We’re all just narcissists

This article is featured in Issue 1 of Dysfluent Magazine.

<sup>Conor</sup> <span class="interviewee">At the time of this interview back in 2017, James managed a café. He discusses how he doesn’t let his stammer stop him from stepping out of his comfort zone. James questions the quirks and strifes of stammering when it comes to work and everyday speech——sometimes wishing he could just sing his name instead.</span>

Stammering and family

<sup>James</sup> The <span class="stretch2">s</span>entences that I <span class="repeat">c</span>ome out with sometimes are <span class="repeat">j</span>ust nonsense. With different people I stammer worse. With my <span class="stretch2">f</span>amily it’s the worst, <span class="stretch2">a</span>nd even more specifically, with my older brother. It’s not genetic I don’t think. When I was younger I thought my dad copied it from me. I remember <span class="repeat">c</span>rying one day and my mam was trying to get my dad to make me feel better and I was thinking, ‘he’s <span class="repeat">g</span>ot no idea’——but he has been doing it for forty-five years.

I haven’t sat down and talked to anyone about stammering since I was about eight in speech therapy. <span class="repeat">I</span> haven’t done much therapy. Is there a real psychological explanation or anything? I was listening to a podcast by <span class="stretch2">S</span>croobius Pip, and he was talking about it coming from a traumatic event in his life.

Speech therapy

<sup>James</sup> In speech therapy I did <span class="repeat">b</span>reathing. I remember being told to take a big deep breath. And then some people tap out the syllables. I did this <span class="stretch2">f</span>or a while, but I’m not sure when I stopped doing it. It worked but not really. I’d get sentences out. I’d be <span class="stretch2">a</span>t the end of my breath trying to squeeze words out——I’d be <span class="repeat">r</span>unning out of breath. And you come to the end of the sentence and you can’t breathe anymore. Is it all about breathing? Is it all in our heads? I remember there was a <span class="repeat">g</span>uy in my speech therapy who used to say ‘em’. I say ‘eh’. But he was always saying ‘em’, or ‘mmmm’ before words. It always changes. I couldn’t say my name. Then it was my <span class="stretch1">s</span>urname. Then I couldn’t say ‘cappuccino’ for a while.

<em>Struggling to say your own name comes at the worst of times,</em> like the first day of first year in school. Some people think you’re rude or they think you’re an idiot for forgetting <span class="repeat">y</span> your own <span class="repeat">n</span>ame. Or that situation where it’s like, ‘We’re going to go around the room and everyone say your name...’


<sup>James</sup> <span class="stretch2">I</span> didn’t get picked on too bad, <span class="repeat">m</span>ainly just in pri- mary school. <span class="repeat">I</span>n secondary school I’m not sure if people just felt sorry for me. Secondary school was ok. In primary school I remember being called ‘Timmy’ from South Park. I had never watched it but they showed the kid as disabled, and gave him a bit of a <span class="stretch2">s</span>tammer.

I <span class="stretch2">r</span>emember I used to get off school every Monday because it was reading in English day. <span class="repeat">A</span>nd then the first day of secondary school, I had to read in English and the teacher obviously didn’t know. I remember stay- ing back after the class. So then afterwards she’d always ask me beforehand if I wanted to read, and I’d say ‘No’. I did alright, but I remember my <span class="stretch2">L</span>eaving Cert Irish <span class="stretch2">o</span>ral exam. I had to let all the teachers know that I’d a stammer, ‘it’s gonna be very bad that day.’ Remember reading the poems? I sang instead. The examiner fucking loved it. I sang Geibheann2. It was just so <span class="repeat">I</span> had one thing that I knew I wouldn’t stammer on. They were really sound about it. I was probably more worried about the kids outside the room listening to me sing Irish poetry.


<sup>James</sup> I was in <span class="repeat">c</span>ollege for a year, doing journalism. It’s a course which demands a lot of talking so that’s why I <span class="repeat">l</span>eft it. But then again I wasn’t too interested in journalism to <span class="repeat">s</span>tart off with. Journalists need to be asking questions and are very in-your-face, and I just never had that. It wasn’t for me. There were people in the course who could speak really well, <span class="stretch2">e</span>specially when it’s a task. When I was a <span class="repeat">k</span>id I did drama and it was grand most times, you’d just make up lines off the top of your head. <em>But if I was to learn lines from a <span class="stretch2">s</span>cript, I could never do it.</em> If <span class="repeat">I</span> had to speak in college or something I could normally get around it, but if it’s like, ‘<span class="repeat">r</span>ead this page...’, it’s horrible.


<sup>James</sup> I get it mostly <span class="stretch2">o</span>n the phone. I’d be like, ‘I can’t hear you,’ and I’d take a minute and I’d get through it. Customers and regulars want to have a chat with me, and there’d be days where I just don’t want to talk. Before this job I was in a different place, for like a year or so. They did <span class="repeats">b</span>urritos, so there were choices of brown rice, white rice and all that. ‘ <span class="repeat">B</span>rown’ I could not get out of my mouth. People would always give you your words though, they know what you’re saying. It does help but you still want to get it yourself. Sometimes it’s wrong though and it’s a situation of ‘guess again’.

I’ve thought about <span class="stretch2">s</span><span class="stretch2">a</span>ying it to people before and that would explain why. I’d explain to the staff. I don’t want people to think that I’m weird or rude. I said it to one girl today that I was meeting you here, and she said that she didn’t know that I had a stammer. So then I wonder how hard am I hiding it or should I even be trying to hide it. Sometimes I want to say something but I don’t say it——<span class="repeat">w</span><span class="repeat">w</span>hether I should be saying weird sentences or just not speaking at all, I don’t know. I would like to think that it hasn’t stopped me from doing things. But I do <span class="stretch2">a</span>void certain things.

My speech has been better lately. I think this job has actually helped me. I quit my job in the burrito place this time last year, and when I was trying to find a job, it was really bad. <span class="repeat">T</span>rying to introduce myself to a manager was a nightmare. I got this one job and I had an interview in a coffee place. I sat down, and the place was full, <span class="stretch2">a</span>nd I was just at a table in the cafe being interviewed. I was stuttering so much that I had to apologise. I explained that once I’m settled in I’d be fine. They were really nice. People are always nice. Say here in this place we have cakes. Each day there’s between four and ten different cakes. So people every day would ask what cakes are available on a certain day. I’ve a list in my head and I have to go through it. And the worst is that this place isn’t that big, so when I’m announcing what the cakes are, everyone can hear me. I’ve got stuck a few times——like on ‘carrot cake’. And I’m trying to get ‘carrot’ out. Normally ‘cake’ is fine; it’s normally just the first word. I’d feel shit after it, but I try not to let it get to me too much. I’ve had bad days where I’ve gone home and been angry. But then there’s this thing of hiding it. But it’s not even about the other people. It’s much more <span class="repeat">p</span>ersonal, for me, I want to be ‘normal’.

Black writing on a metallic surface, listing out various food menu items. The image repeats and layers over itself, referencing stammered speech.
James talks about how he has to call out various menu items as part of his job. 2017.

Personal quirks

<sup>James</sup> People are fascinated by it. I think that people probably know within like <span class="stretch2">f</span>ive seconds, ‘Oh this guy’s got a stammer.’ <em>You know those times where you can’t even get a letter out, it’s like you’re pushing out air and your eyes feel like they’re going to pop.</em> Vowels can be ok. It’s mostly with blunter sounds words——B, D, T, P, etc. It’s funny: I’d used to say ‘eh’ all the time but then I couldn’t say the word ‘<span class="stretch1">e</span>ffective’, so in the end it would be me saying, ‘eh eh <span class="stretch2">e</span>ffective’. If there’s a word with syllables in it——as most <span class="repeat">w</span>ords do——I’d break it up and it would sound like I’m saying three different words: eh-fec-tive. Or ah-com-plish. And with James——<span class="repeat">J</span> was bad for a while.

I’ve always liked music. It makes me wish that I could sing because I don’t stammer when I sing. I wish I could walk around singing, ‘Hi, my name is J<span class="stretch1">a</span><span class="repeat">m</span>es!’.


<sup>James</sup> It’s funny though that you might get through loads of sentences fine, and then you come across just one word you can’t get. <span class="stretch2">O</span>ther times I’ve found speaking in a rhythm helps. Though I find that I opt for silence. When you stop half-way during a sentence, you’ve got a choice to just be silent or keep stuttering. All these things are so hard to explain to people.

I’m really fortunate that I get on with it every- day, and I feel bad when I meet people that have really bad ticks with it too. I used to find that I’d look to the left. If I felt I was going to stammer I’d just look away. Or suddenly I would just bark it out. I would be there for the past thirty seconds <span class="repeat">t</span>rying to say the sentence. And I notice myself twitching to the left. So while I do struggle with it everyday, I get on with it. My friends said that after hanging out with me for a while, they notice themselves picking it up a little. And then with Amanda, my girlfriend, at the start she said that it was kinda cute. My friends would slag me that I take long pauses. Half-way through a sentence I would just stop. <span class="repeat">I</span>t’s kind of like a fear, like I’d rather be saying nothing than actually stammering. As I said my dad has one. He gets on with it. He always just talks anyway. But me, I’m like a stammering thesaurus.


<sup>James</sup> I was in <span class="repeat">d</span>rama with Amanda when I was younger. <span class="stretch2">S</span>o I remember one year, there was a summer camp on. They wanted to put on a play for the parents. I had this part in the script and I remember going to the teacher’s house because in the class I couldn’t say any of my lines. And I think in the end, she called off the whole play. So Amanda knew really well that I had a stammer. And even her mam now, she’d be like, ‘I remember you when you were younger with your little stutter, where’s <span class="repeat">i</span>t gone?’ and I’d be like, ‘Well it’s still there.’ So she knew and not that she would have any <span class="repeat">r</span>eason to be intimidated by me but I think it made me less scary. It takes the edge off of you.

It can be an <span class="stretch1">a</span>nxiety thing. I was away with Amanda on holiday and we wanted to go into a restaurant. As soon as they speak English, we’re fine, but one of us would need to explain first that we only speak English to get the menu. I asked Amanda would she be able to ‘handle this one’, but y’know she’s shy and she doesn’t want to do it either. I’m not really that <span class="stretch1">s</span><span class="repeat">h</span>y, but I have a better excuse for not doing it if that makes any sense. So there’s <span class="stretch1">s</span><span class="repeat">h</span>y, Amanda, and then there’s me, so we don’t get any <span class="repeat">m</span>enus.

I was in a band and played music with my friends and we had rehearsals in this place. But to get in you have to call this number and explain who you are and that you want to get in. And then the person asks for the pass- word. And I could never say the password. So I’d be there on the phone while the people at the other side would hang up on me because they think then phone has gone static. <span class="repeat">A</span>nd then I <span class="repeat">c</span>all back. Then I found that if I call them when I was walking I can get the words out if I focus on every step that I took. When you land on a step, the word gets knocked out of you. Like <em>I’m just saying a <span class="stretch2">s</span>imple thing but I’ve got <span class="repeat">t</span>o go through this <span class="repeat">p</span>rocess.</em>


<sup>James</sup> There’s a few people who <span class="repeat">w</span>hen <span class="repeat">w</span>hen I’d be talking to them I’d be <span class="stretch2">a</span>pologising and they’d say, ‘Oh it’s ok, I have a stammer too——I can’t say the word ambulance.’ All they do is say it like ‘am-bill-ance’. But stammering is not that. It’s the brain process. <span class="stretch2">O</span>r what it feels like. It’s not a physical thing. It’s that feeling in your chest, that sinking feeling. It’s interesting when you meet another person with a stammer to know that they are probably going through the exact same thing. But you never say you have a stammer because either they already know you do or you don’t want them to know if they don’t already. <span class="repeat">B</span>ut then again, people probably aren’t even thinking of us stammering. We’re all just <span class="repeat">O</span>arcissists.

At times in my life, I <span class="stretch2">I</span> would’ve said yeah to getting rid of my stutter. Now I’m ok with it. I’m in a good place right now. School was the worst I think, from sixth class to third year (12 to 16 years old). I’d notice my speech being really bad some days, but now I’m here talking to you fine about it. But when you ask me if I could get rid of it, would I? I know I’m gonna be thinking about that question for a while.