Stuttering and Masculinity Part One: The bullies and the bullied.

As promised last week, today I am going to begin discussing stuttering and relating it to masculinity. I should begin by issuing a disclaimer. 

  • I am not an expert on stuttering, but I will be sharing from my own experiences. 
  • Nothing I say is the truth, merely my opinions and observations.
  • I realize that my own view on both stuttering and masculinity are biased and not neutral or fully objective.

So, with my arse covered, let's begin with a brief overview of stuttering. 

Most people assume it is a speaking disorder and is centered on an inability to talk. In reality, it goes much deeper. The popular 2010 movie, The King's Speech did an amazing job of highlighting just how encompassing stuttering really is. The movie is based on the life and struggles of King George IV (played by Colin Firth) as he deals with his speech and being the King of England. 

On the surface, stuttering appears to be a struggle with words. People who stutter exhibit word repetition, facial contortions, difficulty breathing, and extreme stress and frustration when trying to speak. There are a few facts to consider here;

  1. No one really knows what causes a stutter. 
  2. Young children can develop speech difficulties in early childhood and can grow out of it. If they develop a stutter after the age of five or so, then it tends to develop into a permanent condition.
  3. More men than women stutter, but when women stutter, they tend to be more severe. 
  4. Every stutter is as unique as the person who struggles with it. However, there are two broad categories of stutter; overt and covert. An overt stutterer is someone who can't hide his/her stutter and will demonstrate the associated hesitation, word repetition, facial tension, breathing spasms etc every time they speak. A covert stutterer is someone who can usually pass as a fluent speaker. They use word avoidance and word substitution to hide their disfluency.
  5. There is no cure for stuttering, but it can be managed through therapy, breathing techniques and courage. 
  6. Many people who stutter struggle on everyday things like saying their names, speaking on the phone and reading out loud in public or any kind of public speaking.  

The recovery programme I am part of, the McGuire Programme (https://www.mcguireprogramme.com) uses the image of an iceberg to represent a stutter. You only see the speaking disfluency as the tip of the iceberg. However, below the surface, you have all the emotional baggage such as fear, self-hate and frustration that is associated with stuttering. These feelings are always there. It is like living with a grenade in your pocket, waiting to go off as soon as someone asks you your name or to make a phone call.  And after the physical trauma subsides, you get to deal with all those toxic emotions. This emotional hangover can last for days. 

For me, stuttering is emasculating and that is what I have always resented most about it. Not being able to do a simple thing like speak has always made me feel like less of a man. Last week, I described my masculine role models; hot, hairy men and powerful robots that are able to stand tall, express themselves and own their masculinity powerfully. Now, I admit I don't know what it means to be a man. Not really. These role models are fictional archetypes, but there is a commonality that I see as valid; they are free to fully express themselves. 

Stuttering, by its nature, cripples verbal communication and limits a person's full expression. My stuttering journey began at around the age of six. I was a "good", "quiet" and "shy" boy growing up. Finding myself in an all-boys school at six,  confirmed that these traits were not going to serve me well. I was quickly at the receiving end of bullying from a number of boys in the class, being called "teachers pet". This bullying was reported, I was hauled up to the front of the room, and told to point out the boys responsible. Being "good", I did as instructed and I never recovered from this. My credibility with the class evaporated like a fart in the wind. No one was punished and it was never spoken of again. I was left asking myself what I did to be bullied in the first place?

My six-year-old self concluded that being me was obviously wrong. I began to feel a dull fear that became a constant companion. I feared school, teachers, classmates and even my family. Mum and Dad had been informed about the bullying and I had to pretend that I was doing fine, so they wouldn't be disappointed in me. I was afraid to do, or say anything. I had to be very careful and work hard to avoid being singled out EVER again. I knew at this point that I was different from other boys too after seeing Buck Rogers. I didn't know the term "gay" but I felt something that I knew I shouldn't and that added to my burden. 

I stopped asking for things in shops, like sweets and toys. I would do without, rather than risk asking. This expanded to asking for things from adults I knew like teachers and my parents. I stopped playing rugby in school and got "special" permission to do so. I was a small boy with the competitive instinct of a hamster, not what the school team was looking for. I vividly remember Dad having to come into school to sign a form to approve this. I felt even more different from the other boys. Finally, I was sent to extra English classes as my grades were not on the same level as my peers. Desperately protecting myself from the world and the people in it was obviously having an impact on my scholastic performance. 

This was directly related to my developing stutter. My parents noticed this and I changed school and was sent to speech therapy and given tools to alter the way I was speaking. My stutter had now become an obvious problem. By secondary school, I wasn't able to say my name fluently, blocking on the "O" in O'Brien. Reading out in class was a similar situation. Long stuttering blocks, with tears and then the emotional fallout. My grades were average, and I was a non-entity in my own life. The bullying continued. Names like "rat man" were thrown around with free abandon and I smiled and took it. I was roughed up a few times, even hit once. Sure, I cried in private and put on a brave face. I was not going to open my mouth about any of it. 

Now, I know many people suffer from bullying and traumas in life. My intention here isn't to enrol you in my story or feel sorry for me. The question I've been struggling with here is what could I have done or should I have done? I know what I did do. I tried appease these bullies. I tried to be their friend. I used my stutter as an excuse. I couldn't talk back and I couldn't get angry. I had so much anger bubbling just below the surface, I was terrified I would lose control. I was so used to this learnt role that it felt familiar, comfortable even. I was nice, little stuttering Robert. Inside, I was dying. 

If I could go back and do it all again, what would I change? I'm not going to cheat and say not develop a stutter. It is a part of me for better or worse, and is something I can't change. But looking at my masculine role models, I would take measured action. I would push that first bully back. Not extreme violence or toxic masculine behavior. A simple push back. I couldn't talk and I mistook that for powerlessness. Would the bully have backed down? I suspect the answer is yes. I would have seen that I could take charge of my life. I'm not suggesting going around beating people up and using violence as an answer but a firm stand. Telling them that I would not tolerate being abused. I would stand for myself and I was not a walkover. Establish basic respect and demand to be respected. 

If the bully retaliated, then I would learn to take a hit and I would hit back. I have always been afraid to be really hit or punched by someone. That precise fear is what stopped me fighting back. I see that was my forsaken masculinity. Even if I was beaten and bruised, I would know that I could take a hit and stand back up, proud in knowing that. I would still be a stutterer, I would still be a smaller boy but in my heart, I would know myself to be a man.

I know many parents face this exact situation when their child is being bullied. The socially acceptable answer is to talk about it. I wonder how many of them tell their child to fight back in private? Is it right? Probably not, but I would wager the bullying would  stop. I could be totally wrong here, and feel free to call me out on it.

Still, that is what I would change for myself. I can't help but wonder who I would have become as a result. 

I would learn to control and embrace my stutter and my sexuality, but too this day, a part of me is that scared little boy. The ripples of the past still resonate. I have been able to forgive and embrace him and we are now on a journey together to define what it means to me to be a man in 2018. 

If this blog resonates with you, feel free to reach out and message me. 

NEXT WEEK: Stuttering and Masculinity Part 2: Learning control and self-expression.