Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Favorite Celebrity Who Stutters

I like to read about famous people who stutter to learn how they challenged themselves.

For instance, Bruce Willis stuttered up through high school, where he overcame his stuttering while performing in the drama club. Here's a guy who has a lot of trouble just speaking in class, but has the cajones to get up in front of his school during a drama production. Pretty awesome.

And I like reading about how Marilyn Monroe stuttered, mainly because I like looking at pictures of Marilyn Monroe. But if anyone asks, it's because I'm learning about her stutter. Her sexy, sexy stutter.

But over time, I've decided that my favorite celebrity who stutters is James Earl Jones. I hold Mr. Jones in such high regard because, even though he stutters - and he stuttered so badly as a child that he barely spoke for several years - he's got one of the most recognizable voice OF ALL TIME.

His most famous role in my opinion is that of Darth Vader (whom I now lovingly dub the Evil Imperial Warlord of Stuttering). But when you take into consideration that James Earl Jones has done other great voice over work, like as Mufasa in the Lion King, you realize that a stutterer is making a great name for himself doing VOICE WORK.

Let me repeat that (pun intended): A stutterer is famous for his voice work!

I love it!

So Mr. Jones, you are my favorite celebrity who stutters. I know you won't ever read this, but if you do, thank you for your inspiration.

And in case James Earl Jones does not read this but Bruce Willis does, then Bruce - you're my new favorite!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

You Got Served

I remember being in speech therapy as a young adult. Occasionally I'd have some homework, something like "call a store or restaurant and ask what time they close." The goal of these therapy sessions was to reduce the fear of using the phone. (And probably also to actually find out what time the store closed.)

Using the phone is tricky. When you're talking to a person face-to-face, you can get away with some of the blocking and stammering by using hand gestures. Body language accounts for a lot of the actual discussion. But on the flip side, when you're using the phone, nobody can see the secondary characteristics of stuttering - the other person can't see the clinched eyes, the mouth in the shape of the sound you're trying to make, etc. But you're depending on your speech.

Some other days I'd go to mall or somewhere similar with my therapist, and she'd give me an assignment. It would be something like: Go ask that person where the Gap is. Or go ask the person at the coffee counter what the special of the day is. The goal wasn't to speak with a 100% fluency rate; the goal was just to get the result.

I bring this up because I recently read some other blogs where people who stutter said they've basically taken jobs that don't require them to speak, for fear of having to talk (and stutter) in front of other people. I guess this is common. But to that I say: hogwash!

When I was a freshman in college, I had a job as a waiter at Bennigan's for the summer. Being a waiter is probably not considered a job that generally makes people anxious or nervous, but when you stutter and have to introduce yourself to random strangers for 8 hours a day, the thought of it is a little harrowing.

But that's just the thing: being a waiter forced me to get up in front of people and speak. It forced me to introduced myself, which is one of the hardest things for me to do. And since my tips depended on me providing excellent service, it required me to not suck at it.

Stutterers have rent to pay, too, you know!

At first I was terrified. I only got the job because I had been a bus boy at Bennigan's the year before, and I knew the manager. But the thought of talking in front of so many people scared the living daylights out of me.

But it was great! Every table required its own little performance, and I had a lot of fun putting on a show. The speaking part could be challenging at times, but there were even more challenging tasks - like not spilling drinks on anybody while serving tables!

(I only spilled drinks on one person, but I spilled a drink on him on two separate occasions. On the bright side, he got a free meal out of it.)

I'm definitely not cured of my fear of introducing myself to strangers, but I'm a lot more confident in my ability to do so now that I've had the experience of introducing myself a thousand times. Which is the point of all the "What time do you close?" phone calls that my therapist had me do. Practice makes perfect, right?

Besides learning to not be so scared to death of talking in front of other people, I also learned some actual great lifelong tips. I learned of "Lombardi Time" - where if you're 15 minutes early then you're on time, and if you're on time then you're late. I also learned how to sing the Bennigan's birthday song, which I still sing to all of my fellow coworkers on their birthdays.

So for those of you who stutter, who feel like you need a job where you don't have to speak, I'll leave you with two thoughts:

1. Jobs that don't require speaking usually suck (unless you're writing or programming computers, in which case, rock on!); and

2. Your homework this week is to challenge yourself by speaking to people for no good reason whatsoever. Who cares if the special of the day is written on a blackboard sitting at the foot of the reservations desk? Ask the waiter anyway!

Who knows, your waiter might be more scared of talking to you than you are of him.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

School Days

I always loved being in school, but the first day at a new school was always very stressful for me.

I was always concerned with how would kids react to my speech. And I had questions that probably most kids have: Would I fit in? Would I make friends? Would I be popular?

I shouldn't have been so stressed out about these things, because I was always blessed with lots of great friends who never cared that I stuttered. And if I had a friend who wasn't a positive influence on me, then we weren't friends for very long.

By the time I was in high school I had developed a strategy for dealing with my stuttering: I introduced myself to my teachers after the first day of class, explained that I stuttered, and told them that there would be days when I would be having a lot of trouble speaking and would not raise my hand, but that didn't mean that I wasn't paying attention or didn't know the answer. That did several things for me: it got the whole stuttering issue out of the way, and also challenged myself to start a conversation - by introducing myself (one of the hardest things for me to do).

Of course, that didn't mean that I didn't have to answer questions on the spot. My teachers held me to a high standard, and expected me to hold myself to a high standard as well. I was required to participate, whether or not I felt like I was having a good day fluency-wise. That was a good life lesson, because at work, I don't get to pick what days I get to interact with other people. Talking is a required everyday occurrence!

And I bring this all up because my life pretty much changed one day in high school when I introduced myself to my 9th grade science teacher, Mrs. Gatz. I had pulled Mrs. Gatz aside to tell her that I stuttered, and she immediately asked me if I knew "Jordan." Apparently, everyone knew Jordan except for me. And apparently, Jordan stuttered.

Also, it just so happens that Jordan was the student body president.

Talk about lifting a burden from my shoulders! I no longer was anxious about how people would react to my stuttering, because I had just found out that we had a trail blazer at our school who stuttered, and to top it off he was the student body president.

I still remember the day when it was time for my entire freshman class to hear all the candidates for student office speak. We filled the cafeteria then listened to one person after the next get up and talk. One courageous girl even sang a song in front of the entire school. And then Jordan got up in front of the room and spoke. He told us why he wanted to run, what he would do if elected, and thanked us all for our time. And while he spoke, you could hear a pin drop. His speech was not 100% fluent, but he said everything that he wanted to say, and everyone listened intently. Once he was finished, the room erupted in cheers. And Jordan won in a landslide vote.

I will always remember that moment. Before that day, I didn't think I had the courage to get up in front of a large group of people and speak. But after, I felt like there was nothing I couldn't do.

Jordan and I ended up becoming good friends. He went to LSU, then went off to Harvard. HARVARD. His speech never held him back. He is a true inspiration in my life.

So I want to thank Jordan in my blog today. I want to tell him that he inspires me, and that his courage that day still impresses me.

I also want to challenge anyone who stutters - go do something this week / month / year that you have never been comfortable doing. Introduce yourself to a cute girl that you like, but have never had the courage to talk to. Interview for a better job that will greatly enhance your life. Run for office. Don't just do it for yourself. You never know who's in the crowd, and you never know how it will affect them.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Fear of Public Speaking

I talk a lot more than I would guess a person who stutters generally talks. I pretty much talk non-stop. (I sing non-stop, too, which I think annoys more people than my stuttering ever could!)

I love to talk, and don't mind talking with a lot of family, friends or coworkers all at once. But one thing I've never been very good at is talking in front of a group of strangers.

And as a person who stutters, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that I really don't enjoy the thought of getting up in front of crowds and speaking. But as it turns out, I'm not alone - almost everyone hates the thought of public speaking. There are countless books about how to overcome your fear of speaking in public, tons of websites out there devoted to it, and there's even the age-old adage of imagining the audience in their underwear - although if you ask me, that has a whole separate set of consequences associated with it. It seems like it would be much more embarrassing to be aroused up on stage than to stutter!

I guess it depends on the audience.

I'm thinking of all of this right now because I just got a magazine subscription offer in for Fortune Magazine, and it came with a little card that says, "3 Skills You Can Improve Right Now" and the the first skill shown is Public Speaking.

One of the things this little card says can help conquer your fear of Public Speaking is to make eye contact. I think that's good advice for conquering normal conversations, as well. I have a lot of secondary characteristics, as I'm sure many stutterers have, and one of them is that I blink a lot or clinch my eyes shut while trying to get a hard block out. Sometimes I just look up at nothing, which is what I'm assuming this little card is addressing. My therapists have always stressed eye contact, but it's nice to see that non-stutterers have to be reminded about this every once in a while as well.

Now, I don't know about you, but one thing that I'm really horrible at is remembering another person's name when I first introduce myself. I'm so concerned about getting my name out correctly that I usually miss what the other person is saying.

One of the other skills on this little card is Memory Skills. It says that to help remember the other person's name, introduce yourself first so that you can focus on the other person. Good advice - and not just for people who stutter.

I think people who stutter could actually be very good at public speaking, because to me, the general public's fear of Public Speaking seems very similar to the fear that a lot of us stutterers have about normal conversations. If we can nail down some of the techniques that our therapists have taught us, then what difference does it make if we're talking to one person or to thousands of people? The same skills are necessary.

My homework this week is to try to make better eye contact while speaking and to try to introduce myself before the other person (and hopefully remember the other person's name). I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What's in a Name?

I chose the name Stutter Step for my blog for three reasons:

1. A stutter step is a technique used in sports for various reasons. As an avid soccer fan, the way that I see a stutter step used most often is when a soccer player goes to take a penalty kick. The goalie might lean one way when the kicker takes those tiny stutter steps, and that gives the kicker enough insight to know where to kick the ball.

2. I like the analogy of taking the next step in my life - preferably a step away from stuttering. And finally (and most importantly)...

3. The name "Stutter Steps" (with an "s" at the end) was taken.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

About Me

My dad was in the check-out line at a store a few months ago when he started chatting up the family in front of him. It's one of the traits that I admire the most about my dad - he can talk to anyone with ease.

My dad told me that the family's little boy turned to him and said, "I stutter, you know." To which my dad replied, "Oh really? I have a son that stutters."

The rest of the conversation is really heart-warming, and although it's best told by my dad (the master storyteller), I'll do my best to replicate it here.

The kid wanted to know what my life was like. Did I have a family? Did I have a job? Was I happy? Was I cured? Could I speak fluently? Did people laugh at me? He looked up at my dad with these big eyes, hoping that he would tell him that everything was going to be OK.

My dad answered all of his questions, and I'll answer them as well:

Yes, I have a family. I have a wife of six years, a two year old girl and a seven month old boy.

As for my job, I'm a professional software developer at the largest home health agency in the nation. Not only that, but I'm a team lead, so not only do I help other developers and testers one-on-one, but I meet with the business users, take phone calls, give presentations, lead training seminars and pipe up on conference calls.

Am I happy? I have a great family and a great job. I live in a great city. What's not to be happy about?

Am I cured? No. I am not cured. I stutter every day. Every time I speak - or really, before I speak - I think about my speech. I have good days and bad days, and sometimes lots of bad days in a row. But the good days are great days.

Can I speak fluently? Sometimes. Speech therapy has helped me a great deal. I practice several techniques, including (but not limited to) passive airflow and relaxation exercises. I've found that getting rid of my secondary characteristics (twitching, clinching, blinking, etc) goes a long way towards speaking more fluently.

Do people laugh at me? Sometimes. But not usually, and not for very long. Nobody at work laughs at me - everyone is very patient and kind.

OK, so I've expanded on my dad's answers just a bit. My dad said that he didn't know if the kid would be disappointed to hear that my stuttering didn't go away. But instead of being disappointed, it seemed like a weight had been lifted off the kid's shoulders. It was like just hearing that he could have a normal, happy life made him feel better.

That little kid's reaction is one of the reasons why I started this blog. Maybe someone will read it and find some help or hope.

Or maybe they'll meet someone in the supermarket who tells them that it's OK to stutter.

Welcome to Stutter Step!

Hi, and welcome to Stutter Step!

My name is Bobby, and I stutter. I also blog, and thought it was time to combine these two activities, since each takes up so much of my time.

My main objective with this blog is to write candidly about my experiences as a person who stutters. I want to talk about my home life, my professional career, school, and I might even throw in some old memories of being in therapy. Who knows, we'll just go with it and see where we end up.

If you ever have a question or comment, feel free to leave a comment on any of my blog postings and I'll try to answer.

Just a note of warning: If I don't receive any comments, then I'll just talk about what I want to talk about. Which is great, because as a person who stutters, nothing makes me happier than just talking and talking and talking. Except talking to someone who's listening!