Friday, March 4, 2011

Ending My Silence on the King's Speech

There are a lot of good movies out lately and so when my wife announced on date night that she wanted to see the King's Speech I was a little hesitant but I went and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I stutter. Many fellow stutterers have writen about this, much more eloquently than I can.

This, as I remember started in Grade I. I probably started before that but with the reading out loud, you have to do in Grade I it became apparent. My Grade I teacher alertly picked this up and I was started on speech therapy that year which lasted until Grade 5. Once a week an old English lady, Miss Crickmay would appear at the door of our classroom and another student and I would go for our weekly speech therapy sessions. This mostly consisted of reading from our readers and being told not to talk loudly and read slowly. The sessions stopped after Grade 5. I believe I had broken her spirit.

I went thru a lot of teasing throughout school. I remember in Grade 1 we would have the morning and afternoon role calls. As the teacher called out our names we would have to say, "Good morning Mrs. Murphy" or "Good afternoon, Mrs. Murphy". That instead of just saying "here" or "present". I could easily say "good afternoon"; "good morning" was a daily ordeal. In Grade 2 I was actually placed in the dummy reading group until the teacher realized that I could read better than anybody in the class. I went to the same school from Grades 1-7; as I got along, the other students knew that I stuttered, the teasing stopped; some other students came to my defense if somebody imitated me or laughed.

Junior high was another matter. Only half our school when to that Junior High and there were three other feeder schools. A whole new group of students to whom I was going to have get to know. My solution was to clam up. I only spoke when spoken to and stuck with my small group of friends. I believe that as a result of this I missed a lot of socialization during adolescence. I still have a hard time making conversation, people find me aloof. I really wanted to learn French in junior high so I took an enhanced course. Part of the reason may have been that I felt I could be more fluent in another language. As I found out I stutter in French although not as badly as in English probably because I have to speak slower and think more in French. Nonetheless, French class became an ordeal.

When I was in high school there was a televised quiz show for high schools called Reach for the Top. I am especially good at trivia, so much to everybody's, but not my, surprise I made the team in Grade 11. I have only recently thought of how stressful this must have been for my parents. Their stuttering son on TV at 7:30 in the evening, broadcast province-wide. Fortunately for some reason I usually don't stutter under pressure and the one word and short phrase answers required for these shows never bothered me.

Notwithstanding Miss Crickmay's efforts I did come to a truce with my stutter but it is an uneasy and frequently violated truce. Soft S's and C's are difficult as are H's and W's. For example scissors is a word I have a hard time saying (I actually bought my own as an intern so I wouldn't have to ask the nurses). Worse are the times when I just self destruct, the words stop flowing, I grimace, my tongue protrudes from my mouth. These come without warning; I can be in the middle of a conversation and without warning the attack will come. I do a lot of speaking now, I have learned that after about half an hour this may happen. I have learned to have a glass of water handy more to use as a prop while I wait to reset. I like King George and Winston Churchill try to avoid words I know I cannot say. This is frequently awkward, in medicine with its most precise terminology it is often impossible to avoid certain words. Like King George, I don't stutter when angry and I can swear. I like to sing in private. I went thru my fellowship oral exam completely fluently, I have no idea how or why.

Alcohol of course makes it worse. I hold my liquor rather well except when it comes to speaking when I frequently appear way drunker than I am. Coffee is another villain. I try to avoid coffee when I have to give a talk. I stutter more when I am tired. There is an obsessive component to it, certain situations make me stutter more.

Public speaking is another source of stress in my life. I dreaded the presentations we had to give in medical school; presenting a case in a small group was never a problem (except that I tend to be very to the point which a lot of people don't like). When I was a resident we had to present a lot more. I suddenly found that I enjoyed it. I loved researching a topic and breaking it down to a way that an audience could understand. I was also able to structure it in a way that I could actually present it effectively. I now do a lot of talks for the medical school and mostly for Big Pharma. For the most part I am able to get through them. Early on I remember giving a talk for the dental class on head and neck pain and all of a sudden self destructing, limping to a finish. I was never invited back. Nonetheless I have spoken at two national meetings as an invited speaker, something I am still very proud of.

I now attend a lot of meetings. Depending on how I am feeling, I may or may not participate in the discussion. Sometimes this has been to my detriment, I often actually have something useful to say. I frequently now send letters or emails after the meeting; I just thought of this I say, although I probably thought about it during the meeting. I often think about how if I had spoken up at staff meetings when I was at the Centre of Excellence, that I might have changed the way things went. Nah.

A few years ago I resolved to kill the beast once and for all and attended weekly sessions at ISTAR. I found them helpful but at the end I got the impression that I was as good as I was ever going to get and that there were people worse than me. Still I highly recommend them to anybody. By the way they are always looking for donations.

Interractions with patients are interesting. People will think I chose anaesthesiology as a specialty where I would not have to talk to people. Everybody knows, don't they, anaesthesiologists never talk to patients. As such my choice of chronic pain is questionable. I was never a good family doctor; my stutter might have contributed to it. It may have made me appear less sure of what I was telling patients. It made me more direct and to the point which some people like, most don't. In certain practices I worked in, the doctor's practice was to call the patient in from the waiting room. Certain names of course I have trouble saying. At work, sometime asking for stuff is difficult; I am known as someone who is fairly self sufficient, I would rather just get something myself. When this happened my ever supportive chairman suggested that I had not more thoroughly interogated the surgeon or asked for help because of my stutter. I don't think so but what if?

I realize this is a handicap but that I am more fortunate than people who are blind, deaf or have a mobility problem, many of who have overcome their problems to go on to great things. On the other hand it is handicap not always accepted by society. I remember being always being told to speak slowly and other hints. I was told that I could stop stuttering as if I really wanted to just keep on doing it. As a teenager I remember thanking my father for something and being told, "you can thank me by stopping stuttering."

Stuttering of course runs in the family. The gene has apparently even been localized. My father stutters although he mostly overcame it, my younger brother (but not my other brothers) stutters. I have a cousin I have never met who stutters. Painfully for me, my son also stutters although after a year long ordeal of speech therapy he controls it much better than do I.

I thank the writers and producers of the King's Speech for bringing out the problem I share with so many other people. I suspect however this fascination will only last a few years and we will continue to go on as before. Meanwhile I have my blog.

1 comment:

burnttoast said...

My grandfather stuttered. As a result, my grandmother was often his mouthpiece. He was a dairy farmer. He was a deeply decent and loving man, and my sister lamented that "the best man in our family" was so silent. I feel a lack to this day, both missing him and wishing I could have known him better. He had so much he could have said. I wish he could have blogged, or emailed. I do have a few very short letters. The people who love you don't care if you stutter. Just don't stop talking.