I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in that musty middle school cafeteria.
A boy named Jason was sitting across from me. I must have said or done something to trigger him, I honestly can’t remember. All I recall is him shouting across the table, loud enough for the entire class to hear, “At least I don’t st…st…st….stutter!”
We don’t really repress things that hurt us, you know. Scientists have proven that while our psyches can shield us from really painful memories by blocking some of the detail from our minds, there are bits and pieces of it that still rear their ugly heads over the course of a lifetime.
That’s why that sentence still rings in my head. I see his face and feel that warm humiliation take over my stomach.
I saw him again about 15 years later. He waited on my husband and I at a family restaurant in our town. He was kind and gracious and complimentary. He’d grown up and so had I.
If he had any memory of that moment, you’d never have known it by the way he treated us. We talked about family and jobs and kids like we were old friends. Like he wasn’t responsible for one of the most terrifying and mortifying moments of my adolescence.
The truth is, I did stutter. I still do. It’s something I share with my dad. After extensive speech therapy and a fitting for an in-ear device that sets my speaking pace, I’ve finally figured out a way to manage it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a daily struggle to carry a conversation, or order a drive-through meal.
When I had my daughter, I tried so hard to read every book to her at a snail’s pace. I thought if I really spaced out my words and stretched out every vowel and consonant, that I could fool her into thinking I was fluent.
I remember her favorite book when she was two years old was called “How Do I Love You?” and there’s a part that says “I love you as the sun loves the bright blue days.” I couldn’t get out the B’s so for an entire year, I told her, “I love you as the sun loves the days.” After all, I reasoned, she couldn’t read yet and would never point out my switch-up.
I did that delicate dance around her all the time. I’d sing to her, not talk. Stutterers usually don’t stutter nearly as bad when they sing, you know. So I’d ask her if she wanted eggs for breakfast, or if she needed to use the potty, all in a melodic voice that probably confused her more than anything.
It got to the point where I was skipping entire pages in books. When we went to the library, if she chose one with too many words, I’d bypass it in lieu of a board book that was way too juvenile for her eager little mind.
I probably would have kept on this way had it not been for one moment that made me face my fear of speaking head-on.
I was getting ready in the bathroom one morning, when I heard the tumble. It was one of those falls where you catch the tail end of it, and from your vantage point, it actually doesn’t look that bad. She was at the bottom of the steps, lying on her side. She was whimpering a little, but wasn’t wailing, and she still had full motion in her limbs as she made her way to the couch.
As mamas do, I gathered her in my arms and held her close to my chest. Do you notice how we do that? When our babies are sick, our first instinct is just to run to them and press them into us. To shut out the world.
Then, I felt my hand on the back of her head turn sticky. I pulled it away, and it was covered in crimson blood. All of her hair was matted and warm and she soaked through two bath towels as I frantically ran around the house.
At this point, I should tell you I’d never called the doctor myself. Thank the sweet heavens above for online scheduling, am I right? Of course, there had been emergencies before this but by some divine fate, my husband had always been home to call the nurse at midnight or nab her a walk-in appointment before work.
But here we were, 10 a.m. on a weekday, and he was unreachable. I went to the phone, my nerves shot, and shakily dialed the pediatrician. I didn’t have too much time to think about it, or rehearse. My daughter was pouring blood from her head and I was in tiger mode. It’s also worth noting I was five months pregnant with her brother.
I had to take that first step alone. The experts at Level Office say the first step in making a big, courageous move is to find the courage to try. I wish I could say I puffed up my chest and put my best foot forward in the attempt, but in reality I was a sweaty, teary mom really overwhelmed with fear. But I tried anyway.
The office manager answered and I spilled the story to her as much clarity and command of voice as an NPR correspondent. She understood every word and worked me in 20 minutes later. The precious doctor assured me it was only a minor surface cut, and that kids her age simply bleed more than adults. He told me to go home, wash her hair, and put Neosporin on it.
I did, and she healed. I healed, too.
I stopped skirting around my stutter. I read all of her books, cover-to-cover and struggled through each blockage. It got worse when I had a cold and couldn’t breathe through my nose, or when I was tired.
But nevertheless, I persisted. And over time, it’s gotten a little easier. I still don’t like to make small talk in the preschool pick-up line, and making a phone call still gives me hives, but I can read “Pinkalicious and the Perfect Present” without skipping a beat and I’m just about as proud of that as I’ve been of anything in my life.
One day, I’ll tell her all about it. About how I was really scared to let her see the weak side of me, and how she got me through it. Want to be loved so much that your insecurities diminish right in front of your eyes? Look at your baby.
I was too timid to speak, once. Then, my pint-sized best friend helped me find my voice.