Rumination XXXIV – My Life as a Stutterer

A recent Facebook post about introverts caused the RT to wax reflective about events in his own life that have led him to become somewhat introverted.

Now, that idea may come as a surprise to those who know the RT personally, given that he is often loud, ebullient and obnoxious. The Pigskin Preacher opined that he might possibly be an “ambivert”, a term coined by author Susan Cain to describe those who operate in both the introvert and extrovert realms.

So what might have led the RT to become an introvert (or ambivert) in the first place? Well, let me clue you in on something:

I am a stutterer.

Many of you already knew that, but it’s somewhat liberating to actually write those words. And thanks to many of you for pretending not to notice over the years. Because I’ve been pretending that if I tried hard enough, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

But, in spite of all my attempts to hide it or run away from it, I’ve stuttered all my life. In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t. I probably stuttered when crying as a baby.

My mother was a stutterer, as well. She always wondered if stuttering was something she accidentally taught me. Or if there was some hereditary, anatomical defect that caused it. I’m pretty sure that neither is the case. I think it just happened.

These days, I manage my stuttering rather well, but this was not always the case. As a child there were times when I almost couldn’t speak.

The Curse of the Stutterer

You can’t possibly know what it’s like without experiencing it, but here are a few things that might help you understand:

  • Imagine not knowing if your next word or syllable or consonant/vowel sound will come out at all, or if you’ll get stuck on that syllable, bouncing on it over and over, unable to move forward.
  • Imagine the humiliation you feel that this occurs at all, but when that humiliation is amplified by laughter and jeers from classmates and others in the classroom, on the playground, or elsewhere.
  • Imagine trying to express a thought, or tell a joke, or answer a question, or ask a favor, or order a hamburger, never knowing how long it would take to get the words out. Or if they would come out at all.
  • Imagine feeling constant anxiety about what you are trying to say, always thinking three or four words ahead to see if a troublesome word or consonant/vowel sound is coming up (for the RT the worst one is the “f” sound), then scrambling to find another way to express the thought or reword the sentence and avoid that obstacle. And doing that in real-time for every word in every conversation, all the while trying to maintain some appearance of intelligence.
  • Imagine the fear that comes when the teacher tells the class that we’ll be reading the next chapter aloud, with each student reading a paragraph. Then the frantic counting ahead to see which chapter you’ll be reading, and scanning it for troublesome letters, sounds and words. Followed by the panic of finding the “worst of the worst” combination somewhere in that paragraph. And, by the way, the second-by-second exchange of troublesome words for easier words described above can’t be used when the words are set in black and white on the page. The anxiety builds as you wait for the teacher to call your name to read. You have no idea what any of the preceding paragraphs were about because you have been solely focused on the embarrassment that’s about to come when the laughs and snickers start.
  • Imagine the dread you feel when you know that you have to give an oral report in class tomorrow, and that it doesn’t matter how well it’s written or how informative it is, you’ll stumble and bumble and stutter your way through it, providing some of your classmates with an excellent opportunity to make fun of you.
  • Imagine the frustration of wanting to participate in a conversation or discussion, but being hesitant to for fear of being laughed at. Or simply afraid that you’ll be a burden to others by forcing them to listen to you.
  • Imagine the anxiety of meeting new people, having to stutter through your own name, all the time worrying about how big of an idiot you must appear to be to them. And when you finally make your way through, you realize that you can’t remember their name because you were so focused on just getting your own name out without appearing to be a blubbering idiot.
  • Imagine the fear of having to make a phone call to someone you don’t know and can’t see, then trying to express a thought to them, all the while worrying about what kind of gestures and pantomiming ridicule might be occurring on their end.
  • Imagine going to the bank to conduct some business, which involves you stating your social security number, which includes a “4” (remember that the “f” sound is the worst of the worst for the RT), and spending what feels like five minutes going “ffffffffffffff”, before finally placing your forehead on the branch manager’s desk in shame. I should have asked for a piece of paper and written it down, but try maintaining that presence of mind when you are making a fool out of yourself in public.

As I mentioned above, while you may sympathize with those feelings, there’s no way to truly understand them until you’ve lived them.

Some Universal Truths About Stutterers

To help you further understand our nature, here are a few things you’ll probably find to be true of most stutterers:

  1. We are universally shy. You would be, too, if you never knew what was going to happen when you opened your mouth. We’ll duck into a bathroom or head the other direction down a hallway to avoid a conversation. When we do get cornered into a conversation, don’t expect a whole lot of involvement from us. It’s just not in our DNA.
  2. We are very self-conscious. As you’ve probably realized by reading this far, we are faced every day with the awkwardness of people around us as we (try to) speak. We are always watching to see how you will react to our inability to communicate effectively. Your body language is every bit as powerful (and painful) as your laughter or chuckle. As a result, we are hyper-sensitive about how we come across and will go to great lengths in an attempt to hide our stuttering.
  3. We have very large vocabularies. You’ll develop a big one out of necessity when you have to figure out a half-dozen ways to express every possible thought, trying to find one you can actually get out.
  4. We’re driven to prove ourselves. We go to great lengths to prove ourselves in one or more areas to show that we’re not total idiots. For some, it’s academics, for others, music, or sports, or art. We feel compelled to excel in some area to make up for our inadequacies in verbal communication. This is one reason I love to write. It’s an opportunity to show you that I actually can communicate effectively.
  5. We can sing flawlessly. Don’t ask us to explain why we can sing words we can’t speak; it’s just that way. It’s probably the rhythm, the cadence, and the poetry all mixed together that somehow resonates inside and relaxes us. For those of you old enough to remember country singer Mel Tillis, take note that he may have become famous by turning it into a schtick, but his stuttering was real.
  6. We despise telephones. It’s bad enough stuttering in front of someone, but stuttering at someone you can’t see is terrifying. (One of my speech therapists from years ago told me the story of an elderly Vietnamese man who came to the US in the exodus from Vietnam in the mid-to-late ‘70s. He had stuttered all of his life. Having lived in rural Vietnam, he had never seen a telephone. But when he came to America and learned what one was, he immediately refused to use it.)

Sum all of this up and what do you have? People who tend to be introverts, afraid of most social interactions.

The RT as a Stutterer

I can’t speak for every stutterer, but here are a few things I want you to know specifically about me.

  1. If I seem distant, or quiet, or even aloof, it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s more likely that I’m having a particularly difficult time with my speech (like many things, it ebbs and flows) and am hesitant to say much – at least until I’m more comfortable being around you.
  2. Please don’t be offended if I don’t remember your name the next time I see you. I was far too anxious about getting mine out with some semblance of fluency when we met to focus on capturing yours.
  3. Don’t be surprised if you leave a voicemail for me and receive a text or an e-mail in return. It’s not intended to be rude or dismissive. It’s my way of expressing my thoughts to you in a clear and fluent manner. Remember that on the phone, I’m not only stuttering to you, but to all of those who are nearby. Writing my thoughts allows me to focus on what I’m trying to communicate, not worrying about how it will or won’t come out.
  4. It’s much easier for me to take a call from you (though I will try to avoid it, if at all possible), than for me to make one to you. When you call me, it’s obvious that you want to speak to me. When I call you, I may be interrupting something, or you may not be all that crazy about speaking to me. Again, this is one reason why you will likely receive a text or an e-mail from me, rather than a phone call.

Final Thoughts (at least for Part I)

The experiences detailed above may lead you to think that the RT’s life has been a living hell and that he is forever scarred emotionally. Both may be true in some small degree. There have been days that were truly awful. And there is a fair amount of internal baggage that the RT carries around from years of dealing with this issue.

However, there is hope and there is blessing in what may appear as solely a disabling characteristic. More on that next time.

Best, The Rambling Texan

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2 Responses to Rumination XXXIV – My Life as a Stutterer

  1. mmlace says:

    As an ISTJ (strong on the I, and ridiculously strong on the J), I still have a hard time buying that the RT may be somewhat of an introvert.

    The RT admits that he is a stutterer and thanks many of us for pretending not to notice over the years, but the truth is that it doesn’t take knowing the RT for very long before it becomes something that’s easy not to notice.

    Reason being that what’s more noticeable/memorable about the RT–at least to someone like me, who chose to sit in a Sunday school class and listen to the RT’s public speaking for approximately half the Sundays over the course of about 6 years–is the RT’s brilliance.

    I mean, I read all the RT says about all he’s felt over the years, and he’s right, I don’t have a clue how it feels. So I can’t just dismiss it. But can I say that it does strike me as at least a little incredulous that the RT would have spent so much time worrying about trying not to sound unintelligent, while, after having known him a short while, I find myself most impressed by his intelligence??? (Seriously. I didn’t even get two sentences into this post before I had to google the word “ebullient” because I had never heard it and didn’t know what it meant. True story.)

    Just my two cents, people: The RT is one of the smartest people I know. And I know a few smart people.

    But I’ll hear him out on this. Because he’s worth listening to.

    Looking forward to Part II.

  2. Pingback: Rumination XXXV – The Other Side of Stuttering  | Ruminations of a Misplaced Texan

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