The Agony & The Ecstasy

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Growing up with a stammer was terrible.

It was an invisible malady whose grip on my psyche felt akin to the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation. The facial contortions and drawing of blood as my teeth forced themselves to hold my intractable tongue in place didn’t even amount to the worst of it.

What really got me was seeing those around me effortlessly articulating anything they wanted and not appreciating how lucky they were to be able to do so.

The mere idea of a social situation which required me to utter anything at all sent shivers down my spine. Despite being an avid learner, the creaky desk in the back of the classroom often became my sanctuary, the final bell my emancipation.

In the rare moments I did offer up some modest contribution to the conversation, my feeble sputters were met with a cacophony of giggles and cackles from around the room. Words like “retard” and “idiot” soon became common replacements for my name and after a while I felt like a Neanderthal, someone who didn’t belong.

A freak.

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” — Maya Angelou

A boy sitting cross-legged, facing a window, holding sheet music. There is sheet music on the walls and floor as well.

Now and then there would be sympathy, pity, or curiosity for what plagued my speech, but it did little to lessen the huge undertaking I faced when trying to communicate on a daily basis. The English language, with its intricate array of exquisite words and sounds, was a feral animal that needed to be forced into submission by a brain that continuously misfired.

Practice and clinical exercises were hit or miss and required steady participation, which — for fear of actually having to acknowledge my problem — I took little to no part in. There were loopholes and sleights of speech that made pronunciation easier: dropping the first letter of a word, replacing it with another, or simply saying something else altogether.

My favorite was faking an accent in order to surmount difficult phrases. One day I might have a cockney English accent, Aussie the next, and on good days I’d make a trip all around the world. Some people applauded my imitations, while others raised their eyebrows or simply found my tricks humorous, which is precisely what they were: shortcuts that slowly crumbled under the weight of an ever growing affliction.

Fortunately, our home was awash with world music, which we collected during our travels, and the works of classical composers, whose mastery of the craft of composition rendered them impervious to popular and fickle tastes that so plague our daily lives today. One of my childhood idols was — and still is — Enya, whose carefully fashioned tone so effortlessly calmed my nervous tics and bouts of frustration. Gradually, I became more creative and learned how to harmonize my jumbled ideas into elegant works of music and art.

“Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence.” — George Steiner

These days though, I don’t know which is worse: the sickness or the cure. The elation I feel from freely communicating ideas through music and art is repeatedly overcast by a nagging sense of detachment, always leaving me wondering if my art isn’t just another crutch to lean on or an illusion to hide behind.

There is no emotional dictionary available for those who are not stricken with the challenge of a stutter and much of the work depends on the listener having a certain amount of empathy for something they can only intellectualize about, but never truly know on a personal basis.