Stuttering. It’s a simple action (or lack thereof in its truest essence) that has dramatically impacted nearly every facet of my life. As best as I can remember, it became noticeable in my speech pattern at age 6, when my family moved from the South Side of Chicago out to its southern suburbs. Entering second grade with a completely new set of faces exposed a hereditary trait that I didn’t know I had. Soon, I found myself fumbling to say simple words, which caused anxiety and the anxiety caused further shuttering (or stammering, as it’s also called).
Stuttering is a speech disorder characterized by repetition of sounds, syllables, or words; prolongation of sounds; and interruption in speech known as blocks. – U.S. National Institutes of Health
My stuttering subsided a bit once I became more comfortable in my new environment but it exposed a mental gash in my self-confidence at such a young age. In the few years following, I found myself the butt of jokes by friends (you know how rough kids can be), whenever a minor stuttering fit would emerge. This slowly caused my once buoyant personality to slowly drown out, and I gradually became more of an introvert. I preferred to listen more than I spoke and I became more of an observer in social situations. Choosing my words carefully when I had the courage to open my mouth.
Public speaking in junior high soon emerged as my latest threat to self-confidence. I can recall a tremendous amount of anxiety prior to reciting the Gettysburg Address in 7th grade, though I don’t remember having too many issues once the words starting flowing out of my mouth. Strange. I’ll come back to that later.
How a Simple Bet Changed My Life
In the transition from junior high to high school, moving away from my core set of friends to a new group, the problem resurfaced. It seemed to always resurface when I was placed in new social situations. It soon became obvious that those moments are what brought about the dip in self-confidence and the requirement to prove myself again, linguistically. Yet, given that I’d grown to be a kid who liked discovery and challenges, I decided to take my friend, Stephen up on a personal challenge.
I wanted Steve to join the tennis team with me in our freshman spring semester. Steve then said, that he’d join tennis if I joined the speech team in the fall. I’m not sure Steve ever truly understood how much of a reach that bet was for me or even how much his bet completely changed my life, but as I write these words right now, I’m becoming a bit emotional as I look back on that moment.
I later joined the speech team and slowly learned a few tricks to ready myself for public speaking. Steve (and our other mutual friend, Vance) were master speakers – often winning local and regional contests. So I tried to gleam as much as I could from them.
I soon noticed a strange irony that emerges when I’m put in a public speaking situation versus an intimate speech setting – my level of anxiety subsides. It’s as if I know everyone is focused on me and what I’m saying, that I’m able to focus on my story and simply tell it.
To this day, I never write a speech. I either work completely off short bullet points or have a simple story I wish to share stored in my head. The freedom of being able to not have to say specific words or phrases is actually a learned technique. It allows me the creative freedom that is so important to my personality, as well as the psychological freedom to freely maneuver through sounds and comfortably mouth the words that enter my mind. More on this later, too.
Moving from Stammers to Fragments
I only participated on the high school speech team for one year but I still have the ribbon I won for third place in a freshman year speech tournament hanging on my childhood bedroom wall. The speech “scene” just wasn’t my thing, but the experience I gained in that brief semester has helped me tremendously over the last 20+ years. In that time, I’ve given speeches in classroom settings, public events, award dinners, and management/professional development seminars and academies. Yet, I still knew in high school that my stuttering problem had not truly gone away and I wanted to attack it once and for all.
Before leaving high school, I decided to utilize the free services of our school’s speech therapist. I recall meeting with therapist 2 or 3 times during a one-two week span. My goal was to see if this person could help identify my core issue, triggers, and provide any additional tools or tricks. Now, maybe I was a pro at this point at disguising my flaws or the therapist wasn’t any good at their job, but after my few short sessions I was told that I didn’t have a significant issue.
Anyone that knew me at that stage in my life knew that I had a stuttering problem. What I think may have happened was that either I was in a different mental state at that particular time, such that I was completely comfortable and could recite the statements I was asked to read without issue or that I had learned to mask the problem so well that the flaws did not emerge. I vaguely remember telling the therapist that I felt my stuttering had become fragmented speech (or blocks) more so than traditional stuttering or stammering. Let me explain.
If you recall from the definition provided above, stuttering is a multifaceted problem. It can occur (as most people recognize it) as a quick and difficult repetition of sounds in the attempt to say a simple word or syllable. It can also be a prolongation of sounds that occurs sometimes when the person stuttering knows that they are about to reach a difficult set of sounds and attempts to lighten the severity of the potential repetition of sounds. In many cases, stuttering eventually morphs into what I call fragmented speech (or “blocks”, as stated by NIH).
In my case this happened as a natural progression from sound repetition or prolonged pronunciations to simply recognizing (mentally) that I was about to reach a word or combination of sounds that would cause anxiety because I knew that I naturally had trouble with these sounds. For instance, in my case, to this day I still have trouble with words that start with soft M’s, hard D’s, middle throat A’s, as well as a whole host of other syllables whether within a single word or a blend across two separate words.
So over the years, I’ve become so adept in the English language that I’m able to recognize in my mind when these issues are about to emerge and navigate away from a particular word or phrase and input a substitute. Or I simply slow down, increase, or completely stop my speech rate to get through it physical action of mouthing the words, if I can’t find a better option fast enough in my mind. This creates fragmented speech. Ironically, most people that I talk to in English don’t even recognize this speech pattern, but trust me it’s taken years and many a frustration situation to get to this point. In the other languages I speak, it is not that easy.
A Simply Analogy to Imagine What It Feels Like for Non-Stutterers
Before I get to the part of the story where I explain how someone with such internal torture around speaking also has a self-mutilating desire to force themselves into situations that naturally cause them tremendous anguish, let me try to explain to non-stutterers what it feels like physically to have this issue.
Imagine that you’ve been using your arm for the first six years of your life without any issue. Then one day, someone asks you to pick up a glass and bring it towards them, and you recognize that you can’t lift your arm. Frightening, yes? Now over the years you recognize this issue but also start to recognize that it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes it occurs when you least expect it and yet the social pain that it causes is quite debilitating when it happens.
For someone who stutters, it is literally the inability to physical speak the words that come to your mind. Your mind is a muscle just like those in your arm, and just like you arm can become temporarily paralyzed, the feeling of stuttering, prolongation, or fragmented speech feels much the same. This can occur for a variety of reasons, some related to breathing patterns, vocal chords, stress, etc. But nonetheless, it’s the simply inability for your body to do something that your mind communicates to it.
That Day in Verona
So now that you hopefully have a better understanding of how this issue emerges and affects those affected by it, let me jump ahead a few years in my own personal experience. Earlier this year during our time living in Europe, my wife and I had the pleasure of spending a lot of quality time with my friends in Spain and Italy. In Spain, I found myself walking through the streets of Sevilla speaking English with my wife on one side of me and either Spanish or Italian with my friend Ricardo on the other side me. Ricardo speaks Spanish natively, Italian, and English. We often float across all three languages in person, in text messaging, and our monthly Skype discussions. While hanging with my friend Sara in Italy a few weeks later, I’d often speak Italian to Sara in one sentence and then English or a little Spanish to my wife in another sentence (since she had just spent the last two months learning Spanish in Sevilla).
Well during our afternoon in Verona in early July, my mind reached a breaking point. I was finding the mental gymnastics of floating between these three languages a bit too challenging and my mind needed a break. As we sat down for a café across from the beautiful Colosseo in Verona, I sat quiet and frustrated. Soon, Sara would pose a question that lit a fire in me to try to both understand and explain why I seemed to be putting myself in a naturally precarious situation. Essentially, she asked me why our trip seemed like such torture for me.
It May Seem Like Torture But it’s a Deep Challenge
Now if you recall from my childhood stories above, my speech anxiety always seems to rise in new social situations. In English, I can comfortably navigate and disguise my flaws. In second and third languages this defense becomes nearly impossible until one becomes an almost native speaker. I can navigate much more in Spanish than in Italian. But the simple fact that there are certain sounds that I will ALWAYS have problems with, doesn’t help when those two languages are composed primarily of those sounds.
English (especially American English) is a lazy language. It’s easy to slide through sounds or choose a word with a similar meaning but completely different phonetic structure. Not the same in those southern romance languages. So not only was it difficult to regain my natural comfort in those languages and think through how I want to express a thought, it was also difficult to flip back and forth and across sounds that I knew would cause me great difficulty.
Nevertheless, as I wrote in my poem, “Who I Am” – “For when you’re vulnerable, you’re really strong, if you’re able to take the blow and move on”- this is truly the case with language immersion, especially for someone who stutters. Perhaps it’s because I love to overcome challenges that I gravitated beyond the English language. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t put myself through mental and physically debilitating situations. Like our day in Verona or the couple of times I was bedridden on two separate occasions during my Italian language immersion trips in 2012 and 2013 because my mind had reached the point of short-circuit/shut down. Yet, thankfully, each time I emerged stronger than before.
Behind the Pen: Thirsty
I wrote the poem, Thirsty, in November 1998 – my sophomore year in college. It was during one of the most creatively productive periods of my life. Again, it was a year after a major switch in social settings. Hence, the anguish of fragmented speech re-emerged during my many nights out with friends or new acquaintances when I failed to express a thought, desire, or a joke, simply because I didn’t know if I would have the physical ability to mouth the words.
In the poem, I chose the visual of a tongue in a battle with a knife and all the twists and turns that occur in the mind when one wants to speak but is unable to do so. Such is the line, “The body can only perform what the soul chooses to explain / My mouth is not performing/ Incarcerated, it remains.” This was also during the time of the Chicago Bulls second 3-peat championship run and as a native Chicagoan, I was enthralled in every game. So I massaged in a bit of symbolism with not only the tongue’s battle but also with the strategy and deception that occurs at the height of sports to disguise/overcome one’s weaknesses.
Later I allude to how the soul wrestles with the body to express desires that the body is unable to perform, leaving the soul “caught in a daze.” This leads to issues with expressing romantic desires simply as a result of the anxiety of potentially exposing flaws and being transported back to the emotional torture of a middle school aged kid being mocked by friends.
As a result, there were many nights during my college years, when I’d return home at a “time the world grows dark, yet its imagery is bright” [as] “The body calmly relaxes into the long awaiting night.” In those moments, I’d often fall asleep replaying the events of the night in my mind – thinking how I could have done it better, or how I’ll try something different the next time. These were the times I’d contemplate my wrongs but given my age (at the time), it was easy to rationalize my flaws.
Ironically, as the years have progressed and my experience has been gained, the mental trials have recessed. Such that, my tongue has slowly been able to conquer the knife and I’ve fulfilled my everlasting thirst for speaking the languages that I love and sharing my passions with the world.
has been difficult in this life.
conquers the tongue with a knife.
The body can only perform
what the soul chooses to explain.
My mouth is not performing
Incarcerated, it remains.
Inside the mellow kingdom
of the silent assassin,
the elves are always busy;
elaborate defenses they are crafting.
The offense is running the triangle
a wise winter created;
However my defense is too strong;
My mind continuously inundated.
The opponent is not the enemy,
It is a dichotomous combination.
The conflict, however, remains it is
necessary and builds frustration.
Once the game is won
and victory is praised;
The soul explains to the body
it is caught in a daze.
Tangled in a web of
infatuation and trust,
The body begins to constrict
Yearning for infinite lust.
At this time the world grows dark,
Yet its imagery is bright,
The body calmly relaxes
into the long awaiting night.
But the body has been framed,
By the soul it thought was sane,
The imagery of the world
was created in vain.
As the body adjourns to
sentence the soul;
The jury is still hung,
the case is then closed.
The thoughts in this soul
have always been bold.
The conflict arises,
the tongue frozen in the winter’s cold.
The judge sentenced the soul
to contemplate its wrong.
The soul is young and furious,
Rationalization doesn’t take long.
Experienced is gained
as the years progress.
The trials in this court
will exponentially recess.
Yet, truth in the soul must
always be first,
the tongue must conquer the knife
to fulfill its everlasting thirst. – Nov 25, 1998
Want More – Hit Me Up
If you find this or any of my other work showcased in the “Behind the Pen” series interesting or inspiring, feel free to leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter @Jarard29. I’ll happily provide an electronic copy of my entire book of poetry upon request. Be sure to check back from time to time for links to future releases and life stories.