I may not be able to talk, but I’m not an idiot.
That’s a bit exaggerated. The first part, I mean. Let’s backtrack: I can talk, albeit with an annoyingly high degree of difficulty. It’s estimated that less than one percent of adults have a stutter, a speech impediment characterized by involuntary interruptions in the flow of speech that complicate the taken-for-granted act of speaking, and I’m one of them. Think The King’s Speech but less charmingly British than Colin Firth, Simple Jack with a better haircut, or Bobby Boucher with less Mamamotivated rage.
From the moment I started talking, I wasn’t doing it right. I only began speaking at about 2 or 3 years old, and when I did, it seemed like I was trying to make up for lost time by getting everything out at once. I was hyperactive and had plenty to say, but the words in my head were cars headed towards my mouth on a congested highway, but instead of waiting until the vehicles ahead of them moved, they tried to drive over and through them, causing a messy and confusing pileup. That’s not how non-Grand Theft Auto traffic or speaking work.
Aside from not being able to verbally communicate as clearly as I would prefer, stuttering has a deeper impact on those who struggle with it.
I thankfully had an understanding group of peers growing up, so I was a liked kid who did not face the bullying that I’m sure many young people affected by speech disorders do, but I ultimately had an issue I was not able to stop thinking about. I became annoyed with myself. I thought I sounded stupid. I would sometimes remain silent when I really wanted to speak. I was and continue to be self conscious about a lot of things related to my speech, and I assume the approximately 7.5 million people in the United States who “have trouble using their voices” have similar insecurities.
Speaking clearly is still a conscious act for me today, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve gained more control over my stutter. Now, most people I’ve met over the past few years don’t know I have any oratorical troubles. As I’ve been able to focus my mind more on not sounding like Porky Pig during the Looney Tunes credits, I’ve realized my speech issue doesn’t hold me back as much as I used to believe, and that it’s been an important tool in my development as an intelligent, thoughtful, unique, and also humble person.
During research for this piece, I came across a list by French writer Laurent Lagarde, titled “25 Things I Wish I Had Known About Stuttering When I Was 20.” I turned 23 earlier this year, and sure enough, some of the list items are relevant, some things I’ve come to realize on my own, and some general overpaid therapist motivational stuff, but the entries that relate directly to speech issues have weight.
It’s worth a once over, but parts of the list could afford to be better thought out. To start, let me clarify the item that reads, “I wish I had known that stuttering is just one part of my person.” Here’s my new version: Your impediment doesn’t have to define you, but how you respond to it can. German silent film actor Bruno Kastner faced it by choosing a career where his vocal ability wouldn’t be the focus. As we know, movies eventually got sound, so how did Kastner respond to that adversity? He made two unsuccessful films, his career rapidly dissolved, and after renting a hotel room and perhaps carving “Brooks was here” into the wall, he hung himself. So… bad example, but successful actors like James Stewart and Hugh Grant grabbed their stutters by the horns and made them part of their onscreen performances.
That’s the key: accepting your stutter as part of you, or as Lagarde’s list puts it, “dare to be yourself with your virtues and defects.” My stutter has contributed to the three major parts of what make me, dare I say, a moderately cool guy: my internal personality, my external personality, and my language skills.
Due to my self-consciousness, I was an introverted kid and preferred time spent alone, which I still do. Once I got over being ashamed of myself for a personal quirk that’s beyond my control and stopped being the weird guy at the party who’s not sure where to put his hands as he floats between circles of conversation, what I was left with was the ability to be by myself. It’s fantastic to rely on people for certain types of stimuli and engagement, but ultimately, personal satisfaction comes from within. Periods of solitude are great for personal reflection, gaining self-awareness, thinking abstractly, producing creative work, learning about new areas of interest, and otherwise adding wrinkles to your brain. The early aversion to social situations, which I got over and I’m totally fine being a human out in the world now, forced me into this greater awareness of myself that I may not have achieved otherwise.
Forgive how supremely douchey that might have sounded, but with a more nuanced understanding of who I am, I’m better able to see how I fit into situations and act accordingly. Self-awareness makes knowing what yourself is and going out and being that self much easier. So, in a less existential sense, the me on the outside that people see, was shaped by my stutter. I sometimes have to wait an extra second or so before I’m able to clearly say what I want, so with that in mind, I’ll alter what I say and how I say it, then give verbalization a try, with my attempts becoming successful more often as time has gone on. There are sometimes periods where it seems I’ve regressed and I find myself struggling a bit more than usual, but in general, my progress is heading more towards consistent flow than stop-and-go. Even to be able to say the most basic statements, I have to think of my feet.
An example to demonstrate how my speech impediment manifests itself today, based on a variety of situations that I often come head-to-head with: Until recently, I worked at a college housing complex, where I manned the front desk, answered phones, tried to sell leases, and did other things of the like. I made a lot of (sometimes un-)friendly smalltalk with a lot of people every day.
Picture this: A girl walks in, her pleasingly formfitting shirt brightening my shift. She says she has a package, so I confirm its presence in the computer log and head to the cabinet where we store incoming mail. I notice her cheeks are a bit more red than they would typically be.
“How is it out there?” I ask.
“Oh my God, it’s so cold.”
“Yeah, I’ve been inside all day. But yeah, seems rough. I guess it…”
At this point, I want to finish the sentence with “…got down to five degrees or so today,” but I know I’m not going to be able to get past the word “five.” There’s an instinct that tells me I’m going to either have an extremely hard time producing the sound I want to, or be physically unable to say it at all.
It’s a block that I’m unable to explain but can always see coming, like animals knowing when a storm is on its way.
Without disrupting the flow of conversation too much, I have to think of a way out. “…was below ten degrees earlier,” but crap, I’m going to struggle with “below” too. “…was almost zero a while ago.” Great, no problem sounds there.
“I guess it was almost zero a while ago.”
“Yeah, I heard that. Oh, I think it’s that box there.”
“Let me see… Yup, it is, here you are. Have a good one!”
To the girl, that was a milquetoast exchange, an uneventful swapping of politeness while she waited for me to find her package. For me, I had to come up with three different ways to say that it’s cold outside in about two seconds. I sometimes have to swap out “boring” for “pedestrian,” “prior to” for “before,” “great” for “divine,” or “uninteresting” for “milquetoast.” While I (hopefully) avoid sounding pretentious, this mandatory practice does affect my vocabulary, approach to language, sense of empathy, work, comedic timing, when, how and if I engage others, and my writing. I would not be pursuing a career in writing today if it weren’t for my stutter, or at the very least, I would not be as well equipped for the climb.
A stutter (or a lisp, muteness, etc.) is a speech impediment. Impediments get in the way of accomplishing something. They don’t make accomplishment impossible, but they demand creative solutions.
With a hindrance as constantly in the way as a speech impediment (or any other obstacle with similar omnipresence in the lives of those affected by it), the series of creative solutions you are forced to come up with in order to live normally forges an alternate path of personal development that by its nature produces a different kind of person. Such is true for all forms of adversity that sports movies, young adult novels and tampon commercials portray. You learn to think in novel ways. And isn’t a fresh perspective what most of history’s greatest figures have in common?
Am I a timeless icon? That’s still in the air, but we’ll see. A few years ago, I might have thought my stutter was an instant derailment of the locomotive to legend. Now, I know it’s the pack I carry on my path to greatness… or, you know, just through the day.
This article is an edited version of one that originally appeared on Guff on March 9, 2015. The original article, which can be found here, was formatted in a visually unpleasing way, so I decided to update and re-post it here.
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