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Why Drinking Didn't Really Help My Stuttering

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I didn’t drink in high school. I went to parties, hosted by guys whose parents were out of town, where many of my classmates did drink and then stumble around, vomit on the carpet and/or make out with each other drunkenly, but I didn’t drink. I remember taking drunk people home while avoiding the cops who would often break up these parties, but I really didn’t drink any alcohol in high school.

OK, there was the one time when I was junior and my prom date’s mom poured me a small after-prom glass of wine, but that was no more wine than I was used to sipping at my grandfather’s house on Thanksgiving. So, I never got drunk until my third year of college.

I had turned 21 that spring, as had a couple of my friends, Pete and John, so, for no reason other than the fact we could, we went to a grocery store, bought two six packs of beer, went back to John’s third-floor apartment just off campus and started drinking. I think I had three beers before I started feeling anything; I was taking a film class that semester and remember noticing, from a cinematic point of view, my perspective, instead of resembling footage taken by an experienced Steadicam operator, now looked like handheld footage shot by someone who’d never operated a camera before.

Luckily, I didn’t push my luck and only had one more beer. And after my perception was off, I started acting stupid, singing at the top of my lungs from John’s balcony, throwing empty bottles to the parking lot below and laughing at almost everything John and Pete said. John got really serious and started crying about his father forcing him to become a lawyer, and even though we felt sorry for him and it wasn’t even midnight yet, he still kicked us out so he could go to bed and get up early to take the LSAT the next morning. Pete and I lived in the same dorm back on campus, so we stumbled back in the dark.

Pete went right to bed but it was Friday night; people were watching TV and talking in the common room. I was in a very good mood. Most importantly, I was experiencing an amazing phenomenon: my drunkenness was apparently disabling my stuttering.

I first noticed it at John’s apartment when, after my third beer, I realized I was stuttering less. I tested it by saying words that begin with what were my problem letters, or sounds, back then: S, W and any consonant digraph like WH and BR. But in John’s apartment, I could say them easily, and after my fourth, my stuttering seemed non-existent. I tried asking John if he noticed, too, but he just looked at me and complained about not wanting to be a lawyer. On the walk back to our dorm, I tried asking Pete if he noticed it, but he could barely walk straight and seemed like he wasn’t noticing much of anything. When he mumbled something about going to sleep and shut the door to his room, I decided I didn’t want to sleep it off — I wanted to see how much longer this side effect was going to last.

So, I went to the common room and proceeded to talk to everyone in that room about anything I could think of. I’m pretty sure I said nothing offensive, but I am certain I was annoying. There was a Double Dragon arcade game in the common room, so I explained to some people watching TV that some people found some of the characters were racist, and then I asked others if they found the game racist, and then I explained I didn’t find the characters in the game racist myself but I could see how others might. When one girl mentioned she didn’t really know the game, I dropped a quarter in the machine and began playing it while commentating on both my performance and the events of the game itself. My game didn’t last very long, but I kept talking and talking, amazed at the fluency with which I was speaking.

When the game ended, I noticed another friend of mine playing pool with his girlfriend, so I approached them and asked them how long they had been dating. I told them how long I’d been dating my girlfriend, sharing with them details like her birthday, her favorite food, how we met.

Nathan had been president of my dorm the previous year, and I told him I thought he had done a good job, exclaimed he should run again and promised that not only would I cast my ballot for him but I would also tell others to vote for him. I promised to work very, very hard running his campaign. He laughed and said he’d think about; I told him I knew I was drunk but I meant what I had said, and, as my throat was starting to hurt a little from all of the talking I was doing, I decided to go to bed.

When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t hung over, but my voice was hoarse from all the silly talking I had done the night before. I was a little embarrassed about how I had acted while drunk, but I had to admit the entire time I had been talking, I had been completely fluent. I had even tested it while drunk in every way I could think of — talking to pretty girls I really didn’t know very well and saying the usual things that always make me stutter most of all, like my name and the word “sex.” It seemed to have worked, and that had been something I’d been wanting for a long time.

When I was much younger, I lived in Long Beach, California, and once my mother pointed out during a 20-mile drive to Disneyland (which probably took 90 minutes) that I didn’t stutter while riding in a car to Disneyland; when I was significantly older and lost my virginity, I discovered I didn’t stutter while having sex with my girlfriend. Obviously, I couldn’t live my life constantly riding to Disneyland and/or having sex with my girlfriend. There were people, however, who did live their lives drinking alcohol. But weren’t those people alcoholics? Or at least at risk for being alcoholics?

So, I was pleased I had found something that could seemingly eliminate my stuttering, but I didn’t know what to do about it. For one thing, maybe it was a fluke. Just because I didn’t stutter the first time I was drunk didn’t mean that drunkenness was going to eliminate my stuttering every other time I got drunk. And, even if it did work that way, then what? I mean, I couldn’t really go through life drunk, just to avoid stuttering, could I? There were alcoholics in my extended family, but as far as I knew, I was not an alcoholic — yet if I used alcohol to manage my stuttering, couldn’t that decision also be seen as reliance on alcohol? I definitely didn’t want to self-medicate, as I feared that could turn into an even bigger problem than my stuttering. Instead, I decided to nothing more than simply file away the information that I stopped stuttering while drunk and maybe use it at some point when it wasn’t totally inappropriate to do so.

I decided using alcohol to manage my stuttering was a terrible idea, and I have resisted doing so — however, to be completely honest, one or two times after I graduated from college, right before a job interview, I made a point of gargling with mouthwash that had alcohol in it, in hopes that some traces of the residual alcohol in my mouth would enter my bloodstream and help reduce my stuttering a little. But I feel that’s a far cry from any alcohol abuse that self-medicating could have led to.

Today, I’m glad I didn’t seriously attempt to use alcohol to manage my stuttering for several reasons, one of which is that a few years later, I had too much to drink at a New Year’s Eve party and my inebriation had no effect on my stuttering whatsoever. But that’s just how my stuttering has always operated and thwarted me: I’ll think I’ve discovered some trick or distraction that totally deactivates it — getting drunk, having sex, reading aloud from a text, sneaking up on a word by saying “uh” before it — and I’ll cling desperately to that one maneuver… only for it to completely stop working after some period of time.

Perhaps I can’t consciously outsmart my stuttering, but I have learned, for the most part, how to manage it. I think that began with the attitude I wasn’t going to completely eliminate it — and that was OK. While a drunken carelessness isn’t the answer, perhaps another type of carelessness does help — one in which I don’t agonize over every word I’ve said, I am saying and I am about to say — one in which I don’t beat myself up every time I stutter.

Photo by Robert Mathews on Unsplash

Originally published: July 5, 2019
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