Last Wednesday was my first speech therapy appointment in over three years. I'd been in speech therapy of one form or another since kindergarten, some fourteen years of it. When I was little I had trouble making my "r"s; they came out sounding like "w." It was an embarrassing problem, the r/w confusion, but a fairly common one for developing children. Phonetically the sounds are similar and they're articulated in a similar way. "He'll grow out of it," was the approach most speech therapists took. It may sound harsh, but it's true, most kids do grow out of it.
I didn’t really grow out of it. Over time, my speech problem morphed from an r/w confusion to a more legitimate stutter and it grew, spread outward until it infected other sounds. "L" and "W" were the next to go, rounding out the glides. The stops (p, t, k, b, d, g) went next, and somewhere in the midst of it all went the fricatives (z, s, sh, all those good sounds). No one sound gives me trouble 100 percent of the time, but I'm not 100 percent fluent in any sound, either. Sentences became battlegrounds, where even a four-or-five word sentence consisted of three or four sounds that could trip me up and make a fool out of me. As I got older I got better at thinking on my feet and generating sentences without my most troublesome sounds, cutting them out of my vocabulary almost entirely.
That was basically what the 15 years of speech therapy taught me, how to think on my feet and keep myself out of trouble. How to lie and trick people into thinking I'm an effective communicator who just so happens not to use a lot of "l" or “s” words. Strategies for the actual moment of the stutter left a lot to be desired, and I still sometimes have to close my eyes, literally grit my teeth and power th-th-through it, until I'm able to say what I need to say. My family and I had been taking advantage of my public-school provided speech therapy for as long as I had been in public school, and when I graduated and went off to college, we made the conscious decision to experiment, not to enroll me in speech therapy, and see what happened, see if I had finally grown out of it.
Three years later, and I'm enrolling myself back in it. Ought to illustrate how the experiment went. And to tell you the truth, Wednesday morning, I was fucking terrified. Tuesday night I went to a friend's apartment and drank cognac and watched Modern Family, and when I told her I was starting therapy again in the morning she said she wouldn't be able to sleep, if she were me, and I told her nah, I'd be alright. I spent the night in bed staring at my wall until my alarm went off in the morning, just as I was falling asleep.
My session was (and is, from now on) scheduled for 11 a.m. on Wednesday mornings. At 10:30, I freaked and emailed my editor in a huff, hyperventilating, telling her what was happening, that I was scared and (if nothing else) she'd have another story to publish.
I think, like your typical student at a top school, I was afraid of failure. We're a certain breed of kid, of student, of person who doesn't like failure, takes failure personally, as a mark on the content of our character when we can't achieve what we set out to achieve. For a good 15 years of my life I had done a good enough job scraping by, using the tricks and strategies I had learned to get myself through conversations, make people think I was normal like them, but every week I lost a little bit of ground, my vocabulary shrunk a bit, until a month ago when I finally had to recognize that the experiment had failed, and I had to be big enough to keep my chin up as I wandered through the Frances Searle labyrinth, looking for the Speech Language and Pathology offices.
After getting myself hopelessly lost for five minutes, I turned a corner and somehow found myself right where I needed to be–the inside of Frances Searle can sneak up on you like that. I found the receptionist and told him I had an evaluation scheduled. Without looking up he asked for my last name, eyes only flicking up to my face when I couldn’t give it to him. “C-c-c…” I tried, but couldn’t. I remembered a strategy from my younger years in the speech office tucked away on the second floor of the Cumberland Valley High School and tried to start a new sentence, “My last name is C-c-c-,” but that didn’t work either. After another few seconds of my face growing redder I apologized to the receptionist, like I have so many times before ordering food or buying a movie ticket, fear of failure realized, and embarrassedly spelled it out for him.
He smiled that mild pity smile I’ve come to recognize over the years, but then he said to me “Don’t apologize for that,” a sort-of “that’s why you’re here, in this building right now” understanding, a type-of “I see this kind of thing every day, in this office” unspoken agreement between us, and I thanked him (for processing my payment) and went to the evaluation room.
My therapist is a very polite first-year graduate student, a bit of a greenhorn but excited to be working with an actual patient. Unless my ears deceive me, she had been in therapy when she was younger, pronouncing her “r” a bit more airy and like a “w” than one is “supposed” to, like I used to. To the untrained ear it’d be imperceptible, but my ears aren’t exactly untrained, and I wondered if she, too, has had to lie to people about her voice, has had to be afraid all her life. When we get closer, I’ll ask her about it.
About halfway through our first session, when she was explaining the various general strategies and techniques used to combat stuttering, she made a mistake describing something called “Easy Relaxed Approach – Smooth Movements.” Within seconds the door to our (“private”) evaluation room flew open and the head of the department (another very kind, nice woman) power-walked in with an “actually, that’s not correct,” and proceeded to go over my therapist’s mistake, explaining how the technique actually works before leaving the room and going back behind what I now understood was a one-way mirror.
It all happened in an instant, and when the two of us were alone together again my therapist, a bit flustered, said something like “well, that was embarrassing” and apologized to me, not used to failure, either. I felt myself smiling by reflex, hoping against hope it wasn’t the pity smile I myself had seen so often, and told her “don’t apologize for that,” that we were both still young, and foolish, fortunate enough to still have our youth and foolishness to fall back on, that we were still learning, and, most importantly, that we were both getting a bit better at it every day.