Every Time I Speak: Adapting to Failure

I’m writing about stuttering because I’ve come to the realization that no one understands this disability. Also, I’ve noticed that in some circles it is still acceptable to make fun of stutterers. I’m going to write about my experience so people understand it. The hope here is that if people understand stutterers we can start changing attitudes.

As someone who stutters, I have to face the possibility of failure every time I try to speak. Notice that I didn’t say “every time I speak,” but “every time I try to speak.” This is an important distinction because the ability to speak isn’t a given for someone with fluency issues.

Every time I have something to say it is a complex process of thinking about what I’m about to say and evaluating the probability of success. This is what I call “compensation,” and for my particular situation I can either compensate or just not talk at all.

I have developed a pre-speech “processor.” It works so well many people don’t know I stutter.

I usually have to think a sentence or two ahead of what I’m currently saying. I’m actively scanning for hard consonants and difficult words, and since my stuttering varies from day to day I have to adapt in a way that is very dynamic. I have to update a probability matrix as I talk and every time I stutter I take that word and evaluate it. I also know how to hide stutters — sentences I’ll start and stop are a sign that I had a “microstutter” that I managed to just hide and I adapted without interrupting the flow of information.

Some of the entries in this probability matrix are permanent. Many stutterers (myself included) cannot say their own names without an extreme amount of effort. Other entries are variable — since my particular stutter varies from day to day I have to evaluate words on the fly.

Maybe on Tuesday it becomes apparent to me that Hard P sounds are just not happening today — I’ll make a mental note of this and understand that “programming” is “development” today. God help me if I also have a problem with a Hard D consonant on the same day. If I find that I’m barely fluent you’ll see me just take the conversation to Slack (or cancel the meeting altogether, that has happened.)

What I’m describing is my primary compensation mechanism: the development of a fluency “map” in real-time — I understand there are words that I have a difficult time saying and words that are no problem at all. I’m thinking about what I’m about to say before I say it, and on a particularly bad day my pre-speech processor runs at 95%. It’s mostly subconscious, but there are some days when I’m aware of the mechanics.

(BTW, if you want to break this pre-speech processor just ask me to repeat something. You’ll notice that I have to pause and I look around because it’s like a massive context switch. I’m bad at repeating things I just said because it screws up this pre-speech compensation work.)

This may sound geeky and super interesting, but I’m here to tell you that it is an exhausting thing to have to do just to be able talk. It also affects the way I communicate. People often think I’m being sarcastic and that I have a “deadpan” delivery when I’m actually just pausing because it’s either that or something that looks like a seizure.

Instead of just being able to speak, I have to meta-speak before I speak. Years of speech therapy as a child helped me develop the ability to adapt and react when I need to. I think of this as having written a cognitive “plugin.” The downside is that I tend to be very “meta” — at some level I’m always thinking about thinking because of the way I’ve had to adapt to my disability.

On good days, or when I’m in certain contexts this is less of a problem. If I’m around people that I very familiar with whom I trust, and if I know that I won’t make them uncomfortable with my stutter I usually dial down that pre-speech filter and I will just let myself occasionally stutter. Most grownups can wait five seconds for me to stumble through the word “Cassandra” or “Public Cloud.”

Did you notice the weird phrase in that last paragraph: “if I know that I won’t make them uncomfortable with my stutter” — I’ll write more about that, but one of the very unfortunate aspects of this disability is that you have to deal with the reaction of other people.

If I wasn’t compensating I’d be stuttering quite a bit. If I don’t compensate I’ll have a “bad stutter” maybe once every 20 minutes, but when I say “bad stutter” I mean that everything comes to a halt for 5 seconds and it looks like I’m seizing up.

If you hear me do this often, it’s a good sign. It means I’m comfortable enough when talking to you that I’ve dialed down the pre-speech processor.

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I write and I code. Not always in that order. I do infrastructure and architecture at Walmart. (Opinions are my own.)

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