Block After Block

The bar is crowded. I rest my elbows on the counter as people press themselves around me. The surly bartender finally gets to me and asks what I’ll have. I stare at the beer taps behind him and open my mouth.

He looks at me and says, “Spit it out!”

My brow furrows slightly. My mouth stays open. After half a second, he moves on to the next person waiting at the bar.

***

It’s my high school baccalaureate ceremony. I stand at the podium in front of a crowd of parents and families. My fellow graduating seniors sit behind me. I’m introducing the ceremony’s main speaker, my favorite teacher. I read my brief remarks off a small notecard in my hands.

After the ceremony, a classmate comes up to me.

“That was really funny,” she says.

“What was?” I ask.

“During your introduction, when you sounded out the words like you didn’t know how to read.”

***

I’m in third grade. Our class has a substitute teacher today. I’m getting hungry, so—during a few minutes of free time—I walk up to him.

“H-h-how long until lunch?” I ask.

“T-t-twenty minutes,” he mimics.

I walk back to my desk, embarrassed.

***

I stutter.

I always have. My stutter—manifested most obviously in the verbal “blocks” I experience on various words and sounds when I speak (“block”, get it?)—has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. The intensity of it varies, from day to day and year to year. At times I hardly stutter at all. Other times I feel as if I’m stuttering on every word—as if I literally, physically, can’t speak.

Quiet, please

I’ve alluded to this part of my life here on the blog a few times, in deliberately ambiguous comments or opaque references. Stuttering isn’t something I talk about much online—mainly because I don’t stutter online.

But in my daily life, it’s not something I’ve tried to hide.

Not exactly.

Well, it kind of is.

Actually, it absolutely is something I’ve tried to hide. Just because I know I can’t hide it doesn’t mean I don’t try to.

For reasons of shame, frustration, or anxiety1, I engage in tactics that anyone who stutters can relate to: feigning ignorance, replacing words with synonyms on the fly2, and mostly just plain not talking.

Plus, stuttering is hard. Physically. In fact, physical tension and struggle is part of what defines it. Saying it’s “hard” isn’t just a metaphor. It’s like wrestling with your vocal cords (OK, the wrestling part is a metaphor, but the physicality of it isn’t).

I’ve become fairly adept at “passing” as fluent during short interactions, and even more adept at keeping most interactions short. Because of these avoidance techniques, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many people I’m acquainted with (and certainly internet people who I’ve never met in person) don’t realize that I’m a person who stutters. But at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they did know. The fact is, it’s nearly impossible to completely hide from someone over any extended period of conversation. (Although I recognize that I’m surely more aware of it than the people I’m talking to are.)

But I’ve never talked about stuttering like I’m doing right now. Even with people who know I stutter, around whom I stutter (relatively) openly, and who accept me (generally speaking), I still don’t talk about stuttering. And most people seem hesitant—if not outright afraid—to bring it up first.3 And why would they?

What my stuttering isn’t

I keep relatively few “active” secrets about myself. By which I mean, there’s not much about myself that I wouldn’t tell someone, if they asked. But what I’ve learned is, people don’t usually ask. I’m pretty open here on my blog about how and why I think in certain ways about certain things. Most of it is told through a prism of comedy, because I think that’s a fun and appropriate response to serious things. (Comedian Rob Delaney wrote an interesting essay about the seriousness of comedy that you should check out.) But when I’m not being purely absurd (and sometimes especially when I am being purely absurd), I’m saying what I really think. I’m telling the truth—at least as I see it. Sometimes that comes in a satirical or ironic form where I actually say the opposite of what I mean, so I understand that it’s hard for readers to keep up, truthwise. I don’t expect you to completely understand everything I write. I just want you to know that, in my own head, I’m not trying to misrepresent who I am. I try very hard, in fact, to be as transparent and honest as possible.

That meandering paragraph was meant to introduce the notion that I’ve got a lot of issues, like most people, and I don’t mind if you know that I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, and other annoying things like that throughout my life. And when I say “I don’t mind if you know”, I actually mean “I do kind of mind if you know.” It makes me uncomfortable. Part of me is afraid you’ll think I’m weak or crazy or really, really good-looking—even though science suggests it is much more complicated than that. Ultimately, I just don’t think it’s worth the energy to try to pretend that I’m different than I am.

Beyond the obviously negative stuff like depression, I’m also an introverted and shy person. And I don’t think either of those things is bad. A real psychologist—versus my armchair version (although I bet a lot of psychologists sit in armchairs)—can explain more about how our personalities are almost innate; no amount of nurture can completely override nature. It’s what makes us different, and interesting, and cool, and assholes.

My overlong point is, I’d still be very much the same person—depression, anxiety, introversion, itchy beard, hilarious twitterer—whether I stuttered or not. The stutter certainly interacts with, and complicates, those things (especially the beard), but it doesn’t cause them. Nor is it caused by them. Again, this isn’t just my opinion; the science backs it up.

The good stuff

That’s not to say stuttering hasn’t had any effect on who I am. When you have an impediment to something as fundamental as talking, it’s sure to have an impact. A lot of it sucks, but I hesitate to dismiss it as a total negative.

I believe my stutter has helped shape the way I think. And I generally like the way I think. I like my skepticism and my thoughtfulness and my ability to see an issue from multiple angles. After you’ve struggled—impossibly—to get your own mouth to produce the thoughts inside your own head, it’s not a far stretch to think, “Hey, maybe the stupid/mean/evil thing that other person said wasn’t really what they were trying to say. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and ask for clarification.”

I don’t know if I would have developed such inward thought processes if it had always been easy to say the first thing that came to mind. My stutter forced me to think more about what I actually wanted to say. Because, if I was going to struggle through the mental and physical contortions to actually say something, I wanted to be damn sure it was worth saying.

Struggling with stuttering every day continues to teach me empathy for others. It reminds me that we’re all dealing with our own issues, and that there’s often more to a person than what’s on the surface. I like my empathy.4

These are good qualities to have. They make me a better writer and, I think, a better person.

Why am I writing this?

I realized recently that I’ve been holding on to a hope that, even after almost three decades of stuttering, one day I’d become fluent. I thought that at some point—through psychology or chemistry or statistics—I wouldn’t have to deal with stuttering anymore. After all, most children who stutter grow out of it. And some adults who stutter seem to find ways to pass as fluent. Hell, there have even been periods in my own life where I stuttered so infrequently that it became almost a non-issue. So maybe—maybe next year, maybe when I get a good job, maybe when I’m married, maybe when I retire, maybe when I buy a new car, maybe when I lose 40 pounds—maybe it will just go away.

But guess what? (Spoiler alert.)

It won’t.

Science (by now you know how much I like science) suggests that my stutter is here to stay. It will likely vary in intensity, as it always has, but it won’t go away completely. And I’m not particularly interested in developing new and ever more convoluted ways to hide it. Like I said, it’s not worth the energy to pretend that I’m different than I am.

So instead I’m coming out of the stuttering closet, so to speak.

I’m not saying I’ve suddenly accepted and am completely comfortable with my stutter. But that is my goal. I want to give up my heart’s yearning to be “normal”, and hopefully accept that there’s really no such thing as “normal”.

That’s my goal. This is a first step.

What now?

Now, I stutter.

Sometimes naturally, and maybe sometimes on purpose, just to let myself know it’s OK.

To be honest (as ever), this is gonna be weird for me. Wondering who has read this. Worrying what people are thinking when I talk to them—if they’re wondering why I’m stuttering or why I’m not stuttering, why I’m talking or why I’m not talking. But here’s the thing: I worry about that shit anyway. My stuttering doesn’t create my social anxiety; it just adds to it. And I’m less anxious when I’m not pretending.

Also, I’ll just tell you now: you can talk to me about it. Online or off. But I don’t particularly plan on talking about it a lot, especially here on the blog or Twitter—mainly because I don’t think it fits my self-imposed criteria of entertaining, interesting, or original. I may just refer people back to this post. But it’s out there now for the world to see, and especially for me to know that the world can see it.

Well. Here we are.

  1. None of which, as I’ll explain later, cause stuttering. []
  2. Great for vocabulary building! []
  3. In early 2011 an acquaintance approached me at a social gathering. “Now, don’t hate me,” she said cautiously. “But what did you think of The King’s Speech?” How many movie review requests do you suppose begin like that? (I thought the movie was a pretty accurate representation of what it’s like to stutter, and I liked it quite a lot.) []
  4. Usually. Sometimes the shitty ways people treat each other affects me so much that I have to make a conscious choice to “turn off” my empathy for a while. It’s weird. I already explained that I’ve got issues. []