My Body of Water
I awake in a thin layer of sweat. Around me, the air is silent but my ears throb with the certainty that, moments before, there were noises. Sonic, thundering sounds they must have been, as even the creases between my toes are slick. My body stays rigid in bed, untrusting of the silence. No memory of the dream lingers, no real explanation for the pain in my stomach or the red clench marks in my palms. All I have are the leftovers of my body’s reaction.
I open my mouth and let the air relax my jaw as it fills the spaces between my teeth. There is a delicacy in the shadows at night, in the grey between here and there. I count the seconds between my breaths until my pounding chest has slowed to a subtle rhythm. There is no reason to be afraid, I tell myself. There is no reason to be afraid.
Most days, I find myself wearing blue. When my mind deserts reason, I like to imagine the creases in my shirt are waves. If my body were an ocean, I think perhaps I’d be braver. Maybe my sweaty palms would not press themselves to my clothing in an effort to keep my hands from shaking in fear.
Blue is the remnant of the fear I grew up with. Blue is every letter that clung to the roof of my mouth, every word I swallowed to the pit of my stomach. Blue is the stutter in my voice that, no matter how hard I try, never seems to disappear.
I remember the beginning, when words first began feeling heavy on my tongue. My stutter started small. In its early stages it was quiet and undemanding, causing ripples in my sentences. I was eight years old and, although I could feel my jaw tightening and my lips drying, my vocal blocks and repetitions did not bother me. However, as the people around me started to notice the way I prolonged my Rs and stumbled over my Bs, my stutter got louder. Like a parasite feeding off of my voice, it grew from my silence.
Soon, stuttering created a quiet bubble around my body. I welcomed the silence at first, thankful to have found a way out of stuttering, but that quiet and calm world turned lonely. At twelve years old, I awoke early one morning from a nightmare. I had dreamt that I would stutter for the rest of my life. The dream stayed hidden in the back of my head, leaving me shaken. On nights it swam forward and permeated my thoughts, I would convince myself that perhaps next month, my stutter would go away on its own.
Days became weeks, became months. Sleep grew restless as more time passed and my stutter remained. The dream began infecting my thoughts every night, muffling my silence until all I could hear was the pounding of my heart. I would get out of bed in the morning with knotted shoulders and blue rings under my eyes. School shifted from a place of eager participation to a place where I dragged my feet and spoke only when spoken to. The quiet bubble around me grew, thickening with nerves that incited fear in my body every time I opened my mouth.
For five years, I lived in silence. With a chronic aching in my stomach, I knew that my stutter was tainting every aspect of my life. My body was weak with loneliness, sick with fear. I was sinking.
Had I not found SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young, I am quite sure I would have drowned.
On April 16th, I walked onstage at SAY’s benefit gala. I was sixteen years old and, having been a member for the past year, I thought I was prepared for what I was about to do. SAY had given me a daring sense of confidence that year. It had taught me that I was not alone. However, my whole body was made of fear that night. Feeling as though I had overestimated myself, I had to force my feet to keep moving, my heart to keep beating.
The moment I reached the podium, I let my lungs go. I felt the fear trickle out of my mouth, every stuttered word evaporating into the air around me. I spoke of the pain stuttering had on my life, which I had never before let myself feel with a free conscience. I thought about fear and the way it twists itself inside our bodies; how it flutters in our stomachs and then throbs in our hearts, taunting us to notice it. As human beings, we often stay level in the face of fear. We hold our composure until we’re alone at night, broken in its presence. We think what we fear will embarrass us, hurt us, even kill us, so we avoid living. Fear doesn’t let us face it that way, though. It starts to tingle and burn, until our bodies can’t take it any longer. On stage that night, I reached my breaking point. When I finished speaking, my words hung in the air next to all the fear that had dispelled itself from my body. I realized then how powerful my stutter was. To someone who speaks fluently, stuttering may just seem like a physical reaction that happens when I talk. However, it is more than vocal blocks and repetitions. Stuttering is pain. It is the gripping fear of being judged for sounding different and it is the fervent pursuit of silence that can only end in loneliness.
By giving me a community, SAY has turned my loneliness into independence, and my fear of speaking into a passion for communication. The roots of my stutter have tangled themselves in every corner of my life. I have spent years trying to lose and forget this part of my body, but I doubt those knots will ever truly extricate themselves – they are wound too tight, dug too deep. I’m not sure I want to unravel them anymore. My stutter, and the people I have met because of it, have shaped me into someone I never dreamt I could be. All I wanted growing up was to get rid of my stutter. Now, at almost twenty years old, I believe it is too embedded in my soul for me to ever want to give it up. SAY has taught me that, although my daily struggles with fear remain, my victories are right in front of me, present in my voice. Every sound I make is triumphant, spoken because I have something to say.
Time has dulled my stutter’s edges. When I speak, the rush of fear through my stomach subsides into a quiet curl. My body’s reactions are smoother, more refined. The scars are still
visible though. When touched and prodded, I can feel them swell, straining to burst. I am quiet, a careful talker and a natural listener. Sometimes, I feel most at home in silence. On days when stuttering presses on my heart and threatens to keep words in my stomach, I still wear blue. I think about the ripples murmuring in my head, the tiny bubbles my voiceless thoughts make. I imagine the fear that cloaks my mind is wind. Enveloping me, it propels my voice forward in gentle swells.
My body no longer tightens when I think about stuttering for the rest of my life. My dreams are no longer plagued with fear. I wake up in the morning knowing that although stuttering is out of my control, my silence is a choice. I can choose to be quiet when I’m feeling quiet, and I can choose to speak when I feel that my thoughts should not go unsaid. I am free.