We’ve established that Ella looks just like me. She hates to sleep, like I do. She can’t sit still, like I can’t. She’s shy like me, introspective, quiet, creative. She’s a hell of a lot smarter than I am, but the similarities are outpacing the dissimilarities so far.
Two weekends ago, the afternoon after we returned home from my parents’, Ella exhibited a behavior that is so much like mine that it pained me to observe it. All of a sudden she started stuttering.
Ella has always been very communicative. Before she could talk, she signed. Before she signed, she created very novel communication techniques, like acting out a part or physically moving me toward or away from what she wanted or didn’t want. She was better than Duke the border collie.
Ella’s language has developed normally. She has a very large vocabulary, although it takes us a time or two to understand a newly acquired word. She doesn’t always enunciate her “Rs” or “Ss.” She weaws her woos and still loves muit (milk) in her favorite boo bottle. But it’s normal. I’ve noticed a few times when she’s gotten frustrated that I can’t understand her. Sometimes she’ll heave a deep sigh and blink hard, as if exasperated, as if to say, “Why can’t this guy get it?”
But now she’s obviously stuttering. She’ll prolong the first letter of the first word of a sentence, as in, “IIIIIIIIIIII want Mommy!” or “IIIIIIIIIIIIII wwwwwwant Mommy.” One time she even skipped the “w” altogether (she was not making a political statement, I’m sure) and said, “IIIIIIIII Mommy, now!”
I started stuttering when I was at least 3 or 4. I remember my grandmother discussing it with my mother. “Who’s he been around who stutters?” As if it were contagious, like a cold, or a bad habit I mimicked, like spitting. I think everyone was very patient with me, but there was also an expressed feeling of frustration from my listeners, just waiting for me to stop the nonsense and start talking.
It affected me. Still does. I hardly ever raised my hand in class, especially in college. Many times I felt pretty lame as a reporter unable to ask a question in a press conference. It made it difficult to talk to girls. At dinner with my Dad and stepmom, when I was an adolescent, I was asked to give the blessing, and sometimes I just couldn’t get the first word out. I sat there silently with this huge consonant swelling inside me, conflicted about being released, holding onto my insides by its fingernails. I’d suck in, thinking that would force it out. I’d start sweating. I couldn’t breath. Finally, knowing everyone was watching me, waiting for me, I’d blurt it out: “LORD! …” Sometimes my dad or my brother would start saying it for me.
It’s a weird reflexive move, to want to suck air in, but I’ve taught myself to relax, and try to begin words as I exhale. I still struggle with it, and I’m almost 40.
I’ve been able to hide it, for the most part. Sometimes I just openly stammer, and that seems to fit my bumbling character. Ironically, I was often the one chosen for public speaking roles in school. I don’t know how I got through them. Even now, I can often feel myself start to stutter. Anxiety is both the cause and the effect, one begets another. Sometimes I can characterize my thinking as stuttering when I can’t concentrate on one thing long enough to make a decision or complete a problem.
When I was in San Antonio the beloved, long-time features editor of the paper wrote a first-person piece about her stuttering problem, and how she had coped with it and fought the shame of stuttering, but with the help of understanding colleagues she felt a sense of professional success. She wanted to inspire others to not let stuttering dampen their dreams.
The week after the essay ran, the paper fired her.
I know some other folks who stutter as adults. It’s difficult. I especially hate it when people try to jump in and finish their sentences, or change the subject, as if the stutter is wasting their time; it just exposes the asshole in some people.
Ed Conture studies stuttering and other communication issues at Vanderbilt. Good guy. He focuses on behavioral causes and behavioral modification treatment. What he says makes a lot of sense.
I emailed Ed about Ella, asked if we should be concerned, if we should talk with her about it.
I told him that Ella is in the middle of potty training right now, but it hasn’t been very difficult. We haven’t had any big life changes (unlike our cross-country moves in 2005 and 2006). Trish and I are almost always patient, and we repeat what Ella says to provide validation, as the books recommend.
He emailed back. Don’t worry too much, he said. At 2.5, Ella’s not intellectually able to understand a conversation about stuttering. Don’t be obnoxious, he said, but let Ella know we’re available, and patient, and willing to listen.
When I hear Ella stuttering, I hear her struggling. I want to jump in and breath for her. I want to reach down and yank that “w” out for her and teach it who’s boss. I anticipate telling people to back off, my kid has something to say, and just sit tight and she’ll get it out in her own time.
But that’s not how stuttering is overcome. So, I take a deep breath, and rest easier knowing that we’re as educated as possible about the subject, and we’ll help Ella as much as necessary. We have time.