Did you watch the debate last night? I did, and by the end I was halfway through a full-blown anxiety attack. There were times early on when Joe Biden started to stutter, and I couldn’t deal. It wasn’t bad, but it was there. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying not to cry. I asked Linda, “Did you see him stuttering?” She hadn’t noticed. But I couldn’t not notice.
I don’t know at what point in my childhood I started to stutter. I just know that it was bad—bad enough that my parents sent me to speech therapy. (Is that even a thing anymore? Do kids still get speech therapy for stuttering?) Mom says I was improving until the day I was called out of class in junior high school for therapy. It was announced over the school loudspeaker: “WILL JEFF STEELE PLEASE REPORT TO THE OFFICE FOR SPEECH THERAPY?” Because public humiliation always helps. After that, Mom says, I was back to square one and therapy was useless.
At some point in my tween years, I decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer. Imagine that: a kid who couldn’t get words out of his mouth was going to make a career in public speaking. It was insane. But I decided that this was a thing I wanted, and no handicap was going to stop me. If I stuttered, people would have to listen harder. They would have to lean in and focus on what I said, not how I said it. I wasn’t going to be deterred. I have no idea where that self-possession came from.
I didn’t date in high school. There were a lot of reasons for that, but one was an absolute terror of talking on the phone. There were no cell phones in those days, so no texting. You wanted to talk to a girl, you had to call her. I couldn’t. My stutter got worse when I was nervous so, unlike normal people, I couldn’t hide my nerves. All a girl had by which to judge me was my voice on the telephone line, and it sputtered like a ’57 Chevy. The date wasn’t worth the humiliation if the date ever happened, which it wouldn’t because who would want to go out with such a goober?
To this day I don’t answer the phone. I make my wife do it. I don’t need that kind of stress.
Things got better. I discovered alcohol in college, and it helped. I got laid. I became more social, and therefore more relaxed, and thus I stuttered less. I learned how to control my breathing in ways that mitigated the stutter. Then law school, and trial practice classes. I developed a pretty tough skin. No, I did more than that. I became an accomplished public speaker. I gave closing arguments and won significant cases. I argued before courts of appeal. Some political types suggested I consider running for Congress. (Um, no.) I made speeches to a couple of hundred people in my congregation at holidays, including one time when I got to the podium only to discover that my printer had only printed every other page and I had to wing it. No one ever knew. I was good in my time.
But after every legal argument or speech, that suit went to the cleaners because it was drenched in flop sweat. I was simultaneously wound up and exhausted, every time. My nerves were shot. I drank and went to bed.
It never goes away completely. Sometimes I can tell when the words aren’t going to come out right, and I can search for alternative words or phrases so quickly you don’t know I’ve done it. Sometimes it catches me by surprise. Sometimes there are no alternatives. You know one phrase that trips me up? My own damned name. That’s right; I stutter when saying my name. I’ll be called upon to introduce myself, and I’ll insert an “ah” or “um” between my first and last names so I don’t trip over it, and everyone will laugh—“Having trouble remembering your name? HAR HAR HAR HAR.” Then I am ten years old again, embarrassed and seething.
Have you seen the clip in which Joe Biden comforts the kid who stutters? Have you seen where he puts his forehead against the boy’s forehead and tells him it’s going to be okay, and that there will always be bullies but he doesn’t have to let them win? Today I want to do that for Joe. I want to tell him that I noticed last night, and it’s okay. I listened, and I heard what he said without regard to how he said it. There will always be bullies, and he doesn’t have to let them win. I want to say that, but I would cry if I ever did. And it wouldn’t come out right, because I would stutter.
I am a sixty-year-old man. Holy fucking hell, why am I never over it?
Addendum: My mom saw this post and reminded me of important facts that the mists of time had obscured for me. My folks never put me in speech therapy. My schools did that twice without consulting or informing them. When Mom got wind of it in elementary school, she stopped it because her research had indicated that the best way to treat a stutter was to leave it alone and not make the child self-conscious. Sure enough, I got steadily better on my own—until my junior high school again put me in therapy without consulting Mom, and used the public address system to call me out of class. She stopped that, too, but the damage was done.