Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stuttering: The King's Speech

I caught a little bit of the Oscars with my daughter and loved the part where the old man who won Best Screenplay for The King’s Speech concluded his speech by saying “stutterers have a voice.” This hit home for me because stuttering runs in my family. When I was a kid, in first grade, I left the regular classroom twice a day, once to go to with the second graders for reading and once to go with the kids who needed help with their speech. I have two brothers and two of us stutter. I say “stutter” because it never really goes away, although it’s improved greatly over time and no one, not even my wife, knows when I stutter.

Here’s how it works: When I have time to think about starting a sentence with a certain sound I cannot say it and instead must trick myself into starting with a different word. For example, if I have to say the word “when” (‘w’ sounds are particularly troubling) I have a choice of either stuttering, “w, w, w, when… or changing the sound and beginning with, for example, “um, when …”

To those of you who’ve never stuttered this must sound crazy. In fact, reading over it and putting it down on the page makes me laugh at myself. How is it that I cannot simply say a simple sound? I truly don’t know, but know that this slight reminder of the chronic stutter I had as a child still remains. Even more puzzling is that simply talking about it will make even worse for a few weeks, until the memory that I am a slight stutterer fades back into my mind.

In some ways, having this slight stutter has its benefits. For example, it can act as an indicator of stress in my life as when it “acts up” or when I find myself almost stuttering (and having to think of different words) for sounds that used to flow smoothly, I’m reminded that my mind is overtaxed and falling back into old habits that I thought I’d overcome.

Another benefit is empathy. I work with a lot of alcoholics and addicts as well as a lot of people who can’t understand why they can’t simply walk away from the drug they’re addicted to. It reminds me of being a kid and stuttering over a word and then having someone try to help me by modeling the way my mouth should move to pronounce it, as if somehow I’d forgotten to just move my lips around the sound. I wanted to say, “Don’t you think if that were the problem that I’d have tried that by now?” or “Do you think I’m that stupid?”

But, like addiction, it’s very hard to reverse roles with the person who’s afflicted. Right after college I worked at a consulting company designing marketing materials for people whose main job was to speak to large groups of people. I worked behind the scenes, writing and editing some of the materials they used and occasionally speaking before them. When I struggled, the audience was not very forgiving because I was failing at a skill they took for granted and which likely came very naturally for them. When I fell silent for a minute and tried my trick of thinking of a different syllable to begin a sentence, they frequently finished my sentence for me, impatient with my lack of speed and command. I didn’t dare confess to being a secret stutterer to this group as this would have been viewed as a weakness rather than an affliction.

One day at this job, however, my boss corrected me emphatically. I told him, probably wanting to avoid having to avoid speaking in front of a group, that I “was a bad public speaker.” He was a very patient individual, an amazing speaker, but he also understood that the key to solving problems was knowing where to begin. He said, and I’ll never forget this, “Stop saying that you’re a bad speaker and start saying “I need to work on my speaking skills.” It sounded ridiculous at first, sort of like the person who told me, when I stuttered, to “just say it,” but I told him I’d give it a try. He pressed on, asking me if I would commit to presenting in front of a large group at an upcoming conference. Terrified, but having just agreed to try something new, I told him I would.

When the day arrived, I didn’t stun the audience with my command of language, but I did o.k. There were two reasons for this: (1) My boss set the stage for me by introducing me and convincing the audience to welcome me with a big round of applause which created a welcome environment, and (2) simply thinking of myself as needing to work on my speaking skills rather than simply being a “bad speaker” gave my brain permission to look for ways to solve the problem and opened up the possibility that I wasn’t simply bad but just needed to work on acquiring this skill. I found this simple trick, which I laughed at at first, to be amazing in practice.

Not long after that, as I presented a different boss with something I’d written, and commented that I lacked the speaking skills to deliver it she commented that “if you have the mind to create it, you can have the mind to present it. It’s the same process.” This was even more stunning to me because I’d always thought of myself as a writer rather than a speaker. Hearing that moving from creating something that worked on a page to something that worked on a stage, or at a podium, was “the same process” was also stunning to me. More importantly, it gave me permission to open a closed door and stop pretending that I was just “bad” at speaking in front of a group. Instead, her words gave me permission to work on a skill that I lacked rather than hiding behind this deficiency as if it could never change.

Shortly after that came law school. I was 29 years old and would know no one in my class. Since I was late to the law school game, I had the benefit of hindsight to know that I wanted to do something I enjoyed. I decided the path that sounded most intriguing was to be a trial lawyer. Rather than admitting that I was a bad public speaker or even that I needed to work on my public speaking skills, I decided to tell myself and anyone that would listen that I was going to be a trial lawyer, as if my public speaking skills came as naturally as those silver tongued orators and natural public speakers that graced Court TV at night.

I approached the President of ATLA my first week of law school and announced that I wanted to join. I expected her to hand me a sign up sheet or a brochure, but instead she dug in her locker and handed me a thick file. She was a 3L, looked stressed beyond belief, and she said, “Here you go, you’re the new president.”

When I got out of law school and did my first jury trial I was scared beyond belief. Pretending to be a trial lawyer may have worked to trick my own mind and a few classmates, but these stakes were high and real. I felt like the jig was up, like I might be discovered or my stutter return. But I also discovered something as puzzling as my stutter when I stood beside my client. When it was about him and not about me, I didn’t think about stuttering. Sure I was nervous, but stuttering didn’t enter my mind. If I “tripped” over a letter or a sound, I could get around that easily since once I got going I didn’t have time to think about old, bad habits that crept up only when I had time to worry about them. Since this was about his future and about winning against that prosecutor, neither stuttering nor my old belief that I was bad at speaking entered my mind.

When the judge called us back in chambers after the case went to the jury he said I did well with what I’d been given. When the jury hung, I felt like I pulled of a great trick. And I was hooked.

I used to feel guilty about stuttering, as if I made a bad choice or couldn’t overcome a simple problem on my own. Then once I attended a large family reunion and witnessed an uncle, whom I’d never met up to that point, stammer and stutter over his words, nervous to be speaking before the group and unable to sound out the same sounds that often tripped me up or made me start over. It was like looking in a mirror.

It also made me realize that the stutter I’d heard my father describe also had it’s roots on my mother’s side of the family, as it was her brother whose speech seemed so much like mine. It also offered proof that this problem was likely hereditary, that it was more like a disease to be treated than a weakness to be hidden or ashamed of.

Once in awhile I speak to a client and quietly tell them that I know their secret. I tell them that only I can spot it but that I see them doing exactly what I do, trick their own mind into avoiding an obvious stutter by choosing different words before their mind has time to trip them up. Not once has anyone ever argued with me over this and every time they’ve seemed amazed that I can spot what they so craftily conceal.

I go on to tell them not to feel ashamed, that it’s only noticeable to someone like me and that it “takes one to know one.”

It’s nice to see some attention paid to this issue, to know that more people will understand it or at least not be so quick to judge it or so patronizing in their stated cures for it. It’s nice to know that stutterers can learn to have a voice.

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