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.

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!

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.