Starbucks and Stuttering

This past Saturday, July 7, 2018, something I never thought would happen happened: I was mad at myself for being fluent. Weird, right? Whenever I open my mouth to speak I hope for fluency and I always delight when I am fluent, but not that morning.  I was in Chicago for the NSA conference and I went to Starbucks for breakfast that morning. That’s sounds weird based on what happened recently. (I’ll give you a second to Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Now that we are all on the same page, as a proud PWS I planned on going to Starbucks and intentionally stutter my order for two reasons. One, as a show of solidarity. The second being for my self growth. You see, I tried intentionally stuttering once in speech therapy and immediately shut that technique down because of the flood of bad childhood memories that instantly filled my mind. That was four plus years ago and I haven’t tried it since.

One night at dinner, last week, I was talking to a friend about my time in speech therapy and my strong disdain for intentionally stuttering as a technique.  Her response was, ”Try it again.” I immediately shot it down, but she insisted because maybe I wasn’t ready then and that maybe I’m ready now. A couple of days after that conversation, I went to Starbucks with the mindset of intentionally stuttering on my order.  I saw this experience as my opportunity and I wasn’t going to say no because in the words of Stephen Fishbach, “When opportunity knocks, you have to let him in, because opportunity is a mean dude, and, if you don’t, he might burn down your house or steal your car.” I went up to order my breakfast, a chocolate chip muffin and a glass of milk, and my order came out fluently. Second nature took over and before I could even intentionally stutter my order was in the system. I was aggravated at myself, but vowed to go back on Sunday and intentionally stutter on the same order. I went to Starbucks the next morning with the same results.  Fluency took over before I could think about intentionally stuttering.

Maybe the reason for me not intentionally stuttering is that I’m still not ready for it.  Perhaps my subconscious knows those two opportunities were not the right opportunities and those days weren’t the right days.  However, when the right day and opportunity come I will be ready. I won’t give opportunity another chance to steal my car or another chance for me to grow and become even more confident in my stutter.

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Singing and Stuttering

Ask anyone who has heard me sing and most, if not all, will give you a negative review of my singing abilities. I think I’m a decent singer, but that’s beside the point. I jam out to just about anything and everything when driving, in the shower, or I when had one too many. But why? If I’m such a bad singer, in the opinion of nearly everyone, why do I jam out on most occasions?

Simple because I feel “normal” or at least society’s definition of it. (I consider my stutter normal, but medically it’s considered a disability.). When I sing, it’s one of the rare times I don’t think about stuttering. I don’t have to think about what the person who is listening to me thinks about my stutter. The only things I’m thinking about are: remembering the lyrics, the strain my vocal cords are undergoing, to stay in time with the beat, that I don’t miss my turn or exit, and/or that the person hearing me sing probably wishing I would stop singing.

An Open Letter to Eye Contact

Dear Eye Contact,

I don’t quite know how to describe our dynamic, but let’s go with interesting.  Like the phone before you and currently drive thrus, you are on my list of things to conquer on my journey with stuttering. Yet, it’s nearly difficult for me to avoid you or give a million reasons why I can’t or won’t use you like I can when the topic of drive thrus comes up. The reason I cannot nor want to avoid you has its roots in the way I was raised.

Growing up, my parents instilled in me that you were a sign of respect I should give every person I talk to and to every person talking to me.  I was taught that by having you as a part of the conversation I am listening to the speaker and I want my audience to listen to me.  I still firmly believe that.  When I talk to someone, I have a personal rule that you are a part of the conversation; however, there are exceptions to every rule.

The exception to this rule is when I stutter.  As soon as stuttering enters the conversation, you quickly disappear.   When I stutter, I tend to look everywhere except for the person I’m talking to.  I look at the ground as if it holds a treasure I’ve never seen before.  I look at the heavens in hopes that the sky will contain the answer to the meaning of life.  I look left and right as if I’m trying to cross the street to fluency.  As soon as the eternal seconds of stuttering ends, you re-enter the conversation.

I don’t know why this, but I have my reasons as to why this happens. Maybe I ask you to leave because I am still subconsciously embarrassed by the fact that I stutter.  Maybe you leave because I want my message to be heard, but I don’t want the mechanics of my message to be seen.  Whatever the reason is, I want to end it.  I want to be able to look the person in the eye, regardless of my fluency.  It’s a resolution of mine, but like most resolutions do it quickly falls to the wayside.

Although maintaining you in all conversations is a resolution I constantly fail to uphold, I will fulfill my resolution.  As previously mentioned, you and stuttering have been in very few of my conversations; however, there are many conversations left to be had.  It may not be today, it may not be next month, but one day you will be in every conversation that stuttering joins us. I can’t wait for the day when my message will be heard and the mechanics of my message will be seen by my audience. Then, I will have finally fulfilled one of my long-standing resolutions and you will be an obstacle that I used to know.

I hope you’re ready for it. I am.

Yours,

James

What Five Years Has Done to My Relationship with a Phone

Over the past five plus years, my relationship with phone has improved tenfold. It’s gone from a closed to the public scripted performance to a natural, improv show, opened to the public. Five years ago, I needed a private room, a script, and my iPhone on speakerphone to make the majority of my calls. Now all I need is some type of phone and a phone number to call. When I didn’t have a script, a private room, and my phone on speaker, my worst case scenario would become a reality. Here’s one of those times.

It was the summer of 2013 and I was enjoying a few hours off from my job at the summer camp I was working at. Two other counselors, Zach and Christian, and I had the afternoon off and decided to go off campus for lunch. I had met Zach three weeks ago and Christian has joined the staff that week. Both of them knew I stutter, but I was nowhere near the point of being comfortable talking to my family and close friends about stuttering, much less guys I had just met. On the way to a nearby restaurant, my roommate for the upcoming college semester, Richard, called to talk about all the items we needed in order to move into our apartment for the upcoming semester. This is where the worst case scenario became real. I didn’t have a script to use when talking to Richard. I couldn’t hide in a room and put my phone on speaker because we were driving and i couldn’t ask to pull over because it would be hard tbut explain to two guys I just met. So for what seemed like years, Richard and I talked and I was out of my comfort zone the entire time. I stuttered on damn near every syllable of every word and my thought process only made the experience worse.

During my phone call, I was thinking about what Zach and Christian thought of my stutter and the performance I was giving them. I thought about what Richard thought about it. I had only known Richard for a couple of months and stuttering was a topic we never talked about. When the phone call thankfully ended, my embarrassment of what just happened joined us on our ride to lunch, stayed with us during our lunch, and went back to camp with us.
Five years have passed since then and now I would handle the situation differently. After I hung up the phone, I would’ve owned my stutter and used the phone call as a means to talk about stuttering. We would talk about it and then move on because I care more about my stutter than others do.  I would not have been embarrassed about the situation and I would quickly move on with my life.  I know Zach, Christian, and Richard didn’t care that o stutter then and I know they don’t care now. To them, I’m James, not James the stutterer. And to me a phone call is now a phone call, not a production that needs a script, a particular set, and the right prop.

To the Person Who Laughed When I Said I am a PWS

Dear Sir,

I don’t remember your name, but I do remember that you were way too chipper and energetic for 8:00 am on a Monday morning. I’m talking a five-year-old on a sugar high level of chipper and energetic.  Let’s back up a bit and discuss how we met. I was at a new employee orientation and was excited about this new opportunity, but no so excited about a day long orientation.  You were one of the orientation leaders and you do this every week.  At one during the orientation, you told each small group to come up with a list of things that we had in common and a list of things that were different between us and how those differences can build up the company.  I doubt you remember this, so let me remind you. A difference between me and 99% of the population is obvious if one talks to me for a few seconds. I stutter. That’s no longer the elephant in the room, but rather an unique fact about myself that I proudly own. Knowing this, I mentioned a difference between me and everyone else is my fluency. I said this because it would get something on the board for my group, but more importantly to show myself that this self-proclaimed progress and acceptance is real and to start a conversation about stuttering, no matter how brief it may be.  And if I’m honest I also mentioned because it would allow me to promote my book.

At the end of the activity, you went to each group and randomly picked someone to announce the similarities and differences that each group of strangers found in one another. As you were doing this, I was praying and hoping you wouldn’t pick me because being put on the spot is not on my favorite things to do.  Fortunately, you picked the person next to me and she read our list with no fanfare, except when we she said, “We have a person who stutters.”   You, standing mere inches away from me and looking right at me, proceed to laugh.  Being me, I proceed to call you out in the middle of the exercise and ask, “What’s so funny?”  Trying to cover yourself you replied, “I’ve never heard someone say that before,” and quickly went to the next group.

Yeah, most people don’t admit that they stutter because of people like you who respond with laughter and not affirmation. Most people don’t because they are embarrassed and laughter only makes them more embarrassed. I said that because its me and to bring awareness.  If someone else in that room was a covert stutterer and heard that there was another person who stutters, maybe they would feel not alone.  Maybe you’ll learn your lesson. I’m glad I said that fact about myself and responded to you the way I did because it shows that I will walk the walk and talk the talk, regardless of how fluent I talk the talk.

Sincerely,

Your  Co-Worker

To My Teachers

Dear Teachers,

To my elementary school teachers, thank you including me in everything, regardless of my fluency.  Numerous examples of this come to mind.  I think of my kindergarten’s annual Christmas play in which I played an inn keeper.  Thank you for giving me a speaking role and allowing me to stutter through, “You are so cold.”  I easily could’ve been given a non-speaking role or excluded from the play, but I wasn’t it.  Looking back almost twenty years later, I appreciate being a given role and to see be seen like the rest of my classmates.  I also think of my teachers who did their best to make sure I didn’t miss anything critical, due to my speech therapy.  Thank you for seeing my speech treatment as just as important as your class and doing your best to make sure neither suffered.  I think of being allowed to participate in class, even though I stutter.  That is something I know some other teachers wouldn’t allow.  I think of me being consoled and not pushed aside when my stutter won and kids were making fun of me for it.  More importantly, thank you for encouraging me to forgive and not resent my classmates when they picked on me (fortunately I wasn’t picked on that much).

To my high school teachers, thank you for allowing me to take on leadership roles in a variety of organizations.  When my stutter returned during my senior year, thank you for allowing me to continue in my leadership roles on campus.  Being in Big Brothers, Operation Headstart, Ambassadors, and Campus Ministry, were big parts of my high school experience and big keys in my growth as an individual.  Thank you for not using my stutter as a means to discourage me from continuing in those groups.  Thank you for still allowing me to give tours of the school, give talks on retreats, talk to prospective students and their parents, and representing the school at a variety of local events.

To my college professors, thank you for allowing me to set the tone of how my stutter was handled.  An example that comes to mine is during the spring semester of my freshman year, I took a theatre appreciation class.  For our final project, we had get into groups and write and act in a one act play.  Joe, thanks for allowing me to act as if my character stuttered and I was a fluent person playing the role of someone who stuttered.  I wasn’t at the point where I owned my stutter and thank you for allowing me to do what was comfortable.  To my public speaking professor, thank you for hearing my content and not my stutter when I presented.  To my forensic professors, thank you for allowing me to pursue a field that involved testifying in court and never discouraging me to pursue this because I stutter.  When I presented in class, thank you for hearing me and not my stutter.

Regardless of where you were in my educational journey, THANK YOU for not treating me any differently because of the fact that I stutter.

 

Sincerely,

James

An Open Letter to Speech Therapy

Dear Speech Therapy,

Whenever you come up in conversation I inevitably say something along the lines of, “Going back to speech therapy was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”  Five years ago, never in my wildest dreams did I think that sentence would cross my mind, much less come out of my mouth; however, that’s the beauty of time and retrospection.  They allow your current self to see the beauty in things your past self could not or would not see.  In order to understand how the two of us got to this point, let’s go back to the beginning.

We first began our friendship when I was five years old.  At the time, you were just this friend that allowed me to miss school a few hours each week and talk about whatever younger me wanted to discuss.  Over the course of six years, my fluency increased, while my stuttering decreased and all parties involved that I no longer needed you.  We mutually and amicably ended our friendship and I thought that would be the end of it.  In my mind, you were just an elementary school friendship that didn’t survive the transition into high school.

Boy, was I wrong.

As we all know, my stutter returned my senior year of high school and I ignored that friend like I would ignore you for two years.  In college, my parents would suggest I reach out to you, but at the time you were a friendship I refused to re-visit.  I wanted to leave you in elementary school the way I left behind Scholastic Book Fairs, Book Soxs and Santa’s Secret Shoppe.  After almost two years and many inquiries from my family, I finally reached out to you about the possibility of re-kindling our friendship.  It would prove to be one of the best decisions I made during my time in college.

At first, I wanted our friendship to be hidden.  You were the friend I would talk about in past tense and for awhile you were the friend I didn’t want to talk about in present tense.  I was too prideful to say, “I am in speech therapy.” Out of pride (and if I’m honest with myself and you embarrassment), I made sure no one saw me go to our weekly hangout spot.  Pride made me not want to acknowledge you to myself.  Embarrassment made me not want to acknowledge you to others. Over the next two years, the pride and embarrassment faded and a beautiful friendship developed. When I graduated our friendship ended and I have never looked back.

Although I was hesitant to re-initiate our friendship, I’m glad I reached out to an old friend.   Our reestablished friendship allowed me to gain a confidence in myself and in my speech that I never thought possible.  Due to our re-kindled friendship, I grew to accept my stutter.  I thank you for that, but I am also thankful that I left our friendship behind when I graduated from college in 2015.  I no longer plan to visit you because I’ve gotten all that I can out friendship.  To paraphrase Neil Hilborn’s “Future Tense”, “You filled something in me that’s still full/ Even though you’re gone.”  Our second round of friendship filled me in ways that silenced the self-doubt, self-consciousness, and insecurities in a way I never thought possible. Although our friendship is over, I’m glad it happened.

 

Yours,

James

Is Stuttering A Disability

Is stuttering a disability? It’s a topic that sometimes comes up when talking to people about stuttering.  The answer to the question depends upon the person answering the question. For me the answer is a simple one, but before we get to that let’s look at what the word disability means.
The prefix “dis-“  means “apart”.  The word “ability” means “power or capacity to do or act physically, mentally, legally, morally, financially.”  With that in mind, the word disability literally means, “apart from power or capacity to or act physically, mentally, legally, morally, financially”. I waive my b.s. flag on that.

My stutter does not take apart from my ability to do the following: talk, listen, love others, love myself, serve others, have meaningful work, give back to my community, present to a group of people, or do anything else I want to do. Yes, it may take me a few extra seconds to get my point across, but it’s a point that is worth being heard.

So, no I don’t consider my stutter a disability, but rather one of the many unique things that make me me.

Stuttering and Social Media

I’ve been on some form of social media since I was fifteen years old. It wasn’t until I was almost 24 that I openly identified as a person who stuttered (PWS) on my social media accounts.  Yes, there were times when I would “like” a Facebook post regarding stuttering; however, I would do it in the early morning hours because I knew few people would see that. There was even one rare instance when I shared a video from the show “What Would You Do?” about stuttering in the afternoon hours of December 2013.  When I posted the video I said, “Fortunately, this rarely happens to me. However, if you do find yourself in this situation, either with me or someone else, just be patient because it will eventually come out. Also, as the actress said in the end of the video stuttering is not a disability.”

At that point, I had just completed my first semester of speech therapy, but stuttering was still the elephant in the room that I still hadn’t accepted nor wanted to talk about.  Looking back at that post nearly five years later, maybe I subconsciously had started to accept the fact that I stutter.  Regardless, I didn’t check my Facebook for hours.  It wasn’t because I was embarrassed about the fact that I stutter, or at least I don’t think that was the cause.  It was because I wasn’t were I am now.  I wasn’t ready to advocate for stuttering.  I was afraid of any negative comments.  I was afraid of any comments that challenged stuttering or gave some b.s. reason as to what they think caused my stutter.  I was afraid of I how would respond.  Fortunately, all of those fears did not come to fruition.  The video only received five likes and a couple of comments.

A little more than two years after I shared that video of stuttering, I posted an article about people who stutter are perceived in January 2016.  I now identified as person who stuttered on social media.  Unlike my last experience, I was not worried about the comments.  In fact, I was looking forward to them and starting a dialogue.  By early 2016, I was involved in the NSA, had accepted my stutter, and was beginning my road towards an advocate for stuttering. I further identified as a PWS two months later when I posted Erin Scheck’s slam poem “Honest Speech.”  For me, Scheck describes stuttering in a way I never could and every time I listen to it I hear something new.  During the next year, I posted that poem many times and highlighted a different line each time.  I was becoming comfortable identifying as a PWS and talking to people about stuttering, but for the most part I was still hesitant to share my journey with stuttering publicly.  That changed over a six month span in late 2016 and stretching to early 2017.

The first event came in September 2016 when I posted a video about the National Stuttering Association (NSA), a video that included me.  After almost a year, my secret was out in the open: I went to the NSA.  Prior to that September morning, only my family and a few friends knew I was apart of the NSA. Within the span of eight months, I went from not even posting about stuttering to identifying as PWS to identifying as a member of the NSA.  However, while people knew I stuttered and was a member of the NSA, few knew my story.  That all changed in early 2017.

My big social media post about stuttering came in April 2017 when The Mighty published my article “How Speech Therapy Helped Me Accept My Stutter.”  I was nervous about sharing it on social media because once I posted there was no turning back. Everyone would know my journey with stuttering and I would be revealing that I went to speech therapy, a secret I held close to my vest for years.  My dirty little secret would no longer be confined to just NSA meetings, classrooms full of SLP students, and the closest of close friends, but to the entire world.  I was met with an outpour of love and support.

So what changed? How did I go from vaguely posting about stuttering to sharing stuttering related articles, pictures, and quotes on a routine basis with no regards to who sees or comments on them?  Why now and why not when I was in speech therapy? I was recently asked these questions and I struggled to answer it. I think it’s a variety of reasons.  One is that I made more progress in terms of accepting the fact that I stutter and most likely will for the rest of my life.   I also think it’s because the NSA gave me the opportunity to think of stuttering in ways I had never thought of before.  Another reason is I became more confident in myself and in turn my stutter. I think it’s because I wanted to be more of an advocate for stuttering. Regardless of the reason or reasons, I know I want to be part of the conversation and not using my stutter as a means of avoiding the conversation.

What It’s Like to Watch Myself Stutter

Disclosure: I’m writing this roughly two hours after this occurred.

Today, I did a Zoom session with a group of SLP students and -shocker- I stuttered a good bit.  What made this experience different than any other video conference I’ve ever done is that I paid a decent bit of attention to the facial expressions I make when I stutter. Whenever I use a video conference platform, I tend to pay more attention to the person I’m talking to as opposed to the screen that features me.  For some reason, this experience was different.  Maybe it’s because this was the first time I spoke to a class of SLP student via video conference.  Maybe I subconsciously wanted to see what it looked like to stutter.  Maybe I’m just overthinking as I typically do with everything.  Whatever the reason was, I paid attention to the video of me a good bit.  This is weird because I hate looking at myself on video, mainly because I don’t want to look at the mechanics of my stutter.

I like comparing stuttering to an iceberg.  People can see the physical side of stuttering, the 10% of the iceberg that is generally exposed, but the emotional and mental side, the 90%, is below the surface. When I paid attention, I was finally seeing the 10% of the iceberg that everyone else sees.  I was aware of the lack of eye contact I made with my camera.  I was aware of how I looked down as if the ground held a treasure I had never seen before.  I was aware of the sudden jerks my face, head, and mouth made as if they were riding a rollercoaster called my speech.  I was aware of I became a bobblehead every time I was going through a block.

Now that I paid attention to my 10%, I have a better understanding of why some people react the way they do.  The looks of concern because they don’t know if I’m ok.  The looks of puzzlement because they don’t know what to do.  The looks of pity because they feel my speech is and embarrassment I should lock up and throw away the key.  The looks of being uncomfortable because they don’t know how to respond and/or want this experience to end quickly.

Seeing my 10% just makes more emphatic, but also strengthens my desire continue stuttering advocacy.  I want my listener to look at my 10% with the same look as someone who doesn’t stutter.