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Thursday, September 8, 2016

What it's like to have a stammer

When I was 10, I realised that I could do accents. Imitating others’ speech came naturally to me. Being able to make other people laugh has given me great confidence. But at roughly the same age, I realised that I had a stammer. It was pretty bad back then. It has improved a great deal since, but my speech problems still persist even though I’ve found ways to hide it. But today it choked me at the worst possible moment.

This morning I sat down for the first large lecture of the new year at university. The class was full of people – perhaps 100 beautiful, bright, good, young people. The lecturer asked everyone in class to introduce themselves by quickly saying their names, where they are from and what they did before coming to university. The lecturer was friendly but asked us all to be quick. The word ‘quick’ set off inexplicable panic within me. He said, “make sure you are ready to speak when the previous person finishes, so we can move quickly through the class”. How can something as simple as introducing oneself to one’s peers cause panic? I have been getting up in front of audiences and telling jokes since I was 20. But this morning I couldn’t even complete a sentence.

So one by one, all these incredibly talented, confident students began introducing themselves in 10 seconds or less. It went like clockwork. It was like a wave. It started from the back and the wave of introductions worked its way down to the middle row, just behind me. I knew what I was going to say, “I’m Shravan from India and I used to be a journalist with Forbes Magazine”. The wave seemed to gain speed as it approached me. “I’m going to be clear,” I told myself, “I’m going to say this simple sentence.” I saw everyone’s eyes fixed on the speaker before me. Their gaze was kind but unerring. My heart began to beat fast. I can feel my heart beating fast even as I write this. The girl before me finished her introduction and suddenly everyone was looking at me. I breathed deeply but that’s when the tsunami took me. I was suddenly under-water. On one side was me, looking up at the surface at the class on the other side. It was like swimming in the sea and looking up at the birds circling above. I was disconnected from them. I wanted to speak but I was choking. My mind was with them but my mouth was filled with water.

I managed to splutter out the first part: I’m Shravan from…. My mind wanted to say ‘India’ but my mouth wouldn’t let me. I knew after years of stammering that the opening “I” in “India” was not going to happen so I quickly switched to “Mumbai” and luckily the “M” was working so I was able to say it. So far so good. I was approaching sea-level. But then I began truly choking: my lungs filled up and was sinking again, spiralling downwards into the abyss of indecision. The problem was clear: I was caught between saying “I used to write for Forbes” and “I used to be a journalist”. My mind was thinking so unnecessarily far ahead. Is it too pompous to say Forbes? Would they judge me? At the core of my stammering is insecurity. It is insecurity about being wrong, about being disliked and about dismissed. My dad and mum have both tried to help me with my stammer and what I’ve come to realise is that my stammer comes from two primary sources: indecisiveness about what I’m going to say and the deep insecurity I just mentioned. My dad showed me a technique where I need to say affirmations like “I have nothing to defend”. For a while, I used to say those affirmations but I don’t think I put my heart into them and I stopped trying. So I know that stammering is my fault and no one else’s. And in that lecture hall this morning, I really didn’t have anything to defend. I was just as justified in being in that room as anyone else. I shouldn’t have overanalysed my sentence. But I did and so here I was, swept under the wave of embarrassment.

I have this new tick where instead of s-s-s-stammering the start of the word, I try and find alternatives that I know I can say. If I’m unable to find those synonyms in that split second, then I cover my face and close my eyes as if I’m yearning deeply, strenuously for some long forgotten memory. And so that’s what I did. I spluttered and stuttered with uhhs and umms and errs and all the while I felt us, as a class, cringe collectively. We were all one body of young people, watching this guy trying to speak and willing him to finish. Stammering is an out-of-body experience because the cerebral part of you – the mind – is watching the nervous part of you (in every sense) flounder. Under the ocean, I was a Flounder.

My heart was racing, I was sweating. I hate my body for many reasons but prime among them is that it reacts so viscerally to the most fleeting misdemeanour. Finally, after what seemed like a life-time, I bit the bullet and tried to say “journalist”. Just one word. I was forcing through the “j” and so I stammered. J-j-j-journalist. I opened my eyes as if to let everyone know that I was back from the depths of meek misadventure and they class could move on.

And the class did move on. They rattled off their intros like a well-oiled machine. The lecturer thanked the class and rained platitudes on us about how amazing and diverse we all were. He then continued with his lecture. But I was left there, stewing in my own self-pity. Why can’t I speak! Why can’t I talk! I just want to talk normally like everyone. If you wake up in the morning and your mouth says what your mind tells it to, then I truly envy you.

This is what all my friends say: “but Shravan we can hardly notice it – I think it’s completely gone!” Maybe it doesn’t manifest itself as such a big deal to others around me. For everyone else in the lecture hall that morning, it was 10 seconds of some guy who doesn’t have his shit together. For me, it’s all I can think about for hours. The shame and humiliation of not being able to do something that everyone else does naturally. Let’s be clear: I don’t consider this a disability worthy of anyone’s pity and my life has been granted obscene privilege - my health, loving family, friends, money, education and Level 82 Gyarados. I always question how much of my stammer is simply being ill-prepared and how much is an actual mental disability. I err with the former because for the majority of the time, I’m able to speak pretty well.

And there are three occasions when I speak absolutely flawlessly: When I’m with a girl, when I’m drinking and when I’m doing stand-up. When I was dating my last girlfriend, she told me that I literally never stammered around her. I felt so comfortable, accepted and respected that I didn’t have anything to defend or prove. But I have to be able to excel without constant adulation from someone else. When I’m in party-mode and a few drinks down, I feel confident and spontaneous. I trust my lips to carry out the orders issued by my wits. But while alcohol gives me temporary eloquence, it has also given me the worst experiences of my life when I’ve had too much. The last one – when I’m telling jokes and performing for people – is the most interesting case and something I’ll try to do more research on.  

Over the years I’ve sought help from various people, including a hypnotherapist (which you can read about in a piece I wrote when I was 18). I’ve never been able to pin-point why I stammer, but recently I got some good advice on how to over-come it. We had a workshop in public speaking at my university and the instructor told me to approach everything like I was about to do a gig. I should psyche myself up like I’m about to entertain an audience because then I don’t think about speaking. It does work. But it can also feel forced. Do I always need to be in “please like me” performer mode – even when I’m with my friends? I can’t keep that up.

I’ve also never been in a situation in the workplace where I’ve been unable to do a task because of my stammer. If I need to speak to someone important, I make sure I’ve backed myself with all the knowledge I can get and then trust in the fact that I’m coming from a good place of genuineness and sincerity. I just can’t figure out why it’s become so bad at university. I feel like I belong here. I felt like I belonged in that class.

It’s funny actually because I actually didn’t belong in that class. I ended up dropping that course because it was way, way too easy for me. All that drama for nothing. At least I have my Level 82 Gyarados.