Covert and Overt Stuttering

I’m trying to understand this covert and overt thing a little better. Remember that I haven’t talked to anybody about my stuttering (until now, basically) so the terminology and labeling is … well, interesting.

Tony mentioned it on his blog the other day:

I use fluency tricks to hide my stuttering because I want to sound like people who are fluent. Does this mean that I am ashamed of stuttering? Perhaps. That would be a matter between me and my therapist, if I had one. 🙂 Does this mean that I don’t accept my stutter? Not at all. I accept is as much as a person must accept that he has only one leg or one eye. I AM A STUTTERER. See? There, I wrote it. I am not delusional. 😛 I am okay with reality. However, this does not mean that I have to be okay with stuttering. There is a difference, in my opinion.

I think the covert-overt thing is kind of funny at times. Because, what, you’re basically covert until you stutter … then the cat’s out of the bag, right? I mean, sure, the Starbucks barista doesn’t know I stutter (and of course I didn’t get what I wanted because I was afraid of stuttering when I ordered it) but after meeting a new person at work and talking to them off and on for a week, I’m probably going to stutter. Then what? Maybe they’ll just think that I was nervous or couldn’t find the right word and stumbled over it? So they don’t think that I completely stutter? I suppose that’s being covert, sure. Or maybe they’ll realize it and not think anything of it?

So for some people I’m covert, and others I’m overt?

Here’s the definition from the Stuttering Foundation at the Guidelines (An excerpt of Chapter 23 from the book Advice to Those Who Stutter)

There appear to be two main types of stutterers: (1) the covert stutterer who attempts to avoid contacts with feared words and situations that might identify him as a possible stutterer to his listeners and (2) the overt stutterer who struggles laboriously through word after word as he communicates. Which one are you?

Right.

So I guess in my mind, I’m a covert stutterer, and in reality, I’m overt. I think this is part of the iceberg — ok, sure, I stutter, but I don’t want the listener to identify me as someone who stutters. As in, when the conversation is done, and they talk to their friends, they don’t say something like, “oh, you know, Rehan, the guy upstairs who stutters?”

I think lately (past 5 years or so) I’ve been more overt because well, I have things at work I just have to say. And I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to mind the stutter on a few words here and there.

Here’s another older article that touches on it. And this might explain why I didn’t do speech therapy all the way through school.

For MacIntyre, as long as she could replace words, or avoid situations where she knew she would block, she said, she could hide her problem from everyone, including her parents. “I was a walking thesaurus,” she said. When MacIntyre was in grade school, she was already showing signs of stuttering. But when a specialist told her mother to ignore the symptoms, MacIntyre began consciously masking her stutter. Her parents assumed she had simply grown out of it.

I’m curious how other people label themselves and their subsequent behavior. I’m guessing someone who’s overt doesn’t preface every conversation with “look, I stutter, so bear with me.” Or do they?

Maya Angelou’s Stuttering Brother

Maya Angelou passed away yesterday. The Stuttering Foundation brought up an interesting fact about her and her brother regarding how she got her name.

Working as a Calypso dancer at the San Francisco club The Purple Onion, Angelou, performing as Marguerite Johnson or Rita at the time, was told she needed a more theatrical stage name. By combining “Maya,” the name her stuttering brother Bailey had given her when they were children, and a variation of her ex-husband’s last name, she became “Maya Angelou.”

The Foundation then posed the question on their Facebook page about changing our own names. Is this something you would do?

For me? I wouldn’t change my name. But maybe the way it’s pronounced …

My name is Rehan. Growing up in the States, I pronounced it as the ‘re’ in ‘return’ and the ‘han’ as in ‘con.’ As someone who stutters, my name definitely gives me the hardest time. I’ll probably fill a week’s worth of posts on it, but the short version is that it only comes out with enormous effort. Any kind of introduction — in person or on the phone — is the worst.

When I came to Saudi 3.5 years ago for work, I actually changed the way I pronounced my name because the way that I’ve been pronouncing it is not the way a native Arabic speaker pronounces it.

The word Rehan is actually an Arabic word meaning something like a scent or odor. (A good one).

For a native Arabic speaker, the first syllable sounds more like “ray” than “ree.” But it’s not really “ray,” because you’re softly bouncing your tongue off the roof of your mouth. It’s a sound that’s not in the English language. The second syllable also comes more from the throat. Anyway, it’s a totally different pronunciation, and basically a totally different word to me. More importantly it’s a different word to my brain as well. My brain seems hell-bent on stuttering on the usual pronunciation of my name, but in the first year or two of coming to Saudi, it didn’t get as hung up on the new pronunciation.

Things in years 3 and 4 are sort of leveling out, but saying the “Arabic” pronunciation isn’t too rough for whatever reason. Even on the phone. The funny thing is that I use a different pronunciation based on the listener — if they’re a native English speaker, I’ll use the version I’ve grown up with. And stutter. I do this because they are used to those sounds and pronunciation. If it’s someone from Saudi/India/Pakistan, I’ll use the more Arabic pronunciation. Make sense?

Did I change my name to try to hide my stutter? Maybe so. But I’m saying it to some people the way they would say it anyway. And it’s easier for me! And just getting through my name right off the bat builds a huge amount of confidence.

So what is the deal with saying our own names — and why is it so difficult? Here’s on take from an old posting on the Stuttering Forum:

Basically, we can’t substitute our names.

And of course when we do stutter on our names — don’t you know your own name?! — a Reddit thread.

Lastly, I found some very inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou as well:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Well, my stuttering is a long untold story. So now it’s slowly coming out. And it does feel great.

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

I’d say that this nicely summarizes the long term mission of this site.

The Stuttering Iceberg

As a covert stutterer, the first ironic rule about stuttering is that you don’t talk about stuttering. The second is that you don’t ask around about it either.

So that’s where I found myself several years ago as I started to take notes on my stuttering. I wanted to write a book about it since there aren’t that many out there. It turns out that a lot of what I was doing was documenting the iceberg. It seems that everybody in the stuttering world already knows about the iceberg.

From Say.org:

Like an iceberg, the broader challenges and issues are often pushed so deep beneath the surface that they can no longer be seen by others. These added issues can include fear, confusion, denial, anger, shame, guilt, anxiety and other suppressed emotions and feelings.

One of the mantras in business that has really come on strong in the past few years is the idea of communication. That separate business units within a company shouldn’t be in “silos.” They should share best practices, communicate and improve the company as a whole.

Well, what if you don’t like communicating? What if you stutter when you talk? What if that leads you to just put your nose down and get on with it?

What if you don’t know what you don’t know — and there’s no Internet to tell you what you don’t know? I’ve been stuttering for 28 years and this is the first time I heard about the iceberg. Seriously. Nobody every said anything about it to me, and it’s been around for ages. Should I be upset at my therapists or parents for not knowing? I don’t think so. But my point is that today, with the Internet, and with so much capacity for sharing, there’s no longer an excuse for someone who stutters not to know.

Have I searched for stuttering information online before this? No, not really — that’s true, so that’s obviously on me. But at the same time, my friends and loved ones never offered anything up either. And what does that mean? It means they think that I have it together. They think that I’m only the tip of the iceberg. Just because it seems like someone who stutters isn’t terribly bothered by it, doesn’t hurt to have the conversation. There’s very likely a lot more going on than you think.

If that doesn’t make sense to you — why wouldn’t I want to find out more about it if the Internet is available — then well, go back to the top of this post and read the first and second ironic rules again.

Building things up

Getting back to one of the links from Sunday:

Wahl writes:

“Fluency in speech is something most have the luxury of taking for granted. While living with a stutter, you worry about what to order in a restaurant, how to give a presentation, or even how to say “hello” to a friend. Like an architect designing a building, a stutterer carefully crafts each word and sentence. Sometimes the result is a masterpiece, structurally sound with ornate rooms and gleaming windows. Other times it crashes to the ground.”

As someone who stutters, I definitely think a lot about what I want to say before I say it. I obsess over it. I fear it. I think, ok, do I have to introduce myself? Is that really necessary? I’m going to have to say a w-word, right? Something like who, when, where, why, what. How am I going to do that? For example, asking “where is the bathroom?” So simple, yet I’d rather walk all over the place trying to find it on my own. I go through a mock conversation in my head a few times. Ok, I’ll say this, they’ll say that, then I’ll say … no, wait, I need to say something else, I’ll stutter on that word.

Since I live and work in Saudi, most of my work interactions are with non-native English speakers. I want — really want — to keep the sentences and ideas that I say simple and to the point. But then I start avoiding words. I start going off track. I start substituting words while I’m going off track. I can see the listener getting confused. I can see how my point is getting totally muddied up. At these times, when I know I’m in too deep and the misunderstanding will cause more trouble, I go back to the original sentence and stutter it out.

Occasionally I can get away with avoiding a few words and still getting my message across. But that doesn’t work on everybody. One of my colleagues is British, and if I substitute a word or use a phrase that isn’t quite right, he’ll totally call me out on it. He doesn’t call me out on a substitution knowing that I stutter. No, we don’t talk about that — but on the specific meaning of what I said. Then I have to backtrack and explain what I mean — often having to stutter through what I wanted to say anyway.

Powerpoints and Children

I wanted to expand some more on the links that I posted yesterday. We’ll start with this one from Stuttering Student:

(When I say I want to discuss a link further, it may be only somewhat related. If the author mentioned a few points, I may only pick one. Or I may ignore the main point and just expand on something smaller they said.)

He says:

Sometimes my fluency tricks will help, mostly they don’t, however, because one of the biggest fluency tricks I use is word substitution, and you can’t really get away with that when reading from printed text.

I know what I end up doing sometimes when I have to read printed text is gloss over it, maybe mumble a bit, and then try to find some more points that are important. This happens a lot at work during meetings when there’s a Powerpoint. I don’t like reading the slides, and I hate it when people do the same. So when I do my own presentations, I put only a few words and then “fill in the blanks” orally during the meeting. I’ll say something like, “so, then, you see, there, in point 1, you can see it … (pause) … and the second point is also important.” Let them do the reading! Sometimes during conference calls I’ve got to present a safety topic. This has to be e-mailed out before. Whenever I have to do these, I always skim over them during the call (again, they can do the reading! I’ve e-mailed it to you!). But during those readings I almost always stutter. But at least I’m only spending about 30 seconds stammering over 2-3 points than 5 minutes struggling through 20 items. I really try hard to prepare for these — confidence usually helps on the phone for me. Fortunately on the calls they can’t see me, so I can write things down on the paper I’m reading from — like “breathe!” — and other easier-to-say talking points.

In the next sentence Stuttering Student writes:

Other times I will just force myself to read because I think it’s helpful and healthy to face ones fears.

I’m a pretty voracious reader, but until we had kids, none of it was out loud. I never practiced reading in front of a mirror or anything like that.

These days I read out loud almost daily. Sure it’s only The Cat in the Hat and other easy children’s books, but it feels great. I can really control my voice, getting louder and softer, faster or slower. I can breathe. My children love it, and it builds a little confidence for me to use later in the day or the week. It even surprises me how fluent I can be considering not only how much I am thinking about fluency while I read, but the words themselves — d-words, k-words, w-words — those kinds of hard consonants always get me while talking.

Also: You’ll notice on this blog that I was talking about my life until high school and then stopped. Fear not. I shall continue in a few days with the college adventures. There’s probably a week’s worth of posts just talking about the transition to college.

Sunday Link Roundup

Hope everybody had a nice weekend. I had a good time going on a long bike ride which I’ll post on in a little while. Stuttering had a lot do with it … as it does with everything, I guess.

Anyway, one thing that I’d like to start doing is a link roundup. So here’s my first attempt. These are all worthy of a follow-up post (or 3) so those will come over the next few weeks. Some of these are slightly old (more than a week) but great nonetheless.

How People Who Stutter Thrive in Everyday Life

A nice write up by someone who stutters on the Stuttering Foundation’s annual gala.

Wahl writes, “The room we were in had an uplifting, comforting air to it. Everyone was welcoming. Everyone had a passion about the topic of stuttering whether it was conducting research on it, writing about it or simply working with others who stutter.

My heartbeat normally races in social settings but here, my heartbeat slowed. I felt at at peace in their company.”

Definitely looking forward to the NSA’s annual conference — I think it’ll be a similar experience for me.

Teaching Elementary Students

While this blog hasn’t been updated in a while, there’s a recent post regarding teaching children. I’ve got three kids of my own, and I don’t stutter as much when talking or reading to them.

Stuttering Stanley writes, ” Some have asked me how can one be a teacher…with a stutter? For me, it is because I mostly do not stutter when I am speaking in front of others, especially with children in a teaching capacity, and I also stutter much less in professional situations. If you want to know the reason why, I am afraid that I can’t tell you.”

Exactly.

The iceberg analogy of stuttering was recently posted on the Stuttering Foundation’s facebook page. Here is more information about it.

I’ll have more on this because it’s basically what this site is all about — how my own iceberg has formed over the years.

And lastly, the conference schedule is out!

Senior Year

In either junior or senior year, I started going to speech therapy again. This was with the school-provided therapist. She was different than before.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about — I think we probably practiced a bunch of words, said some sentences …

But what I do remember very, very well was that she taught me about needing air to talk. For anybody who doesn’t stutter, this is probably not earth-shattering. But for me, it was quite the revelation.

There are often times when I can’t say anything despite trying and trying. Not even a sound comes out. While this is going on, air is slowly escaping. And I need that air to speak. And the less of it there is, the less chance that I’ll be able to say anything. So what did I learn? She said to imagine a balloon that’s filled with air. Then, instead of just letting go and letting the air fly out, slowly let it come out. Hold the opening at a constant size. This is how to breathe, and this is going to help in speaking.

Does it?

Oh yes. It’s the single best thing I can do for my speaking. But I still stutter. Why? Because it’s hard to remember to breathe! No, seriously. I don’t practice this as much as I should. There are often times I’ll just rush into something, run out of air and then be stuck without a sound. Other times I think to myself — breathe — take a breath, a deep one, clear your thoughts, and slowly let out the words. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. To me talking faster (or wanting to talk faster) can sometimes result in more stuttering because of air flow issues, not the words themselves.

But of course since stuttering is stuttering, speaking slowly doesn’t always help. Even if I have the air, I’ve thought of a word I need to say, and then realize I can’t say it. I feel I can’t say it from a few words off.

Senior year definitely had my confidence peaking though. Not only had I learned about this technique, but my classes were easy, friends were great and college was just a few months off. And since a bunch of my friends were in the performing arts, I eventually gave in to peer pressure. By the end of the year, I was up on stage with my buddy doing “Who’s on First.” Two nights, and I didn’t stutter a bit.

Eleventh Grade

Confidence-wise, things were on an upward trajectory going into 11th grade. We had a different French teacher (now in French 4) but a lot of the class was on reading and writing and not so much on speaking. I can’t remember if it was French 4 or 5, but we had to memorize the French National Anthem and sing it as a quiz. We got more points if we did it in front of the class. Or we could choose to do it one-on-one with the teacher out in the hallway. I don’t think a lot of people were singing in front of the class, and I don’t stutter when I sing anyway.

What fun I did manage to have of course came from English class. Another book report!

Before the holiday break, we were told in English class that we’d have to do an oral book report. These would start right after getting back from the break. And would anybody like to volunteer to go first? My hand shot up. My friends looked at me like I was crazy. Yes, I’d like to go first. The reasoning was simple — get it over with. There would be two dozen people after me, and so if I stuttered and bumbled through it, nobody would remember.

Now then, did we remember what happened freshman year when we didn’t read the book? No? Outstanding. Let’s do that again. My book this time was Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. No idea what motivated this choice. (and no, I haven’t re-read this one either. It’s on my list, I swear). I do remember that I actually read about a quarter of this book. It was enjoyable. But again the procrastination/laziness busted in and messed everything up. And remember, I had an entire 2-week winter break to read this thing. And nothing else to do. We weren’t traveling or hosting anybody. At one point I told my brother about this assignment, and he replied simply, “why don’t you just read the book?” Right.

I got far enough into the book to find a quote about “being and becoming.” I knew this was important. But of course it’s a b-word. I’d have to go up and say “being.” And “becoming.” And well, this was going to be plenty unpleasant.

For the report itself, I got through it. I tried to use the marginal amount of confidence that I had. I stuttered through “being and becoming,” I made eye contact, I let my friends’ faces comfort me. I got it over with. When the grade came back, my teacher had written that it was an “honest” report.

On the one hand I think I did a decent enough job, and maybe that’s why it was honest. On the other, maybe it was because my voice was strained the entire time. Did I physically sound more honest? Was that the deal? Since I wasn’t talking about my stuttering with anybody, I wasn’t about to go into this discussion with my teacher. Move on.

During high school I started paying much more attention to how people spoke. (Especially since I had all these book reports to listen to.) As I sat in the back of English class to listen to my two dozen friends do their reports, I started to notice how much they said “um,” or how they raised their voice at the end of every sentence. I wondered if they were doing the same to me. Or, like my teacher, did they just think I was really nervous?

Tenth Grade

In tenth grade, two major things stand out.

One, I had a bunch of friends who were involved in the performing arts — theatre, choir, band. I had missed the boat on the latter two, but still had a chance to go up on stage and try to get involved in a play or musical. But I remember saying to myself, there’s no way I’m going to do that. There’s an audition, and not only did I not know to prepare for something like that (or, heck, how) but it seemed like everybody who was getting parts had their stuff together way more than me. Besides, the productions that were put on were top-notch — I’d only ruin something like that. I was happy enough to be involved in something like stage crew instead. I could still hang out with my friends, but nobody would have to hear me stutter.

The other thing was, of course, another book report for English class. Couldn’t they just make public speaking a class that I could choose not to take? No? Anyway, I actually read the book this time. It wasn’t a classic though. Something about a plane crash and the subsequent investigation. It was fiction, and it was pretty interesting. One of the main points our teacher stressed was making eye contact while we did our reports. I was feeling pretty good about this report, and I don’t remember stuttering much. What I do remember was jokingly asking everybody during the report if I had made eye contact with them. This brought on the necessarily levity to the situation. I got through it, but our teacher wasn’t really happy about me asking people.

Overall I think tenth grade was pretty easy as far as stuttering. I wasn’t going to speech therapy either. There weren’t any more oral reports, and I had a strong group of friends. My brother, who was a senior at this point, would be heading off to college the next year. He and I were getting closer because I realized I wouldn’t see him as much.

The summer after tenth grade I got my first job working retail. This was non-eventful; I didn’t have to cold-call anybody or talk much at all. Just ring people up at the register.

Confidence was rising nicely, but I still had a long way to go.

Birthday today. Welcome.

Welcome friends and soon-to-be friends and thanks for stopping by.

I didn’t make this site very public until I had a few days’ worth of posts down. I’m terrible at keeping up blogging, so I thought I should try things out myself before falling face flat in front of the world.

Anyway, I should have way more to say on the subject of stuttering since I’ve been doing it now (now, today!) for 28 years.

Poke around a bit and find out something you didn’t know. I’m in the middle of talking about how much fun I had in high school.

If you’re a friend who thought, “yes, I knew you stuttered, but I never thought it was a big deal,” please know that well, even if you do something a half hour a day for 28 years, it becomes a big deal.

The point of this blog is to connect with others who stutter and their friends and family.

Ninth Grade

The transition from junior high to high school wasn’t as bad as from elementary to junior high. For one thing, I was still running around with a good group of friends, and I had a few classes with them. I was watching more Letterman and making my own top ten lists to amuse everybody. Even French wasn’t as bad since the class was smaller, and we had a different teacher. I do remember goofing off a lot in that class though. That would probably explain why my French grammar is lousy.

What I do remember is an oral book report that I had to do. I don’t recall any during junior high school, and I think I would remember that sort of thing since I remember all the reports I gave in four years of high school.

For whatever stupid reason, I chose The Three Musketeers. I probably should have looked at the names of the characters. I mean, seriously, d’Artagnan? I’m supposed to go up in front of people and say this name over and over again without stuttering? Are you kidding? And the other names, Athos, Porthos, Aramis. I could do Porthos probably. I wasn’t smart enough to a.) pick a shorter book and b.) pick a book with fewer characters who have easy-to-say names.

I’m sure we had weeks and weeks to prepare for this book report. And of course I didn’t really even read the book. I didn’t have the Clif’s Notes, either. I think I must have skimmed a few pages here and there and made up the rest. (Remember, this was all pre-Wikipedia). Actually, maybe I used a children’s version as a crutch? (side note: I have not gone back and read the book. I should probably do that.) Maybe I thought that by not reading the book, I wouldn’t have to do the report …I’d like to also point out that since I’d never done an oral book report before, I didn’t really know how to prepare for it.

As to be expected, the oral report was wretched. Not only was I not prepared (thus no confidence) but those damn names kept on having to be uttered. And all this in front of my friends whose opinions of me was a great concern. In reality, of course, they were probably just spacing out, thinking I was nervous, and well, soon it’ll be their turn and they’ve got other things to worry about.

Two more crappy things came of this — one, another person in the class did her report on The Three Musketeers (and, by the strong narrative she presented, it was obvious she had actually read the thing) and two, in eleventh grade I had to also give an oral report that I also didn’t prepare for. Should have learned my lesson.

The same English class also demanded — near the end of the year — to go up in front of the class and recite a few lines from Romeo and Juliet. I did this pretty well, but managed to forget for a few seconds one of the lines. Fortunately a buddy of mine mouthed the words, and I was good to go. It’s an interesting contrast — having to prepare and memorize — versus half-assing a classic and bumbling through it.

Eighth Grade

A few quick things before getting into eighth grade —

I noticed there’s the British Stammering Association’s national conference in August over a weekend. Maybe I should go to that, too? I mean, might as well jump into the deep end, right? It’s in Glasgow. I’d probably only need to take one or two days off.

Speaking of which, please note that I’m in Saudi — so our days off are Friday and Saturday. I’ll try to set something up to post on the “weekend,” but may not always get around to it. As a bonus, you’ll get posts on Sunday, though.

Also, please note that this tour of my past is only of the major points that I recall — I’ll still dip into the mental archives now and again to highlight some issues. For example, I haven’t said anything about being raised as a Muslim — and having to learn to read Arabic.

Alright, onto eighth grade. As I mentioned, my confidence is cyclical, so by my last year in junior high, things were going very well. The boat anchor of having to talk in French was being towed along easily by every other class. I had established a solid core of friends, we enjoyed our classes, and my sense of humor was in full swing. By this time, I was watching Letterman on Friday nights and Friends on Thursday nights. My sarcasm was reaching new heights.

In English class we watched Dead Poets Society. There’s a scene in the movie when one of the characters receives a phone call and tells the headmaster in front of everybody. I thought this was great. That year we had a weekly class, something like, CAP, or Curriculum Activity Period. I can’t remember what it was for, but we thought it was useless, so we called it CRAP, or Curriculum-Related Activity Period. Anyway, inspired by the movie, I brought in a little Liberty Bell (that my brother had got on a field trip) and the headset from a telephone at home. Then, during English, I rang the bell and answered the phone. I told my teacher it was God, and that He thought we should cancel CAP.

Fortunately he had a sense of humor about it. He even showed me the paddle that he kept in his closet. Like most of the teachers, he was old school, so that sort of thing used to go down. My heinie was spared, and my confidence was boosted nicely. The other nice thing about school was that aside from French, there wasn’t any class participation. I could engage on my own terms. I could sit in the back of a class and make sarcastic comments under my breath to my heart’s content.

I don’t remember specifically going to speech therapy after sixth grade (although I did start going again in high school). I don’t remember that I even participated in such a decision. Maybe the teachers or therapists or my parents thought that I was doing fine? My grades were very solid. I didn’t have any behavioral issues.

So once again I had reached a relative peak, and once again, I’d be brought down mightily by a whole new experience. High school was up next.

Seventh Grade

What I noticed when making notes on my stuttering is that on the whole, my confidence is cyclical. I’ll expand more on this later, but in short, it meant that by the time I reached fifth grade, I was feeling very good and confident. Then back to zero in sixth. By eighth, I was good again. Then as a freshman in high school, back to zero. College was the same. As I grow familiar with people and the process, things definitely get easier. The point of this is that although a new job might seem intimidating at first, it’ll eventually smooth out. So I shouldn’t let stuttering get in the way of seeking out new opportunities.

Onto seventh grade.

Keeping in mind that since in sixth there were still two other wings of kids who I never even saw, seventh would mean even more mixing and more new kids. We had three “teams” (instead of the wings), red, white and blue. I was on the blue team. I think at this point the school also starting grouping people by their ability. Seventh grade really ended up being a mid-point of confidence. On the one hand, I was developing my sense of humor, having a fun time, and hanging out with friends who I still talk to today. On the other, there was French class.

Our school offered three languages starting in seventh grade — French, Spanish and German. I have no idea why I chose French. French 1 was actually split across seventh and eighth grade. French 2-5 was then offered in high school for grades 9-12.

A person can probably get away with not participating in math class. Or science class. Or maybe even English class. But not French. You were there to read, write and speak another language. At first I thought this would be cool and fun. Then when I opened the book and saw the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’ are ‘il’ and ‘elle,’ I knew it would be a long, long year.

Not only did our teacher speak in French to us, she expected us to answer in French to her. It turns out that I’m extremely self conscious with regards to speaking another language. (Even to this day — I’m in Saudi and barely speak any Arabic and haven’t learned; I also barely speak any Urdu to strangers even though I know a good bit from having it spoken at the house during my childhood).

To handle this, I simply had to work harder on the reading and writing part at the expense of speaking. I would usually know the answer to whatever was being asked, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to raise my hand and offer up a few French words. If called on, yeah, sure. Looking back what makes me sad about this is that I didn’t have anywhere to turn. I didn’t know. Nobody ever said, ‘hey, look, I know you’re unsure about pronunciation and the words, but don’t worry. Just give it a try. Everybody else is in the same boat.’ Also, ‘nobody expects you to be fluent. Just listen to anybody speak a non-native language for the first time. They’re not conjugating anything right.’ Or at least work in a smaller group after school.

You have to remember that in those days you couldn’t just go online and find a local French-speaking family to practice with. There was no online. (Aside: so let’s say there’s no internet and some French-speaking person puts up a flyer at the library. It’d have a phone number, right? What, so I’m cold-calling people at age 12 to learn a language I don’t even want to speak? Right.)

I’m sad because it turns out that even 17 years after high school, I still remember a good deal of French. I could probably get by if you threw me in the middle of France. I know this because I sucked it up recently and spoke French to a French family here in Saudi. But I still hesitate to speak French with them because I’m so self conscious. And I don’t know why — they’d never laugh at my attempts.

I’m curious if any of the other kids felt as self-conscious or not. Maybe they didn’t care, they just threw out the words? Was I more so because I was someone who stutters?

Sixth Grade

Let’s get on to sixth grade. Just to recap, by fifth grade I was feeling very confident and smart. I had plenty of friends, didn’t understand the magnitude or consequences of my stuttering, and assumed life would continue to be all sunshine and kittens.

Not so much.

Our school district is made up of about a half-dozen elementary schools. These then feed into the junior high school, grades 6-8. They then feed into the high school, 9-12.

Sixth grade was divided into 18 classrooms. These were split into three wings. In each of these three wings, the six classes paired up. So you’d have half your classes with your homeroom teacher, then walk across the hall during the day for other stuff. Some classes were in the other wings as well, but most of your life was in just one wing.

I had a problem with both classrooms. First of all, there was no more coddling. Time to grow up and toughen up. My homeroom teacher was a tough guy named Mr. Shull. He could laugh and have a good time, but he was also very serious. The next thing was that I didn’t really know anybody in my class. This was pretty intimidating.

Every morning we’d all stand up and say the pledge of allegiance. To get this started, everybody took a turn saying “I.” Once the person said it, then the rest of the class would join in. I suppose we could debate the merits of this approach, but hey, this was life, so figure it out. Most of my mornings were consumed with counting kids. I’d see who was saying “I,” and then figure out how many more days I had. What made this more complicated is that we were seated in clusters — two by two desks facing each other, and then a fifth hanging on the end. How the counting got around each cluster always seemed to change.

Anyway, the day finally came. I couldn’t hide from it, and as I stood up and put my hand on my heart, nothing came out. I was trying. I didn’t have any breath to say anything, but I was still trying. I could feel everybody waiting. It felt like minutes even though it was probably only a few seconds. Everything was locked up, and there was nowhere to run. I didn’t know to stop and take a breath. Finally, I eeked out the quietest “I,” and the others in my cluster started in on the pledge. Afterward, Mr. Shull came up to me and asked if I had said “I.” The kid standing next to me in our cluster said yes, he heard it.

Across the hall, we’d have spelling class. This was pretty simple, but it turns out sixth grade was determined to show me the wonders of class participation. For each spelling lesson, a student would say the word, spell the word, and then (I think?) read a sentence. Oh what fun! And every week, a new list!

So we’d start off, and I’d look down the row (no clusters in that room for whatever reason), count the number of kids, and count down the list of words. Then I’d start panicking. It almost didn’t matter what the word was. I’d seriously try to calm myself down, but no, it never worked. Saying a word is one thing, having to utter so many more syllables just to spell it was even worse. And those vowels. And hard consonants. And seriously, we could all read, so what was the point of this again?

Going to the conference

Let me take a break from talking about how much I love talking on the phone …

I have some great news — my vacation was approved for early July which means that yes, I can go to the conference! I signed up for it already and am now just sorting out flights. My parents are still in Pennsylvania, and I’ve got a bunch of friends in and around DC. So it’ll be great to see everybody again as well.

Now for some background on these posts. A peak behind the curtain. They’re not fun to write. At all. I usually start them out with a sentence or two, dig into my brain and … do something else. Then an hour later I get back to it. It’s not a “work process” issue at all. That’s not how I write other things. It’s how I write things I don’t like writing about. But I’m forcing myself to do this even though for most of them reliving the details causes some sweating and angst. What is good is that as I look back, I think, yes, I made it through that, and today, I might not handle it the same way. I have more confidence. I have more patience. I may not breathe right all the time, but at least I know what works and what doesn’t a little better.

The other interesting thing about digging into the past is the difference between what’s available technology-wise. I couldn’t just e-mail people or hit them up on social media when I was in elementary school or high school. (I graduated high school in 1997) I had to call them. I had to talk to them in person. I can hide my stutter a lot more now because on any given day, I can avoid most verbal communication. But I don’t want to do that. What that does allow is for me to handle my stuttering on my own terms. Maybe doing something electronically is just better and faster and will save me the frustration of a stutter. Is that better? Maybe.

I’m excited about going to this conference because I really do have a lot of questions for other people who stutter. Since I’ve kept this stuttering to myself all these years and avoided reading up on it, I’ve lived a silo-like existence. Just been sucking it up on my own. It’s time to end that. How do other people use e-mail and other means to help when they’re feeling frustrated? Are other people challenging themselves in a methodical way to build confidence? And just because you can talk to your secret childhood crush on social media does that mean you’re not intimidated by calling her instead?

Mushrooms and Olives

When I was in my teens, the family would order pizza about once every week or two. I don’t know if my parents wanted to save money or what, but we’d order the pizza, wait about ten minutes, then go pick it up ourselves. We never had it delivered.

Invariably this led to my dad assigning the task to me. I haven’t asked, so I don’t know — but maybe he gave this phone call assignment to me so I could build up some confidence (but we never talked about my stuttering, so …) It didn’t work. It was always something I dreaded. (although I suppose the pizza sort of made up for it.)

So, it’d go down like this. We’d decide that yes, this evening there shall be pizza. Then we’d decide on one of two places. Then whether or not we could find coupons for one of the places. That was always worse because the coupons would allow us to get pizza with toppings and not just plain. Most of the time we’d agree on mushrooms and olives. Mushrooms with that wonderful, drag-it-out-til-next-week ‘m’ sound and olives with an ‘o’ that may or may not come out at all. Fantastic.

First thing I’d do is take the cordless phone and walk into the dining room where my parents or brother couldn’t see me. I hate talking on the phone when others are watching me. I’d stay standing and move to the window and look outside. Maybe this would distract me? Was I far enough away that nobody would hear me?

I’d call them up. They’d always pick up after a ring or two, and this was always a surprise to me. So then my speech would be thrown off. How was I supposed to start this again? Oh, right, with a hello. Then, “I need to order a pizza.” They’d ask my name. What I did early on was try to say my last name which is often as tough to utter as my first. But then I got smarter and just spelled it out. When they’d say it, I’d repeat it a split second later (for some reason this is easy). A little confidence was built up at this point. Unfortunately, it was never enough.

What has always messed me up is having the other person dictate the pace of the conversation. And the feeling that yes, I should also be in a hurry, and I should know this information without hesitation. Whatdoyouneed? “I need two large, one with mushrooms, and one with olives.” Oh, that m on mushrooms. Every time. Then they’d throw in whether it’s green olives or black. What? Black! But then to say that as well. Things would just jam up completely on the b. They’d always ask again. I’d squeak out a reply. During this entire conversation, I’m also trying not to talk too loud, and while I usually don’t wave my arms or anything while talking, I might do it a little when nobody’s watching. Because of the pizzeria’s hurried interrogation, I’m not even thinking about breathing. I’m just dreading the questions. I’m dreading having to say that I have a coupon before they hang up on me. Oh, did I mention they ask for the phone number, too? Don’t they have caller ID? C’mon, people.

Finally, over. Sweating a little. Did I order the right thing? Probably. It’s over. I stay in the dining room for a little while. Finally take a deep breath. Then walk back and announce it’s over. Maybe go to the bathroom. Why am I afraid of my family? They never say anything about it.

After a few minutes, we’d leave to go get the pizza. I’d be sent in to the pizzeria and then have to say my name again to get our order …

You talk to them

Just writing these posts made me think of several tidbits that have a lot of room for exploration. For example, expound more on leaving messages (and how in my current job we don’t even have answering machines) as well as calling people on cell phones. There’s also cold calling people when I’m on my cell phone (since my desk phone only dials local). But, patience, dear reader. We’ll get to all this eventually.

One of the more stressful things that occasionally pops up is having to cold-call someone while there’s a visitor in my office. So not only do I have someone in the office who’s expecting an easy dial-up and let’s-sort-this-out-right-now, but also another party on the phone who is wondering what’s going on.

The natural tactic, of course, is to avoid this as much as possible. Can I maybe e-mail them? Can I get back to you on this later? Maybe we can go see them? Don’t worry, I’ll call them later. Maybe they’re at lunch right now? I think I saw them just go into a meeting. He won’t know, let me think of who to call. Later, later, later.

But that doesn’t always work. What I’m usually hoping happens is that there’s an awkward pause as the phone connects. Then I look at my visitor like, well, you wanted to talk to them, right? So maybe they jump in and start the introduction and ask the question. But sometimes I have to do it myself, and then the stuttering introduction gets underway.

It’s a three-part bit of misery — first, having to say my name, second, having to introduce my visitor, third, having to actually explain why I called. The third is usually lousy because of numbers 1 and 2 — I don’t have time to formulate any kind of coherent question or narrative. So I just babble on, avoiding words and dragging things out. The best approach is to defer the questions to the visitor and interject as needed.

The only good that comes out of it is that after I’ve cold-called someone, subsequent calls aren’t as hard. I wonder if this is because they remember my stutter — they might not recognize a voice, but they’re probably not talking to a lot of people who stutter on a daily basis.

Hey, what’s up

Calling someone I know is the easiest thing ever because I never have to say my name. If I’ve called enough, they actually recognize my voice. This does wonders for the rest of the conversation. I can actually focus on what I want to say instead of how I’m going to say it. Since I’ve been in my current job long enough, I don’t even have to introduce myself on the conference calls anymore either. They know who I am!

In other intimidating phone situations (yesterday’s post) I’m always thinking about the stutter. For calling people who I know, it’s the last thing on my mind.

Our phone system here at work has your name on the caller ID. So if I call any of my own guys, they know it’s me. I usually start the call with saying their name in an overly happy tone which helps ease my voice and relaxes me.

Before moving overseas, I had to pick up the office phone and say the company name followed by my name … or not, sometimes. Many times I could roll out my name without too much issue as long as it blended in with the company’s name. If not, then the caller had to figure out if it’s me. They’d ask — and I’d say yes. No intro necessary! (and from the previous post — this is why having to leave a message on the answering machine was horrible — but if done right, wasn’t too bad because then they’d have to call back).

This is not to say that I don’t still stutter on the phone with friends. Oh, I do. But since I’m way more relaxed and can take my time, I remember to breathe. I remember to think things through and move forward confidently. It’s even easy to call someone I know on the phone when a stranger is in my office.

A slight twist to the situation is calling someone who is more senior than me in the company — but I know them. I’m a little bit intimidated, and may have to introduce myself since we don’t talk often. Those are very often stressful situations. If I have to call them on my cell phone, I’ll actually get up from my desk and stand. I’ll take a few deep breaths before dialing, and try to pay attention to my breathing. Hopefully they have me on their phone and don’t have to ask who it is. But sometimes not.

Conference Calls

When I first got an office a few years ago, I was pretty stoked. Now, finally, I could be annoyed at my speech alone while on the phone instead of wondering what the person in the next cubicle thought. Since the job had more responsibilities, I inevitably had to participate in more conference calls.

This is when I found out something that was really and truly messed up about my speech.

Here’s what I’d do.

I’d dial into the call and have to say my name. Obviously this was painful. But I’d try to dial in a minute early so that I’d be the first person on. That way I was only stuttering in front of the host. Once I got past that, I’d put the phone on mute and wait for others to join. I found that when the phone was on mute, I could say my name easily without stuttering. I then turned off the mute. I could feel the tension and the stutter, and knew I wouldn’t be able to say my name. Mute back on. Easily say my name. Mute off, potential stutter for sure. This was crazy.

The easiest calls were ones where I was just a participant. Then I’d just have to sit and listen and occasionally contribute something that I had prepared and was confident to speak on. The worst are the ones where I’m the host. Then as people join, I have to go through a roll call … and end up stuttering on a few names. What made that even worse was if someone was in the room with me … ugh. Maybe they could just do the roll call? No? Fine.

Another pain with conference calls are going to a meeting room with a bunch of participants and having someone join over the phone. Then they ask to go around the room for introductions. Not only do I have to say my name without stuttering (never happens) but loudly enough so the person on the phone hears it. Then while I’m stuttering out my name, the person on the phone is confused about the delay and possible dropped signal. So of course they ask to repeat. And of course that never turns out well. Because then there’s this awkward silence as I try to regroup and then go through the motions again.

Inevitably I’ll also be on calls where people don’t recognize my voice. So even if I introduce myself at the beginning, they’ll forget. Then when I start talking, they’ll ask who I am. An ambush introduction. These are the worst since everybody sees this as such as easy question — so give me a quick answer. Simply, who are you?

Cold calling strangers

Ah, the phone. How I hate you so. Since I can fill a week of posts just on the phone, I will. And again, these are just the basics — there’s plenty of nuance to this that I’ll get to as the months roll by.

I’d say about 99% of the time I stutter on saying my name, so I know it’s coming. There’s little I can do about it, so instead I slowly freak out.

Today I’ll start with the simplest pain — me, alone in my office, and I need to call someone who I’ve never called before.

Thankfully I’ve gotten to the point where I have an office where I can close the door. So that usually happens first. I suppose I could lock it just so nobody barges in. Then I start thinking — can I just e-mail this person instead? Do I have to call them right now, at this very moment? Can I get one of my guys to call them? If they’ve got a calendar that’s available, I might consider trying to call them when I know they’ll be in a meeting. That way they’ll have to call me, and I don’t really have to introduce myself. Or maybe I’ll call them during lunch. And actually, do I have to say my name at all? Can’t I just ask for something and then maybe at the end we can figure out how to say my name? I mean, really, how long can I put this off for?

Unfortunately, if I’m cold-calling someone, it’s probably urgent. So I suck it up and … the line is ringing. I’m silently hoping they don’t pick up so I don’t have to say anything. I’m definitely not leaving a message. (there’s one thing about leaving a long message and getting cut off, there’s a whole other level of frustration when I’m stuttering out six words and get cut off).

So the phone is ringing, and they pick up. Now, what I should have done (that I always, always, always) forget to do — is maybe write some sort of script and just barrel through it. But no. So since I’m panicking a bit, I introduce myself by way of my company. And maybe I don’t even say my name — just what I want. That way they are at least hooked. If I open with a stutter and my name, they might start talking and asking who this is, and can you repeat yourself and what do you want, and I can’t understand and … and … of course all of those interruptions really throw things off because now instead of just stuttering out my name, I’m in a bigger hurry. So I try to shut down that attempt and answer some questions, but the breathing is by now all messed up, and seriously, are they still asking and interrupting, can’t they just shut up for a second?

Anyway.

I get through it. Somehow. Sweating at my desk, stuck with tunnel vision, not remembering any sort of technique. Ok. Then it’s on to whatever is next — why was I calling again? At this time, I’m pretty defeated. I recognize the trauma, so I finally take a breath. I finally relax my shoulders. I finally think. I called because … they are waiting, but at least it’s my turn, and I start out slowly.

Starting therapy and the rest of elementary school

In third grade, big changes started happening. I remember getting put into the gifted program (or maybe I was before, but now some of us were also in a separate group during regular class time) and my teacher, Mrs. Baker, telling me that while I did have a stutter, it wasn’t as bad as her uncle’s.

Even though I was being singled out for this, I wasn’t being held back by my stutter. I wasn’t letting it get in my way because I actually didn’t know any better. I was still doing very well in school, and scoring near the top of every test and quiz that was given. I knew almost all the answers in class as well.

While I haven’t asked my parents, I’m guessing this is around the time that the school district started talking to them about my stutter. My parents never talked to me about it anyway. Then in either third or fourth grade, I started speech therapy at school. It was what, maybe an hour or 45 minutes per week.

Like Jack before me, I would leave the classroom and see the therapist, a lady whose name I forgot. We’d sit down and chat, she’d make me say some sounds, some words, some sentences. And for the most part, I wouldn’t stutter at all. I was very comfortable. The nice thing was that nobody ever said, ‘hey, you need to fix this otherwise it’ll ruin your life forever.’ No, it was more of a break from classes to go chat with this nice lady, and that was that.

In fourth and fifth grade, I continued the speech therapy. And the gifted program. Thinking back on it, by fifth grade, I was very comfortable and confident. Knew pretty much everybody in the class, and got along well with them. Never got into any trouble. During a music class (while singing — or, you know, trying to sing) I discovered what anybody who stutters knows — that I didn’t stutter while singing. I thought this was pretty interesting albeit not very useful. My life wasn’t about to become a musical, after all.

I don’t remember the stuttering being a huge problem because we weren’t raising our hands and giving long descriptive answers. It was a quick word or number or whatever. Oral book reports or presentations … yeah, didn’t have those either that I recall. So things were going pretty well.

In our school district, the elementary school ended in fifth grade. Then it was time to get dumped into the junior high school (we called it middle school) for grades 6-8. A much bigger pool of kids, and a lot more uncertainty. But I’ll get to that in a little while. Let’s take a break and talk about how awful the telephone is for the next few days.

Starts with an eye

Aside from reading to the kindergartners in first grade that I mentioned yesterday — and really, I don’t even remember the actual act of reading, just that I did it (I still have the book at my parent’s house) — I don’t recall any speaking out loud in first grade.

But in second grade, that’s when I remembered the stuttering started.

A family friend told me a simple story, the crux of which was, “his eyes were so itchy, he scratched them out.” No idea about the story’s other details …

Anyway, as a seven-year-old, I thought this was earth-shattering stuff, and so, when it was time for open sharing or book time or whatever (I remember we were all sitting on a carpet together) I raised my hands and told his random bit of information for everybody’s benefit. And I stuttered on the word “eye.”

For the rest of second grade, I don’t remember any other “public” speaking. What I do remember is one of the kids, Jack, going to “speech.” The teacher would tell him once a week that it was time for “speech,” and off he’d go. Years later I realized what was up — Jack had a lisp.

My entire elementary school life (and the rest of it, for that matter) was devoid of bullying. Nobody ever said anything negative about the way I spoke. I think the reason for this was because I was somewhat smart, and usually knew the answer to whatever was going on. And I wasn’t afraid to offer up help if anybody asked.

It wasn’t until third grade that I started seeing the school-provided therapist (I think) and I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Karma

I think this week I’ll go back through some quick elementary school stories of stuttering. There’s not as much to say about these since those days are pretty vague. Also, it’s important to date this — times before the Internet and easy information. So it’s something like 1985-6 for first grade …

When I was a teenager and stuttering all the time, I wondered a lot what was causing this. I thought it might be something physical — maybe landing on my back or front all those times playing football in the backyard with my brother. Then, since we were being brought up to believe in God, maybe it was something bad I had done a long time ago that I was being punished for? What exactly could that be?

Ah, that’s right. First grade. During first grade, all of the students had the opportunity to read a story book to the kindergarten class. All you had to do was sign your name up on a list, and then you’d be the person for that week. Well, not being on top of things, of course I forgot about signing up. And the end of the year was coming. If I added my name to the bottom of the list now, I wouldn’t have the chance to read to them. But I really, really wanted to read to those kindergartners! (No idea why). So I simply went up to the list, erased someone else’s name, and put mine on there. (yes, I’m a terrible person) Done! And a few weeks later, I was reading to the little kiddies. I don’t remember stuttering at all in first grade, by the way.

Clearly that must have been the cause of the stuttering! Not only were you devious about signing up, but it was a verbal activity! And now your oral prowess would be compromised for life.

Obviously that wasn’t it, but this is the kind of thing that runs through your young mind when you have nowhere to turn.

What I do

I’m sure I can stress out about going to that conference over the next few weeks.

For now, let me explain the work situation. In general terms, I work for a multi-national engineering company. I’ve been with them for nearly 10 years, and they’ve treated me very well. I’ve had to move a lot (this is the fourth “office” I’ve been in) but the changes every few years keep things interesting. I’m not sure how keen I am on moving again, but that’s for another day.

Anyway, I’ve got eight guys who report directly to me. They do the design work for engineering projects, and I coordinate everything and check to make sure the work is getting done the right way. I should mention we’re a consulting company, and we’re on site with our client. So I face the client and report on whatever problems or issues we might be having.

With regards to stuttering, there’s plenty of it by me here at work. I’m on the phone now and again, and more often than not in meetings.

If I’m on the phone with one of my guys (they’re across the building and down three floors) I usually don’t have many issues. I find I can take my time, and can figure out a solution pretty quickly to whatever the issue is. Since I know it’ll work, the confidence carries my voice and there’s little stuttering. There is the occasional disconnect when I have to explain something in a few different ways — none of my guys are native English speakers.

I haven’t been formally trained in managing people but have gotten the experience through having the job and having to figure it out. What I’ve learned, at the core, is that not only do different people need to be communicated to in different ways, but it’s essential to make sure they have the exact same understanding you do when the call ends. This is often the issue.

If I still feel that the point isn’t getting across on the phone, then I hoof it over to them and we hash it out.

The meetings can sometimes be rough, though. I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

I should mention here that now, in the early days of this blog, I’m just looking to scratch the surface of my stuttering and what it means to me. The ultimate goal is to dive a lot deeper on every issue. For example, there’s a lot more to talking on the phone than what I’ve written above, and there are so many variables that I haven’t talked about (yet).

Overthinking this

Some more on the mentality I talked about yesterday. My brain actually uses a multi-pronged attack to create doubt and fear.

I was also thinking — what if I go to this Stuttering Conference and don’t stutter there? It’s entirely conceivable! I could mumble through an introduction or two, avoid making eye contact, eat alone, avoid the after-hours gatherings …

Ok, first of all, you’re there to listen and to talk and meet people. Even if you shut your yap for five days, you’d still hear people talk about stuttering which is pretty valuable. Especially since you’ve really never heard or read anybody else’s story on it.

Secondly, you’re going to pay and then travel [almost a whole day] to avoid words and be a wallflower? Then why start this blog? Why make this public?

Lastly, that approach might work for a work conference, but not for this. You can be yourself! How great is that? If you want to just go up to someone and talk to them, you can! No need to hold back because you’re afraid of stuttering out your name. Remember those work conferences when you thought, ‘hey, I should go talk to them,’ and didn’t? Well this is the exact opposite of that.

I think what’s really at work here is that this would be my first conference, and I really have no experience or idea of how to meet people randomly and whatnot. I mean, I do, and I’m just afraid to.

Ugh. I’m way overthinking this. As usual. Every time a speaking-heavy engagement comes up, I do this.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: