I really do not know when I first realised that I was burdened with a severe stutter. I guess it was just part of me at first. I simply didn’t know any better in the first few years of my life. I think I first realised that I had a severe speech impediment when I had to say my name in class on my first day at school. All the other kids breezed through their names … but when it was my turn, the momentum screeeched to a halt, like one of those records in the movies. When that record got stuck, it really got stuck. I could literally not get a word out.
I didn’t realise it at that time, but I was also blessed with a powerful and sharp brain. I had a natural awareness, understanding and perception of what was going on around me. I could instinctively read people and situations. The problem was that I didn’t understand how to use the brain I had been blessed with. In short, my powerful brain worked against me. I was too aware … too awake … too able to see right through people and understand each situation. Even the slightest muscle twitch in a person’s face, body language, facial expression or the glint in their eyes told me exactly what he/she was about and what his or her intentions were. Being blessed with abilities such as these, I was rendered incompetent to speak. Why? Because I was simply too aware of each situation and each person. I was constantly reading them … assessing the situation … assessing them. By doing that, I made myself ten times more stressed and nervous … because I could see right through them within a few minutes. Only after I had gathered all that information, I then understood how to deal with or approach the person in front of me. For that reason, speaking in front of an individual person became easier … but was impossible in a large group (like in a classroom).
Yes, I am blessed with the INFJ personality type, but I didn’t know it at that time.
I had two lives at school … one was the person I was in class and the other was the person I was during breaks and after school. In class, I was unable to say a word, full stop. During breaks and out of school, I could communicate far better … but only with people I had learnt to trust. People I had built a relationship with. People who really understood how to deal with my speech impediment. In class, I was reserved and nervous … during breaks, I was outgoing and expressive.
I really cannot say that other children laughed at me or taunted me due to my severe stutter. There were a few, as you may expect … but the majority just took my stutter in their stride. I guess, my general attitude also deterred some of them from laughing at me or bullying me. I would simply have walked over to them and punched them. I was a fearless little guy. Very feisty, indeed. Far from a pathetic figure. Feeling sorry for myself, wasn’t on the cards. At the same time, I was also blessed with a high level of emotional intelligence. On the odd occassion that someone laughed at me, I would simply look over to him/her with pity and understanding, instead of getting annoyed. To be honest, I never had to punch someone (or felt the urge) for laughing or joking at my stutter. Even at a young age, I realised that some people were simply not as gifted as I was. For that reason, I understood why they laughed. I felt a sincere pity and understanding for them. They were entry level idiots in my mind … which is why I could feel compassion towards them even when they laughed at me. Just to repeat, this really didn’t happen much. The saying that kids are cruel, does not apply to me. They are only cruel if you allow them to be. I had a strong enough personality to deter them from being cruel to me.
My stutter became so bad, that I was exempted from having to perform reading or do oral in class. At one stage, I could only open my mouth very wide when I tried to speak … and that’s where I got stuck. My mouth basically went into spasm and only strange noises came out. My audience would then be faced with a wide open mouth with no words coming out of it. I felt like a freak show. Other kids spoke so effortlessly and I could not even get the simplest word out. The realization that I had a huge problem, made my speech even worse. I struggled to cope. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be able to speak, read aloud in class and participate in conversations like all the other kids… But I simply could not. I was an expressive person … very social … I always had something to say … but I simply could not get a word out. It was torture. It was a very hard pill to swallow.
Even during these horrible times, real life angels appeared to make my life easier. Some of the children at school and also my immediate family quickly learnt how to best communicate with me. I simply had to utter the first letter of a word, before they would accurately predict what I wanted to say. I would then nod my approval and move on to the next word … which they would again say on my behalf. When they guessed wrong, I would shake my head and they would keep trying until they were correct. In that way, we could have a semi-fluent, albeit strange, conversation. They did all the talking for both themselves and for me. I truly appreciated that, because it was a way for me to say what I wanted to say and not be sidelined or ignored. Some of them, became so good at knowing what I was going to say, that they could accurately guess a whole sentence, when I attempted to say the first letter of the first word in that sentence. I adopted body language, facial expressions and gestures to express myself. This helped a lot.
Of course, some people would sometimes take the Mickey out of me by guessing the wrong word or sentence on purpose … even though they knew exactly what I wanted to say. This led to some very hilarious situations. Luckily, I always had the ability to laugh at myself. I never got offended … unless people were really being unsympathetic, which rarely happened. One of the most unsympathetic persons I have ever encountered, was one of my own brothers (I don’t associate myself with him today). This dude offended me big time. It was as if he had no understanding for what he was doing. It was not nice when you simply wanted to participate in general conversations at home with your family, only to be made fun of and embarrassed. He truly made me feel like the village idiot. One of his favourite things was to pretend he was starting a cold car, while I was making strange noises in an attempt to say something. Nasty.
My marks at primary school were excellent, even though I never thought of myself as being intellectually gifted. I simply breezed through school. My stutter was just something which made the journey a little unpleasant and difficult to deal with. To me, it seemed that I was the only one who was dealt with a very raw hand. I just wanted to be normal. That was not to be. Little did I know that most of the other children also had their own set of issues in life. Some could not do sport. Some were gay, in a time where it was not socially accepted. Some suffered from depression or bipolar disorder … and so the list goes on. I didn’t know this at the time. To me, I was the only one with issues.
The years flew by. I was sent to various speech therapists … all of which, did not prove helpful in any way. I was even sent to an UK doctor (visiting in Port Elizabeth) whom specialised in hypnotherapy. He claimed he could cure people like me. I was very excited at first … only to discover that it was all a waste of time. I ended the therapy, when he came on to me one day. I kid you not. The bloke fancied me. It was quite a shock. I didn’t go back to him again and I never told anyone about what happened.
In my first year at High School I got a hard slap from a Matric boy, because he thought I was mocking him when I tried to answer a question he had asked. I was just trying my best to get a word out – already being nervous in my new school environment – when this idiot slapped me as hard as he could. My ears were ringing for hours thereafter. When one of my neighbours – who was also in matric – confronted him later, he said he thought I was mocking him. He simply didn’t know I stuttered and he had never encountered someone whom stuttered before. To his credit, he did come to apologise.
It was like rubbing salt into my open wounds.
By the time I became a senior at school, I realised that I was admired by many girls. School became fun then. I loved to be admired and checked out. There was one problem, though … my severe speech impediment. I could speak reasonably well with the boys who knew me, but I could not get a word out when I had to speak to a girl. Going over to a girl and asking her out, was never going to happen. Instead, I checked them out from a distance … we exchanged long and hard stares and smiles … never taking it further than that. I could have had a new girlfriend every month … instead, I had none. Simply because I could not speak.
In my mind, girls would not like me when they heard how I struggled to speak. I didn’t give them the opportunity to prove me wrong. I just assumed they wouldn’t like me if they heard how I struggled to speak. I could not lose all my adoring fans … and so, I simply kept my distance. Little did I know, I was dead wrong. Many girls would not have been bothered by my stutter at all. I was fighting my own demons in my mind. I wanted to be perfect … my speech had to match my looks. Nobody would want me, once they heard I stuttered … or so I convinced myself. I could not deal with that rejection. I could cope with my stutter while I knew I was being admired. It would have been too tough to handle if I was rejected due to my stutter.
At one stage, I decided to take action and I asked a friend to go over to a girl, whom I quite liked, to ask her out on my behalf. So, he asked her out on my behalf. Lame, I know. To my surprise, she agreed and said she felt the same way about me. Just like that, I had my first date to a Friday night movie with a girl I truly fancied.
This is where the butterflies started flying around … little cupids were shooting their arrows at us … beautiful romantic music was playing in the background … man, it was heavenly. This beautiful girl also liked me as much as I liked her. I floated on cloud number nine.
This is where the record screeched to a halt.
You see, we met up at the movie. We sat next to each other. I held her hand. The sparks were flying between us … but there was one problem. I didn’t speak one word to her all evening. When she asked me a question or spoke to me, I simply did not respond. I didn’t mean it, but I was downright rude to her … simply because I could not speak to her. I did not even attempt to speak to her. She must have felt extremely rejected and frustrated by my behaviour. That was it for us. That’s where our relationship ended even before it began.
I felt like a freak show.
I had the girl of my dreams … and I simply could not man up.
I made a huge issue of my stutter. My own attitude made my life abnormal. I should simply have embraced my stutter. Instead, I pretended that I didn’t stutter, by not speaking at all. What the fuck? By doing that, I pushed people away from me. I sabotaged every chance I had to date a nice girl. They didn’t have an issue with my stutter … I did.
When I got to Matric, I was a hot favourite amongst the girls. I knew it. I could see how they admired me. Yet, I was still not ready to approach someone and have a conversation with them. All of this changed one day, when I won the 3000m middle distance race at the school’s athletic meeting. As I crossed the line, this girl was standing there with open arms, screaming her delight that I had won. I could not avoid her. I ran straight into her open arms. Before I realised what was happening, she planted a huge, wet kiss right on my sweaty lips … in front of the pavilion. That broke the ice a bit. The end result was, that we began to speak and I asked her out a few days after that. She became my very first girlfriend. We awkwardly dated for a month, before I ended it.
With the ice broken as far as dating was concerned, my attitude changed. That opened many new doors for me. Before I knew it, I had three girls fighting to date me at the same time. They were best friends. All three of them wanted me. I couldn’t quite believe my luck. I had to choose, so I dated the one whom I liked most. Her two friends became quite distant and cold toward me then. Rejection is never a nice thing. When the one I dated moved away to Cape Town, I simply moved on to the second best option of the three. She then became my girlfriend for most of my matric year.
Things had changed a bit, since I changed my attitude.
Yes, I realised that I had a severe speech impediment, but I also realised that I had so many other positive things going for me. I just had to learn to embrace my stutter and not make an issue of it.
Before I knew it, I was out if school and a first year student in architecture at the University of Port Elizabeth. I was again a junior … and that made my stutter much worse. I – again – adopted the unfriendly, distant approach … which simply made me unpopular. I pushed people away from me in my struggle to cope with my stutter.
When I reached my third year at university, I was again a senior … and the floodgates opened as far as females was concerned. They simply came on to me thick and fast. They basically threw themselves at me. I could pick and choose as I wanted.
Oh the things I got up to then….
I learned then to embrace my stutter, rather than make an issue of it. It was very obvious that the majority of girls simply didn’t care that I stuttered. I was proven totally wrong. My stutter was never the issue … my own attitude was the issue. Once I learned to embrace my stutter and make it part of who I am, the doors simply opened in every facet of my life. I could pick and choose amongst girls. I made numerous great friends. Life simply became more enjoyable and normal. I had missed out on so much good times in the past due to my unapproachable attitude. Everything changed the day I learned to embrace my stutter. Suddenly good things came my way.
People really like when you embrace who you are and the hand you were dealt with. By accepting your situation, you will draw people in to you. They rarely have an issue with your problems, if you – yourself – don’t have an issue with it. A positive attitude and pleasant personality will make your disability or problems insignificant and obsolete.
I realized then that I only stuttered. It could improve over time. It was not something I could do nothing about. I realized I had to be grateful that I had a powerful brain … two strong arms … two strong legs (albeit thin). I could see perfectly. I could hear perfectly. I had a good and strong body. I had no mental issues. I had good sporting abilities. I had very good looks.
I really had it all going for me … except for having a serious stutter. It could have been so much worse. I could have been blind or deaf. I could have had a deformed arm or hand … or none at all.
I learned then to be grateful for who and what I was and with the hand I was dealt with.
That was the moment, my life changed. From that moment, I learned to joke with myself and people found this very endearing. My attitude and positive personality pulled people in towards me on all levels. I learned to make silly jokes when I got stuck on a word. This made people laugh and turned the situation into a pleasant and comfortable experience.
See, your problem is only a problem when you make it a problem. The moment you accept and embrace the hand you were dealt with, endless opportunities awaits you. Doors will open as if by magic. People will be drawn in to you. You can turn the most unpleasant and difficult-to-deal-with circumstances into your favour, simply by embracing it and making it part of who you are.
What also happened once I embraced my stutter, was that my speech improved dramatically. I still stutter today, but it has improved dramatically. I go about life in a normal way. I speak to strangers in shops or restaurants and I am as expressive as my personality needs me to be. Telephone conversations has become easy and effective (this was a huge problem area for me).
One of my clients once told me, “I don’t even realize that you stutter anymore, because of your pleasant and outgoing personality.” There is the trick right there. For a man who was once told by a lecturer at university that I would never be able to deal directly with clients, because of my speech impediment, I had certainly turned things around completely. Clients love interacting with me and they give me projects because of who I am. I am in high demand, despite of my stutter.
Point is: embrace the hand you have been dealt with. Don’t make excuses. Accept it and make yourself powerful and in demand, despite your issues. Learn to approach your issues in a positive and constructive manner. Above all, make sure you adopt a light hearted approach towards your issues. Crack jokes about it. Make people laugh and make them enjoy your company. This is where the magic comes in. This is where you pull people in towards you. This is where doors open for you on every level.
Be proud to be who you are, despite your issues.
Stuttering Joe, I am.
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