The one seemingly monumental hurdle I’ve had to get over since my mom passed away, is my fear of talking on the telephone. With my stutter, the phone has always been a source of immense anxiety and not fear exactly, but a strong avoidance at all cost. I hid behind my mother and let her make phone calls for me, and now that she isn’t here anymore, it’s been difficult for me. I will sit at the kitchen table and stare at the phone with an ever-growing sense of unease just bubbling up from within me. I’ll pick it up, start to dial, then hang up and put it back down again. Then I feel angry at myself to giving so much of my power away to an inanimate object. But it’s not the object that scares me it’s my social anxiety and not knowing how the person on the other end of the call will react to my stutter. For the most part, it’s been positive, but there have been a couple of times that scarred me. Of course, those events happened when I was much younger but the feelings stuck to my psyche like crazy glue. Like the time I was trying to call someone from grade school, and I had to call collect, and the operator told me that she could trace my call and would send the police to make me talk correctly if I couldn’t do it on my own. Yeah, something like that leaves a mark. Now, I admit looking back on it, it was something I should have just let go but, being so young, I just let it stay with me. And, in letting it stay with me, it grew to be a bigger thing than it ever should have. But I think we all do that with something in our lives. Let something small, grow out of proportion, and then it seems all consuming.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been making progress with my telephobia. I just told myself that making telephone calls is part of making my way through the world on my own. It was time to rip that band-aid off and let the old wound be exposed to air so it can finally heal. I still keep having false starts, but that’s to be expected. I just need to be patient with myself.
Since I was five years of age, I have stuttered. No one knows or understands why I started, it just kind of happened. As I’ve grown up I’ve had to deal with the questions of little children who hear me speak and realize I don’t sound like other people. The most common way they express this is to ask, “Why do you talk like that?” I don’t mind being asked about my stuttering, it’s just curiosity. Usually I respond by saying, “It’s just how I talk and it’s ok.” Usually they are satisfied with that answer and life goes on. Small children are much more accepting of people’s differences than adults can be. In my early years of grade school, the kids I went to school with were friendly with me but as we grew older that changed. By third grade, the other kids wouldn’t play with me at all. I was shunned and referred to by the name “Germs.” At the time I rationalized it by thinking that perhaps they believed my stuttering was contagious and they better stay away or they would start stuttering as well. It was a lonely time for me but I found comfort in reading books. I could lose myself in stories and ignore the sights and sounds of the other kids playing around me.
Fast forward through my college years and the idea that I was negatively different because I stuttered was cemented in my brain. Then my third nephew came along and when he was around three or four years of age, he changed my world in a way I never expected. One day, I was babysitting him and out of the blue he said, “Auntie, I really like your accent.” First of all, I didn’t realize he knew what the word “accent” meant so I asked him to explain. He looked at me and simply said, “The way you talk, I like it.” and then he went back to whatever he had been doing. I sat there dumbfounded and watched him play. It had never occurred to me that my stuttering was like an accent. It wasn’t like having a British accent or a Southern one but it was kind of like it. Suddenly it wasn’t something as negative to have. Everyone spoke differently and they were accepted. Maybe I could be as well. Of course, that isn’t the case in the real world. I’ve been judged by my stuttering a lot but since my nephew called it “my accent” I haven’t seen it in quite such a negative way. Out of the mouth of babes.
Every day I dance with my speech.
Seeking to smoothly waltz with it.
Trying to find rhythm in the words,
I use to convey my thoughts.
But I’m a terrible dancer
And I tend to trip over my own tongue.
Today’s post was inspired by a thought I had last night when I was having a very difficult time with my speech. I found myself thinking how much I hated language and words. That made me stop because I had to be more specific within my own heart. I don’t hate words, I love words. I love the power of them, the passion that they can incite. I love the written word. The problem I have is with the spoken word. I have stuttered since I was 5 years old. Forty years of blocks and repetition of sounds. Struggling and strangling to make myself heard. My parents sent me to all kinds of speech therapists during my grade school and high school years with various results. One therapist in particular, thought that pinching me each time I stuttered was the way to “cure” me. Another therapist I saw while I was in college told me that as long I as stuttered the best job I could hope to get was in a warehouse where I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone. Don’t get me wrong I had some very competent therapists with lots of different techniques I could use to try to gain control and fluency over my speech. I think my problem now has become that all those tactics have cluttered my efforts to such an extent that unconsciously I try several at the same time with very little success. For me the spoken word has been a lifelong battle. If you want to have some idea of how it feels for me to get stuck on a word, place your fingers under a table and lift up. That tightness and pressure in your chest and throat is only a fraction of what I feel when I get really stuck on a word. For me though, it’s not just words I get stuck on but individual sounds as well. At the moment, it is vowel sounds that lock up my throat tighter than Fort Knox.
What makes it more difficult is the fact that I have, what one therapist called, “developmental stuttering” where sometimes I can talk fluently and clearly and other times it is like sinking in quicksand, the more I struggle the deeper I get stuck in what I’m trying to say. So that’s where I was last night when that sentiment happened. I have had this happen before where I contemplate whether or not to just stop speaking altogether, how much easier my life would be if I didn’t have to deal with my stuttering at all. I never follow through with that line of thinking though, I’m too stubborn, and I can’t let this condition “win.” As much as I hate being a stutterer, as much frustration and sadness it has brought into my life, it has made me who I am. Dealing with the way others react to my speech in a negative way and being able to explain to those who are curious enough to ask me about it. Not that I don’t have my snarky moments in the face of some encounters. For example, one day I went into a store and was looking around. The owner was talking to me in a normal speaking voice and then I responded to something she said. All of a sudden the way she spoke to me dramatically shifted. She sounded like characters I’ve seen in television shows or in movies who are speaking to others they think are slow or don’t speak the same language. She was speaking in a slow overly exaggerated way. I listened to her and then I replied to her, “Ma’am, I speak slowly. I don’t hear slowly.” and I walked out of the store leaving her jaw hanging slack. Moments like that show me the inner strength my stuttering has given me and when I get right down to it, as much as I hate my stuttering at times, it’s made me who I am today and, for the most part, I like who she is. I’m not just my stuttering. I’m a daughter, an aunt, a granddaughter, musician, singer, writer, and so many other things. Stuttering does not define who I am, it has shaped who I am.