Please Don’t Make Me Repeat Myself
By Adam Polaski
“You have such a beautiful voice,” the director said guardedly. He sat rigidly on the sofa in my family’s dimly-lit living room, steeling himself for an uncomfortable conversation with 12-year-old me and my parents, who nodded vigorously in agreement.
The director had come to explain that our community theater production of The Hobbit just wasn’t working out. In rehearsals, the runtime was over by more than an hour, and it wasn’t because the dwarves were goofing off backstage or the papier-mâché dragon was malfunctioning. No, the exhaustion was on me; I was a lead in the show, the chief of the 13 Mighty Dwarves, and every time I delivered a line, whether it was a monologue or a sentence, my throat tensed up, my mouth opened wide, and the words got stuck for many awkward seconds before exploding out abruptly.
“We want to be respectful of your fluency challenges,” the director said, dancing around the word stutter, unsure if it was appropriate to name the beast. I was used to this, people tiptoeing around what to call my speech impediment, unwilling to confront it head on. “But we also want to be sure this is a positive experience for you, and for everyone.”
I never stuttered when I sang songs (I didn’t understand why at the time, but I never questioned a moment of blissful fluency), so the director had come with a proposition: My castmate would take over my speaking parts and I would retain the musical solos as the dwarf minstrel, the otherwise mute songbird.
True to form, I didn’t say much that night. I nodded and tried to look satisfied with the compromise, while my parents smiled wide, relieved that their son’s long theatrical nightmare was drawing to a close, that they would no longer have to run lines with me in sessions that reliably ended with me crying, throwing the script on the floor, and yelling, “I don’t know why I can’t just do it!” I could so rarely say my lines on cue — but I could always go off script with a burst of anxious self-doubt.
* * *
I knew exactly why I couldn’t just do it.
I had a terrible stutter. Not a Porky Pig repetition-based st-st-st-stutter, but a stutter centered around “blocking,” frequent periods of involuntary silence where I was unable to produce sound at all. Sometimes I spoke completely fine, but for the most part, conversations were my own expert version of Minesweeper, a stutter bomb around every corner, red flags be damned.
Ever since kindergarten, I had been pulled out of classes for weekly therapy sessions to work on techniques for dealing with my speech impediment. Whenever I left for a session, my classmates got jealous, wishing they, too, could skip Social Studies — until, of course, they realized how long it took me to say, “Is your person wearing a hat?” during our therapeutic games of Guess Who.
A parade of speech therapists walked me through every possible strategy: There was “easy onset,” a very common technique that required me to start every sentence with a breathy “H,” the best Marilyn Monroe homage I could muster; “stretched speech” forced me to elongate every word, like Dory doing whale calls in Finding Nemo; and “expression practice” involved using a sing-song voice or trying on an accent, allowing me to both speak a bit more easily and refine my Harry Potter impression.
But even when the therapy techniques worked at first, even for a while, they eventually reached a dead-end. Just when I thought I got this, I’d deliver an oral book report, featuring two minutes of content and 18 minutes of silence. At restaurants, I’d point at items on the menu, nodding at whatever the waiter thought I wanted, even if they were incorrect. I became a person who said “I’m sorry” all the time, because even in the middle of a long block, I could always interrupt myself to apologize.
* * *
The stutter hit often and randomly, amplified by nervousness over class presentations or meeting strangers, but it also barged in while I was just hanging out with friends. It was an unwelcome guest who just didn’t get the hint.
When it was bad, it was really bad.
I became very good at rephrasing what I wanted to say, choosing an “easier” word, avoiding words where I anticipated a challenge. It’s not that there were certain words that were automatically and always a challenge. That would’ve been great. No, it was never predictable what word would cause the block, but I could always sense in my mind when I was going to hit one. Over time, I learned how to feel the stutter coming, to quickly bail and find a different phrasing that was “easier” for me, even though nothing about it should have been physically easier. I was always looking for alternatives.
* * *
I threw myself into singing and backed away from acting — stutterers rarely experience blocks while they sing, I learned later from studies that show we use our brains, vocal cords, lips, and tongue differently when we sing than when we talk. I wrote obsessively, journaling and drafting stories every day, uninhibited, expressing every word I wanted.
Of course, I could never dodge speaking entirely; the need to verbally communicate always loomed, teasing me. Simple exchanges were exercises in patience for everyone involved. Answering the phone was the worst, with telemarketers hanging up on me and family members instantly guessing it was me on the line: “Adam, take a breath. Is your mom there?”
I became choosy about starting conversations, hyperconscious about making the people around me wait through minutes of stuttering just to hear, “My day was fine.”
* * *
In eighth grade, my dad saw a segment on Good Morning America about a new device heralded as a “cure” for stuttering. He was also a stutterer, and when I was having a tough time, he would try to comfort me: “It was just as bad for me when I was your age,” he’d say effortlessly.
When he told me about the device, his eyes lit up; finally, here was his opportunity to fix the hereditary nuisance he had passed on. When we got to the office that served as a vendor for the fluency fix, an aggressively friendly speech pathologist introduced me to the device, which looked just like a hearing aid, and placed it into my ear.
The science behind the fix is called the “Choral Effect,” a well-documented concept that stutterers often have an easier time if they are speaking in unison with someone. This device mimicked that phenomenon by delaying the sound and heightening the pitch of a stutterer’s own voice so that it sounded like they had a reading buddy, albeit a high-pitched one with a T-Pain autotune.
On the Good Morning America segment, the host interviewed a man with a severe stutter. His parents shared how negatively the speech impediment had impacted his life, and he struggled for a long time through an easy explanation. But when he placed the device in his ear and turned it on, he spoke without restriction. His mother nearly fainted.
When I turned on my own device and gurgled a sound, sparking the delayed auditory feedback, the effect was also immediate. The doctor asked me questions about school, the book I was reading, the movie I had just seen. I talked to him without any problem. I read an entire page of text without hitting a roadblock.
I looked over to my parents, sitting at the opposite head of a long boardroom table, and only then did I pause, just for a moment, on purpose for once. My mom’s eyes glistened, and she gripped my dad’s arm, and she clenched her jaw tight, confident she was witnessing a miracle.
* * *
The miracle, however, fell apart quickly.
The device only worked if I could conjure up sound. If I couldn’t say anything at all — the key problem for people who block — there was nothing for the device to delay or pitch-augment, and so in periods of deep, upsetting delays, the device had nothing to do. It just didn’t work.
Though I wore it for months, I argued with my parents about it everyday. I grew to hate the chipmunk distortion of my voice, the way it turned my invisible impediment into a visual disability. I hated not being able to hear clearly out of my left ear. I hated taking the device in and out, cleaning wax every few hours.
“It worked so well in the office!” my mom would cry. “Please, just wear it, give it a chance, put some effort into it!” My dad reminded me how expensive it was, a price tag that would haunt me into my late 20s.
I shouted back at them, stuttering out my protests, pleading that they understand I really was trying my hardest. They were desperate to fix this — to unburden their son.
* * *
I relegated the device to a box and shoved it under my bed, and throughout high school and college, I toughed it out, trying not to think about it, refusing to feed the troll. If I didn’t pay attention to the stutter, I thought, it couldn’t get in my way.
I volunteered to answer questions in English class. I called friends on the phone, brushing off the times their parents accused me of being a prank caller. I ran for class president and made my campaign pitch during our morning announcements, plowing through despite a few blocks. At my high school graduation, I delivered a choppy but effective speech, my classmates cheering me on like the kid forced to eat chocolate cake in Matilda. I found a suitable leading role when I was cast in Les Mis, in the all-singing lead of Marius, alongside my first secret boyfriend. He played Jean Valjean and carried me through the fictional sewers, and we made out in my car after rehearsals, and he didn’t even mind if I stumbled over some words on the way to “I love you.”
I went months without thinking too much about the stutter, and for a while it faded into the background without causing much of a problem. I took these periods as evidence that I was getting better, that it was just a two-decade-long phase and that now I had grown out of it and was done. People expressed pride that I had dealt with it, that I had found my own cure. I could feel the pats on the back, see the “You Did It!” stickers when someone would say, “It’s gotten so much better!”
They understood my fluency as a challenge that only moved in one ascendent direction, and that felt great.
* * *
But stuttering, I learned, isn’t one straight arrow climbing upward; it’s a hurricane that comes in random waves, a revolving door with only two options: Very Fluent and Very Not Fluent. I started to suspect that it’s not something I would ever really “grow out of.”
A semester abroad in Argentina was overshadowed by the worst period of stuttering I’ve ever had, rendering me essentially unable to communicate despite a strong grasp of Spanish. A summer internship as a journalist was littered with would-be hard-hitting interviews where oppositional sources talked over me, thrilled that I couldn’t push them for solid answers to difficult questions. A “story of self” at a progressive training for my first real job at a nonprofit became a piece of meta-performance art, sixteen minutes of struggling against silence.
In moments like these, I retreated into a private space, seething, Benjamin-Buttoning back to the anxious 12-year-old who thought, “I can’t do it,” taunting him with a big bold underline: “You’re right – you can’t.”
* * *
It’s been bad again lately.
Even though I’m older and have learned to deal with it much more calmly, I still slip back into the frustration.
I cringe when people giggle or say, “Woahhhh there,” jarred by the facial tic I sport during blocks.
I pace around my office when colleagues assume my conference call line gave out, willing myself to speak.
I bite my lip when my parents see me stutter and sigh, because they never forgot how bad it was; they had simply hoped the worst was gone, and that now, I was fine.
I find myself, again, getting mad at this thing that has blocked me. I find myself tempted to dwell in that anger and that frustration and resist this shitty thing that fucks me up without warning.
That’s what I have done for so many years.
* * *
And that’s why this year I am trying something new.
This year, I am trying to release the anger and confront the frustration and refuse to forget this thing that has challenged me and taught me so much about myself. This year I am ready to apply what I’ve learned.
This year, I will welcome in the unwanted guest. I will feed it and clothe it and read it a book, over the course of many broken minutes, a two-hour version of Goodnight Moon. I will make a bed for it, and I will tuck it in, and eventually, it will fall asleep. And as it rests and goes dormant, I will carry on long, fluent phone calls and attend effortless meetings. I will FaceTime with my mom and dad and show them, “Look, no neck tension!”
I will enjoy the respite, and yet I will not be shocked when the guest wakes up and waves its hand – “Remember me?”
I will understand when it stalls me for minutes or cramps up my throat or convinces me I cannot say my own name. I will remind myself that this impediment is cyclical, something that reemerges every so often. I will tell myself that this is not the end of the world, that this is normal, that this is fine.
This year, I will resist the urge to pray for miracles. I will abort the search for a cure.
I will take the guest’s demands in stride. I will confront it with patience.
I will begin to consider it a companion. A challenge.
A part of me.