Every morning of my grade school career I was greeted with an orchestra of children hissing, “Suh-suh-suh Sara! Suh-suh-suh Sara!” I don’t remember when I began stuttering but I also don’t remember ever being able to speak normally. Much of my energy was spent trying to avoid speaking situations. Never once did I raise my hand to ask to go to the bathroom; I simply drank very little and waited until I got home. If ever I was called on to talk, I claimed I did not know the answer. Teachers stopped calling on me out of frustration and impatience. In fifth grade, Mrs. LeCompte yanked my story out of my hands in a huff, saying, “Oh God! I’ll just read it!” That was the end of participating in creative writing class. In sixth grade, when it was my turn to read my essay in front of the class, I stood up at the podium staring down at it. No sound came out at all. I looked at those words – deeply hating every one of them and feeling helpless, nervously rubbing my sweaty palms on the tabletop. Mr. King finally sighed and said, “Just sit down, Sara.”
My fourth grade teacher sent me to the school’s speech therapy group. I sat in a circle of lispers and one girl who could not say her R’s properly. We read aloud from a very simple children’s book, one by one. It soon became clear that nothing was going to come out of my mouth so I just sat there marveling at the ease of those mouths with words flowing out of them as they read aloud. And so what if it sounded a little S-heavy…I would have cut off my left arm for a lisp.
Aaaah, “reading aloud”; the two most hideous words in the English language. A close second would be “oral report” and “go around the room and read”; well, that would be six words. Whatever kind of skill or Toastmaster-type confidence this heinous practice was supposed to instill in children was beyond me. Everyone hated it but no one had a right to hate it as much as I did. They could talk. I would skim ahead in the book, counting paragraphs to number of kids who were speaking before me to see what I was going to be expected to read. I would then look it over for “speaking ease evaluation.” How long was the paragraph? Was I completely screwed or just mostly screwed? Did the first word begin with a hard letter? Would I need to turn the page mid-sentence (hopefully!) thus making at least one pause seem “natural”? D’s and G’s were the ultimate enemy and I strongly believed that words beginning with these letters should be outlawed. Some words could come out with only minor stuttering such as those beginning with a Th. Vowels are easy for most stutterers but to those with a severe stutter like myself, they are just consonants by another name.
When it came to my turn, to buy myself time, I would pretend I had lost my place in the book. Generally I would employ the “push all air out of my lungs forcing the first word out” technique, or just gasp and leap into the first word. If I got lucky one or two words came out. Gasp again and try the next couple of words. I desperately arranged and rearranged my tongue, mouth position and teeth as if guiding the word down a long dark corridor to shove it out the front door. They tripped and fell and most of them came out unintelligible. The words that did come out, I sped through, as I was always just about to run out of breath. Those words were like a pill your dog won’t swallow so you hide it in some cheese; always hit or miss. I was always conscious of the scattered heavy sighs around the room as it took me 10 times as long to talk as it did everyone else. Any worry of embarrassment was a non-issue. When you are displaying to your peers a variety of spasmodic facial contortions and words that sound like battered English in between long gaps of dead air time – that ship had sailed.
My mother assured me, saying not to worry because I would simply grow out of it. She forced me to speak at times because in life, “You have to be able to talk!” I did things like go to the counter for her to ask for sugar and cream for her coffee. Luckily my sweet brother came with me and spoke for me after I stood there staring at the cashier. I desperately ached for this stutter to go away. I recall standing outside of my grade school, a round sandy brick building built in 1969 that always reminded me of a pancake, gazing at the middle school across the lawn. By the time I get there, I thought, I will be able to talk.
The small pool of friends I had consisted only of other children who were also mocked. One was Janie, the bratty cross-eyed girl with 10 siblings, a single mother who lived off Welfare and who I recall always smelling like hotdogs. We battled each other for friend rights when a girl named Simone moved to our stuffy upper-middle class suburb from Switzerland. She could barely speak English and most of the time neither could I. Perfect.
Needless to say I spent a lot of time alone. My bedroom was my lair in which I wrote stories and drew pictures for hours on end. My voice surrogate was paper.
Fifth grade was the worst year. Like young beasts that had become stronger by gnawing on the raw flesh of their kills, these kids were meaner than ever. As time went on I became completely devoid of any real emotion other than a kind of numb despair. On our fifth grade picture day, I literally could not smile. My face displayed awkward crooked lips and lost vacant eyes.
By the time I did get to middle school it was clear that this stutter was here to stay. My mother had been wrong. I did have a much better experience in that kids who didn’t know they were not supposed to be friends with me were there and I found a few for myself. We had parties and sleepovers and I even got to do one on one things with some of them! I put more energy into these new friendships than into my schoolwork.
In eighth grade these kids caught the theatre bug and decided to try out for the play. I had waited so long for friends; I was not about to risk losing them now. I had images of them bonding nightly at rehearsal, getting together to practice their lines, costume fittings and cast parties. Not trying out was not an option. Somehow I landed a part with 51 lines, definitely a fluke. The audition was very brief and I had only to improvise a fight with a boy pretending we were an unhappy married couple. We basically talked at the same time so the high school age director had no idea. I do not know if it was a brave move or an act of self-sabotage, but I was going to do it. By then I had developed other speaking “techniques,” aka “bad habits.” I tricked the words into coming out by panting a few times then biting down on the inside of my cheeks, hard, as if punishing my mouth for not cooperating. Sure it must have looked odd but I tried to pull it off as “creative character acting.” By the end of the play’s two-day run I had a moon full of bloody craters in my mouth. Probably not a long-term solution but in any case, I was proud of myself.
When I began high school I was informed that every sophomore had to take a Speech, Debate or Theatre class. I heard that there was the least amount of speaking in the second semester’s Theatre II, so I took that. The teacher was quite sweet but I swear if he told me to “relax” and “just breathe” one more time, I would slug him. Breathe, you say? Now silly me, why didn’t I think of that? And there was no need for relaxing because I was not nervous. In fact, I was quite outspoken and obnoxious much of the time. That is when I could choose my own words and/or completely opt out of speaking if I knew they would not come out.
Contrary to popular belief, stuttering is not a psychological disorder. That is a myth. It is biological and neurological. The vocal cords literally stick shut and do not let the words come out. The techniques (panting, biting, jaw spasms) are desperate attempts to unlock them. If being nervous were a cause, stutterers would comprise far more than 1% of the population. Stuttering is often accompanied by other neurological issues such as epilepsy, which I also had. Researchers have determined that stuttering is really a disconnect between the speech signals in the brain and the vocal cords, essentially a timing problem. This causes a tightening of the vocal cords making the stutterer feel as though they are being choked. The anxiety produced by this failure to speak is one of the reasons nervousness is associated with it – but it is the result of stuttering, not the cause. A genetic component was discovered in 2010 (a study led by researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders/NIDCD), which I had suspected because my grandfather stuttered. For many children who stutter, if the disorder is caught and treated when the first signs present themselves (age five or so), a lifelong struggle can be prevented. After age 10, chances for permanence are much higher. Far more boys stutter than girls; I was just lucky I guess.
I attended college at a private art school to pursue what I hoped would be a non-verbal career. Trying to make ends meet, in the meantime, was tricky. Jobs requiring little to no skill called for a lot of speaking. I had been fired from a bakery job in high school because, “We’re sorry Sara, the customers just don’t understand you.” The real reason was that I made them uncomfortable.
Waiting tables was a disaster. I’ll be damned if I am going to tell you the specials. “Sorry, no specials! Weird, right?” And the salad dressing list, “uh, um, we have all of them.” I got fired soon after but more so because I tried carrying a tray containing five full plates without knowing how, and all of the food toppled to the floor in front of their eyes mid-lunch rush.
Receptionist jobs were the utter worst because I was trapped at a desk where everyone hears the phone ring and the whole office is within earshot. I worked in the school’s student affairs office answering phones. On a bad stuttering day I would frequently employ the “oops there was no one on the line” technique and simply hang up after a few labored breaths like a reverse crank call. I would then jump up to “file something” or run to the bathroom to avoid the angry callback.
My most recent receptionist experience was at an internship at the US headquarters of Paul & Shark, a high-end clothing company for rich older men who enjoy tacky shirts and yachting. I was put on phones whenever the receptionist called in sick. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were completely clueless or just stupid, or both. I am an expert at word substitution – if there is a hard consonant, I will find a way around it – but there is a limit to that, some words have to be said; the name of the company for instance. The boss missed a message or two but I am sure it didn’t sink the company.
One man called who actually stuttered too. Oh my God! He sounded like me! I loved him instantly. I have only met two stutterers in my life and both times it was a real comfort. The first time I saw a stutterer I gaped at his facial contortions and thought, “Oh my god, I look like THAT?!?” I admit I wanted to try to talk for him but restrained myself as that is just what not to do. It is said to undermine the speaker. When this happens to me the other person’s words are always wrong and I feel defeated and sad. Are they sick of listening? Do I bother to go on?
Modern technology has also been a big help. The glory of the EMAIL! What a marvelous thing. I bow before it in homage. Some claim it is impersonal but to me it is the only way to truly BE personal. The phone has forever been the bane of my existence. I have been hung up on all my life. This list includes a 911 call but that’s another story. Asking to talk to my friend when I was a kid was an enormous problem as was informing them of why I called. Now I somewhat get by as I am often saved by the person on the other line saying things like, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you, your phone is cutting out.” I don’t tell them I am on my landline. I spend far more time texting than talking on the phone. My cell phone is my savior.
There came a time in my life when I finally said “to hell with it” and spoke up anyway. At age 18 I was accepted into a prestigious private art school and I was going to participate come what may. That was a big deal for me, seeing as how in high school I raised my hand one time in history class to answer with the word “Assyrian.” Thank you and good night. But just like that girl who didn’t want to be left out of the play, I didn’t want to be left out of my life. I have learned that this is unusual; the majority of severe stutterers live very reclusive lives. The instinct to not speak at all is a strong one. With each failed attempt at communication comes a subtle but profound sorrow. For me, this sorrow builds and builds, so much so that my mind literally stops coming up with things to say as if protecting me from further pain. Part of me just checks out. The decision to speak regardless of my stutter was not the result of some epiphany or wave of self-love and acceptance. It was the frustration resulting from years and years of muting myself. There was such an enormous backlog of unexpressed ideas, thoughts and emotions that the longer it went on, the more I felt as if I were dying inside. For years I would tell myself that what I had to say probably didn’t matter anyway, that it was no big deal and I didn’t really care but this was simply not true. A lifetime of this became like an ocean with nothing but a small stream dam to hold it back – I couldn’t not speak up, make noise and be heard or I would continue to disappear. And so I did, I finally talked.
The result was sporadic at first. In class, I found that I had to raise my hand lest one of my long pauses cause someone else to jump in and talk. The looks on their faces ran the gamut from confused to uncomfortable to down right annoyed, but they listened, and maybe listened more than they normally would just because I sounded different. Eventually everyone got used to the fact that when I spoke, it was a going to be a bit of a wait. Much of the time the content of what I said overshadowed the trips, starts and stops that it took to get it out.
I still speak up, when I can. I get all types of reactions – some kind, some not – but I have worked hard to not personalize the negative ones. The speaking up itself gets easier but the mechanics of speaking does not. The reward of taking the risk, however, is worth it. It is worth it to be free. Perhaps I would think twice about this if I saw the twisted expressions my lips and jaw must surely morph into when I am struggling, so please keep the mirrors away.
More recently I came to terms with the fact that I cannot hide my stutter. I was always in denial, thinking I was doing a Super Spy Girl expert job of hiding it. I was fooling no one but myself. Most do not realize I stutter but they know that something is up. I no longer care, probably because I have accepted that it is a part of me and that that is okay. I now have better skills to deal with the reactions of those who burst out in laughter or smirk. When asked my name, I typically will pause and struggle. I often get, “What? You forgot your name?! Hahahahahaha!!!” I used to shrug this off. I now reply, “No dear, I have a stutter,” either with or without a piercing glare. This is very important for me to do, however scary it may be, because it builds me up and keeps my integrity intact.
There are times when I refuse to speak. Recently, I have had to give oral presentations for the post-graduate program I am pursuing. Following the first disaster – and I DO mean disaster – I decided I would no longer do it, because I cannot. I have someone else present my work for me. Having had parents who forced me to speak as if practice would make a difference, I got used to the idea of tough love, but the subsequent humiliation that follows just isn’t worth it. One doesn’t expect an amputee to run a marathon. We all have limitations to accept and this is mine. I still get “relax,” “just breathe” and “am I making you nervous?” ALL THE TIME. Nothing infuriates me more. I do believe that on my deathbed I will gasp one more time to say the words: “I…was…NEVER…NERVOUS!!!” I just hope they come out.