It's a war of words in your belly
The King’s Speech, the new rage movie, and which I have not yet seen, is about stuttering. But let me, if I may, tell you a few things about it, stuttering that is if you’ve seen the movie or not.
First. I am a chronic stutterer. You might have known me for years and never known this about me. Chronic, yes, because it has been a life-long challenge and it can floor me in an instant. You may have heard me preach, seen me address thousands of people for days in a row, for hours at a time, and never heard even a momentary hesitation in my presentation.
But I am. I am a chronic stutterer.
It can debilitate me in a moment; trip me up like a vicious booby trap – the kind you see explode in Vietnam movies – and leave me afraid, humiliated, withdrawn, as if I’d committed some great, premeditated immorality.
But don’t feel sorry for me. I am used to it. I’ve been handling this recalcitrant, irascible puppy since “mama” wrestled around my throat refusing to come easy.
Really, if I’d known as a 12-year-old boy that there’d come a day when much of my future and income would depend on getting up in front of crowds of three (yes, three people waiting for you to speak when you are a stutterer can feel like a legion) to 5000, I think I’d have ended it all right then. I’d have (unannounced of course – since I might have bungled the delivery) walked off a high rise building in my city. I might have ended the anxiety, sleepless nights, practicing openers, trying to guess when a teacher would put me on the spot, the fear of the giggles, and the avoidance of the benevolent do-gooders who’d say “say it slowly” or “let’s try that again.” I’d have punched the self-appointed speech therapists in the face when I was 12 if I wasn’t also so darn eager to please, eager to be accepted, and, most importantly, didn’t have to explain my actions to anyone later.
So here’s a few tips about stutterers – keep in mind we are all very different:
Stutterers are cunning. They learn to negotiate the text, script, context – they become masters of improvisation. They are escape artists – they see the troublesome words fighting for position down the track (actually deep in the belly) and so they take detours in their own sentences. He or she can call the bluff on that difficult phrase like it was a surly or uncooperative adolescent, and chooses another more compliant, often more complex phrase, and go with that. You, the listener, are usually none the wiser. You’ve not been privy to the re-arrangement, the shifting of verbs and conjunctions for more oiled, more compliant combination to take its place.
Stuttering is pernicious. It goes underground for months then pops up like an angry ex to bark knowingly at your world when you least want her to.
Here’s the thing: I can speak to an auditorium jammed with people for an hour, and then have some adolescent coffee barista shrink in embarrassment as I try to say “small cappuccino” in the food court next door. I can read an entire chapter of a classic novel to a group of literature students and then I can’t get “where’s the restroom” out of my throat a minute later. I can make a flawless appeal to a foundation in London to a poker-faced board and then, even if my life was dependent upon it, I cannot say the name of the station I need to the ticket seller in the underground. It can get so bad that I carry and pencil and note cards for when mute is a more desirable option.
Stutterers are survivors. We go at it again and again. While we may avoid situations and not volunteer for certain roles, we are not looking for sympathy or accommodations.
So how to treat a stutterer? Look him in the eye. Don’t speak for him. Don’t prompt him. He’s probably not having a stroke so don’t immediately call 911.
Relax – that’s what we all need to do more of anyway.