What Four and Half Years Can Do

“People talk without stuttering everyday. Why should I be proud of something people do everyday?”

– James Hayden circa. early 2014

                The other day I was talking to my friend and former roommate, Richard, on the phone.  We hadn’t talked in awhile, so we were just catching each other up on what we have been doing. The conversation turned to my writings and how they have been cathartic for me.  Richard said he enjoyed reading my open letters, but more importantly he liked how I was now open about my stutter.  He then reminded me of a conversation the two of us and another friend of ours had a few years ago.

At that point in my life, I was in my second semester of speech therapy and was in the early stages of accepting my stutter. Yet, I most likely would have taken a “magic pill” to get rid of my stutter. That’s because I still viewed stuttering as that annoying friend from home who I did not want to associate with nor talk about. So, the three of us were hanging out Richard and I’s apartment one night after Mass.  I had read the readings at Mass and barely stuttered, an event that didn’t occur all that often.  They both said that they were proud of me for my fluency during the readings.  I did not receive their complements well and shot back at them with the above quote.  I didn’t celebrate it because that’s what I expected of myself.  I had the mindset of “I’m in speech therapy to become fluent and I did what I was suppose to do.  Why should I celebrate?” With that mindset, celebrating the small victories of fluency was clearly not on my list of things to do.

Richard immediately shot back using an analogy from my personal life.  In his analogy, I would have been proud of that person and would have celebrated the small victory, yet I couldn’t or wouldn’t do it for myself.  I most likely mumbled some smart-ass comment and switched the topic of conversation, but deep down I knew he was right; however, I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself or others. I wasn’t ready to see and celebrate the small victories of stuttering that occur each day.

After that night, I moved on with my life and over the years grew in confidence with my stutter and ultimately myself.  I vaguely remembered the conversation, but never thought about it until Richard mentioned it the other day.  Looking back at that conversation with four and a half years of hindsight, all I can say is “Wow!” “Wow” in the sense that I can’t believe I said that about my stutter.  “Wow” in the sense of just how far I’ve come in the past four and a half years.  “Wow” in the sense of how much I’ve grown in terms of acceptance.

If the same situation occurred today, I would have said thank you.  I would have celebrated the small victory with them.  I would have been proud of myself. I would not have shot back with the above quote. I would not have been mad at them for bringing up my stutter (or lack of in this case).

I hope by sharing this story someone can have a “wow” moment.  A moment in which they can feel proud of themselves and celebrate a small victory in life, regardless of what it is.

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An Open Letter to 20 Year Old Me

Dear James at 20,

You’ve been asked numerous times by numerous people, “What is your five year plan?” This is you at 25 giving you a sneak peek of what that those five years entail.  Right now, you are halfway through your college career and the second half will be a million times tougher than the first half, trust me. Oh yeah, and you are a couple weeks away from going back speech therapy.  Let’s talk about that.  I know this is the last thing you want talk about and you want to tell me off, but as you will learn it’s an important topic to discuss.

As you know, stuttering is that embarrassing friend from home that came with you to college.  Privately you can’t stand him, but you allow the two of you to be seen together publicly; however, you don’t talk about your friendship with him.  Actually, the only time you talk about this friendship is when mom and dad say, “You should see what, if any, speech therapy services USM offers or if they can direct you somewhere.” After hearing this for the past two years, you finally took those words of advice when Wayne mentioned the same thing. You emailed the speech language pathology department to appease the parents while hoping that USM could do nothing for you. Boy, were you wrong. Instead of giving you the answer you wanted, you got the answer you needed, although you don’t realize that right now, and were told you could start speech therapy in the fall. You’ve spent the past summer apprehensive and nervous about what the next few months will entail; however, you have made some progress, even if you don’t realize it yet.  Your time at camp was the first of many, many, many steps in your journey towards accepting your stutter.

Let’s jump ahead to when speech therapy begins. You are embarrassed as hell to be there and will go to the ends of the earth to make sure no one knows you are there. You will take different paths to the speech therapy building.  You will make sure the hallways in the building are clear before you go down them out of fear for seeing someone you know.  You will lie to people when they ask you what you are doing in the building.  You will lie when people ask why you aren’t free during the time speech therapy takes place.  You will lie to your friends about where you are going.  You will avoid rooms because you see friends in those rooms and are worried about what they will think of you being in speech therapy. You do all of this because for so long you have put on a mask of being OK with your stutter when in reality the face behind the mask has not been OK with his stutter.  Now the face behind the mask is trying to be OK with it and his pride doesn’t want anyone to know the mask was there. This will be a rough process. But it’s worth it.

In your first semester, your speech therapist will tell you about this thing called the National Stuttering Association (NSA) and how they have meetings all over the country.  You look into it and see that there is a chapter back home, an organization and chapter you ignore for two years.  You don’t tell anyone that the NSA exists and you use every excuse in the book to justify to yourself why you shouldn’t go.  Hate to break it to you, but those reasons are B.S.  Your reasons for not attending NSA meetings have nothing to do with the lack of parking, dealing with traffic, or any of the other excuses you use.  You don’t go because you are not at the point of owing and accepting your stutter to yourself, much less to others.  And that’s OK.  You will go when you’re ready.

During your two years of speech therapy, you will learn and re-learn many techniques to reduce stuttering and increase fluency. More importantly, the mask slowly comes off. You begin to accept and become confident in your stutter, which leads to a more confident you.

A few months after graduation, you move to a new city for your job and decide to check out this NSA thing again. You see that there is an NSA chapter in your city. The chapter happens to meet right up the street from your apartment complex, so you decide to check it out. You go because you want to see what it is all about, but more importantly you want to see for yourself if the whole acceptance thing is real.  It is. The NSA does many great things for you and eventually the people in it become your stamily (stuttering family).  You eventually take over that chapter you ignored for two years. Being a member of the NSA gives you opportunities to openly talk about stuttering with others.  In turn, you are now way more comfortable talking about stuttering on social media and in everyday conversation. One of the craziest things that comes out of this is that you write a book about your experiences with stuttering.  Call B.S. all you want, but its true.

Walking back into that speech therapy room was the best decision you’ve ever made.  You no longer wear a mask of being  OK with stuttering because the face behind the mask has accepted and is OK with his stutter. In the words of Rudy Francisco, “You don’t have to believe me, someday you’ll see for yourself.”

 

Yours,

James at 25

To the Person Who Accused Me of Lying Because I Stutter

Dear Jenna**,

I doubt you remember this incident, so let me quickly recap it for you.  It was a weekday night back in early 2008. I was a freshman in high school and at this point in my life I no longer considered myself a person that stuttered. Although I no longer used stutterer as an identifier, there were extremely rare occasions when I did briefly stutter.  This is one of those times.  You called our house because you were mad that my sister didn’t want to work with your daughter on the middle school science fair project.  Really? Didn’t you have more important things to worry about?  Anyway, you called and I answered the phone.  At the sound of hello, you asked if my mom was home.  I said, “No.” You then asked if she had her cell phone with her. I responded by saying, “No, she left it at home.”  During that brief conversation, I stuttered on some word(s) and/or syllable(s).  Instead of being a mature adult about the fact that I, a fourteen-year-old, stutter, you accused me of lying.  You equated stuttering with lying, a stereotype I didn’t know existed until that moment. I’m sure I shot back at you that I stutter and I wasn’t lying.  I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation went, but I remember being a mixture of shocked, upset, and pissed off when I hung up the phone.

When my parents came home, I told them what happened and to say they were mad would be like saying the Golden State Warriors are a good basketball team. The next day, my mom saw you at school and explained to you, in not the nicest tone, that I was not lying, but rather I stutter. I wasn’t there to witness this and I wish I was, but maybe my mom wanted to protect me even further from you. When I returned home from school, I was greeted with a message from you apologizing for accusing me of lying.  After I heard the message, I moved on with my life; however, I didn’t forget about the previous night’s conversation.

Ten and a half years have passed since this incident, yet I still vividly remember it and the emotions that came with it.   Being picked on by other kids in my class was one thing, but to be picked on by an adult was something completely.  This incident threw fourteen-year-old me into a tailspin. I never expected this type of treatment from adults. At the time, I didn’t know adults, especially a mom, could/would pick on a child in a non-kidding way.  I didn’t know I didn’t know that people equated stuttering with lying.  I didn’t know that negative stereotypes of stuttering actually existed.  I didn’t know adults could and would be cruel to a kid over something they couldn’t control. I learned some rough but needed lessons that night.

When I look back at the incident, I know the person I am today would handle this conversation different than fourteen-year-old me did. I would explain to you that I stutter and that I stuttering does not equate to lying. I would use this as an opportunity, no matter how brief it might be, to educate you about stuttering.  I also would greet the conversation with a sense of understanding because you may have never met a person who stutters and don’t know how to respond.  I would have hung up the phone mad, but I more importantly I would have experienced the peace knowing that I just advocated for and educated someone on a topic I am passionate about.  Fourteen year old me handled the conversation the best way I could and for that I own, accept, and don’t apologize for.

In closing, I just hope the next time you an encounter someone who stutters you greet them with listening ear, instead of judgmental words. More importantly, I hope you have grown and learned from this incident. I have.

 

Sincerely,

James

 

P.S. I was lying. My mom had her cell phone with her, but I didn’t want to subject her to your nonsense while she and my dad were out getting Popeyes for the family.

 

** Name changed

Siri, Alexa, Automated Systems, and Stuttering

Siri, Alexa, and similar automated voice systems are becoming, some may argue that they have become, modern day conveniences. As a person who stutters, Siri and Alexa are modern day inconveniences. Frustration mounts when I ask Siri for directions to a friend’s house or ask Alexa for tomorrow’s weather forecast, but are told to repeat it or get a different answer because Siri and Alexa hear my stutter and not my question.  I instantly become aggravated whenever I call a business’s phone number and have to go through a twenty-layer automated system before I even have the chance to talk to another person.

I don’t consider myself a jealous person.  Never once have I been jealous of someone’s fluency, but I am jealous of the fluency in which most can use Alexa, Siri, and other automated systems.  How someone can fluently dictate to Siri a text message or ask for an alternate route when traffic is backed up on the interstate.  How one can ask Alexa who won Survivor: The Amazon (Spoiler Alert: Jenna Morasca in a 6-1 vote) or to order a book from Amazon. How a person can respond to an automated system with, “Four, two, more information, yes” without even thinking twice.

As these technologies and similar ones become as common as AC in cars and sliced bread, more is needed for PWS.  As a person who stutters, I ask Siri and company to hear my question and not my repetitions and blocks. In return, I will do my best to not avoid you at all costs, while also using you with a sense of understanding.  I know this will be hard for y’all, but it will be hard for me as well.  All I ask is that we try.

Stuttering: The Gift that Keeps on Giving (?)

One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  During one of the final scenes, our loveable protagonist, Clark Griswold, receives a one-year membership to the jelly of the month club as his Christmas bonus in lieu of his expected check.  To which Clark’s bumbling cousin-in-law, Eddie, says, “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”  Recently, I saw in a Facebook group for people who stutter (PWS) that stuttering is a gift.  I never have thought of stuttering has a gift, but maybe it is.  Like the jelly of the month club, it’s a gift I would never give to someone nor ask for.  Yet, I have it and I choose to see the beauty of the gift. So, if stuttering is a gift, then what has it given me?

Stuttering has given me a community of people who get it. I’ve been a part of the National Stuttering Association (NSA) for close to three years. During that time, I’ve met so many people that get it.  That let me know that I am not alone.  That challenge me to see stuttering in a different way.  A group of people that have helped me grow in acceptance of my stutter.  A community that I can celebrate the small victories of stuttering with and can share the struggles of stuttering with.  A community I’ve grown to call my stamily (stuttering family).

Stuttering has allowed me to strengthen friendships.  For the longest time, my lack of willingness to discuss my stutter was a good way to choose friends.  If anyone would say the even the slightest negative remark about stuttering, I would immediately chew them out and end our friendship.  A few years ago, I only talked about my stutter with the closest of close friends.  It was my way of showing him/her that I trust them.  Now, I openly talk about stuttering with anyone.  As a result of my sharing one of my biggest vulnerabilities, people tend to trust me quicker and as a result share with me their vulnerabilities.  Because of this all of my friendships have strengthened.

Stuttering has given me the opportunity to learn and re-learn many life lessons.  These include, but are not limited to,: to see and hear people for who they are, to appreciate the small victories of life, to always be resilient, to see  the positive in the negative, some days will be harder than others, patience, and I may not be able to change the outcome of a situation, but I can always change my outlook on the situation.

My stutter has allowed me to grow in self confidence in unique ways.  Before I accepted my stutter, I buried my feelings about it and in turn buried my feelings about everything else.  Now that I’ve accepted it, I proudly wear my stutter for to see and hear.  In turn, I’ve allowed myself to be more open with my strengths and triumphs, but more importantly I no longer try to hide my struggles, insecurities, weaknesses, and my many quirks. I am proud of and far more confident in who I am because I have accepted my stutter.

Stuttering has given me another opportunity to serve others.  One of my passions is community service and helping others in any way I can.  By being open about stuttering and willing to write honest articles about my stutter, I am showing other PWS that they are not alone, providing those who read my pieces an honest view of stuttering, and showing others to continue to find the good in all things.

Stuttering has allowed me to discover the joys of writing.  Up until a year and a half ago, I only wrote academic papers and the occasional thank you note.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would write recreationally, much less write about stuttering.  However, I wanted to get my story out there and writing was the only way I knew how to accomplish that goal.  Through that first article, I discovered that I enjoy writing.  I finally had an outlet to express my thoughts on stuttering in a way that could reach, and hopefully impact, others.

So maybe Cousin Eddie is right. Maybe, just maybe, stuttering is the gift that keeps on giving.

An Open Letter to the Microphone

Dear Microphone,

Ever since my stutter returned, I avoided you at all costs and I mean all costs. Given the choice between yelling, straining my voice, and being able to stutter less or use you and speak at a normal tone, but allow the world to hear every intimate detail of my stutter, I chose the former every day of the week and twice on Sunday. When people would ask why I didn’t want to use you my response was, “I have a loud voice.” It’s true, but if I talk loud for more than a few seconds it strains my voice.  When I had to use you, dread came to me as if my body was the place to be. Those times were few and intentionally far between.  Of course, those times would occur when I read at Mass for hundreds of people to hear every possible block, repetition, and every incoherent sound I made while trying to get the word out.

Oddly enough, whenever I listed my goals in speech therapy, using you to project my voice was never on that list nor even crossed my mind.  I guess I figured I could use my “loud voice excuse” for the rest of my life. Either that or I figured I would never put myself in a position where you were my only option to project my voice.

After I graduated college, I didn’t use you for close to two years.  There were many opportunities, but each time I used my “loud voice” excuse.  As a result, I strained my voice while talking to a variety of different audiences about a variety of different topics.  Ironically enough, a few of those opportunities were at open houses my local NSA chapter hosted.  During those times, I was in a room of people who cared more about my message, as opposed to the intricacies of my message. Yet, I was still terrified of the intimacies of my speech being projected to the entire room.  Rather than facing you, I once again strained my voice for a couple of hours and then guzzled a bottle of water as soon as the event was over.
The first time I willingly opted to you use was last year at my first NSA conference. I walked in late to the first open mic and I was strongly encouraged to go up and speak within minutes of me walking into the room. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember feeling accomplished. For the first time in years, I willing chose to use you.  I think what also helped me use you was my audience.  I was in a room of strangers who knew what it is like to stutter and didn’t care about my stutter.  They cared more about my message than the intricacies of how my message was delivered.  I went to a couple of other open mics during that conference and used you to project my voice at those events.
In the past year, I have used you every time the opportunity presents itself. Yes, I’d rather my audience not hear every intimate moment of my stutter; however, my stutter is a part of what makes me me.  My message deserves to be heard and if my stutter joins, then so be it.  I have more important things to worry about than how you project my message.

Yours,

James

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.

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.