Thursday, July 29, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

I stutter. It's a speech impediment I've had for as long as I can remember speaking. The nature of the stutter has shifted over time. Originally it was mostly the letter "L" but now it's more often the letter "V" and "N." "D" has always been a tricky one which, given my name, has posed unique problems.

Since stuttering is both physiological and psychological, the severity of my impediment fluctuates and, while never fully absent, it has been in a manageable state since I was a teenager. It's least prevalent when I'm drinking and around friends, most prevalent when I'm in stressful environments. The great joke about stuttering is that it is almost always more pronounced when one is stressed out and nothing stresses the stutterer out more than a fear of stuttering and the fear of the reactions of others to the stutter. I will also say that I have known severe stutterers and fully acknowledge that mine has never been more than moderate and has never inhibited my ability to communicate significantly nor did it impede my academic success. It did, however, greatly inhibit my willingness to communicate greatly during my childhood and adolescence.

I hated to speak. I was terrified to speak. I knew that if I opened my mouth in any institutional situation, I would stutter and as a child I wasn't able to rationally comprehend the relative meaningless of a blocked consonant or prolonged vowel here and there. You stutter, everyone laughs at you. What's more terrifying to a nine year old than everyone laughing at you? At restaurants, I remember, I would slip away to the restroom and I would tell my mom or dad what I wanted to order "just in case the waitress came," neither wanting to suffer the embarrassment of asking outright for them to order for me nor the embarrassment of stuttering out "crab cake sandwich." I never introduced myself to people. I never struck up conversations with strangers. I did somehow manage to get through a summer theatre camp and be my middle school's spelling bee champion, however.

As a result of my fear of speaking, I learned to listen. I learned to listen very closely. Speech was my most precious commodity, when I did have to speak I wanted it to be as quick and effective as possible. I didn't have the luxury of being a recreational talker, bullshitting and gossipping and yammering on. I also cultivated a massive vocabulary and learned how to use it. If my tongue's getting caught on the "c" in "comprehend," let's try "understand" instead. "Requirements" tricky today? Let's go with "exigencies." English and its massive, flexible vocabulary drawing from several different linguistic traditions might be the most friendly to the stutterer.

Because of the preciousness I have for speech, I'm left sometimes with a feeling of contempt for those who waste it. Talking without meaning, words signifying nothing. Boilerplate nonsense and non-answers to questions. Conversations that are words into the ether, not true intercourse. Or my least favorite, answers that serve not to further the conversation but to push the respondent's own agenda. Dialogue is the only way to truth and dialogue doesn't exist without thoughtful question being met with thoughtful answer.

Because of my early life as 90% listener, 10% talker I'm left with a contempt (sometimes seething) for those who don't listen; for those people who latch on to three or four words and formulate a non-relevant response in their head before the speaker is even done asking his question. The art of conversation, the crucial give and take, doesn't work if people are in a hurry to speak and have an interest in only speaking their agenda, relevance be damned.

I ended up managing my stutter because I matured and realized it wasn't that big of a deal. The willingness to (mostly) not worry about it and plow ahead greatly reduced my stress over my stutter and therefore greatly reduced its prevalence. I had reversed the stuttering feedback loop and used it to my benefit.

While reviewing some recent videos of myself I realized that my stutter is still very much there and I'm sure at times it is distracting to others, but in the end there's little I can do about it. There's no cure for stuttering and of all the various (sometimes lengthy and expensive) treatments, acceptance has been shown to increase fluency the best. And it's totally free. So I'm happy and content in my current world of mild stuttering that I've been living in for about thirteen or fourteen years now. I'm told some girls think it's cute.

But I've maintained my respect for speech as well as the value I ascribe to it. Articulate speech communication is what sets us apart from the animals: utilize it with attention and care. Also, speech is meaningless in a vacuum so unless you're engaging another you're not actually speaking. I would encourage everyone to think about what they're saying and why: Are you talking for yourself or for others? Are you advancing discourse or just repeating known facts? Discourse in America has devolved largely to non-existence and it's time to take it back. As someone who has spent his entire life listening, there's a lot to be learned and it's the most powerful weapon you have.

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