Speech is a chain that begins as a thought, that’s coded into language, that’s sent from the brain to the vocal apparatus. Then come the muscles. The organs. They are essential. With their placement comes motion, then air, then sound—sound that reaches the listener, that surges like electricity, that travels to the auditory center of the listener’s brain.
This is the phenomenon known as everyday conversation.
I stood behind the counter, pacing. The receiver rang and I plucked a nearby guitar, each ring echoed by the vibration of the string. I fidgeted, twirled, sat down, stood up, leaned against the counter, walked to the closest display case. This had been my method for years. Distract yourself. Distract yourself.
I had worked at my uncle’s guitar shop since the age of fourteen. Now I was seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood and college. That summer, in exchange for guitar lessons, a local preacher constructed the shop’s inner walls with freshly cut pine. While the phone rang in my ear, I ran my hand across the wood—inhaling the sawdust. Another ring passed.
Still no answer.
I felt relief, knowing the voicemail would pick up soon. Voicemails I could handle, could almost come across as normal. It was like speaking into a vacuum. There were no faces, no voices to immediately engage with—no interruptions to the delivery I had thoughtfully prepared.
I stood against the pine walls, still rubbing the surface, suddenly aware I had given myself a splinter. Then the ringing stopped. I heard a voice.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice came through the receiver. A woman’s voice? I walked frantically back to the counter and opened the schedule binder, searching, searching. “Hello?”
I checked the schedule again. The student’s name was masculine. Landon. I had expected to reach a man. Who was this woman? A wife? A mother? I knew nothing about Landon, not his age or his family or his temperament. I was just calling him as a favor to one of the teachers. Mind cancelling my next lesson? the teacher had asked. No, I said, my lip a thin, hard line. No, I don’t mind.
“Hi,” I said, to the woman on the line. How do I begin? Ask if this is Landon’s phone? Ask to speak with Landon? Go into the spiel about the guitar store? Mention the cancelled lesson? Which way, I wondered desperately, would use the fewest words?
“Hi,” she continued, filling the silence while I deliberated my next move. “May I ask who’s calling?”
I laughed nervously, as if to say—oh, silly me. Why have I not introduced myself yet? How strange of me to forget.
I took a deep breath and began. “This is… this is… this is…”
I felt tension rising through my shoulders. I shook my head. Please, I thought. Not today.
“This is… this is… R-R-R-R-R-R-R-R-R…”
In my mind, I said: “This is Rachel from the Springfield Guitar Company, calling to inform Landon that his lesson for tonight is cancelled. Can we reschedule for some time next week?”
But my mouth said, “R-R-R-R-R-R-R-R…”
I was already stuck in a loop, a stream of repetitions and prolongations, of blocks solid and heavy as concrete. “R-R-R-R-R-R-R… Rachel. From the S-S-S-S-S-S-S…”
I grabbed a nearby pen and pressed the tip into my hand. I watched my skin turn black and dotted with ink. Sometimes if I applied enough pressure, if I distracted myself from the pain of speaking and focused on a different type of pain, I could make myself say one word. One word. Anything.
I jabbed the pen harder. “SpringfieldGuitarCompany,” I said, the words pounded together in a torrential rush.
“I’m calling to… to… to… to…” I dropped the pen. My mouth was dry, dusty as the guitars hanging high on display. My next word was inform. Inform. I traced the word in the air with my finger. I knew a vowel sound that strong would only come out if it was preceded by something—like a word I could say, could use as a bridge, or a sudden change in pace or tone. I tried both tactics with no results.
“To… to… to…” The woman was getting restless. I clutched the receiver in my hand. I was sweating. I wished for an escape route, a time machine. I craved a flask full of the strongest liquor I could swallow.
“To… to… to… to… to… to… inform you that L-L-L-Landon’s llllllllllllllllllllll… llllllllllllllllll…” Lesson. My cheeks were flushed. I leaned against the counter, my head hung in my hands. You just said an “L” word, no problem, I thought. Why is this so difficult?
“Lllllllllllllllllllllllll… llllllllllllllllll….” I felt my jaw tighten, like bone grinding against bone. “Llllllllllllllllll—”
“I’m sorry,” the woman interrupted, “but I can’t understand you. I’ll call Landon’s teacher on his cell.”
I released my prolonged “L” like a balloon popped by a needle. I took a deep breath and rehearsed what I would say next. I’m sorry for the confusion. I have a speech impediment. A stutter. I’ve had it since birth. I’m sorry if I’m difficult to understand, but it’s something most people get used to—
I heard a click. The dial tone came through suddenly, loud and jolting. The call had ended. I stood there frozen, listening to the beep, consistent and steady, perfectly timed, the opposite of any sound I could ever make.
When we needed a new answering machine message for the shop, I recorded fifteen different versions. Until there was no trace of defect. Until it sounded perfect. “Hi, you’ve reached the Springfield Guitar Company. We’re sorry to miss your call. Our store hours are…”
Later, when my uncle heard the final take, he looped his fingers through the straps of his overalls. “See?” he said approvingly. “You can talk just fine. If you put the effort in.”
Stuttering is a communication disorder where the flow of speech is disrupted by prolongations (llllllllllike this), repetitions (l-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-like this), or blocks and stoppages (no sound). The cause is thought to be a combination of four factors: genetics, neurophysiology, child development, and family dynamics. Stuttering persistently into adulthood is rare, affecting only 1% of the American population and four times as many men as women.
There is no known cure.
It’s never the words I remember. It’s their taste: bitter, dense, like biting into a radish. It’s how my body feels: sore. It’s what I recognize on faces: blank, worry, like closing your eyes and not seeing colors, not seeing stars, just the memory of light, light erased from the retinas till all that’s left is dark.
The night started with a ritual.
“What’s it called?” Gregg said. His friend, Caleb, passed me the mixed drink I’d abandoned on the sidewalk. I waved it off. Anya—leaned into her handsome friend, Scott—pointed to the drink, a screwdriver, and asked if she could have it. I said sure, of course, what’s mine is yours. She hugged me, said she was so happy we were friends.
We had known each other a little over five minutes.
“It’s called Power Hour,” I explained, holding an empty beer bottle in my hand, swinging it around like a prop. “You take a one-ounce shot of beer… every sixty seconds for one hour.”
My new friends burst, bellowed.
“What the hell,” Caleb said. He passed me a cigarette, a token of his respect.
“Wait, so—you took a shot every minute, for how long?” Scott asked.
“One hour,” Gregg answered, lightening his own smoke.
“She already told us that,” Anya said, rolling her eyes dramatically and gulping down the screwdriver.
“But how many beers is that?” Scott asked.
“Dude,” Caleb mumbled, and Anya laughed.
“Around five,” I said, answering Scott. “Wait, so—” I examined them suddenly. “—how do you all know each other?”
“We work together. Have for years,” Anya said. “Why? How do you know Gregg?”
Gregg, my entry point into the group. We exchanged a look. “We met on the escalators,” he said finally.
“About ten minutes ago,” I added.
Truthfully, we had been introduced by a mutual friend earlier that night, but didn’t have our first conversation until intersecting on the escalators—thirty minutes after Power Hour, between my second and third mixed drink. Drunk, but not sick or stumbling. The ideal temperament for fun, fluid conversation.
Perhaps my only temperament for fun, fluid conversation.
As a teenager I spent my weeknights in an unremarkable fashion: homework, instant messager, dinner, avoid parents, instant messager, fight with parents, bed. But one night, one winter, I arrived home in a somber, introspective trance.
I was the secretary of the student council, a position I had campaigned hard for—endless weeks of homemade posters and buttons, candy in wrappers with stapled campaign slogans passed out in the halls. My opponent was the richest boy in school, perhaps the county, a trait that seemed to only enhance his popularity. Still, by some seeming miracle, I won the election.
The celebration was short-lived. Weeks later, when the student council president and vice president were out town, the responsibility of morning announcements fell—by default—to the next in line. The secretary.
The morning announcements, five to ten minutes, all me, just me, speaking into an intercom, broadcast across several buildings, to over a thousand high school students.
I fretted, of course. I thought about quitting, of course. Of course I wanted to fake sick or fake dead or perhaps, just come clean about my anxiety. It wasn’t as if my stutter was a secret—it had been floating in the airwaves, like gnats circling rotten fruit, since the moment I began to speak. Everyone knew I stuttered, would expect me to stutter, even if they didn’t fully understand why. I could ask the treasurer to take my spot at the intercom. No one would blame me.
But I had never used my speech as an excuse before. Not even when I should have. I came from a family of small business owners, do-it-yourselfers, roots exclusively south of the Mason-Dixon line. My entire education, I had stumbled through class presentations and group discussions and powerpoints just like everyone else. Why would I change now?
I practiced my announcement voice in the mirror. Tone: high, nasally. Diction: exaggerated, but clear. I didn’t sound like myself, but could maintain fluency better if I used an accent. I imagined walking into the principal’s office and taking off my sunglasses, the epitome of cool, collected, attitude oh so laissez-faire. I’d walk right up to him and say, “I think I’m here to do the announcements… or… whatever…” Next, I’d wave my hand, as if to say—I’ve hardly given this a second thought, but sure, while I’m here, why don’t I do the morning announcements?
Nothing could go wrong.
The morning of, I stopped for fuel and bought a large gas station cappuccino. This was years before I realized caffeine irritates my stutter, stimulating my central nervous system in ways a lifelong speech impediment already has covered. Still, I arrived at school confident with my cappuccino in hand. I whipped off my sunglasses—as rehearsed—and sitting in my seat, in front of the intercom, was the class treasurer.
“W-w-w-w-what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, half-heartedly. “We all just assumed…”
Ten minutes later, the treasurer’s voice drifted through the intercom. He delivered the morning announcements.
I silently cried during homeroom.
After that day I became more desperate for a cure. I hadn’t yet accepted that being cured was a neurological impossibility. On the Internet, I searched “cures for stuttering” on my desktop late at night. I ignored the legitimate research. Instead I found chatrooms, personal blogs, outdated social media threads. All unreliable. But most of them agreed: drugs and alcohol could provide temporary relief from stuttering.
First I tried this socially. I began drinking with my friends in parking lots and fields, in the back of pickup trucks. I never went to school intoxicated until I was in college, when it seemed I crossed the threshold from self-medication to addiction. I grabbed drinks before night classes, insisting it was social; once, I drank an entire bottle of wine so I could give a presentation in my morning class. I had started to wonder if I could drink before job interviews, arguing it would be “just to take the edge off.” I wasn’t sure what I dreaded more—to be thought of as an alcoholic, or be outed as a stutterer.
Standing outside with Gregg, Caleb, Scott, and Anya, a coldness seemed to sweep through me. A realization. I didn’t love alcohol, crave alcohol, or particularly enjoy drinking it. In fact, I had gone months and months without it—thanks, largely, to the religious guilt of being raised Baptist in the South. My relationship with alcohol included endless starts and stops, similarly (and ironically) patterned like my speech.
Though I had been drinking in excess since the age of fourteen, I had never been drinking just to drink. It was not the alcohol I found addictive.
It was the fluency.
It’s never the words I remember. It’s their taste: euphoric, crisp, biting, sweet, contradictions most might say, but I consume each consonant, each high front vowel. It’s how my body feels: fluid, weightless, words flowing from my airstream like Olympic runners on a track. It’s what I recognize on faces: the absence of discomfort, hesitation, shame.
Katie leaned forward in the bathtub, her bare back colored a deep red.
“Too… too… too… hot or too… too… cold?” I asked. I had one hand on the temperature valve, the other under the running facet. Nothing was worse than a cold bath, I knew, but I didn’t want to further irritate her skin. By the next day she’d have bruises, unsightly spots of black and purple. Katie looked up at me, black eyeliner running down her cheeks.
“Feels perfect,” she said, leaning backwards into the tub. I sat on the floor across from her, door open, shower curtain pulled, her aching body visible. Once the tub filled, I turned off the water, listening to the facet slowly drip. I wondered what to say.
Katie and I had been roommates, on and off, since the first year of college. We were from the same hometown. When I met her at age twelve, she was the obnoxious new soprano in the church youth choir. But that had been ten years ago. The Katie I knew now was vivacious, loyal, hardworking to a fault. That’s how she ended up on the road at 2 am, driving home from a catering gig, a fourteen-hour shift, when the car across her lane ran a red light. She was turning. The car collided with her front side at full speed.
The wreck had sent her spinning.
“The d-d-d-driver, the guy who hit… who hit… who hit you… is he—”
“An asshole?” Katie mumbled, and I laughed.
“N-n-n-n-n-n-no, well—yes. He is. But is… is… is… he okay?” I asked. In moments of crisis, I found my speech to be even more unpredictable. Sometimes the situation propelled me to fluency, like a supernatural dose of adrenaline. Other times, it made my speech even more static and strained.
Tonight, it seemed, I was stuck with the latter.
“He’s fine. The ambulance okay-ed us,” Katie said. I nodded, picking threads from the shower mat. When I glanced up, a contemplative frown had spread on Katie’s face.
“Why did this happen?” she asked suddenly, looking at me. Though the question seemed rhetorical, it was clear she wanted an answer.
“I-I-I-I-I-I…” I took a deep breath and stopped. I turned my head towards the door, considered our proximity to the kitchen. I could pop open that forgotten bottle of champagne and be mixing mimosas in five minutes or less. Katie would appreciate one, I thought. It would help her sleep. Besides, after a few drinks, I could answer her question. I could give her better advice, more fluent advice. I could be at my best for her, for me. For us both.
I started rising from my spot on the floor. “I-I-I-I-I’m just going to go—”
Katie’s eyes flashed open. “Please,” she said, “don’t leave me alone.” Her face flushed with panic, her arm outstretched towards me. I took one step towards the door, but then turned, shaking my head. I squatted low beside her, and held her outstretched hand.
“I-I-I-I-I won’t,” I said. It occurred to me, suddenly, what I should say. The only question—of course—was could I?
I took a deep breath. “Things like this don’t… don’t… don’t… usually have any rrrrrrrrrrhyme or rrrrrrreason. You know that. But mmmmmmm… mmmmmm…. mmmmaybe this happened so you could s-s-s-s-s-s-slow down.”
She looked at me curiously, wondering how I could make such a claim. I squeezed her hand, determined to continue.
“You’re so… you’re so… you’re so… driven, and I l-l-l-l-l-love that about you. But you’ve been pppppppushing yourself too-too-too hard. These lllllll… llllll… lllllate night shifts. They’re not… not… not… good for you. You-you-you have to pppppppp… pppppp… ppppproritize your own w-w-w-w-wellbeing first.”
Exhausted, jaw aching, I leaned against the tub. Katie stared straight ahead, still holding my hand.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice unusually quiet. “I needed that.” She went on to explain the pressure she felt from her father, and why she felt compelled to work so hard. We talked until the early morning. After a while, she stood up and dried herself off. While she dressed, I put the kettle on. I opened the pantry and spotted the champagne. I reached over, grabbed the box of chamomile tea, and shut the door behind me.
I had a dream once that my body was gray, wispy—like my skin was carved inside a raincloud. I wondered for weeks what the dream meant. Why had I walked through life with a body that was airy, even malleable? In waking hours, my body felt pliable as stone.
Eventually, I realized: the dream did not represent the evolving nature of my body. I had been born with a disability, one that continued well into adulthood. It wasn’t my physical self that would encounter transformation. The dream represented something much more transcendent.
I’d like to say that my relationship with alcohol ended that early morning, sipping chamomile and having life-chats with Katie. That’s a pleasant image to end on. But those of us afflicted already know—disability and addiction are stories with no end. Like words, they’ve left a taste inside my mouth: acidic, unbearable, like swallowing a lightning bolt.
In the end, the question I answer shouldn’t be if stopped drinking alcohol, but rather—have I stopped misusing alcohol? Have I accepted there is no cure for stuttering? Have I stopped prioritizing fluency above all else?
The answer is earnest but hopeful, and posed like a prayer:
I am working on it.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.