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

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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.

 

 

A Letter to The Drive Thru

Dear Drive Thru,

You’re up there with the phone on my list of biggest adversaries.  That’s quite an achievement considering we’ve only known each other since late 2010, while the phone has been a constant my entire life.  Unlike the phone, I have yet to fully conquer you.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve used a phone in my life, but I can count on both hands how many times I’ve used you.

Whenever I think of my stuttering-related goals, conquering you is number one on my list.  I’ve said it so many times at so many NSA meetings I feel as if I’m a broken record.  When I’m asked why that is my goal I use my list of excuses, a list that’s so old worn the ink is beginning to fade and the pages are wrinkled.  I say it’s because I have complicated orders.  I say it’s because I’d rather talk to a person face to face then hide behind a screen.  I say it’s because if I do stutter I can easily point to the menu that’s right in front of me.  I say it’s because most times I’m the passenger when I’m in the drive thru lane.  I say it’s this.  I say it’s that.  I say it’s everything, but what it really is.

It’s because of the memories of feeling like a failure and slightly embarrassed because of my stutter.  It’s because I don’t want the employee to see me as someone with a speech problem who needs special treatment.  It’s because I don’t want the employee behind the speaker to say, “Sorry sir, that came across static (aka I’m confusing your stutter with the machine’s static). Can you repeat that?,” or worse, “Sorry sir, I couldn’t understand any of that.  Can you drive to the window for me?”  It’s because once again I want the person to hear, “I want the box combo with an unsweet tea with lemon,” and not my stutter.

After hearing my laundry list of excuses, the person I’m talking to says something along the lines of, “the only way to conquer it is to do it.”  I respond with, “I know.”  It’s a scene I’ve been in so many times that I have everyone’s lines memorized by this point.  What I don’t tell them are my failures.  The time I was with my sister and cousin and stuttered through the majority of the order.  My embarrassment became the fourth member of our hour long journey to visit a college, but he didn’t talk the entire time.  The time my friend was in the car and I ordered Wendy’s for the both of us.  I was nervous as all get out because it was the first time a non-family member heard me use you.  I stuttered hard on the word “ketchup”.  I was beyond mad at myself and he didn’t understand why I was mad.

On the flip side, I don’t tell myself my successes nor allow myself to celebrate the small victories from the times I used you.   The time in June 2017 when I placed a late night Wendy’s order for 10 of my friends and only stuttered a couple of times.  This time I was the passenger in my friend’s car, but I ordered because I had the list on my phone.  I could’ve easily excuse myself from our visit and have my friend order, but I wanted to face you.  The time in July 2017 when I ordered Cane’s after getting back from the NSA conference.  The only issue with my order was the employee heard fruit punch and not unsweet tea.  I could’ve lived with the error, but that would’ve meant you had won that round.  Instead, I corrected the order because my need for unsweet tea with lemon trumped any chance that I may stutter.

You’re still on my list, but not has high up on it.  I have won a few battles, but I have yet to win the war.  Just wait though, you will be another name I can cross of my list of adversaries and add to my list of things I’ve conquered.

 

Just you wait,

James

 

An Open Letter to the Phone

Dear Phone,
For the longest time, you were one of my biggest adversaries.  I think it had to do with the fact that my stutter is/was the worst when I use you.  Or maybe it’s because the first time someone equated my stutter with lying was when the two of us talked via you.  Regardless of the cause, you were one of the main things I knew I needed to conquer if I were to truly be accepting of my stutter.

During my teenage years and early twenties, I would do anything within my power to avoid you.  If given the option of talking to someone over the phone or talking to them in person, then I would pick the in person conversation every time.  The fear of using you was that bad. When I had no other choice but to use you, I wrapped myself in dread as if it were the only thing I had to wear. I would go into my room and write a script for the conversation.  I knew your presence would cause my stutter to invite itself into my conversation.  I would use relaxation techniques before I used you.  I used every technique, trick, and special effect available to me in hopes that my stutter to be a minor star, not the leading star, in the production called This Phone Conversation.  My stutter usually ended being the lead star, I was the guest star, and the person on the other end was the audience who didn’t know how to react.

Our biggest issues came when I needed to use you at work.  For years, I would run in the complete opposite direction whenever you rang.  When I was unlucky enough to answer you my techniques and tricks went out the window.  I had no script to lead me in the conversation.  My responses would be terribly improvised because my main concern was ending the conversation as soon as possible.  My stutter was once again the lead star and my role diminished to a cameo appearance.  It was a production I wish was only available to a select audience, but was on display for all to see and hear.

After a second stint in speech therapy and tons of personal growth, I now consider you an acquaintance. I don’t mind using as a means to communicate. I no longer use a script when I use you and at times I’ll call a person when others are around. I no longer wrap myself around in dread when I need to use.  I now show the production This Phone Conversation without any concern who sees and hears it.  I now consider myself as the lead star and my stutter as a cameo visit.  I can now confidently say that you were just one of many adversaries I have defeated in my journey to accept and embrace my stutter
Sincerely,
James

If I Didn’t Stutter

Whenever someone asks me if Icould take a magic pill to eliminate my stutter would I?My is response is if I were offered the pill 100 times, then I would decline it about 97 times.

Here are my reasons why I would not take it:

I wouldn’t have some of my life experiences
I wouldn’t be part of a great and inspiring community
I wouldn’t be as emphatic and compassionate
I would be missing out on some great life lessons

I wouldn’t have discovered
writing as a means of expressing myself

I wouldn’t be as good of a listener as I am
I wouldn’t be me

To My Unborn Children

 

Dear  Son/Daughter,

First off, I can’t wait to meet you!  I haven’t met you yet, but I already love you immensely and unconditionally.

A fact that you need to know about me: I stutter.  What that means is may take me a few extra seconds to say something.  I may make some noises before I talk or my mouth might be open, but no noise comes out.  When I stutter, I may not may not make eye contact with you.  I’ll make weird facial expressions when I stutter.  Besides that, there is nothing wrong with stuttering.  I am not a bad or evil person because I stutter nor am I lying.  When I stutter it’s not because I’m nervous, excited, or anxiety ridden.  I tell you this because you may hear these things about stuttering and what causes stuttering.  I want to tell you that all of those are wrong.  Stuttering is just something that happens when I talk.  There is nothing wrong with stuttering. My stutter has taught me numerous lessons and given me opportunities I could never have imagined.

With that said, I hope you do not stutter.  I say this not because it would affect how I love you or how much I love you because it won’t, but out of love for you I don’t want you to go through what I went through.  I don’t want you to be filled with self-doubts every time you talk.  I don’t want you to be afraid of or avoid speaking out in class, talking on the phone, and ordering your meal at a restaurant.  I don’t want you to be constantly thinking about what the person on the other side is thinking about you and your stutter.  I don’t want you to be picked on in school because of your stutter.  I don’t want people to think you are dumb, lying, or a bad person because you stutter.  I don’t want you to experience the self-doubts and insecurities I went through.

But if you do stutter, great! You have someone that I didn’t have in my life, which is someone close in your life who gets what it means to stutter and all of the mental and emotional “stuff” that comes with it.  In me, you have someone who can help you and guide you through all of the stuff that stuttering brings into a person’s life.  There are a few things I need to tell you about your stutter.  The first is: you control it, it doesn’t control you.  Secondly, you dictate your future, your stutter does not. Finally: you always were, always are, and always will be so much more than your stutter.

Regardless of if you stutter or not, I will always be behind you win or lose, fluent or not, on good days and bad.  I will be your advocate, cheerleader, encourager, and whatever else you need.  I can’t wait to meet you and see the world through your eyes.

 

Love always,

Dad

An Open Letter to the Letter ”H”

Dear H,

As you know, I stutter and you are one of the sounds I stutter on the most, but one I always seem to need.  What an ironic twist, right?  You probably think it’s funny.  My last name is Hayden.  One greets another person, either on the phone or face to face, with some version of “hello”.  I went to college in the city of Hattiesburg.  The main street in Hattiesburg is Hardy Street.  During my final two years of college, I lived off campus in an apartment and guess which letter the complex started with?  You guessed it, “H” for Hillendale.

For years, I would go out of my way to avoid you. When someone asked for my name I would stutter for as long as it took to say Hayden because there was no way I could pretend I didn’t know my last name.    When someone would ask what apartment complex I lived in I would play dumb and pretend I didn’t know the name of my complex.  My generic response was, “It’s on Lincoln Road.  It’s right next to Winn-Dixie and the Lincoln Road Liquor Store.”  If that description didn’t work, I would spend the next few seconds, which seemed like hours, trying to get the name Hillendale out.   When I would answer the phone I would respond with, “yes,” not because it made sense, but it’s what I could say.  When I saw someone I knew I would wait for them to acknowledge me because it was easier.  If they didn’t acknowledge me first, then I would ignore them so I wouldn’t have to deal with one of your visits.  When someone asked me where Southern Miss was I would either pretend I didn’t know the name, which made me look dumb, or I could stutter on Hattiesburg for as long as it took.  I would be able to get away with not saying Hardy Street because I could simply point out where a place was by the surrounding buildings.

As I’ve gotten older, I no longer view you as something that is out to get me, but rather an ironic quirk about me.  Do I appreciate the fact that you are one of the sounds I stutter on the most, but are one of the sounds I use the most?  Not really.  However, do I hide from you by any means necessary? Hell no.

 

Sincerely,

James