Five minutes and twenty slides: Ignite Chicago and a hard lesson in patience

Originally published April 1, 2014

A few weeks ago, I talked about how doing things that scared me actually helped me to grow. I realize this is not a novel concept because everyone and their bestie has been talking about this for years. For me, though, this is brand new territory. I’m still not used to willingly putting myself in situations that make me want to puke, pass out or run. Oddly, those same moments give me great joy. Within that fear and anxiety is a growing sense of euphoria. I’m doing something that I never thought I’d be able to do. Fuck yeah.

Tomorrow, I’ll be giving a five-minute presentation at 1871 for Ignite Chicago. This will be my third speaking gig – the first one was to grad students in speech and language pathology and the second was at a stuttering conference. This one is different; I’m speaking to a room full of (presumably) non stutterers about stuttering and I have a time limit – five minutes and twenty slides that will change every 15 seconds.

Oh shit.

It doesn’t really get much harder than this, especially for a stutterer. Which is why I decided to make my presentation about patience – not stuttering. After I completed my slides and started to piece together exactly what I wanted to say, I thought more about that virtue. I’ve never considered myself a patient person. I want what I want when I want it (which is usually now) and I get pissed if I have to wait or am late for something important. Seriously. Unusual traffic fills me with both anxiety and anger. A late train? Unacceptable. But I digress…

As I was going over my presentation, I realized that I won’t be just talking to everyone else about the value of slowing down and really connecting with others by being just a bit more patient. I’ll be sharing my own journey with patience in regards to my speech. I would be lying if I said it’s not still a struggle every day, but I’ve come so far from where I was in terms of my gusto with my stuttering. I’m still afraid, it still makes me anxious. Gut the reason why I can speak in front of people and talk openly in new situations isn’t because I lack fear or anxiety; it’s because I’ve become more patient with myselfMy limitations. My specific voice. My ego.

Think about it this way – when was the last time someone did something to you that made you want to fly off the handle? Whether it be some jerk cutting you off on the expressway or your boss being a jerk about a small error you made? In those moments when you don’t lose your shit on someone else – especially when they deserve it – you’re exhibiting an extraordinary amount of patience with your own tolerance.

That’s what stuttering is like. When I’m in the process of talking and I come to a word that just flat-out will not escape my lips, I’ve had to check my ego at the door and breathe in a full breath of patience. No matter how hard I try, I’m never going to speak like other people. And you know what? That’s cool. But I do know that tomorrow, when I step on that stage with microphone in hand, I’m not going to allow my impatience overtake me – even if I do only have 15 seconds per slide and five minutes to spit everything out. ;)

What scares you the most? Go do that.

Originally published March 16, 2014

Several weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking to Northwestern graduate students in speech and language pathology about stuttering. This isn’t something I discuss a whole lot (read: never ever ever), but this is a great time in my life where I feel ready to share a little bit more about how stuttering has essentially shaped who I am and why I write.

I’ve never been outgoing. In fact, naturally I’m quite shy. But as I grew older, I realized that being shy isn’t productive so I’ve learned how to be more talkative. The problem with that? I stutter. And sometimes, talking scares the shit out of me. Literally. I’ll want to say something and I’ll have a bad feeling about how it will come out.

One thing you should know about stuttering is that there is no rhyme or reason to it. It makes sense to me because I’ve dealt with it my whole life. I know the situations when I’ll be mostly fluent and I know the ones when I won’t. I know exactly how the anxiety feels of being forced to speak even though I know my voice will be peppered with blocks and repetitions. And I’d be lying if I said that, for the majority of my life, stuttering has silenced me in many situations.

Well, after nearly two years of speech therapy and a quite stunning and enormous “aha!” moment, I decided the best way to conquer my sometimes paralyzing fear was to speak about it. Yes. To get in front of a room full of non stutterers and talk about stuttering while I stuttered. A lot.

And this brings me back to Northwestern. The day of the speech, I felt weirdly calm. But as the hours ticked closer and closer to showtime, I got nervous. Not the usual “Everyone’s going to be looking at me and I don’t know how I feel about this” nervous. No. It was more like “I’m going to be showing a room full of strangers the most vulnerable part of myself and I think I might puke” nervous.

Luckily I didn’t vomit (but it was a close call), but I did manage to get up there and talk. Just talk. Which on the surface seems easy enough. Say what you wrote down. Repeat what you practiced. Communicate a certain message to the audience.

But when you stutter, it’s different. You know that you are facing an obstacle that most people won’t ever understand. You see, there’s a big barrier – and I’m not just talking about the physical aspect of not being able to get the words out. The emotional side of stuttering is just as massive as the technical side.

I think that’s why I chose to write. Not because I didn’t think I could speak in front of people, but because I was afraid of it. The terror of knowing that, no matter how hard you try, you won’t ever sound the way you know you could sound if you didn’t stutter made my career decision pretty easy for me. No phones. No cameras. Just open up a Word document and get paid that way.

But as I spoke to these surprisingly attentive students, I realized that stuttering isn’t evil. It’s not even really a problem. It’s just a part of who I am. Sure, it’s a part that I sometimes (okay…often) wish I didn’t have to deal with. However stuttering has given me insight on things that I don’t think I’d have without it.

I’m a great listener and in a many ways a great communicator. I’m not nearly as much of a brat as I probably would have been if I didn’t have this constant impediment humbling me. And I’m empathatic. Compassionate, even, in situations when most people would probably not be.

Look, I’m in no way better than anyone. Case in point: when I’m nervous, I can barely get my name out. My. Fucking. Name. But after the nearly 30 years I’ve spent hating stuttering, I’ve realized it’s a quite wonderful part of who I am. It’s no longer a burden, and I have a feeling that one day it will become a gift.

And that’s why I write. Because I know that some people will never want to listen to me talk. They won’t be patient enough to wait for me to block and repeat and go back to the beginning of what I’m trying to say just to get my point across. And you know what? I don’t blame them because if I were to be totally honest, if I didn’t stutter, I probably wouldn’t have much patience for it either. But they will have no problem with reading my words. They can do it at their own leisure and they can make up whatever voice they have of me in their heads.

Although I know that being different is cool – there are entire areas of cities dedicated to the oddballs (yeah, I’m talking about you Wicker Park) – I know that whats different about me isn’t. It’s not widely accepted; only one percent of the population stutter and only a small percentage of that is female. But stuttering has shaped me. For a long time, it made me sad. Contributed to my depression and anxiety. Gave me great pause and silenced me. Now? It’s empowering. I feel like I have options because I stutter and not in spite of it.

Just this past weekend I participated in a panel discussion at a FRIENDS one day conference. FRIENDS is an organization focusing kids and teens who stutter, and their parents. Sitting on this panel, listening to these 12 and 13 year olds be so confident and chatty all while stuttering made me proud. Not just of them and their obvious security at such a young age, but of myself for being brave enough to sit next to them and speak with the same amount of confidence they did.

In a few weeks, I’ll be speaking at Ignite Chicago about patience and – of course – I’ll be incorporating my experiences with stuttering into the presentation. Am I nervous? Yep. But I’m excited as well. And that’s the biggest takeaway; something in your life can scare the shit out of you but it can also empower you. I believe that our fears are an indication of the things we should actually be pursuing. And I’m proud to finally say that I’m going after a goal – talking about stuttering to as many people who will listen – that I didn’t even know I had.