Ever since I can remember, I have stuttered. When I was 7 years old, a 3rd grader, I felt that I was one of the brightest students in the class. Every time the teacher had a question, I remember raising my hand and answering. I was extremely interested and absolutely fascinated by electronics.
There was a boy in my class, whom I think stuttered. My recollection of the event – I began to copy the boy who stuttered as a classroom joke. Somewhere along I began to stutter also. My mother tells me it started off as a repetition on certain sounds and words.
During a recent chat with my mother, I learned that I was taken to a speech therapist as a child in Mumbai. I must have been between 7-9 years old. This therapist made me read out loud and have a conversation with her. After our private session, she asked my mom, “Are you sure your son stutters? He’s talking perfectly. What you need to do, when he starts stuttering tell him to stop. That’s the way he will realize that he is doing something wrong.” At the time, my mother thought that was the right advice. (This advice, however, is completely wrong.)
A few days/weeks, my mother and I entered into an elevator at Shoppers Stop in Mumbai. I began to speak and started to stutter. My mother recalls getting angry, telling me to STOP stuttering, and slapping me.
I don’t recall the above incident. However, I can imagine that it made me significantly more conscious of my stutter. I can imagine that the incident made me try me best to never stutter again. As a result, my mini repetitions turned into blocks as I tried to fight stuttering – trying to speak fluently. I began to devise physical behaviors, not directly related to speaking, to get my words out – such as quick head movements, tensing the neck/jaw, trying any and all means to fight my speech mechanism to get a word out. I was battling my speech – the very speech that I wanted to get out. You can think of it like war that is waged to achieve peace – it’s almost always never the solution and only leads to more fighting. Just like rational military men, I would modify my battle strategy if it wasn’t working. This means trying different methods to shock myself (shock my speech mechanism) into getting the words out. Some methods (secondary behaviors) that I tried were hand gestures/movements, repeated swallowing (moving my adams apple up and down).
Over time, as I watched people’s reactions to my attempt to speak, I began to develop feelings of shame. This added to my speech behavior and I began to close my eyes and move my head downwards – a sign of shame. During the moment of closing my eyes, I cut myself off from the outside world. I would imagine how negatively other people were reacting to me – I pictured disgusted looks, laughs, criticism. In reality, most people were very friendly and were simply trying to understand what was going on. But how could I know if I had my head down and eyes closed?
The perceived ridicule that I imagined I was receiving from the outside world had a huge effect on my self-esteem. I began to consider myself unworthy, dumb, not like everybody else. Although at times, I would build up my confidence through other talents such as writing, playing basketball, listening to music, riding my bike, roller-blading, skateboarding, conversations with close friends, doing well in school. As soon I began to speak and stutter, my self-esteem would drop.
The enormous effort required in fighting to get words out, imagining peoples’ judgement, and feelings of shame, used up so much energy that it would blank my mind – I would forget what I wanted to say. In an attempt to save face, I would force myself to keep speaking to make it seem like stuttering doesn’t affect me. This lead me to ‘speak with a blank mind’, unfiltered thoughts that were created without much thinking.
Imagine, wanting to communicate a particular thought, but mid-way through the conversation you get so embarrassed that you forget what you’re trying to say, feel an immense time-pressure building up and end up frantically speaking without communicating your thoughts. Later, when you compose yourself, you remember the thought you wanted to communicate, but alas, it’s too late. What would happen the next time you want to speak? Fear.
Fear of the unknown. Fear of judgement. Fear of any situation that would make you feel that way again – which would lead to future avoidance of that feeling or situation.
This Fear led me to adopt a nonchalant, ‘whatever’, attitude towards any situation where I might have to speak – inevitably, this started to be almost every situation in my life (apart from the bathroom or locked bedroom). It’s almost dangerous when – a student begins to develop this attitude towards school, a young person develops this attitude to towards societal problems, a friend develops this attitude among a group of friends, a son develops this attitude in a family. It leads to an isolation that consumes one with thoughts about oneself – ‘I must save face at all cost and not show anyone how much I’m hurting inside’.
I put up brick walls and didn’t let anyone on my side.
This, almost predictable, pattern had a major effect on my social life. Often times, I was not able to carry a conversation among a group of friends – although talking with one person would be comfortable. As soon as the Fear of speaking would set in – all fueled by the perceived ridicule, the shame and the resulting loss of self-confidence, I would begin to stutter which perpetuated this vicious pattern. Ultimately, this lead to poor social skills and inability to make/keep good friendships.