My back story

No-one knows about the knot in your stomach and the skyrocketing anxiety levels when the phone rings. You jump in fear and panic. You know you won’t be able to answer unless you exhale most of your breath and then squeeze out a few words with what’s left – this is the only way you can sort of produce conversation. By that time, not only are you hyperventilating, but in terror of what’s expected of you next. That is, if the person at the other end of the line hasn’t hung up on you yet because the silence or the strange sounds must mean that there is something wrong with the connection.

If you do get past the greeting, not only are you frantically searching for a ‘together-sounding’ reply to recover face, which you have just so miserably lost. You’re also anxiously scanning for synonyms; words with softer, more flowing sounds to bring your meaning across so you don’t get completely stuck on the next word again.

When the call, finally, mercifully ends, you’re physically exhausted, heart racing and trying to recover your breath, but the utter humiliation and frustration at your powerlessness that settles in the pit of your stomach is the worst to bear. The person on the other end of the line meanwhile had no idea what an innocent chat had put you through.

All people knew is that I seemed not to enjoy speaking on the phone and that I was terribly organized – I had a funny quirk of setting the next coffee date with a friend at the end of the previous one. Especially before the event of SMS’s and voice notes, I had no other way to arrange to meet with my friends. Their casual – ‘I’ll give you a call to get together again’, sent a wave of anxiety through me and I would wait in tense anticipation for that inevitable ringing of the phone.

In a way, a stutter is a more challenging disability to live with than others are. If you’re in a wheelchair, people see you’re disabled and make allowances for it, but with an intermittant stutter, you’re expected to function normally in an environment that’s not suited to your situation and makes no allowances for it.

I started stuttering when I was 4. I tried all I could to stop. I saw my stutter as a flaw that was up to me to fix. I was very hard on myself. I tried speaking fluently by sheer willpower, getting my hopes up when it actually worked for a while just to have them dashed again when my speaking disintegrated again. I spent years in bitter disappointment at myself and my inability to overcome this thing. I was a failure in my own eyes. I couldn’t rely on myself to keep it together while everyone else, with far less willpower, managed just fine.

I tried to make up for it by being the picture of discipline everywhere else in my life. Meanwhile, my mother tried various stutter cures on me – from hypnotherapy to faith healing, but my stutter persisted. It was shortly after the failed faith healing episode when I was 16, that I told my mother I didn’t want to find any more stutter cures. I just wanted to be left alone so I could feel normal.

It was a horrible experience over many, many years. The more anxious I became, the more I stuttered and the more I stuttered, the more my anxiety levels rose. I developed a way of exhaling most of my breath and then squeezing out a few words with the rest of it, which left me gasping for air after even the shortest of conversations. My worst fear was meeting another stutterer. Being exposed to their pain and embarrassment as well as mine felt too much to handle.

My school years were fraught with fear of being asked to speak in class. My mother would give me letters for the new teachers to fill them in on my stutter. Some were sympathetic, others refused to treat me any different to the other kids. As I got to high school, my mother decided that I was old enough to handle the teachers myself, so I would catch them on their way to my classroom on their first day of teaching us. There was nothing positive for me about these passage chats. If I stuttered with them, I felt mortified, if I didn’t, they wouldn’t believe I really did stutter and chances were, they’d ignore my request. I couldn’t win and all the while I was still feeling utterly disappointed in myself for not having managed to get my stutter under control.

My homework time was spent a bit differently to other kids. I wasn’t great at maths, and I couldn’t ask questions in class, so I anxiously laboured away trying to learn everything off by heart without understanding it. Languages were easier for me, but no less fraught with anxiety. I spent ages during my daily homework time, putting together a grammatically correct sentence with words that I could actually get out to read aloud in german class because there I had to speak – we went through the rows – each of us had to read a sentence.

I brought my own sandwiches to school. I preferred this to standing in the canteen queue stressing about how to get my order out above the general noise and chatter and aware that the moms on duty were under pressure to serve the kids quickly before the bell rang again. I spent break times on the library porch, avoiding social contact, pretending to be engrossed in my book.

Some kids would try draw me out, invite me to their groups, but I politely declined. I had learnt to be very polite so I would never stand out or get into any kind of trouble which meant speaking in the face of anger or judgment, my worst. Social chit chat was an ordeal for me so at least in the library (talking is forbidden) I had temporary relief from my permanent anxiety state – until the bell rang again.

All the while I felt terribly lonely and embarrassed at being the unpopular kid; the one that always ended up without a partner; the one that couldn’t just quickly phone a friend if I’d forgotten exactly which pages to read for that history test. I wasn’t slow or stupid. I often had the answer first when the teacher asked the class. I just couldn’t get it out.

After school, I went on to study Industrial Psychology in the hopes that my stutter would resolve itself as I was told it often does, especially in girls.

My stutter persisted and after I graduated, I was stuck. I had to fall back on my hobby as an income and started teaching guitar. I married soon after, ran my guitar studio from home and raised children, divorced, ran my Reiki practice, married, ran my landscaping business, divorced and became an eco-gardening, permaculture consultant and then a life coach.

All the while, I hid my stutter whenever I could. I did not think to stutter freely, or that the onus on how to deal with it, is actually on the listener, since it isn’t my fault. People around me believed that stuttering was a means of seeking attention, that I stuttered because I was traumatized and stressed or that there was something wrong with my brain. As a result, I carefully cultivated a ‘have-it-all-together’ persona that never sought attention, showed any stress, or made any mistakes. I managed fine except when my utterly mortifying stutter would hijack my efforts, often when it counted most to make a good impression – especially on the phone.

Until the age of 53, this persona was my life. I justified my actions with reasons that had nothing to do with my stutter and I believed them myself. I did not want to accept how my stutter actually ran my life until finally, I had no choice but to ‘came out’:

Things got so bad I no longer saw a way forward. I felt completely lost and alone while everyone was keeping me at arms length – my persona, meant to protect me, had become my prison. My usual style when things stopped working out, was to change friends and neighbourhoods, but for the first time ever, I could see nothing but darkness up ahead. My stutter, meanwhile, began feeling like a sob.

My saving grace were my two grown children who each in their own way made me realize that I had issues. My integrity was shaken as even I struggled to understand myself and I knew it was time to come clean.

I set out to find the real reasons for living the way I did. I came up with the following list of coping strategies, driven by my stutter. I called them my adaptive behaviours.

  • I cut ties with my german background to break with my diffcult school and home life growing up. I also found it easier to speak in english and so I simply switched cultures and married an english South African. It cost me belonging, my roots,  and my language.
  • I moved a lot between places and friends because I was fluent with strangers and then less so as people got to know me better. It would become increasingly hard to belong and be included until I would eventually withdraw into silence and friends would fall away. I would be ok on my own for a while, relieved at simply being left alone, but then I’d get lonely and would reach out to new people and the cycle would begin again. The result was that I had no-one besides my kids who had known me long enough to be a decent sounding board for me and it kept costing me my tribe and my home.
  • I had to constantly be in a relationship because I needed a bridge to the world, to speak for me when I couldn’t – especially in emergencies. A relationship also took care of my feeling of isolation. This fear-based motivation to find a partner meant that I jumped in too quickly, too completely and then had relationship issues to work on that for others would have been dealbreakers straight away.
  • I always worked for myself as teacher, consultant, or expert because I don’t stutter when I am the one in authority. Although proud of what I have achieved by myself, I can only get so far on my own and working alone adds to my isolation.
  • I used to seek deep spiritual energy connections with the opposite sex – sometimes inappropriate and damaging to my current relationships. I did this because I spoke fluently on spiritual topics which calmed me during bumpy stuttering patches, whereas emotional topics would choke me up. This also fulfilled my need for deep connection which my persona would not allow me on an emotionsl level. I justified these connections with ‘convention doesn’t apply because it’s spiritual and platonic’. Trouble was, it’s the same energy and sooner or later the other made sexual advances which I allowed because I didn’t want to lose the connection. I would end up hurting the man I was in a relationship with and then usually I ended up losing both men.
  • I avoided emotional connections with people – where I had to be transparent and vulnerable because I stutter severely when I am emotional. This meant I had no-one to turn to when I felt down, and I felt isolated to the point of alienation. I felt like an onlooker in life, like I didn’t really exist. Others were daunted by me and felt under pressure to have it all together around me.
  • I spurned social chit chat and just hanging out in a group although I actually enjoy light-hearted banter. Whereas others can relax in a group and let their hair down, I get anxious. I stutter severely when it’s all about witty exchanges and jokes. So, I told myself I was above such things because they weren’t available to me. To others, I came across as aloof and controlled and my life lacked fun and laughter as a result.
  • I created a persona of enigma to justify withdrawing from life. I adopted the image of the mountain top mystic. I declared myself weird so people wouldn’t ask uncomfortable questions. I retreated into my own world, focussing on my spirituality to keep myself distracted and busy. It was a pragmatic solution, but I experienced constant pressure to live up to that persona while feeling unseen and lonely underneath. I became so good at it that I believed my persona was the authentic me, and the authentic me some unwelcome lesser version of myself which popped up mostly when the chips were down.
  • I withdrew in conflict situations because I stutter severely when I have to speak up for myself especially at the risk of inflaming someone’s anger. I diffused situations to keep the peace and became good at rising above them. The cost was not having my own back and leaving my children to fend for themselves.
  • I hid my stutter from others as well as myself because it embarrassed me, and it made others feel uncomfortable. This caused huge pressure and anxiety because I didn’t know when next it was going to ambush me. The longer I spoke, the more likely it was to happen. I tended to rush conversations because I didn’t know whether I would still be able to say what I wanted to say once the time was right for it, or I was reticent to speak. Both approaches distorted the natural flow of conversation.
  • I pretended to be above others, so I didn’t have to accept that there was something ‘wrong’ with me. This started out as a survival strategy growing up.  I simply had to find a way forward and be bloody good at it too to make it in the world.  I felt I could not allow myself vulnerability, so I held it all in and soldiered on. The result was that there was nothing in me that others could resonate with unless they were playing the same game and that then became an alliance, not an authentic connection. I came across as daunting and judgmental while I felt isolated and alienated even from myself.
  • I didn’t allow myself mistakes or negligence. Forced into making a fool of myself whenever I stuttered, I made sure I didn’t do so in other ways too, those I could actually do something about. The result was constant pressure with the accompanying stress and anxiety. Others experienced me as obsessed with unimportant detail and micro-managing.
  • I valued rising above situations, above all else. To escape all the pent-up emotional energy, I simply rose above it. It gave me a break from my anxiety state, but I became an onlooker instead of a participant in life and my relationships suffered.
  • I had little empathy either for others or for myself. Feeling the pain of others, added to my own and made it unbearable. I cultivated a solution-focussed, pragmatic approach to life’s knocks. It cost me connectedness to others and life in general while I struggled with exaggerrated empathy for animals onto which I projected my undealt-with pain. I felt intense anguish for any animal at the mercy of callous human beings.

List completed, I was relieved. At least I made sense to myself again. I had valid reasons for my actions after all. I posted part of the list onto the Stuttering Community facebook group – rather proud of my efforts.

One of the replies became the turning point for me, although initially, I was livid. It started out complimenting me on my depth of self-insight and continued with ‘these behaviours can all be worked on’. I was certainly not going to do that! This was my life; I had no other choice!

After I calmed down, it occurred to me that the one thing that would render the entire list obsolete, was if I were to just stop hiding from my stutter, embrace it, tell others upfront and just generally have my own back as a stutterer. I knew then that my adaptive behaviours were actually avoidant behaviours that basically made me a scam.

What followed was a decidedly uncomfortable few weeks where I for the first time shared myself as a stutterer to all and sundry.  I felt completely naked to the point of even my skin stripped off, but at the same time strangely liberated. Life was so much simpler not having to continually put up a brave front.

Through the discomfort, I was amazed to be met with compassion, understanding and even relief at my being human after all.  While I felt like I was falling apart, others seemed to think I was falling together and cheered me on. Sharing my feelings, I opened up again and loved simply being myself after a lifetime of persona-prison. I regret I didn’t take this step much sooner.

Overcoming a stutter, I discovered, is not to stop stuttering, it’s not letting it overcome me. It’s not hiding it or avoiding trigger situations; it’s stuttering loud and proud – with confidence.

My impossible goal had been to stop stuttering. Now my attainable goal is becoming comfortable with my stutter, to loosen it and not avoid difficult words or subjects. When I do get stuck now, I don’t feel bad anymore because everyone knows and understands, and I can simply focus on speaking.

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