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When I Choose to Lose My Choices to Stuttering

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A few days ago, I sat in a restaurant parking lot rehearsing my order.

House salad. Tuna with everything.

I didn’t actually want everything. But for me, saying the word “everything” is better than saying what I really wanted, which was spinach, tomato, peppers, onions and light on the dressing.

That’s just way too many syllables.

I am a man who stutters, and have, as family home videos not-so-subtly point out, since I could string words into sentences.

My choices – the words I speak – aren’t always mine. They are someone else’s. They are of someone who relies on ease instead of truth and technique instead of stream of consciousness. As a stutterer, I become all too aware of the everyday choices I make not by my actions, but by my words. The items I order, the questions I ask, the human interactions I have.

Stuttering expresses its grip in my choices. Stuttering decided if I should try out or not. Stuttering decided to email when a phone call would have been better. Stuttering lingers in the background because I would rather be introduced than introduce myself. Stuttering uses the TTY number and pretends to be deaf. (Yes, I have done that.) Stuttering decides between a steak and the special. Stuttering heightens my awareness of language, but lessens the amount of words I can use fluently.

In high school, I’d say “present” instead of here because the “pre” sound was easier to say. I often use fake names at restaurants. And I have a mental collection of replacement synonyms in case my tongue doesn’t form a certain vowel sound.

Nothing is going to stop me from being me. Rather as people wade through their own struggles, often they find how they work within the world. The very act of stuttering can also teach you what you want to fight for, what choices you really want to make and how you want to get there.

For me, that’s relying on scripts and well-choreographed rehearsals of questions and answers before I go into a meeting, make a phone call or enter the grocery store. These rehearsals eat away at my biggest fear – to be asked a question for which I didn’t prepare.

On my first date with my now-wife, I plotted answers to questions about my childhood, my dreams and the reason I chose what I chose to eat. I’m not leaving saying “grilled chicken, salad and water” up to chance when I’m with a beautiful woman.

As a stutterer, nothing is what is expected and not very many things are as easy as they should be. Ordering via drive-through can be agonizing, and only through sheer hunger or the tantrums of my children do I actually attempt it. A weekday trip to the store for one item results in an entire car ride answering hypothetical questions from the clerk, a friend who I might run into who might ask about my family, or a stranger asking my opinion on this brand versus that brand.

I have to have a stance, a planned answer. I don’t do one-offs. I can’t. I don’t make quick choices and opinion statements. My verbal physiology fights against it. A facial tic shows my struggle.

The entire course of my life has been dictated in some form by my speech impediment.

But I’m also a man of faith. And this is the only life I’ve ever known. Maybe all this stuttering has steered me away from bad decisions toward better ones. Maybe it kept me out of darker places. Maybe planning ahead has actually helped my life, my relationships and my career.

And maybe letting go of full control of my own choices and things that don’t matter has prepared me for real life.

Maybe all that’s true because when the air runs out and the words slowly slip away, I’m still here.

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Thinkstock photo by Aitormmfoto.

Originally published: March 27, 2017
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