Imagine that your throat is a hose, and every time your try to get words out, someone grabs it and bends it so it kinks. You push and push, and the words are building up behind the bend, but there’s nothing leaving the open end.
A thronging, desperate balloon of words, a barrier, and then nothing.
This is what stuttering feels like to me.
My first memory of it isn’t this feeling, though. It’s the sight of my parents watching me, faces suffused with concern—the “what’s wrong with her?” kind of concern.
I was four.
It started small, my mother tells me.
I would falter on consonants, the k’s, d’s, and t’s.
My parents were told that it was a phase, that I would grow out of it, like it was just the lisp’s less-aurally-pleasing cousin.
So they didn’t allow it to worry them. Instead, it annoyed them.
They would grimace when I would try to talk through anger or excitement, because heightened emotions invariably turned my speech into an avalanche of unintelligible sounds, filled with jerky stops and interspersed with gasps for breath.
“I’m not listening to you until you stop, think, and talk slower!” they’d hiss, thinking that that was all I needed.
Okay, I realized then, I’m doing something wrong. But I can fix it! I just have to talk slower.
But as I grew older, it only became worse.
It was an unwanted limb that insisted on growing with me. I graduated from only tripping over consonants to being unable to say whole words and phrases.
I would pray and pray that I wouldn’t get called on in class. When I did, a cold sweat would break out along my spine. Heartbeat thundering, I would stand, reminding myself to talk slowly, even though I had already figured out that I stuttered just the same when I spoke at a glacial pace.
The question would be asked.
I would open my mouth, the first few words would slip out smoothly, I’d relax a little, and then realize that the next word was going to be a “problem word”.
It would start with a knowing, welling up inside my chest like boiling water, and the knowing would transition to an invisible iron hand clamped on my jaw, keeping it open and spasming. I’d break eye contact with the teacher, look down, look away. My hands would rise of their own accord and begin to gesticulate, trying to sketch into the air the word that I was currently incapable of uttering.
Despite constant reminders to talk slower, I became a fast talker, convinced that the words would make it past the stutter-wall if I managed to get them all out at once. This only compounded the problem.
Now I was even harder to understand.
I was sent to speech therapy.
There, I learned—while trying to fend off the therapist’s hand that would invariably find its way to inside of my knee every session—that I should use a “starter sound” to say words that I found difficult.
As if I didn’t sound like enough of an idiot!
Now I had to preface words with umm’s and aah’s in a bid to say them more smoothly. It worked, but I hated the way I sounded even more. To accompany the spasming and gesturing with a weird, breathy sound just felt like adding insult to injury.
So I found another way around it—vocabulary.
Can’t say “decided to”? Say “figured that I would.”
I turned into a walking thesaurus. Sometimes, I’d bypass problem-words with entirely new sentences, making them up in fractions of seconds.
I still do this, and sometimes, I sound intelligent and articulate, especially when my replacement word is more highbrow than the word I originally intend to use.
Sometimes, though, I lose the tail of my sentence, ending up with a jagged jumble of phrases that somewhat amount to what I’m trying to say.
Replacement words don’t always work.
I remember being at a restaurant, and when the waiter brought us the bill, he asked me, “Cash or credit card, ma’am?”
Shaking with the anxiety that had become an unwelcome partner to my stutter, I opened my mouth, breathed in sharply a couple times, registered the waiter’s confusion with sinking shame, and mumbled, “...m-money. We’ll pay with money.”
I cringe at that memory to this day.
By the time I began my first day of college, my stutter was debilitating.
I spent the bus ride to campus shaking.
As a stutterer, I’m painfully aware of my inability to take speech for granted.
Communication is so normal for most of us that we don’t pay it much attention. We think, we feel, and we express. It’s usually effortless and instantaneous.
For me, it’s a struggle that saps me of my energy.
I was shockingly exhausted every day for the first month of college. Being in a place where nobody knew my name, having a name that begins with a consonant, and being a generally anxious person meant that I was unable to say my own name when I had to introduce myself.
I couldn’t say my own name. And my name is Tarana. Ta-ra-na. Three, short, rhyming syllables. It’s not even a hard name to say!
I took to calling myself Lakshmi—my middle name that I actually hated—because it was easier to say. Most of my professors called me that for almost a year. Well-meaning new friends came up to me and asked, “Hey, Lakshmi, why do you talk like that? Do you have asthma?”
When I went to a well-known lab in Chennai for an internship (I studied Biotechnology), the director called me aside to ask me whether I “had a mental problem.” When I said no, he breathed a visible sigh of relief and explained that his three-year old son talked like me.
He was worried that the boy was addled.
Funnily enough, I do struggle with some mental health issues—anxiety and depression that I’ve seen a couple therapists for. And while my stutter has come up during therapy sessions, it wasn’t caused by my brain problems.
Now that I’m in my 20’s, more confident, and socially comfortable, the stuttering has reduced.
It still rears its head when I’m stressed out.
I broke into sobs after my first client meeting.
I was handling my stutter pretty well by then. I’d even managed to tell my new colleagues my first name and everything. All I had to do at this meeting was present a content strategy to a group of very nice people.
I introduced myself, and felt that knowing begin to build inside me again. I used my starter sounds, I breathed, I took my time, and still the words didn’t come. Sweat beaded my forehead so fast that one of the men looked at me worriedly and turned on the air-conditioner.
I opened my laptop and pointed at the things I was actually supposed to say out loud, made it through the presentation somehow, and walked out of there unable to think away the uncomfortable nods and uneasy smiles on the faces of my listeners.
Apart from instances like these, though, which have fortunately become pretty rare, I’ve turned into a comparatively decent talker.
I have a constant low-grade stutter that makes my voice sound like a skipping stone over water on some words, but most of the people in my life tell me they stopped hearing it after a couple months.
I’ve managed to figure out which hacks work for me.
I silently repeat every single sentence that I say—a mental exercise that helps me remember the words I was unable to get out. I do this so that next time I can find replacement words, or prepare myself, focus on the syllables, and say them better.
I’ve written for as long I can remember. Nothing has made me feel better about my communication skills than honing my writing. I love words. I love the way they sound in my mind, their myriad meanings. Writing has made me feel like I have some measure of control over them.
I swear a lot—a lot. It’s the only starter sound I’ll admit to enjoying. Any word that I preface with “fuck” becomes so much easier to say.
I look at myself in the mirror and say my name ten times over once a week, since I’m constantly seized by the fear that I will have to relive the horror of that first month of college in some new situation.
I try to separate my mental health issues from my stutter, now that I can see in hindsight how I let my anxiety get all tangled up with it. A conversation with one of the therapists I tried out helped with this.
I try to remind myself that it’s okay to sound different. That I can banter with the best of them.
That I have important things to say, and even if it takes me a little work and time to get them out properly, I deserve to say them.