DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #97: You Have Arrived at the Fire


Dear Sugar,

I stutter.

That is the truth that I have lived nearly twenty-eight years of my life trying to avoid. And of course there is no real avoidance because my stutter permeates every single goddamn thing that I do. My stutter is, as you would say, my Obliterated Place.

There is no real help for me since there is no known cure. There is only acceptance. I have spent a large part of my 20s attempting to come to terms with this reality, only to find, over and over again that having a stutter is the one unforgivable thing. At least in my mind.

I know I did not ask for this. I know it is a hereditary affliction. I know there is just something in my brain that doesn’t work the way other people’s brains work. I know I am not the only stutterer in the world. Yet, I cannot shake off this shame that I feel. It is deeply imbedded in my psyche. The shame is as much a part of me as having brown eyes or being left-handed.

The shame and just pure, raw fear that I feel every single day has led me to abuse alcohol on a very regular basis. I find that when I am drunk, the stutter is less prominent. Incredibly so. I’ve learned that the stutter doesn’t actually go away when I am drunk, it’s just that my inhibitions do. The fear I have of simply opening my mouth to talk is gone when I drink.

I am not sure how to go about letting go of the shame. I find myself apologizing to people if I happen to stutter in front of them. If not with my words, than with my demeanor. Confidence? I am sure that must be a wonderful thing. I have never known it.

When I’m stuttering, I go to a detached place in my mind. It feels like my heart is being ripped out of my chest. For the most part people are kind about it. When they aren’t, the shame is a neon sign pointing to my biggest flaw. My most human part of me. I always remember the people who are not kind about it.

As a child, my family never brought it up unless it was to make fun of me. They did what they knew and I don’t blame them. But this is where the shame started. I was maybe five years old when the stutter became prominent and it has been with me ever since. I have never received any kind of therapy.

I left my home in San Francisco to move to New York because I have never wanted to live in one place my whole life. However, I feel like I have not really given myself a chance to live. Really, truly live. I feel stifled and buried alive by the shame, yet I am hesitant and even afraid to let go of it because a part of me feels that I need to be punished for being a stutterer.

And that’s the gist of it, I suppose. I hate myself because I stutter. Even though I know better and even though I know I did not ask for this, I still blame myself. I blame myself for stuttering and I blame myself for letting my fear of my stutter control me. The fear and the shame rule my life and I am ashamed of that too. I blame myself for that too.

How do I let go and how do I live better? How do I forgive myself for something that is not my fault? I feel like I already know what to do. I’m just waiting to give myself permission to do it and I feel as though time is running out. Help?

Thank you,
Ashamed and Afraid


Dear Ashamed and Afraid,

Last December I took the baby Sugars to a winter solstice ritual at a hippy retreat center in the woods. The ritual was held just after sun set in a big community room in an old lodge, where maybe sixty of us were packed in. There was drumming. There were speeches delivered in mystical tones by people bedecked in beads and feathers about the symbolic meanings of north, east, south and west. There was chanting followed by ten minutes of total silence that even—miraculously!—the baby Sugars managed to endure. And then there was a great joyous ululating celebration in which we together welcomed the darkness.

After the joyous ululating died down, the people who were bedecked in beads and feathers lit a fire in the fireplace and before it they placed several giant loaves of bread.  We were all instructed to take a hunk of the bread and, from that hunk, take one bite. The rest was to be cast into the fire. The bread we consumed represented what we wanted to bring into our lives, to take in, or make manifest, they explained. The bread that went into the fire represented what each of us hoped to shed or push away.

When I reiterated this symbolic business about the bread to the baby Sugars they looked at me blankly. They couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of bringing something that wasn’t a material thing into their lives and it was even more difficult for them to understand the notion of casting such a thing out. They did not have any real desire to be stronger or purer or better. They believed themselves to be that already. To them the word manifestmeans only bread in the mouth.

This is as it should be. They are children—so irrefutably of one piece that they’re incapable of making the psychic move it takes to see themselves from even the slightest distance. But you know what, sweet pea? You aren’t. It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing something out—the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter—and taking something in—the fact that you have the power to redirect the blow-torch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.

That you got frozen in the place of fear and shame that first gripped you when you were a child is not surprising. It’s not another thing about which you should silently condemn yourself. Your letter does not convey your weakness and failure to me, darling. It conveys your resilience and your strength. At five, you learned you had a communication disorder and no one helped you make sense of that. You received neither emotional support nor therapeutic treatment. That’s a travesty. But a greater travesty would be that you, at twenty-eight, allow yourself to go on this way.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to. It isn’t too late. Time is not “running out.”

Your life is here and now. And the moment has arrived at which you’re finally ready to change. I know it. The thousands of people reading these words right now know it. And you know it too. It’s the reason that you wrote to me.

It’s heart-squinchingly terrible that you’ve been so alone with your stutter for these twenty-eight years, but you have the power to end your isolation in ten seconds if you choose to. Just click on over to the National Stuttering Association, where you will find oodles of information that will help you connect with others who stutter, find therapists and specialists who treat those with your condition, and access other resources that will very likely play an important role in your ability to overcome the shame and fear you’ve gathered around you like a tomb constructed of the shame that has buried you alive.

I implore you to do everything you can to connect yourself to peers and professionals who will offer you support and guidance. Doing so won’t likely make you feel great in one day. You might not even feel great in a year. But you’re going to feel a whole fuck of a lot better, I can promise you that. There isn’t any reason for you to be alone in this, dear one. You are not alone. There are so many people out there who will nod their heads in understanding and recognition when you tell them all the things you just told me.

You have a right to know those people. You deserve to receive their kindness, camaraderie, and expertise. You don’t have to make the same choices your parents made for you. You get to have your real, giant, gorgeous life. As you so clearly articulated, your stutter is not what’s keeping you from that. Your ideas about what it means to have a stutter are. So you need to change them.

Nobody worth your attention gives a damn if you stutter. Write this down on pieces of paper and tape them all over your room. Put one in every pocket of all of your pants. Nobody worth my attention gives a damn if I stutter! They might blush when you stutter. They might awkwardly try to help you communicate. But not because they think you’ve got “one unforgivable thing.” They do that because they have a moment of surprise or discomfort, that in their desire to make you feel okay they don’t quite know what to do and some of them do the wrong thing.

You don’t need to take responsibility for that. You need to find a way to laugh it off or address it directly or let it simply be there, unconnected to you. The people and resources I directed you to will help you begin to stop internalizing this crap. And so will a lot of other people. It might help you to remember that your struggle is ultimately so much like the struggles many of us have to feel right in the world. Many of us have had to make life-changing emotional and psychological shifts about who we are so we could become the people we’re here to be. You are not outside of us, even if it feels to you like you are.

I believe someday you’ll know that in your heart. I think years from now you’ll look back at this time of your life and you’ll see that this was your growing up. One of the hardest things about doing that—I mean, really, truly, actually growing up—is that in order to do so we must come to terms with the past. And for a lot of us who didn’t get as kids what we needed to get from the people who were supposed to give it to us, we can’t really grow up until we find a way to give what we need to ourselves.

But that’s also one of the most beautiful things. Because we can. We have the power to heal what needs to be healed. We get to give ourselves that. We have the capacity to stand before the scorching flames and decide what to swallow and what to cast out. That’s where you are, Ashamed and Afraid. You have arrived at the fire. Here’s the bread. Grab a hunk.