prospect of phone calls brings) to realizing that the hurdles such a condition has helped her overcome and the resolve it has instilled in her is empowering and paved with tiny victories but it is her own path to self-acceptance and hers alone, though her milestones and breakthroughs and jumbled emotions are all stops along the way that I can’t help but believe are common to all stutterers’ experiences.

The part of me that read this book in the hopes of recognizing echoes of myself and feeling a little less alone for it was dizzyingly satisfied. Katherine is roughly the same age as me and began stuttering around the same time I did. She, too, is a rarity among rarities, being a female stutterer who carried the disorder into adulthood. She is able to examine her younger self, her fears and her insecurities with a clinical eye and an improbable amount of heart. Reading about her early retreat inward, her horror over being seen as something broken, her struggle to overcome a speech impediment that overshadows all she is and is capable of every time she ventures a spoken thought offered me a sense of empathetic kinship that is usually reserved for the beautifully damaged fictional characters I’ve come to favor. Like me, she is no stranger to deploying an arsenal of thesaurus-gleaned stutter-friendly synonyms to dodge the words that are habitual problems. She adopted accents and affectations to gloss over verbal traps. She was reluctant to identify herself as a stutterer, preferring to ignore that which plagued her until she finally had to learn all she could about the foe within. Later, having realized that she could make her written voice do all the things her spoken one couldn’t but being unsure of how to make it as a writer, she tried her hand at journalism.

It was what Katherine and I shared that made the differences in just our two stories appear so divergent, though: It was so easy to sympathetically nod along when she was navigating familiar territory that being jarred from it had the strange sensation of an out-of-body experience, or seeing the same role played by two different people. She emphasizes her parents’ unflagging support and willingness to help her “get better” without pushing her beyond her comfort zone and reducing her to incurable disfluency, and I couldn’t help but envy her of that. Her tales of speech therapy, the brief spurts of hopeful fluency that sputtered into the resurgence of the stutter she thought she had finally put to rest, were genuinely surprising, as I had always fancied that corrective measures were the ticket to speech unencumbered. And, because I can’t help it, yes, I compared the severity of my stutter to those both reprinted and spoken of in this book, and was profoundly grateful that my worst days are what someone else wakes up hoping for.

The bravery Katherine embraces in exposing that which has been the most fiercely guarded part of herself is incredible. She digs into old diaries and painful memories to pinpoint relevant stopping points along her journey, which read as an offer of trust to the reader rather than cheap bids for congratulations. As an adult stutterer, I found it reassuring that someone was so open and detailed about this things so few people truly understand; as a younger stutterer, I imagine I would have found relief in knowing that someone else has trod this path before without letting the all-too-easy giant-in-chains excuse keep her down.

It is that honesty and refusal to sugarcoat her life as a stutterer that makes Katherine such a perfect voice for those who have yet to embrace their own. She examines how stuttering twists the things most people take for granted, like being able to supply one’s own name quickly and effortlessly or making a joke without fearing that the punchline and timing will be ruined by an inopportune loop of repetition, but it is her straightforward examination of how a stutter affects one’s professional path that nearly had me giving myself whiplash by nodding in such vigorous assent. “It turns out that careers are a sticky subject for stutters,” she writes as an introduction:

“Many advocates argue that any job is possible. They have a point. I have met stutterers in every career that, at twenty-two years old, I had assumed were nigh on impossible. … Their hearts were in the right place, but there was one rather large problem. They gave me the distinct impression that any job was possible as long as there wasn’t a discernible speech impediment. I could have anything I wanted as long as I didn’t stutter obviously. …

If you have the advocates on one hand, you have the realists on the other. They appreciate the sentiment that no job is impossible, but they refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. Instead they take to emphasizing the degree of the stutter. What may be possible for a mild stutterer is not always possible for someone who stalls on every word.”

Katherine is able to take a step back from a condition she knows all too well in order to consider the non-stutterer’s vantage point, to recognize the severity of each stutterer’s impediment. She is a narrator who is remarkably adept at sidestepping the pitfalls of judgement in favor of considering all sides before attempting a thoughtful, logical assessment.

“Out With It” is engaging and insightful, showcasing its author’s curiosity and capacity for overlooking the worst of a situation in order to focus on its benefits. While it’s obviously got loads of appeal for stutters in particular, the gist of the story is making peace with one’s imperfect demons and learning to look outward. Katherine’s book “is not one of deliverance” nor does it have that moment where she is “magically fixed as the curtain drops” — and it’s all the better for delivering one of the book’s unexpected messages: Recognize the difference between being grateful for what you have and settling, and know when wanting to be better becomes the same as demanding too much.

Katherine bemoans how she was in her twenties when Hollywood finally presented a stuttering cinematic hero in “The King’s Speech,” and how there are few role models for stutterers beyond those who have successfully hidden their impediment to land some sort of societal prominence. In unloading so much of herself in a book that’s less of a memoir and more of a promise that someone has not only shared those moments of seemingly insurmountable mortification but also overcame all those same hurdles to become what she knew she was meant to be, I can’t help but believe that Katherine Preston is filling that once-absent role all by herself.

The journey isn’t over

Me and my stutter have come a long way over the past three years. I don’t think we’re archenemies any longer; maybe, we’ve became amicable bed-fellows but I know we could be so much more.

I’ve had my stutter for as long as I can remember. I have no great story of its first utterance or any recollection of a cause in my childhood. My dad stutters, I stutter: it just is. It had significant negative impacts during my early life: from humiliating moments answering the register in school to horrible attempts of speeches at school. After these bad stuttering experiences accumulated, I thought it was a disgrace to stutter and I therefore increasingly put all my effort into hiding the hideous beast. My stutter became covered by a sea of social awkwardness. This probably began in my middle teens and by the time I came to university I was very good at it. I had managed to hide my stammer completely for the first three months, using a mixture of swapping words I might stammer on, avoiding situations where I might stammer and, the old fresher favourite, alcohol to help with socialising. The psychological burden was immense, I was constantly on edge and I actively avoided activities I would have liked to have done but I thought it was for the best.

My approach, however, all came crashing down one day in morning class. After a great party, and a reciprocally bad hangover, my ability to avoid stammering was weakened and I had a stammer which would not stop. My body emptied of any confidence and happiness as shame came rushing in. I wanted to run out of the room but I managed to stay for the rest of class. I felt all my classmates present now knew of my shameful secret and I was angry at them for being at the scene of my downfall. I think I purposefully distanced myself from those who were there for the rest of the year. At the end, my tutor pulled me to one-side and said that he now understood the reason I had been quiet in class. He informed me it could not persist if I was to successfully complete the course. He suggested it was my approach to stuttering and not the stuttering itself which was the cause of the problems. I never spoke in class and did not contribute sufficiently. He suggested speech therapy could help. He was right but I denied it. I muddled my way through the year without really altering my approach but strangely his words refused to leave my head. It was in the aftermath of this horrific moment that I suppose I began to start ‘thinking about thinking about’ approaching my stutter differently.

That summer, by chance, I attended a gathering for people who stutter. I had been on several stuttering therapy courses before with little success but the approach of some of the people at this conference was different to any speech techniques techniques I had been taught. They just spoke and let the stutter come out if it happened: they were charismatic, engaging, happy and confident despite their dysfluencies. I’m not even sure ‘despite’ was the right word, perhaps (and I am only now coming to understand this) ’because of’? I had a great time there and it altered something fundamental in my mind-set. Those sporadic childhood experiences of stuttering were not a reflection of how it really appeared to most other people I met. It was not disgraceful to stutter.

Since then, I’ve looked towards accepting my stutter as part of me: basically not caring whether I do stutter or do not stutter. With the help of fantastic speech therapists and further conferences, I have allowed myself to stutter openly and began eradicate my old avoidance habits. I stutter more than I ever have but, paradoxically to outsiders, I feel a lot happier with my speech. I am more confident and sociable. I have realised through positive experiences – such as successful presentations and speeches – that I can be interesting, engaging and likable even if I stutter on almost every word.

Overall, I feel I’ve come along way with my stutter but the journey isn’t over. I feel ok now talking with stuttering, but I still can’t talk about stuttering. I just find it too painful a subject matter and those old feelings of shame and disgrace quickly resurface. I’ve hidden my speech therapy from all but my family. I had the perfect chance to mention it just a few days ago. I was talking with two close friends about Cloud Atlas a book by David Mitchell. For a few seconds, I contemplated saying “I actually met David Mitchell at a stuttering conference last year. He gave a fantastic speech” but I didn’t. I’ve thought about bringing it up more than ever over the past year but I just can’t seem to do it. I know just how powerful it can be to speak about your weaknesses, as evidenced by the fantastic stories here. I can see my friends want to talk about it. Me and my stutter can be powerful allies. I’m thinking about it and I hope I do it sooner rather than later.

A Turning Point

Having a basic idea of what I wanted to say, but still not knowing exactly what to say, and with tears starting to stream down my cheeks, I started to speak:

“I went to college for a long time, a really long time… for over ten years. I went for so long, I believe, because I was avoiding the real world. I was scared of what would happen when I finished.

I finally did finish school, but never got a job in my field of study. People would ask me why and I would give them one of my “stock” explanations – something along the lines of, “Oh, I looked, but was never able to get one,” or “I never got a call back,” or “I guess they weren’t interested in me.” I would intentionally keep it vague so as to save face, I guess.

The truth is, however, that I could not get a job… I did not get a job… because I never really tried. I never tried because I was too afraid to try. That’s even worse than failing because I didn’t even give myself the chance to fail.

All of my life I have been crippled by fear. My stuttering and all the feelings of self-doubt that surround it have caused me to be very shy and afraid – afraid that I’m not good enough, afraid of rejection, afraid of failure, afraid of success… afraid to really live life, I guess. It has led to issues of low self-worth, lack of self-confidence, and feelings of self-hatred.

I have let my stutter define my life. I have let it hold me back. I have spent years shying away from life, being too scared to take chances; years feeling sorry for myself, wrapped in self-pity and self-defeat.

I realize, though, that that is all very selfish of me. It’s selfish of me to be feeling sorry for myself because there’s so much more I could be doing, so much more I should be doing. It’s selfish because when you’re focused on your own self-misery, you’re not focused on what really matters in life.

That’s not somebody anyone wants to be around. I don’t even want to be around that guy.

I see other people who deal with great adversity – people who have worse disabilities than mine; people who are living in worse circumstances than mine; people, like myself, who stutter – people who rise above despite their circumstances. I see them, I see their dignity, their grace, their strength in the face of adversity, and I realize that I simply have no right to be feeling sorry for myself.

I don’t want to be that guy anymore – that guy who is always scared; always filled with so much self-doubt; always feeling sorry for himself. I look at you all here and I want to change. I want to be a better person. I want to be the kind of person someone can look up to, the kind of person someone would be proud to call a friend. I don’t want to give up.”

It was the last open-mic session of the 2012 National Stuttering Association Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida and I had just gotten done speaking. Everyone in the room stood up and clapped. I hesitate to call it a standing ovation, because I have never felt that I was worthy of praise, especially to that extent. I certainly was not expecting that to happen. I felt a bit awkward about it, and didn’t quite know how to react. I smiled and walked away from the podium and took my seat.

After the session ended, several people came up to me to thank me for sharing my story and to tell me that they found inspiration in it, quite to my surprise. I was at a loss for words, but managed a simple thank you. I was grateful for and humbled by their kind words, for sure, but I felt they were misplaced on me. Did I really deserve them? I honestly didn’t feel that I had said anything that great or contributed anything tremendously worthwhile. So I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Eventually the conference came to a close. I left quietly, as heavy-hearted and dispirited as I had arrived.

In the month leading up to the conference, I had fallen into a deep sadness, my stutter being the catalyst that set it off. Calling it a depression, I feel, may be giving it too much power, but maybe that’s what it was.

As terrible as it seemed at the time, though, I realize the experience was good for me. It was good because it forced me to do some serious introspection, to really take a hard look at myself and reflect upon who I was. It focused me enough to be able to recognize some difficult truths about myself; truths which, on some level, I guess I had always known, but dared not admit, or didn’t have the courage to deal with. So I just avoided them, hoping that they would resolve themselves or just go away.

But now, I was confronted with this stark reality. What had lain unexamined far back in the recesses of my mind was now brought to the forefront. It lay before me, a test I could not get out of. I had no choice but to look deeply at it, to engage in critical self-examination. I could no longer deny just how profoundly I had allowed my stutter to impact my life; how I had allowed it to cripple me, to hold me back, to define me. I realized that I had not dealt with it very well over the years. Nay, I had not dealt with it at all over the years. But now it had been thrust upon me. I had to face it.

It was a burden lifted, though, because what I had previously never made sense of, I was now starting to understand. What was blurry was now being brought into focus. What had been difficult for me to express, I was finally able to give voice to! And that was powerful, I thought, for if I could give voice to my feelings and start to make sense of them, I could then perhaps start working on fixing the broken life I had built for myself.

The conference drew ever closer and I was still feeling so bad about myself that I had considered not even going. But since I had already registered and bought my plane tickets, I forced myself to go. I’m glad I did, because had I not, I would not have gotten up to speak at the open-mic, and would not have had pause to reflect upon that experience later on.

About a month after the conference, I was sitting at home reflecting upon the events that had taken place in St. Petersburg, when it suddenly hit me, “I did that! I actually got up and spoke in front of a group of people. And they had been moved by what I said.” I almost couldn’t believe it.

It was then that I realized that maybe I do have a story to tell. And maybe it is worth hearing. And maybe, just maybe, if I could pull myself out of the muck, I could share my story with others; others who may be feeling the same kinds of things I have felt. Perhaps they could derive benefit from it. For the first time I felt like I had something to say.

I look back on that moment – on my having the courage to get up and speak and on those people who reached out to me and the kind words they offered – and realize that that was a pivotal moment for me, a turning point in my struggle to understand my stutter and find some acceptance of it. I just didn’t know it at the time.

Letting Go

It has taken me a long time to get to this point, to tell my story.

I have stuttered since I could talk. One of my very first memories of stuttering is when I had to stand up and give a speech to my class in primary school – if that wasn’t nerve wracking enough, throw in stuttering and it is a recipe for disaster. I stuttered on every word and the whole class laughed. I don’t remember how old I was but I remember feeling very low.
You would expect somebody who gets that reaction to run out of the room crying, but I didn’t. I sat back down at my desk and remained silent. Although I was crying on the inside, I would never let anybody see me cry, not about my stuttering anyway.

I have spent the past 29 and a half years analysing why I stutter, giving all of my energy to speaking fluently and thinking so intently about what I am going to say next. When you spend so much time and put so much energy into EVERYTHING that you say, you miss out on so much.

Growing up I felt lonely, I felt that no one understood my stuttering, or really understood me. I still thought that up until about 3 years ago when I dug deeper in the social media landscape and found Facebook support groups.

Even though I have stuttered my whole life, I have only come to accept my stutter the last six to twelve months.

Before I would tell myself “I’m going to be strong and not stutter today” and inevitably I would fail and I would get down on myself.

Now when I stutter I think, “Ok that’s not so bad, nothing bad happened.”

I have been going to speech therapy for awhile now and even though I enjoy the sessions and think my speech therapist is wonderful, I’m now starting to question whether it is of benefit to me. I am coming to the slow realisation that I will probably stutter my whole life, I will never speak fluently and that doesn’t seem so scary anymore.

The stress and pressure I would put on myself not to stutter took an emotional toll on me. It is time to simply…Let Go

It is time to let go of my fear of stuttering, of stuttering itself. I have let stuttering affect my life for too long, no more.

My stuttering has made me brave, has made me strong, is giving me purpose…it is simply who I am.

What Health Coaching Has Taught Me About Stuttering

When I meet with clients for the first time, I ask them what it will feel like to finally accomplish their goals. I ask them if they are scared of anything, and what they have experienced in the past that’s held them back from realizing their full potential. Many times, things will come out that have nothing to do with food. This is always the way with change, the only guaranteed thing; and it is both terrifying and exhilarating. Change is what binds us. But it also sets us free.

When I decided to start a business, I knew I would need to tap into the confidence around my stuttering that I was known for. Being that strong public speaker was essential, and ironically, I was used to publicly speaking – about stuttering. However, my knowledge about health was newer than my lifetime of dealing with this disorder, and I had to be sure I wasn’t jeopardizing my credibility when it came to my wellness audience. So I decided to minimize the “issue”. I decided that stuttering would no longer be important. Almost immediately, the confidence I had worked so hard to cultivate slowly began to fade.

When I was 15, and I started intensive speech therapy for stuttering, I was thrown into the fire, instructed on the second day to recite my mission to anyone who would listen as we strolled the streets of New York. The goal was to desensitize myself from the caustic effects of stuttering by talking about it to strangers. Rude listener responses, phone hang-ups, angst; none of it would matter if I did as I was told. I carried this goal from high school to college, heart racing, with my one-two punch of an introduction ready at any oral presentation I gave. It came with me to retail jobs, staff meetings, internships at Rolling Stone and Cosmopolitan, and into conference room roundtable introductions in the advertising industry. Even on command over a speakerphone (a special brand of anxiety for those who stutter). The thought of another “Umm, you’re breaking up…” in front of my colleagues was just not an option.

It’s been 13 years since that first day in the park, standing before a stranger, telling them about my deepest insecurities as part of the therapy approach. Fundamentally, I’ve acknowledged and accepted my stuttering over the years. But the more I spoke with people about my health coaching business, the more my mind nagged at me to be careful not to let stuttering out. So you can imagine my surprise when I relayed the issue to my business coach Elisa and she said the following: Love it. “Huh?” I replied. LOVE. Your. Stuttering. It’s you. It was so matter-of-fact, so sensible, so OBVIOUS. It was not a lecture, but a simple statement that begged the question: How on earth could you not?

I don’t know what made those three simple words click so hard in my mind, but after thirteen years and this one session, I realized that stuttering was so much more than an announcement.

It’s my story.

When I talk about losing 25 lbs. and struggling with binge eating junk food, I’m talking about years of trying to master fluency. When I ask my clients what scares them about finally changing the way they eat, I’m telling them that I worry what will happen when a new person finds out that I stutter. And when we talk about potential and why they are afraid, I tell them that they can confront something they think is going to make them different and weird, and still come out stronger in the end, like I did.

When I came up with the name, “Well Gone Weird” for my company, I had only an inkling of what it would come to mean. You can try things that are hard, or weird or unknown to make yourself a better person.. You don’t need permission or to make sense to anyone but you. You can be your own version of yourself, no matter what it seems like to other people. Whether it’s health, stuttering, or any other issue that has helped define who you are, NEVER be afraid to be weird. Sometimes, it’s all we need.

Health coaching and stuttering

Coming to Terms

It started when I was in third grade, or at least that is where I think it began. I had gotten some math quizzes back that were sub par. I had this idea in my head that I had to get certain grades and anything below that was unacceptable. So, like any young kid, I got upset because I knew that it was not as good as I had done previously. Shortly after that my stutter started.

It was as if it was a bad habit, like biting nails, but for some strange reason I couldn’t stop. No matter how hard I tried it always popped up. Walking to class made me incredibly nervous because I was thinking, “Am I going to get called on?” “Are people going to laugh?” I began to sweat and started talking less in class to take the pressure off. It never helped because I was scared of meeting new people outside of class. I wanted people to accept me for me, and not for my stutter.

In fifth grade I was in a play, which seems weird because of the stutter, but it was something I loved. I was going to do it no matter what. I remember it was time for one of my lines in rehearsal and I heard some of the other girls saying my lines under their breath. That pushed me to a new place. I stopped everything and told them that I wasn’t stupid, that I knew my line and asked them please not to say it for me. From that day on they never once said anything about my speech.

Three years later in an English class we had a substitute teacher and we were reading passages from a play. It was my turn to read and, of course, I got stuck multiple times. The teacher persistently asked, “Do you know where we are?” “Do you want someone else to read for you?” I kept forging on because I wanted to prove her wrong. When it came to my friend’s turn to read, she read slower and started the sentence over because she wanted to demonstrate to the teacher that it wasn’t ok to say the sorts of things she was saying to me. I wanted to cry. It was such a beautiful moment that has stayed with me as a college sophomore.

High school was another monster. I had switched schools and I knew it was going to be difficult because I would have to explain myself to all these new people. Many of my teachers were understanding which was such a shock because I had never experienced people ignoring it and deeming it to be an unimportant quality of who I am. Freshman year, I will never forget this, I was walking across campus when my friend came up and told me that she heard a classmate of mine talk to someone else about me but called me “stutter girl”. It was devastating because I was not known for the fun and musical loving person that many people knew me to be, but rather was identified by my speech impediment. I continued to talk in class despite the fear that some people would chuckle or mock me. I had a great support group in high school that had my back no matter what. Without them I don’t know what my high school experience would have been like. However, there was one instance my senior year in a health class when we introducing ourselves to the teacher (always my least favorite part of any first day of class). The teacher, thinking that he was funny, decided to say my name the same why I had told it to him. I didn’t have enough strength to tell him about my speech impediment because it was so shocking to me that a teacher, someone who works with students all the time, could say something like that. The entire class went silent, even those who had mocked me before. Those people had seen how much I had grown from freshman year and that my stutter did not define who I was. And it was no one’s place to make me feel small.

As a college sophomore there are still moments when I have to tell people about my situation, but then they move on like it’s no big deal. I am no different in their eyes after I tell them. I am now, finally, becoming ok with having a stutter and realizing that it is a part of who I am, but it is in no way a defining trait. I am a singer and actor and that is how I have dealt with being “different”. In fact, I have become more comfortable with myself now that I have decided to go to graduate school and pursue a career in speech pathology to help others like myself. I want to let people know that they are not alone, and that finding the right people and doing what you love makes living with a stutter not a strange idea. Of course, certain days are worse than others but it has not stopped me from pursuing my singing and acting and speaking in class.

Me and Mr. Jones

“You Girl!” The sonic boom of his voice streaks high and fast across the room and collides violently with the top of my head. The impact leaves no external trace but beneath the surface it fractures. I feign ignorance but I know that this particular greeting is reserved exclusively for me.“You…Girl…” The crisp crack of the first assault is replaced with a rumbling growl which slithers beneath the tables and chairs and enters through the soles of my feet; bleeding into the tears and fissures inflicted by the initial blow it obliterates any remaining vestiges of defense. Resigned, I peel my eyes from the text ridden page and force my buckling knees to straighten as I take to my feet. His ordinarily listless black eyes shimmer wickedly into life and his dirty red mustache does little to hide the vicious sneer that has begun to infest his obtuse face, “Read. Now.” Steadying myself with sweaty palms on the desk I open my mouth to speak but the words refuse to come, preferring to seek refuge somewhere in the back of my throat.“Tick.Tock.” I try to coax them from their sanctuary but they are steadfast in their resistance.“Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven…” Panic stricken I resort to force; squeezing my eyes closed I snatch furiously at the consonants which cower just beyond reach.“…Six. Five. Four. Three…” I seize the offending sound and propel it forth with every ounce of effort that I can muster but its not enough, “BBBBBBBBBB” The rest of the word is anchored firmly inside my mouth.“…Two. One.” Too late.“WHY DO YOU WASTE MY TIME GIRL!? . . . WHAT ARE YOU STUPID?! . . . ARE YOU A ST,ST,ST,STUPID G,G,G,GIRL!? . . . CAN’T YOU EVEN READ . . .”

The delightful Mr. Jones was my English teacher; a fat balding man with a ginger mustache and black eyes – he seemed to gain enormous pleasure in berating me. Suffice to say I loathed him. And myself. It’s been a long while since then and I am not a frightened little girl any more but the spectre of Mr. Jones still looms large. He still chastises at any given opportunity, still scolds me every time I get stuck, still castigates me when I take too long. He personifies that voice that we all have, the one that can’t wait to bring you down, the one that points out all of the things that you have done wrong.

For a very long time Mr. Jones reigned supreme when it came to stammering. That was until about two years ago when, after one particularly disheartening day in a series of many, I sent an email, a distress signal if you like – an SOS into the ether. Fortunately my call was answered by a fantastic speech therapist who became a much needed ally in the battle against Mr. Jones and I can honestly say that I haven’t looked back since. Its by no means been an easy trip, there have been ups and downs and at times I’ve even wondered if we have just been going round in circles. But lately, however cliche, I’ve started to realise that it really is the journey rather than the destination.

For me, coming to terms with stammering has been a gradual process which has only very recently started to make sense; the only way I can describe it is as a kind of movement or shift from thinking to feeling. For so long I was wrapped up in thought, what I thought, what I thought others might have thought, what they might not have thought, every kind of thought you could ever imagine! Almost always negative, I didn’t give myself a chance to experience the reality – whether good or bad. I didn’t want to feel the way I did when I was a scared child made to read aloud in class, so I ran. I ran away from my stammer, so far away that I didn’t really know what it entailed anymore. But slowly I’ve managed to stop running and fully encounter what is to stammer. I’m learning to live with the Mr. Jones in my head rather than perpetually fighting him on the battleground of my stammer; of course its not always easy, after all, the little tyrant has been sitting on a gilded throne in the centre of my brain for the past fifteen years so he’s not exactly keen on relinquishing control!

But, with the help of speech therapy and perhaps more importantly, the sense of togetherness and compassion that is fostered through reading and engaging with other people’s stories and experiences – I feel like, although we may never be friends, me and Mr. Jones could eventually be quite amicable neighbours.