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 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.

Fluent now, fluent later …?

One of the few things that I’ve been fluent on consistently is reading children’s books to my kids. But I’ve noticed that whereas before I could rip through say, 10 stories without a single stutter or stumble, now it’s once or twice per 10. I don’t know if I’m being too hard on myself (I think I am) or if something is getting to me and letting the stutter creep in.

My daughter mentioned to me the other day that in her school the parents sometimes come in and read to the kids. Could I come in and do this? Well, I have been busy, but it is something I want to try.

I’ve noticed that when reading the kids books I see words ahead … that I think, ok, that’s a word I’ve stuttered on a lot before. And the word comes, and I just say it. Without stuttering. This happens again and again and again. (The prescanning of course being a natural course of action for those of us who stutter so we can get ourselves all worked up.)

I’m fascinated by this. On the one hand, I’m happy to see a word, worry about a word, and then say it without any problems. On the other, I think that maybe it’s the audience. I’ve read to my kids thousands of times, and some books I’ve almost memorized. How would I actually do if I had to read in front of a bunch of 5-year-olds? And the teachers? And any other visiting parents?

Well, only one way to find out.

Critical Stuttering Mass

Growing up, I knew one other person who stuttered. And I didn’t feel comfortable talking to him about stuttering. He wasn’t as covert (as I tried to be). After that, I indirectly met one other much older person (once, for a few minutes) who stuttered. This all changed last year when I went to my first NSA Conference.

But as far as becoming more accepting of my stutter and reaching out to people, it didn’t happen until very recently. I’ve been trying to think of why. I see some people on Facebook who are very young and reaching out, and others who are much older and reaching out for the first time, surprised and overjoyed at the community’s response.

I think there’s a sort of “critical mass” effect that’s going on. When you’re covert, you deny stuttering at every level. It’s my problem. It’s my daily hell. It’s my limitation. It’s my challenge to overcome. I can do this on my own, and I don’t want to reach out to anybody. If I reach out, it’s admitting that it’s holding me back. It’s not! (Even though it is, mentally and maybe socially).

I think thanks to social media (and the King’s Speech, I suppose) it’s more out there. You can search online for a group, or if you insist on being covert, someone will pass something along to you eventually. If you start listening to enough small bits of information from various sources, it’ll eventually reach that critical mass. You’ll start to see that other people stutter. They make videos about it (even if you never watch them). They record podcasts (even if you never listen to them) and they write (even if you only skim a post here and there).

It took me a long time to reach a point where I could put even a few words out on this blog. But signing up for the NSA conference gave me something to be accountable to. And once I was there, the rest of the critical mass was formed — everything about stuttering was normal. If you think you’re alone stuttering, go to the conference and start talking to one person — you’ll exchange the exact same stuttering stories, and you’ll be laughing together for a long time.

I don’t know if I could have kept up with this blog if I hadn’t gone to the conference last year. It wouldn’t have lasted. I would have probably gone back into my shell, content to continue practicing my covert behaviors, and wondering what could have been if I had kept writing.

For people who are considering making the transition from covert to overt, know that there are a lot of people out there to support you. Facebook groups may only have a few thousand people in them, but I assure you there are many more lurking. For me life has gotten better now that I’m not dreading every single social or work interaction. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely improving.

What I’m Stuttering on Lately

I had a chance last week to travel around the Kingdom a bit. I took my 8-year-old son.

When we got out of the airport in Medina, I needed to get us a taxi to the hotel. I knew what I wanted to pay, and the first cabbie quoted me a price that was way too high. I waved him off. I strode out to another few taxis and asked their price. Too high again. I said no. I started to walk off. He lowered. I said no again. We eventually agreed on a price (that was still too high, but whatever). I was just happy that I bargained a little bit and saved $13. I hate bargaining, and I’m usually the kind of person who just settles for whatever someone says. But I was feeling a lot more confident, and I had options, and I wanted to show my son how things are done.

I was staying with family at the hotel, so I didn’t have to check in. And when my son got hungry (and he’s particular about his food) family ordered room service, not me.

I stuttered off and on with my family members who I hadn’t seen in a while. Streaks of fluency punctuated by long agonizing moments of silence or a consonant being dragged out. I had a lot of catching up to do, and most of the stories I hadn’t told anybody else. So I was feeling my way around their adjectives, trying not to avoid.

I suppose I should mention the “standard” stuttering at the Starbucks at the Riyadh airport as well as on “diet coke” in the airplane. Some things I can always count on. But I didn’t go uncaffeinated!

Again with my son, and again with ordering food — we were at the food court, and he wanted a chicken sandwich at Burger King. I was tasked with getting some Pizza Hut. I didn’t want to (try) to say “crispy chicken.” So I told my son, look, here’s the money, order what you want (cleared it with me first) and I’m going to go order the pizza so we can get back to the room faster. We ended up doing that twice.

Yes, I avoided. But see, it’s complicated, right? I mean, he’s 8, and he’s gotta learn this stuff. How to order what he wants, how to deal with some money, and how to stand in line and collect the same food with a receipt. Right? Right? Lessons on growing up disguised as avoidance techniques. I guess covert behavior can be enabled by children.

Flying back home, I got into a conversation with a stranger while standing idly at a phone charging stand. He just began asking things, where we were going, where we were from. And it wasn’t too bad talking. Just an easy, slow-paced conversation without too much stress. And it annoyed me only because it made me wonder how many other casual conversations (you never know who you’re going to meet!) I’ve avoided because of stuttering.

Asking, Telling and Stuttering

I have a feeling that this could be a much longer post if I could sit down and talk to a bunch of people who stutter and ask them about their childhood and how they are getting on with parenthood … I’ll add it to the list for the future.

As a child, I was pretty curious. But I don’t remember asking a lot of questions thanks to the stuttering. Especially in school if something didn’t make sense, I’d just keep on reading the book or doing the homework problems until I got it. I might ask a friend. But I wasn’t about to ask the teacher.

The same thing was for my life at home. It was a lot of observation and figuring things out for myself. My dad is the person who has all the answers, but I just wasn’t the kind of person who’d ask.

Well, now I’m a father, and I find myself forever telling things to my kids. I explain this, I define that. I draw pictures for them, we look stuff up online. Sometimes I stutter, sometimes I don’t. But it doesn’t get in the way. The numerous explanations beget questions …and more questions. And that’s good — I want my kids to be curious.

The point is that those of us who stutter probably don’t ask a lot of questions. So we might be inclined to think that our children can also “figure it out” the same way we did (assuming they’re fluent). This may be true, but why assume that? We have an opportunity not only to connect with our children, but to practice our speech (and understanding of the world) on someone who won’t judge at all. Let’s take advantage of it.

Days without Stuttering

Many years ago, after learning how to drive, I learned something else: that you have to pump and pay for gas. It’s simple, yes, but of course it’s an additional interaction that I had to deal with. More stuttering.

In those days (Let’s say the late 90s when I was leaving high school and getting into college) you’d pull up to the pump, get out, pick the gas you wanted, pump it, hang the pump back up, and then walk inside to pay. All the pumps had numbers, so you simply told them what number pump you were on.

Tell them. Numbers. Easy words. Not many words. Just one, really. Maybe a hello first.

I hated this. Some of the numbers were easier to say, sure, but you never knew how many other cars were going to be there. And you never knew how many other people would be standing in line inside, waiting to pay for sodas and Twinkies. And of course it was like, why would you hesitate on this answer? They’d ask, you’d say. How can you not know? The number is right there — it’s huge. And if there was a line, you’d feel the pressure of that as well.

Miraculously, a few years later, most of the pumps started to change. They took credit cards. I had a credit card. You swipe, pump, and go. No talking. No pointing helplessly. No anxiety. Swipe, pump, go. Swipe, pump, go. Everything should be this easy!

Over the past few years a lot of things have become this easy …

So over the next few days I wanted to write out a thought experiment of sorts — morning, noon and night as someone who stutters but has decided to not talk to anybody for anything. What would that look like?

I think it’s important to consider technology in our lives and what it can do to help those of us who stutter. If I have 30 activities in a day, I can choose a path where I don’t talk to anybody for all of them. The next day, I can challenge myself. I can talk on one of them. Then the next day, two, and three, and so on. I can slowly build confidence on my own terms.

Another way of putting this is to show people (those who don’t stutter) just how easy it can be to be a covert stutterer. (Note — I’m not talking about the emotional stuff — just the interactive stuff.)

Your True Self

The third and final thing I picked up from the Stuttering Brain is this:

3. After the stutter, we feel regret or shame. We identify ourselves with the stutter, and thus become covert. This becomes who we are instead of our true selves. Thus, we lose our authenticity.

I talked about authenticity before, but I wanted to make some more points. What Tom said is that if we are interviewing with a company, and they make a big deal out of our stutter, do we really want to work for them? Is that the type of unnecessary hardship we want to put ourselves through?

On the same interview idea, they should know that we stutter. This is how it’s going to be. This is how we are going to present ourself, but we can still tell them we can maange it, and we have pushed through it before. The work should define us, not the stuttering. We need to be our true self.

One of the more tricky points though about authenticity (in my mind) is that after so many years of covert stuttering, our personalities are set. Many things are defined by the stuttering. And now, at age 35, I’m saying I’ll put all that aside and let my true self out. But what is that true self after so many years?

Is it the true self who wanted to speak up so many years ago, didn’t, but then learned from experience that being a loudmouth isn’t always desirable?

Is it the true self who wanted to ask a question in class but instead had to find answers on my own — leading to a drive to be more self reliant?

Is it the true self who wanted to participate in a group presentation but told the others I’d be happy to put more effort into the presentation — making me a valuable and reliable coworker?

I guess the main question is trying to compare our stuttering self with what we think our non-stuttering self would be like. And that’s very difficult. We’d like to think we would have done things differently, said different things, had different outcomes. We’d like to think that version is better. So if we ignore the stuttering, push through it, and educate our friends, that better version will come out.

But I think that really discounts a lot of the positive outcomes of stuttering. We sell ourselves short by doing that.

I’m not saying we should let our stutter define us. Definitely not. But at the same time, we should acknowledge that it has had a strong effect on our lives — sometimes for the better. We are probably better listeners. We don’t make silly comments all the time. We are more patient.

I’m not sure if I’ve really expressed this the way I want. I may revisit it again in a few weeks once I sort out some more feelings on it. I suppose a relevant thought exercise is this: If you woke up tomorrow morning and didn’t stutter, what would be different?

I think there’s a big difference in that answer at age 10, 20, 30, 40 and beyond.

Sunday Link Roundup

Again a little late. I’m in the States now, visiting friends and family. I came here to see them and of course head to the NSA conference.

For this past week in stuttering, there are a few items — thanks to Twitter, it’s easier to find items of note.

Let’s start with the NSA conference — it starts on July 2nd, and the program is available online now.

Carolina Pediatric therapy posted about children and stuttering — and what to look for during development:

As your child is learning to talk between 18 months and three years old it is common to go through a stuttering “phase”. In most cases it only lasts a few weeks or months and is no reason for concern. So, when should you become worried that your child’s stuttering may be more than a phase? There are a few simple questions you can ask yourself that may help you determine when to call a Speech Pathologist for an evaluation.

Of course you can find a speech language pathologist through the Stuttering Foundation’s site.

The Mighty Snail posted a little rant about stuttering at the workplace.

I enjoyed this tweet:

Do you stutter less when you have caffeine? I think if I have a lot of it, I get going pretty well and don’t stutter as much. But of course that’s a pretty subjective view …

I will admit that I need to start listening to way more podcasts.

That may be a focus of 2015 for me.

And lastly, please do head over to Reddit and check out the Stutter sub-reddit.

Tomorrow I’ll get into what I want to do at the NSA Conference. The rest of the week (and next) will likely be conference-heavy commentary. If you’re going, do send me a note/comment — we should meet up.

It’s entirely possible that I’ve missed things this past week due to travel and whatnot. So let me know!

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