when my voice fails me

Here’s something most people don’t know about me: I stutter. Not every word, not every sentence, not even every day, but enough that sometimes I cannot speak the words I want to say, enough that I worry when I’m on the phone that I’ll be unable to find my voice, and the person on the other end will hang up. It has happened.

Scientists don’t know the cause of stuttering, and I have been subjected to as many therapies as they are theories. I have had biofeedback with red lights and buzzers telling me when to annunciate and I have been told to close my eyes and imagine I’m relaxing in a babbling brook with the water rushing over me. I have been teased and mocked and ignored and told that I would never make anything of my life, that my stuttering would keep me from accomplishing my dreams, from being successful, and worst of all, I sometimes am barred from expressing myself entirely.

If we had a conversation, you probably wouldn’t notice that I stutter. It waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows. I can go months without stuttering at all, and then suddenly I’ll remember when I’m stuck and the sounds won’t vocalize.

I started talking young. I was maybe a year and a half old. I talked to everyone, full sentences, long descriptions, inquisitive queries. I didn’t start to stutter until I was four. No one does. Stuttering tends not to develop until then. You might think an inability to speak drove me to my love of reading and writing, but I don’t think that’s true. I loved them long before I knew that my speech was different, and that this could make any difference at all.

I don’t remember when I first realized I stuttered, or when I first was frustrated with my vocal cords. It was always just something that was with me, a part of how I talked. I talked with a stutter. I mostly got frustrated when my mom, in a misguided attempt to help me, would try to guess the word I was stuttering on.






Dammit. Shut up and let me talk. It’s bad enough that I’m stuttering. You are not helping with the fill-in-the-blank sentences. Only, you know, I was in elementary school so I didn’t say “dammit” and I was shy and polite so I didn’t yell at my mom. But damn it was frustrating.

We moved a lot. Every new school meant a new speech pathologist, or maybe none at all. It never seemed to interfere with my life much until the sixth grade. Some schools had after school sports, some had tetherball, others had speech pathologists.

I was once again at a new school in the sixth grade. This school had a speech therapist. Her means of therapy involved drawing each syllable out for two seconds and slurring all your words together. Thus, “my name is Alice” became “mmmmmmyyyyyynnnnnnaaaammmmmiiiiisssssaaaaallllliiiiiiiccccccc”. Sure, you don’t stutter when you talk that way, but how you do speak is arguably worse than stuttering. Especially when you’re in the sixth grade.

Years later, after college, I went to a different speech therapist who employed this same basic method. The idea is to practice this, and then reduce the time of each syllable to one second, half a second, until you’re barely drawing things out longer than normal speech, and you eventually, with enough practice, can slur all your words together fairly innocuously so you don’t sound like you’re perpetually drunk. Think James Earl Jones. I’m pretty sure it’s the method he uses to avoid stuttering. He stutters, you know.

But as a sixth grader, I wasn’t aware of the bigger picture, the long-term approach, James Earl Jones. I only knew that the kids thought I was mentally challenged (not that they used so PC a term) and that this way of speaking would not make matters any better.

This therapist also wanted me to overcome my terrifying panic of talking on the phone. I reasoned that I was in the sixth grade. I didn’t need to talk on the phone. She was positive that this would be the breakthrough that I needed. Here’s the problem with the phone: the person on the other end of the line can’t see you. When you talk to someone in person, there are some visual clues that you are engaged in conversation, even when verbal clues are absent. For instance, you’re standing right there. Possibly you’re gesturing. And you’ve been speaking, but now you’re blocked. Maybe you’re in thought. Or maybe it’s obvious that you’ve become stuck. The person you’re talking to may recognize this as a stutter or may think you’re having a crazy fit or some kind, but they at least know you’re still there. The person on the phone just hears dead air. Maybe you’ve hung up. Maybe you’ve gotten distracted and have muted the phone and are now talking to someone in the room. It may not sound terrifying, but it really can be. You’re trying to convey information and you absolutely cannot do it. Imagine that you’re in sixth grade when everything is life and death. I hated speech therapy.

But, my classmates didn’t know I hated it, they just knew that I got to get out of class when they had to take spelling tests and do math problems. So they hated me. The teachers at this school made things exponentially worse. They thought they would do me a favor and not call on me. If I didn’t have to speak in class, I would never be embarrassed by my stutter. But I never got called on in class, so the kids hated me.

I remember Science class in particular. I loved that class. We learned about the different kinds of clouds and the solar system and when the teacher would ask a question, I would raise my hand joyfully. I know the answer! I love that kind of cloud! The teacher never called on me. I didn’t understand why. Did the teacher hate me? Did he think I was stupid and couldn’t possibly have the right answer? My hand was raised! No one else’s hand was raised. But he would say, “No one knows the answer? OK, it’s cumulus.” It was hard not to cry right there at my desk, but I didn’t need to give the kids another reason to hate me.

One time in Reading, we were supposed to choose a poem that we particularly liked, memorize it, and recite it in front of the class. I was so excited! We had a book of poetry at home (I think it may have been 101 Famous Poems) that I read all the time. I practically had all the poems memorized already. I poured over that book. Which poem should I pick?

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

(I recently had cause to recite part of this poem, which I think I still remember all of. P. and I were at that terrible Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure, and at one point the one if by land thing becomes an important plot point. So, I leaned over and whispered those lines to him. He looked over at me as though I were crazy and started looking for somewhere else to sit.)

Maybe I should go with…

Little Orphan Annie’s come to my house to stay.
To wash the cups and saucers up and brush the crumbs away.
To shoo the chickens from the porch and dust the hearth and sweep,
and make the fire and bake the bread to earn her board and keep.
While all us other children, when the supper things is done,
we sit around the kitchen fire and has the mostest fun,
a listening to the witch tales that Annie tells about
and the goblins will get ya if ya don’t watch out!

When the day came, I was ready. I brought in the book; I had butterflies in my stomach; I was ready to recite. The teacher called our names one by one. The student would get up and recite the poem. I waited for my turn. And waited. She kept calling names. I kept waiting. She never called my name. She never said anything to me. Did she think I was too dumb to learn a poem? Surely she thought she was protecting me. But I didn’t feel protected. I felt excluded, alone.

Did I mention the kids hated me? They even had a special nickname for me: the stuttering baboon. They meant to say, I not only can’t speak right, but I’m really dumb too. And part of me believed them. Because it wasn’t just the kids. The teachers weren’t letting me participate in class, but they never told me why. The kids thought I was stupid, the teachers thought I was stupid, maybe I really was stupid. Years later, as an adult, successful, happy, I would think back on that, “stuttering baboon”, and it would still make me cry.

That school stands out so vividly in my memory. And I only went there half the year. Mid-year, we moved again, and I was done with those kids, those teachers, that therapist. But it was enough.

There were more therapists to come. My stutter was genetic and only biofeedback would help me. My stutter was psychological, why else did it start when my mom remarried? Everyone had a theory. But worst of all was the therapist from my freshman year of high school.

She invited me into her cramped little office and told me that the solution to my stuttering was a electrolarynx. An electrolarynx is an electronic device that you press against your throat when you want to talk. It makes a humming noise, sort of like a refrigerator, and it keeps your vocal cords vibrating. The theory, presumably, is that when your vocal cords are vibrating, they can’t get stuck, so you won’t stutter. They’re mostly used for people who have severely damaged vocal cords, for instance due to throat cancer. The site I linked, which is not in any way meant to be negative towards the devices says:

“The major disadvantages of these electromechanical devices is the distinct voice quality. The voice production sounds mechanical and even robot like, distracting the listener’s attention. The electrolarynx requires the use of a hand as has a conspicuous appearance.”

This speech pathologist wanted me to use one of these my freshman year in high school. I told her that I didn’t think I needed something that extreme. This is when she got angry. She told me that my stutter would hold me back from anything I wanted to do in life. That if I didn’t overcome the stutter (by using the electrolarynx, I guess), I would end up working in the dead letter center of the post office, where I would sort mail all day and never have to talk to anyone. Yes, apparently in addition to being an expert on the phsyical aspects of speech, she could also see into the future and she knew specifically that I would end up sorting mail.

Now, that’s a little troubling for a young teenager who certainly has hopes and dreams beyond mail sorter and has always tended to believe adults. But I still didn’t go for the electrolarynx. In fact, I never went back to see her. Or anyone else while I was in high school.

And yet, somehow I managed to compete on two mock trial teams, once as a witness, once as an attorney, and entered a competition to win a spot on a tour of Washington DC that required me to not only write an essay, but also give a speech and answer questions from a panel of judges. I won.

Public speaking doesn’t bother me. I can prepare for that. A person who stutters can generally tell when a word is going to cause trouble and can subsitute if necessary. I have a wide vocabulary. It helps. A therapist once told me that substitution holds you back as much as stuttering itself because it keeps you from expressing yourself exactly as you want. Well, maybe so, but at least it allows you to express yourself. And using more of your vocabulary isn’t necessarily a bad thing anyway.

In my first real job after college, I was a technical writer, just as I am now, but I had to do a lot of training. I wanted to be sure that I conveyed all the important points and I didn’t want stuttering to keep me from doing that. I made Powerpoint slides and extensive handouts. If I was having trouble, I just pointed at the bullet point in question and talked around it. The class participants never knew the difference.

Things are more difficult when you can’t substitute, like when you have to give your address or social security number. Often, these situations take place on the phone, which is already a tricky situation (there’s even a brochure on tips for using the phone if you stutter). I cannot recount the number of times I’ve been hung up on or had the person on the line say, “are you there? are you there!?” Most frustrating of all is when I’ve finally managed to get the words out at great difficulty, only to have the person talk over me as I’m getting the words out: “I think we’re having trouble with the line”. Or, to have them say, “I think there was some static. I didn’t hear that very well. Could you repeat it?” Do you have any idea how difficult it was for me to fight those syllables out? And now you want me to do it again? It makes you weary. You get tired of saying, “I stutter.” “I have a speech disorder.” “Please be patient with me.” Once, I was attempting to get information from my medical insurance company and the agent refused to help me. He thought I wasn’t who I said I was because I stumbled over my social security number.

After college, I gave therapy one last try. The clinic I went to used the same technique as my sixth grade therapist, but I tried not to hold it against them. This was the technique showcased on 20/20 by John Stossel. (He stutters too, you know.) My troubles were not unlike those I had in the sixth grade. Once I got the slurring down to a minimum and the syllables almost at regular speed, I was supposed to use this new speech at work. I was at my first real job. Everyone was older than me. I was trying to prove myself. Altering my speech to sound like Darth Vader was unthinkable to me.

And I had that hidden fear that people would think I was, well, a stuttering baboon. People who stutter are often mistaken for having problems with mental capacity. When you can’t communicate fully, when you have obvious physical difficulty doing so, it’s a common assumption. When you stutter, you feel trapped. Your mind is full of thoughts and ideas, but you can’t communicate them.

This transcript of a chat where people asked questions to John Stossel and a doctor who specializes in stuttering shows that we all tend to have had the same experiences:

“My son is a stutterer and gets tormented at school. People think he’s of a lesser intelligence, although he is an honor student, but that doesn’t mean much to them.”

“Sometimes find myself feeling sorry for myself, because I know people think I’m less intelligent or retarded or whatever. ”

“…actually kept teachers in my school from letting me participate in such activities as Boy’s State, or other things which I would represent the school.”

Even now, no one really knows the cause of stuttering. It’s thought to be genetic, neurological, misfiring of brain synapses. A recent study found that delayed auditory feedback (one of the many therapies I’ve tried) can make those who stutter fluent and those who don’t stutter disfluent. There’s something going on in the part of the brain that controls speech.

When I was a kid, and people told me that I would never make anything of my life because of the stutter, I clung to the list of famous people who stutter. Marilyn Monroe (the reason for her raspy tone), James Earl Jones, Winston Churchill, Carly Simon, Mel Tillis. They were successful in life. They found a way to work with their stutters. And people even liked them! I would remember them when I was feeling like a freak.

Several years ago, Nick Brendon, Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I hestitate to even explain that; everyone watches Buffy, right?), became a spokesperson for the Stuttering Foundation of America (SFA). Nick stutters. The Webmaster for Nick’s official site set up a way for fans to donate to the SFA in honor of Nick’s birthday.

I can’t say enough about the SFA. They provide resources for people who stutter, particulary kids, who feel alone and trapped and hopeless. They provide resources for teachers, so that no child has to go through what I did in the sixth grade. And they fund research so that one day we’ll have a cure.

When I was a kid, everyone always told me, “you’ll grow out of it.” And so I waited. Every year, I wondered, is this the year I stop stuttering? That year never came. Kids need more hope than that. And the SFA gives that to them.

Kids who stutter are like all kids. They are bright and creative, full of ideas and dreams. It is a terrible waste if stuttering keeps all that trapped inside them.

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