Curious about Stuttering

Am I curious because I was just born that way, or did stuttering have something to do with it?

A close friend recently pointed out to me that I am very curious and take great interest in things I don’t know much about as they are explained or shown to me. And that it’s a genuine interest. Yes, it certainly is.

I think back to when I was young, getting absorbed in books for hours and hours. And not just fiction (we’d be given 1″ thick books with all the year’s stories in them, and I’d eat through it in a week). I’d go to the library and check out books on airplanes (Time Life Series!) and read them again and again.

Given the stuttering, I think it’s to be expected, really. It’s a choice — read, or have to … talk with people. I’ll choose the former every time, thank you very much.

But as I grew older, the approach changed. I didn’t have to rely on reading. I learned that I could ask open-ended questions and just let people talk, occasionally prodding them with another query. And if the tables were turned, I could give short to medium answers which always seemed satisfactory. Even if the listener wanted an essay out of me, I’d avoid it all costs. So now it’s become the norm, and something I actually enjoy — conversations are maybe not 50/50, but I do enjoy prodding and poking and finding out more. And I’m getting better at asking all of my questions — not just the ones I can say fluently.

Stuttering and Politics 2

I spoke yesterday about introspection after the election. Trying to see the world from someone else’s eyes and understand that I can’t just shove my views down another’s throat. I have to stop and listen and really digest. And you’d think that would come naturally to me as someone who stutters. I’m not often judged by my speaking, but when I am, I obviously hate it, and I wish others would sit in my shoes for ten minutes and understand my journey.

Today I want to expand on politics and my stuttering. Asking myself, ok, so if you want a particular candidate to win, what are you willing to do? And the answer is, other than speaking to my like-minded friends and family, not much. And yes, I know that’s sad and pathetic.But again, stuttering.

To me, my view of helping a candidate revolves around calling people on the phone or knocking on doors. Talking to people. I understand that campaigning is much, much more than that. There are jobs that don’t involve speaking. But for a long time that’s how I saw it, and that’s burned in. Talking to strangers is potentially confrontational and scary. I’ll stutter — and then I start thinking — ok, the stuttering is fine with me (now in life) but wouldn’t that reflect on my message and my candidate? Hopefully not. 

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing over the next few years, politics-wise. And I also have to ask myself, maybe I’m just not the kind of person to do that, period? Maybe I’m content sitting on the sidelines like so many others. 

I can see how an impassioned voter would be angry at me. I get that. But being angry at me and leaving me doesn’t do anybody any good. I think too often we do that. We need to dig in and find out what the “block” might be. Fluent people can be anti-social, too! And surely there are those who stutter who are saying screw it and cold calling households.

Stuttering and fitting in

So yes, the International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference is over, having ended on October 22. But I’ll still post about it if I want to! Today’s post is More Than Just Stuttering Pride by Elizabeth Wislar.

She talks about speech therapy in school:

…I definitely received a message that my stutter was bad and something that should be fixed. I felt like a constant failure because I could not seem to apply the techniques I learned in the outside world.

Thinking back on my own experience with therapy in school, I realize now how much everything was also at odds with each other. And how much “fitting in” was important:

1. My class participation was crap because I didn’t want to raise my hand and stutter, but my friends all laughed when I made jokes on the side fluently.

2. My class participation grades were good despite occasionally stuttering when having to give an answer.

3. My speech outside of school was still stutter-ific despite going to therapy. I didn’t understand that therapy was just that — therapy — and not meant to be a permanent fix. So I thought that with enough therapy it would just go away.

Elizabeth speaks about going to the NSA conference and getting hoarse there from speaking so much. I do the same. Nobody judges! Nobody’s in a hurry! They want to listen to what I have to say. It really is liberating.

And better yet, she speaks about how stuttering is something that goes against the grain of what is normal — so let’s be disruptive and make people uncomfortable.

I want to allow blocks to go on longer than I have to if I see the person I’m talking to looks annoyed or put out. Or better yet, I want to let blocks or repetitions go on longer because I find them enjoyable. Isn’t true subversion finding power and pleasure in the things society finds defective? Let’s do it.

This is who we are, and this is how we speak. I need to be better about this, I think. Just letting some blocks or repetitions go on for a little longer. Make it obvious. Do it often enough to become even more comfortable with the sound of my stuttering voice.

Stuttering and Resilience

If you didn’t already know, those of us who stutter are a rather resilient lot. We have to be. We have to get up every morning and know perfectly well that we haven’t been cured magically overnight. Nor will we ever. We have to pick up the phone again and again, cold calls, strangers, onlookers and prompts for voicemails be damned. And we have to interview for jobs again and again and again and again. And before we interview in person, it’s always a phone call.

So yes, we know very well about bouncing back.

So this is an article about learning to become resilient.

This sums up a lot of what we all know:

Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?

The article also gets into stresses — the size and duration. Some are affected by a single large event. Others — like us — get the small, repeated kind. (And yes, I know it may not be very small …)

They go on to talk about what we should really take to heart — we are in control, and it’s our reactions that will shape our outlook and stance on life. I’ve always felt an internal locus of control. I don’t blame anybody else for my mistakes or station in life. I’m calling the shots, and thus, I’m living with the consequences. If there are others who are speaking negatively about me or trying to hurt me, then I either just cut them out of my life or ignore them.

Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements.

They then talk about perception:

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow?

More stuttering goodness here. Ok, yes, I had that oral presentation in front of my class, and I stuttered through the whole thing. But will I take that singular event (and be able to remember it 20 years later) or ask myself, ok, for the next presentation, what can I do better to prepare? Did I do everything I could have this time? Rehearse it with myself in the mirror? In front of peers? Did I practice the breathing and other techniques that I went over with my therapist? Did I relax my shoulders and focus on my best friend sitting three rows back, or the salty looking kid in the front row who I don’t like?

I was definitely not good at this growing up because I didn’t have a lot of tools to use for stuttering. I just sucked it up and kept pushing on. Hence my ability to recall a lot of specific events from the past (just read through this blog. No, really, there’s stuff from elementary school in here.)

And this is consistent with the article later on:

Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened.

So resilience can go both ways — we can build it up or tear it down. It’s our choice with how we react. And with stuttering, we face that choice every time we dare to open our mouth. And every time we don’t, too.

Stuttering and reading

Well, of course the day after I talk about reading simple children’s books, my daughter comes to me with … a real book. It’s some book about a princess, but that’s not important. It doesn’t have any pictures, is well over a hundred pages, and it definitely taking me back to “Bump” in school.

(Did you have Bump? Oh, it’s a special kind of hell for someone who stutters. Basically one person in your class starts reading part of a story out loud that you’re all following along silently to. Then they say, “bump, Rehan.” And Rehan has to pick up reading (OUT LOUD — did I mention that part?) until he’s had enough and says, “bump, Rebecca.”)

Anyway. she asked me to read this book to her. I’m not entirely sure she “gets” the book, but maybe it’s just nice for her to hear me tell a story. About a princess. And it gives  me a chance to practice my reading, tones, pacing, breathing, and accents as applicable. When I first started reading, I was stumbling a bit. And thought, oh no, here we go. We’ve graduated to non-picture books, and I’m screwed now.

But it’s getting better, and I’m trying to really practice speaking out loud. I do stutter very, very slightly on some words. The ones that start with “w” or “l” I tend to drag out slightly longer which of course irritates the crap out of me. But she doesn’t care or notice, and on we go.

When I was very young, I remember reading books to myself and getting completely lost in them. I’d cast the characters, paint a scene in my head, and off they’d go. I’d read for hours on end, this movie going on in my head the whole time.

Well, I’m doing that again, it seems. While reading out loud, I find myself getting lost again in the story, really picturing what’s going on, how people are talking, interacting, moving.And honestly I think it’s helping with the reading and not stuttering as much. I’m not thinking about the words, I’m thinking about the story and characters. Sure, I see the words I know I’ll stutter on, but they don’t feel like as big of a deal. And again, of course, the audience helps. It’s just my five-year-old daughter (and sometimes the other kids if they’re wandering around).

Action for Stammering Children Day 4

I’ve been commenting on tweets from the Action for Stammering Children. You can read my thoughts on Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Today’s post is  “Building your child’s confidence by focusing on what he is doing well and praising them, can make them feel more relaxed about their stammer.”

I was very fortunate that my parents never bothered me about my stutter. They never told me to slow down or whatever. They were supportive with regards to me going to speech therapy in school. They also did encourage me academically and when I was involved in extracurricular activities. I think that all helped a lot.

I think that stuttering during school and then going home to pressing expectations would have really crushed me and caused me to completely shut down socially. As it stood, I enjoyed school and became more and more comfortable talking to my friends as the years went on.

I can see how my parents even asking a question here and there would really make me dwell on my stuttering for days and days. I had enough of that when I had book reports and whatever other presentations in school.

All that being said, I do think it’s important that if your child stutters, to get involved more in what they’re doing at school. That way you know when certain things are coming up (presentations!) and can help them — and encourage them — to rehearse. Even if it’s not in front of you, point them toward their best friends for an audience.

It’s also important to focus on the positives as the quote says. We all have our bad days, and once we start thinking about what we stuttered on, we get to, well, I’ll always stutter on that. Which leads to, if I can’t even talk in front of my class this year, how will I do it next year? And the self-doubt mounts quickly and spirals out of control.

We absolutely need someone there to put it all in perspective — a parent to say, what else will you be doing in that class? What else have you done? Is there a report that’s also part of the grade (in addition to the presentation?) Are there more oral reports coming up this year? Did you get feedback from your teacher already, or maybe you’re just being harder on yourself (as we usually are) than you should be?

I think as parents we must also come to grips with the fact that our children may not always want to confide in us. And that’s ok. So it’s also important to keep an eye on your kid’s circle of friends. Who are they spending the most time with? Can they confide in them? Can you talk to that friend about your child’s stuttering? Is that friend strong enough to stand with your child if someone laughs at their stutter?

Action for Stammering Children Day 2

This week I’m going to go through several tweets from the Action for Stammering Children. Here’s yesterday‘s post. These have all been done by children, teenagers and therapists. They all sum up the stuttering experience very well, and I thought I’d add a bit more to them regarding my own experience.

Today’s post is, “Certain situations make us stammer more. Many of us find being put on the spot or under pressure the hardest.” This is meant for teachers by pupils.

I know when I was in school I certainly hated getting called on randomly. I mean, yes, I had the answer, but having to articulate it was pretty stressful. And everybody who stutters has been through The List.

What’s The List? Oh you know. For me it was a spelling lesson. There’s a new chapter for spelling, a list of words, and we’ll go around the room, and everybody will say the word, spell the word, read the definition and/or use it in a sentence.

So let’s see … I’m … 15th … go down the words … yeah, I can’t say that.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I think my French teacher in high school figured out that my stutter bothered me and that I hated having to speak. So imagine this — we had a language lab. You put on headphones and you and everybody else are all on the same “channel.”So the teacher could make us listen to a recording (en Francais!) and then she’d ask us about it. So everybody could hear you answer (en Francais!). So it was the hell of having to speak up in class but with the added hell of basically being on the phone. Fun!

Anyway, the point is that my French teacher was nice enough to click over to me, ask me something for just a second, and then go onto the next person. So grateful.

I know that for most presentations or book reports or whatever I was a total wreck. But I think that was a function of being a young person — waiting until the last minute, throwing something together, not rehearsing, and totally lacking confidence.

So what would I tell my younger self? Well for book reports and presentations that are a few weeks out, prepare and rehearse. Get more comfortable. You’re going to stutter, but the more you know, the more confident you’ll be, and the more comfortable you’ll be with delivery.

And what would I tell my younger self about getting put on the spot? About being asked to read something outloud suddenly? About having to go up to the chalkboard, do a math problem and then talk through the solution?

Well, start with a deep breath. Then take another. Then focus on delivering your answer at your own pace. Just because your friend before you rattled off an answer quickly doesn’t mean you have to. Remember — slow is your friend — your friends want you to take your time — it’ll make class end earlier! But seriously, I do still deal with this in my working life. I’m put on the spot by a senior manager or VP — asking me specifics about a project. Deep breath, some consideration, slow delivery. And in the working world, it’s ok to say you don’t know (when you genuinely don’t know — not when you’re just avoiding) and say you’ll find the information and get back to them.

The stuttering bothered me because I was comparing myself to my fluent friends constantly. But how do they sound when they’re put on the spot? Unsure? Uncertain? Searching for words? Nobody is perfect in those situations time and time again.

And what would I want to tell my teachers if I could go back?

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t want them to back off on oral presentations or anything. Not at all. That’s not how real life is going to be. But I’d prefer them to challenge me more on it. Ask me — Did you prepare early? Did you rehearse? Did you get a bunch of friends together and do the presentation in front of them?

For stuff on the spot, I’d ask simply that they be patient and maintain eye contact. To control the tone and make sure I’m not feeling rushed. For something like spontaneous group work — where you assign a leader — ask the group to assign one. So if I’m feeling good that day, I can take it. Otherwise I can still contribute meaningfully without the stress of having to present the bulk of the work.

I think also to recognize when I’m having a bad day (speaking-wise) and you’ve called on me. Look, I got up and did the math problem in front of the class. I showed all my work. I wrote it all out in a way that anybody could follow along. When I go in on explaining the first step and can barely say “x,” I’d certainly appreciate lightening up on follow-up questions.

To read more about my experiences in school, you can click here for elementary school, here for junior high, and here for high school.

Thank you, Dave

Obviously the big news last week was Dave Letterman’s last show and retirement.

These days I don’t watch Dave at all. In fact, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen a show. But when he first moved to CBS, I was still in junior high school, and I used to tune in every Friday night.

At around the same time, Friends had also just come out. Between Dave and Chandler, my sense of humor grew. More sarcasm, more outlandish statements, and naturally more confidence.

With regards to stuttering, having the sense of humor and the confidence helped a lot. I had a small group of friends who also watched the same shows and had similar interests and senses of humor.

Through Dave’s influence, I also started writing on my own a lot more. I would write Top Ten lists — lots of them. Some generic, some personal, some for friends, and share them whenever I could. It was a nice outlet to get some attention from friends without having to stand up and speak.

As for seeing Dave in person, that dream came true during my freshman year of college. Two guys from the student newspaper and I (I was the photographer) got tickets and stood in the standby line. For whatever reason, I was ahead of them, and the people from the show came out and asked who was next — I was! So I ran inside. I had the last seat in the far corner of the theatre. I was thrilled.

Junior year of high school, and I was still watching Dave on Friday nights. He had a segment with some “Big Ass” products, I think. In school I volunteered in homeroom to read the morning announcements. Usually the teacher did this, and he didn’t mind if I did it once in a while. So I’d set up little props as well — saying the morning’s announcements were sponsored by “The Big Ass Dictionary.” That all went pretty well until I said our homeroom teacher was organizing a coup.

During college my Dave watching (and general television watching, for that matter) faded. I still made the Thanksgiving shows though — since I was at home for those.

But I’ll always be grateful for Dave and his comedy — his sense of humor came into my life at the perfect time.

Stuttering Mentor

As I think back about my stuttering growing up, I think it would have been helpful to have a mentor to navigate stuttering. Someone who actually stuttered and managed to still move through life confidently.

I think someone who could have explained the iceberg to me as well as challenged me to get out and speak more.

Most “discussions” I had about stuttering were with myself — like, I knew that there were groups out there meeting, but I simply talked myself out of it.

I think what held me back about reaching out for help was that if I did that, then I’d admit that I had a problem. And if I’m having to reach out, it must be a pretty big problem. I suppose I equated it to seeing the doctor. Of course now I know that’s not true. We should reach out for help in all facets of our life — work, play and home.

An older mentor would also have known about the NSA Conference and other groups like Toastmasters. He or she would explain the reality of things like college (you only need a small solid core of friends), looking for a job (how to network), and the corporate world (it’s not necessarily as speaking-intensive as some people make it out to be.)

I think if you’re the parent of someone who stutters, finding a mentor is pretty important. And how would you go about it? I’d think that either through your therapist or through your support group. A monthly support group is nice, but you still have to feel comfortable stuttering the other 29 days.

For me, I’d feel comfortable being that mentor to someone. I imagine it’d happen after I move back to the States.

Stuttering at the Races Part 2

The second part of my “stuttering awareness” at the Bahrain GP this past weekend has to do with photography. When I was growing up, I’d get F1 magazine and spend hours going through its pages, particularly the photos in the front by Darren Heath. They’d include all the exposure information. And they weren’t just shots of cars — they were art. Early morning, late evening shots, practice, during races, the whole bit.

I was getting into photography in college, and I thought that sports photography was something that I could do. I could eventually take those kinds of photos!

But like the engineering for a team, it didn’t come to pass. The stuttering really held back any networking or asking or trying to intern someplace. Or even asking professionals who were at the college sporting events that I did shoot at. I thought I knew what I was doing, so why ask them? But just tagging along for a baseball game or whatever else would have been invaluable.

The thing about stuttering — and being covert — is that it really confines you to your tiny slice of life. You’re afraid to venture out, to ask around, to take big risks. You’ll have to talk and expose yourself! So the regrets are even bigger.

At the race I saw some of the professionals toting around their giant lenses. While I don’t have one myself, I have been able to get a decent camera and lens thanks to the job here. So I got a few decent shots off. But nothing even close to being Darren Heath-esque.

Like I said yesterday, it’s always tricky about reflecting and wondering what could have been. Those photographers also travel a good bit and put in very long hours. How long could I really have done that?

Now, the thing about this post and yesterday’s isn’t to say “woe is me, I stuttered, and my life turned out terribly.” Not at all. My life has turned out fine. I’m able to do a lot of the things that I want. The point is for the younger people out there who stutter. You should recognize how stuttering is subconsciously holding you back from exploring your dreams. Not necessarily pursuing, but hey, at least ask about it and try it out a little to see if you like.

Otherwise you’ll be sitting on the other side in 20 years wondering what if.

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