Making Allowances

After last week’s post on authenticity, some really compelling conversation took place on Facebook where an interesting question arose: is being covert about one’s stutter (or even passing as fluent) still being authentic? I honestly can’t decide where I fall on this. I can only draw on my own experiences, but I know at least some of the time I was covert, I had convinced myself that I was doing what I needed to do to get by. I felt that in order to gain college and graduate degrees, friends, a boyfriend/husband and a job I had to have fluent privilege. While I know this to be much more nuanced now, I think I was reacting to messages that had been subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly given to me during my development. When I stuttered as I child, I was treated as inferior in the classroom and teased by my peers. As a teen I found sanctuary in introversion and avoidance. However, when I look back on my covert past, I see it as not being completely ethical or honest. This creates a huge internal conflict: do I even deserve the things/accomplishments I have if they were gained through dishonesty?

In the years leading up to coming out of the covert closet, I had the misguided notions that 1. most stutterers were able to use their techniques successfully and/or 2. all people who stuttered openly were totally self-accepting and at peace. I knew I fell in neither category and felt like both a failure and a fraud. I had no knowledge of the term ‘covert’ in regards to stuttering until about 2 years ago. What a huge relief to finally learn that concept, and that I wasn’t the only one living like that.

With all this reflection, I wonder if perhaps I was being my authentic self during my covert years. But I also think maybe I’ve been putting too much emphasis/value on the word authenticity. Sure I wasn’t really owning up to the identity of being a person who stutters, but I was doing what I thought I needed to do. That said, I don’t want to downplay all the work that’s involved with coming out and becoming open about stuttering. Because that was (and sometimes still is) seriously, really hard! I think for me (and probably others), authenticity seeking replaced fluency seeking and has becomes my new obsession. I fear this is equally ineffective and perhaps dangerous.   

What came up next in the discussion was allowing ourselves to be imperfect. We shouldn’t feel bad for sometimes falling into old covert behaviors. They can be self-protection.  We can simultaneously fully accept and love our stutters but be frustrated with how fatiguing talking can sometimes be. I think we get very comfortable complaining about how others react to or treat us, but we feel like hypocrites if we complain about not being able to get a particular word out. Even in the most accommodating situation it can suck to have a clever quip that doesn’t get delivered just how we wanted.  It doesn’t mean you’ve given up the struggle or you stopped believing that there’s nothing wrong with your voice.

We also need to allow ourselves to enjoy our stutters. It’s easy to say I love my stutter because I’ve found joy in the friendships I’ve made or in the opportunities it’s given me. But why not allow ourselves to enjoy the physical act of stuttering. To say, I kind of like this sensation when my mouth or lips do this thing, or I like the way it sounds when I stutter that way. I want to be able to tell my friends that I love the way they stutter.

I think in short, we should be kinder to ourselves.  Chasing an ideal such as authenticity is not much different than chasing fluency.  We still need to keep moving through our own journeys and our collective journey, but we need to realize we’re only humans and allow ourselves to be just that.


A Search For Authentic Stuttering

Lately I’ve become fond of the phrase ‘out of control stuttering’ but I never miss the irony when I use it. Save for voluntary stuttering, are we ever really in control of our dysfluencies?  If you stutter, you most likely know what I’m talking about: those times when the struggle seems enormous and certain syllables or words require a sisyphean effort vs the times when we might not be stuttering less, but the struggle really isn’t there. From what I understand, this is what we talk about when we say ‘messy’ vs ‘clean’ stuttering.

So, is this just part of the variability of stuttering? Why try to qualify it? For me, I constantly wonder if one of these is a more true representation of my voice. Perhaps because I was covert for so long I don’t feel like I even know what my authentic voice really sounds like.

In preparing to write this post, I reached out to friends on Facebook and asked them to give their thoughts on ‘clean’ vs ‘messy’ stuttering. What do those terms mean? What emotions do they evoke?

Most people seemed to agree that ‘clean’ stuttering consists of light, easy repetitions that lack much struggle and secondaries. It is not necessarily more fluent but may be closer to ‘normal’ speech. It may feel like we have more control over emotional elements. Most of the people who answered had a rather neutral feeling about clean stuttering, while they perhaps agreed it was easier and more acceptable.

Messy stuttering, on the other hand, evoked much more discussion. The definition that developed is that ‘messy’ stuttering involves much more struggle, usually with blocks, tension, and secondaries. “Messy” stuttering sometimes happens when we are excited, emotional, tired or ill, but also when we try to hide our stutters. Occasionally and inexplicably, ‘messy’ stuttering seems to happen out of the blue. Regardless of the cause, we often have negative emotion while or after it occurs.

Rather than shedding light on which is more authentic, these discussions led to more questions. Do many of us seek ‘clean’ stuttering because it’s easier or because it’s more acceptable to fluent people? Is striving for clean stuttering just another form of assimilation? Is ‘messy’ stuttering more spontaneous or is it just a negative consequence of trying not to stutter? Can both of these be our most authentic voice, or are they equally valid way to speak and just situational?

I don’t think these questions can be answered easily and probably not in the same way for everyone. Personally I want to be more at peace (even enjoy) my ‘messy’ stuttering. Perhaps not the times when I’m trying not to stutter, but the times when I’m filled with emotion.  Most likely we all need to learn to be comfortable with both our ‘clean’ and ‘messy’ voices. They each have value and drawbacks. Who wants to be one-sided?
Thanks to Carl, Elizabeth S, Pam, Emma, Ian and Jennifer for your contribution to this discussion. I invite anyone to keep this conversation going either in the comments, or on facebook or twitter.

More Than Just Stuttering Pride

Since I’ve returned from the National Stuttering Association conference I’ve found it much easier to stutter openly. I’ve stuttered openly while ordering food in restaurants and while speaking to strangers about their dogs. I’ve also used the conference as a vehicle to begin talking about stuttering with my friends and colleagues. This is sometimes more difficult than being open with a stranger. I have to say I’ve been completely blown away by the responses I’ve gotten. Every single person with whom I’ve shared, has been overwhelmingly supportive and helpful. I’ve been brought to tears by words from colleagues who I thought found me odd and my heart has exploded when talking to close friends who never felt comfortable broaching this subject.

I don’t really know why this surprises me. The people I choose to surround myself with: artists, musicians, writers, activists, environmentalists– they are all freethinkers. We are a community of nonconformists. So I can’t help but think that one reason these people accept and support me is because stuttering is subversive. It pushes against cultural norms in a fierce way. Stuttering openly and without shame attempts to transform the established social order.

I think back on most of the speech therapy I’ve received. While I may not have hated leaving class to go play games in a closet under the stairs, I definitely received a message that my stutter was bad and something that should be fixed. I felt like a constant failure because I could not seem to apply the techniques I learned to the outside world. I didn’t choose to attend speech therapy, nor was I ever consulted about how it made me feel. My parents had good intentions but they were not informed or given choices. I fear that a lot of young people experience speech therapy this way. There is no way to undo the damage this does to us. Because of my experiences in speech therapy, I felt the need to hide my stutter and live covertly. I realize now that it’s true oppression to expect us to change or hide our stutters for the convenience and comfort of others.  It took way too long to realize this was at odds with everything I believed socially and politically.

One thing that became clear to me at the conference is that people who stutter will talk for hours if they are treated respectfully. I know I’m not the only one who actually became hoarse from talking so much. One word I continually heard used to describe the experience was ‘liberating’. It’s so true! It’s incredibly liberating to talk with others who will sit and listen respectfully no matter how long you block or how many repetitions you have. We prove that this is a possible reality.

I want to continue the feelings of liberation and empowerment that I finally felt while at the conference. I want to defiantly finish my sentence even if someone has finished it for me; even if they got it right– or change the words to end it differently just to make a point. I want to allow blocks to go on longer than I have to if I see the person I’m talking to looks annoyed or put out. Or better yet, I want to let blocks or repetitions go on longer because I find them enjoyable. Isn’t true subversion finding power and pleasure in the things society finds defective? Let’s do it.

Reflections on the 2016 National Stuttering Association conference

Early yesterday morning I woke hung-over and exhausted on the 7th floor of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Atlanta, Ga.  I found it nearly impossible to repack my suitcase despite the fact that I had not really acquired much new material substance during my 5 days there.  I decided to go drink the biggest coffee I could find and spend a little time journaling before I made a hasty retreat home–  hopefully free from any tearful goodbyes.

As stepped onto the glass elevator I noticed the lack of purple lanyards and nametags that had come to represent a stranger I could talk to. I no longer could tell who would take the time to hear what I had to say, so instead I looked down into the virtually empty lobby. My hope was to take my coffee and sit in the same chair I’d sat in on the morning when I arrived. I thought it might help me remember my first  apprehensive feelings and begin to process the whirlwind that I’d just experienced. I felt just like my suitcase and I wasn’t sure how to even begin writing with so many thoughts, emotions, ideas and conversations crammed in my brain.

When I had arrived 5 days prior I’d tried not to have any particular expectations. As part of mindfulness, I was trying to just experience without judgment, but I had been given a menu of possible outcomes with terms such as ‘life changing’, ‘overwhelming’, and ‘liberating.’   So I sat in the lobby and waited for my friend Carl to come down from his room– Carl, like so many of the people I was about to meet, was someone I knew through technology, but had never met in person.  I couldn’t help feeling nervous.

Thinking back through each day it’s difficult to even remotely explain the sense of community and common purpose that filled each and every room and meeting place. Despite the variety of ages and nationalities, there was a palpable sense of unity and love, much like an enormous hug.

Now that I’m home and unpacking, I have found tickets for the aquarium and bowling that went unused because it was more important to have spontaneous plans with friends sharing meals, hanging out at bars or just walking around.  I will forever keep close to my heart this collection of conversations and unique voices.   Talking with other people who stutter has now become my favorite thing to do. I had no idea you could spend just 5 days with people and end up loving them as if you’d known them your whole life.

I realize as this is getting longer and longer, that I haven’t even written about the workshops.  There were so many great presenters, but the ones that stand out were not about how to stutter easier or even about our personal stuttering journeys, but about history and solidarity and the next steps. They were about digging deep into your soul and telling your story. They were not mere presentations of material to be stored away, but means to ignite and generate new ideas and actions.  In my heart and mind the conference is not really over. There is so much work to be done.

And that menu of possible outcomes? Yes, It’s all true but so much more.