Out With It in Japanese

Thanks to the incredible translation work of Eri Tsuji and the publishing efforts of Tokyo Shoseki, Out With It is now available in Japan! It is available in shops and libraries across the country and this weekend is will be featured at the Japan Stuttering Genyukai Association’s annual conference.

Japanese Out With ItOut With It has now traveled further across the world than I have. I have no idea what the characters all mean but I think the book is utterly wonderful. I’m particularly smitten by the cover.

Huge thanks to everyone who made this possible. I am thrilled by the idea of Out With It reaching people halfway across the world.

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.

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.

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.”

Stuttering and the resilient sense of self

“Nobody worth your attention gives a damn if you stutter,” writes Cheryl Strayed, replying in her Rumpus Dear Sugar column to a woman who anonymously wrote to her as ‘Ashamed and Afraid’.

Resilience stutterWith her characteristic mix of tenderness and insight, Cheryl tells A & A, “It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing out the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter and taking in the fact that you have the power to redirect the blowtorch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.”

It is a beautiful piece, one that glues your eyes to the page and gives you whiplash from nodding your head so vigorously in agreement.

It is the type of writing that unifies us. Stuttering or not we all need to work on becoming the people we’re here to be. We all need to foster our own resilience, that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and and come back stronger than ever.

Strayed has that quality in spades and in my interviews for Out With It I saw resilience in the most successful stutterers I met. Stuttering might have battered their self-esteem for some part of their childhood, but they were not cowed by it. They described it as ‘toughening them up’, as ‘increasing their empathy’, as ‘instilling a fighting instinct.’ They were formed, rather than undone, by their struggle.

They were not unique, or superhuman, in their ability. We are all capable of astonishing resistance, coping, recovery and success. We just need to work out how we can withstand, rebound and transform the inevitable obstacles of our life into triumphs.

In The Resilience Factor, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte explain seven elements that anyone can cultivate to boost their own resilience:

1) Emotional regulation. The ability to respond appropriately in any given situation and control our emotions and behaviours so they are productive rather than knee-jerk reactions.

2) Impulse control. The necessity to notice our thoughts and sit with them for a moment, quietly, before we react.

3) Empathy. The capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, so we can keep ourselves from misreading situations.

4) Optimism. Not irrational optimism, rather the ability to believe that things can change for the better, to hope for the future, without denying the reality of our lives. The need to aspire and work towards positive outcomes without assuming that they are a forgone conclusions.

5) Causal analysis. The ability to accurately identify the causes of problems and think flexibility. The so-called father of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, focuses on explanatory styles as the the habitual way we explain the good and the bad things that happen to us. The need to look for specific, limited, short-term explanations for bad events rather than seeing them as permanent, personal and pervasive.

6) Self-efficacy. The sense that we are effective in the world, the belief that we can succeed at solving our problems.

7) Reaching out. The intention to create nurturing relationships and strong social support. We often learn by mimicry and a resilient, trusting and supportive community incubates reserves of optimism and resilience.

All of us will face failure at some point in our lives. Those who have been shielded from difficulty, who have spent their life coddled and protected, are not always the most successful.

Those who grow up battling against some form of adversity need more grit, more social intelligence and more self-control to create the kind of giant, full lives they aspire to. If they can develop the strength to derive knowledge and meaning from their setbacks, they are at a significant character advantage. As the researcher Ann Masten puts it, “resilient children have the benefit of ordinary magic.”

Do you have that ordinary magic? How often are you able to transform the setbacks of life into everyday triumphs?

Stuttering and the Power of Powerless Communication

Often stuttering is seen as a hindrance, perhaps even a disability. When most people are asked to name successful stutterers they tend to mention men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch. They marvel at the confidence and prestige of those stutterers who have somehow overcome their condition, whose voices no longer betray their speech difficulties.

But if we look a little closer, the truth is more complex.

In my research for Out With It I saw that many people who stutter end up being quite successful, gaining respect in everything from the boardroom to the basketball court. There were certainly those who were dissatisfied and unfulfilled, but those who were successful were not always those who had conquered their stuttering. Those people who had both excelled, and continued to stutter, seemed to have certain traits in common. I will explore traits of resilience in my next post but today I’m looking at the idea of embracing powerless communication, how it specifically relates to stutterers and how everyone can harness its power to generate trust and respect.

I first came across the concept in Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Give and Take. Grant is the youngest tenured professor at The Wharton School and a prolific academic in the area of workplace dynamics. His seminal book gives remarkable insights into what actually works in communication.

giveandtake-cover
In his chapter on the power of powerless communication, Grant argues that, when it comes to collaboration, we are more inclined to hire, promote and value people who communicate powerlessly. This includes: talking tentatively; asking people questions (giving them the joy of talking), specifically asking them for advice; and being open about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, not just our strengths.

The first two are relatively easy to understand and implement, I find the latter the most intriguing. It is worth exploring through the lens of stuttering.

When writing Out With It I discovered how often people are drawn to stutterers, how likeable they seem to be. At first I balked against the discovery, worrying that the attraction was perhaps born of pity. However, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised it was the opposite – they were drawn to the stutterer’s courage and lack of artifice. In a world full of noise and nonsense, stutterers were seen as somehow trustworthy and genuine. Because their speech had nothing to do with their competence, it did not demean them in their audiences’ eyes. Rather it raised them up.

The idea that something that we often perceive as a weakness can actually be an important asset was a personal breakthrough, but Grant proves that the idea is applicable to anyone wishing to improve their communication.

Everyone has a weakness, whether it be their weight, their height, their looks, their clumsiness etc. Often our weaknesses have nothing to do with our competence, but we try to hide them to appear in control or knowledgeable or attractive. In actuality, when we speak in a way that reveals our shortcomings and expresses vulnerability, people can relate to us as a human beings. They are attracted to us.

What do you think? Would you ever share your weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the work place?

Owning the Voice You Have

I have some very exciting news: this blog has been picked up by Psychology Today so this post can be read here or on my new Out With It page over on their site!

public speakingEarlier this month I spent four days at the World Congress for People Who Stutter. I couldn’t imagine a more thoughtfully run or inclusive conference. The days were a mass of hours spent hanging on people’s words. It was a week when time felt endless and a place where blocks and repetitions were not only accepted, they were normalised.

The conference opened with a keynote from a fluent researcher. The next keynote came from an esteemed author who stuttered once or twice as he candidly explored a condition close to his heart, a carefully crafted speech about the beauty and difficulty of stuttering.
The next couple days followed the same pattern. Multiple workshops and two powerful keynotes a day given by great, honest speakers who spoke passionately about stuttering. All of the keynotes stuttered a little but never enough to break the flow of their speech. Never enough to tie up their dexterous tongues.

As I listened to their speeches I felt my knees start to shake and my mind drift down paths I didn’t want it to take. How could I compete?

I knew that I couldn’t mimic their speech. And yet, despite the fact that I was at a stuttering conference and talking to an audience of stutterers from across the world, a part of me wanted to be as fluent as the other speakers. A long-forged part of my brain told me that I should do my best to wipe out as many stutters as I could.

When I finally stood at the podium to give my keynote, I had spent hours writing and practicing my speech. As I put on my glasses and took in the audience I felt enormously proud to be looking out into the eyes of many of the kindest people I had ever met.

Then I began to speak. It is no exaggeration to say that I stuttered on nearly every word. On the cyclical scale of my speech, my stutter was at its most profound. I pushed through syllables that spanned over long seconds. I felt the pages of my script go limp in my iron grip. I laughed when I got trapped on a ‘me’ that seemed to echo around the large conference hall endlessly.

And yet all eyes in the audience stayed fixed on me as I recounted the journey I had taken to come to terms with my voice. Faces broke into smiles at whatever jokes I told. Fierce applause broke around the room as the speech reached its breathless end.

At the end I felt euphoric and exposed. It is one thing to write a book about stuttering, quite another to stand up and go through the physicality of telling that story.

Stuttering is not an easy thing to do. It takes away the control that we want to have over our language and our appearance. And yet, in the wake of that speech, I realised it is also an incredibly powerful thing. It has its own dynamism that we do not need to bleach out. It can connect us to people, rather than alienate them.

There are times when I have found myself listening more intently to stutterers than fluent speakers, waiting eagerly for their words and deeply appreciating the window that their speech cracks into their humanity.

Unfortnuately we rarely see stuttering public speakers. I hope that will change.

It is well and good having role models who seemed to have curbed their stutter and eased into a more fluent way of speaking, celebrities and politicians who readily attach their names to stuttering but rarely, if ever, stumble on their words. But we need to really hear stuttering if we are going to change the conversation. We need to watch outspoken, unapologetic stutterers talking eloquently if we are ever going to rewrite the ‘fix’ narrative of our lives.

All of us can own whatever speaking skills we have, however paradoxical they may be. We do not need to fit into an aggressive, motivational speaker mold – rather we can speak up with whatever voice we have. We can be proud of the unique qualities of our soft-spoken words, our quirky sense of humor or our stutters.

We can believe that our voice, and our story, is worth hearing.

Who is the most memorable and unique speaker you’ve ever seen?

Vulnerability and Public Speaking

I’m not sure who would constitute my most intimidating audience, but speaking to a roomful of over 100 Brooklyn hipsters ranks pretty highly.

Public Speaking - PPN

Image courtesy: Andy Gillette and PPN

It is hard to be as fascinating as the guy who speaks for 15 minutes about Peruvian Ayahuasca and ends his sincere talk with an impromptu song inspired by the plant he spent a month talking to. Or the scantily-clad Meta-Physical Jesus, or the man who recounts a story about a possessed Raggedy Anne doll.

It is hard to stand up without any persona, or any shield.

By the time I walked up to take the stage at Bushwick’s monthly speaking series, Presentation Party Night, beer cans were spilling out of the rubbish bins, the room was debating the meaning of virtuous womanhood and I was fully aware of the involuntary shaking that had taken over my left leg.

I was nervous in a way that I haven’t been for a while. Perhaps it was because I was speaking to people who had no idea about stuttering, perhaps it was because I’d left my glasses at home and I could barely see the audience, perhaps I was worried about being vulnerable in front of a bunch of strangers.

Either way I held up the mic to my lips and began to speak into the wide expanse of the room.

Public Speaking at PPNI talked about perfection, about my childhood, about the science of stuttering and the humanity of it. I talked about setting off on a adventure to find a cure and instead falling in love and embracing my ‘weakness’ as my greatest strength.

The hum of the heating-system ebbed and flowed, one guy’s phone rang loudly and the crowd laughed once or twice but largely the place was silent. My voice rumbled and broke into the mic. I slipped into repetitions and fell out of them, I smiled and paused and my leg continued to shake to the beat of its own manic rhythm.

By the end I was spent, I’d given all I could to the speech. It hadn’t been easy but it hadn’t been terrible. It had been honest.

And afterwards, after the cheers and the questions, I have never had so many people come up to me. Each person related my story back to themselves, back to their struggles and their triumphs. They told me about their lives and they asked me more about stuttering. My gratitude to them, to all their joy and compassion, is boundless.

If anyone reading this in NY has a subject that they feel able to speak about for 10 minutes, I can’t recommend PPN enough. Speaking up, making people laugh or cry, encouraging them see the world a little differently – what would you rather be doing on a Sunday night?

Next Big Thing Blog Hop

My blog this week is looking a wee bit different from normal because I’m taking part in something called the Next Big Thing blog hop.

Essentially writers across the world are invited to answer questions about what they’re working on so readers can discover new authors. This week, I’m it.

Last week I was “tagged” by Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly.  In her words, her book is about “a quirky teenage journalist and a microbiologist running from his past who investigate a secret society in their remote New England town. “ Sound intriguing? Check out there rest of her answers on her Facebook page.

Here is my Next Big Thing:

Out With ItWhat is the working title of your book?

My editor, my agent, my fiancé and I all sprouted a couple grey hairs coming up with the title. It took us months but finally we came up with Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice.

Where did the idea come from?

When I left my job in London in September 2008 I wanted to immerse myself in stuttering, to meet other stutterers, researchers and therapists and finally face my biggest fear. Perhaps I even hoped that I would stumble on a cure. I decided that I would interview 100 people and then create a book of oral histories that would debunk all the misconceptions around stuttering. Gradually the book evolved into an investigative memoir. I held on to the voices of everyone I interviewed, but I made my life the structure that all our stories hung from.

What genre does your book fall under?

Creative non-fiction, memoir, education, perhaps even self-help.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

A vivid memoir of a young woman who fought for years to change who she was until she finally found her voice and learned to embrace her imperfection.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My book will be published by the Atria division of Simon and Schuster on April 16th 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I moved to America to start researching the book in October 2008. I started writing in late 2009 and handed in the first draft to my editor in January 2012. In short, a very long time!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is the first memoir about stuttering written by a woman but it is similar to a vast number of books that deal honestly, humorously and poignantly with subjects that our society does not always like to confront. If you liked WILD, LIT, Look Me in the Eye or QUIET, hopefully you’ll like Out With It.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to change the conversation, to unearth something that had remained taboo for far too long, to stop hiding and encourage others to do the same.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Although the book is about stuttering, it is really about all of us, about all of the ways we are scared and courageous and perfectly imperfect.

Be sure to check out Jennifer Miller and go to Leigh Stein’s blog at leighstein.tumblr.com to read their Blog Hop answers.

Experimenting with Patience

Patience is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a tendency to rush myself, and others.

Learning patience

I suspect that living in New York feeds my impatience. Rushing is a way of life here. Our food arrives minutes after we’ve ordered it, the subway shoots us from one end of the island to the other, the streets are clogged with city dwellers sliding, eyes-rolling between groups of dawdling tourists on the sidewalks.

It is a city where time is people’s greatest resource. Services have evolved to outsource anything that might ‘waste’ your time. Task Rabbit will run your errands or clean your flat, a virtual assistant will call your electricity company so you don’t have to wait on hold, Fresh Direct will bring groceries to your 5 floor walk-up so you don’t have to spend precious minutes in the line at Trader Joes.

It is all terribly efficient. But it is good for us? Is it feeding our happiness?

I spent the past two weeks travelling in Costa Rica. It took close to 3 hours to rent a car, every meal we ordered took at lease 30 minutes to make it to our table, we had to wait for an hour in the bank to speak to someone after a machine swallowed our debit card, we got stuck behind suspiciously-leaning-cattle-bearing-trucks that barely broke 40 MPH on the highways while spewing thick black exhaust.

And yet the World Database of Happiness lists Costa Rica as the happiest of 148 nations

Quite possibly it has a lot to do with the natural beauty of the country, or the fact that they dissolved their standing army in favour of pumping money into education, but it might also have something to do with living in a country where things happen in Tico-time.

Tico time happiness

Moving more slowly, waiting more often, forces us to look around. It may infuriate us but it also has the potential to let us see things, hear things and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Maybe all our rushing around is making us blind to the world outside of our blinkered efficiency.

So back in the city of hooking cars, heavy-footed cab drivers and appointment laden weeks, I’m seeing how it feels to talk a little slower, to walk at a different pace and spend a little more time watching the chaos around me.