Yesterday, I found myself using an expression I don’t think I’ve ever used before. I was talking to somebody very young and I used the expression ‘long long ago’. As I was saying this, I noticed that I elongated the words ‘long’ and felt something echoing back from centuries past. It brought to mind old ladies in shawls talking about the past which, to them, was way back in the 19th century. They were talking about long long ago when they were children. I laughed to myself and said, Jaysus Brian, you’re getting ould.
The person I was talking to was a very young Swedish guy who had come to collect a computer desk I had advertised on adverts.ie and was giving away for free. As we were chatting about different things, he suddenly said “you have a stammer, so have I”. He seemed startled that he had said this. I understood his reluctance to talk openly about something hidden in plain sight and felt an immediate urge to deny that I was afflicted with a broken tongue. But I didn’t. “Yes, I have” I said to him, “I suppose it’s part of me now” while thinking that it’s not a part of me I’m easy with or have made peace with. It produces an opportunity, daily, to practice the principles of radical acceptance and, of course, kindness.
The lad said that he was ok in English but stammered badly in Swedish. To tell the truth, I hardly noticed that he stammered at all until he mentioned it and then I noticed the telltale signs. I also noticed, and recognised, how he averted his eyes when he hit difficult sounds, those feared words wrapped in barbed wire and stuck in the larynx.
When he first introduced himself, there was a rictus grin of frozen terror on his face as he said his name. There was something baleful glaring out from the empty sound space where his name should appear and I felt a desperate urge to fill this space by saying his name for him. But he hasn’t told me his name yet. Finally, after what seemed ages but was just a split second, a strangled sound emerged; his name minus the first syllable. I recognised this with a blinding clarity. Then I did the same! And the shame flooded in through the missing syllable; as I believe it did for him. I doubt an observer would have noticed any of this; even a sharp-eyed one. But I did, and he did.
We chatted a bit about the irony of most stammers being unable to say their own names to the extent that saying our name is a source of very high anxiety and gives rise to all sorts of avoidant behaviours. He said the reason himself and his wife came to Ireland was so he could speak in English and not Swedish on a regular basis. I recognised this and remembered all the weird things I had done over the years to avoid barbed words. Those explosive convulsions of silence, abortions of words and thoughts unuttered and unlived, communications stillborn; tendrils of wordlessness tightening around the body, spastic strangulation twisting me all out of shape and moulding me into an oddness of being I hate but have come to accept. Worst of all, it’s fucking exhausting. And all that before breakfast.
As he was talking I noticed that he became still. ‘He’s never spoken about this’ I thought to myself. I took my Brian hat off and put on my therapist’s hat. Luckily I was in my clinic so I didn’t have far to go. I did my therapist thing and a liminal space formed between us and he flowed into this space and spoke, fluently and eloquently, about his speech. I saw his eyes tearing up and felt our souls touch. I knew and he knew I knew and I knew he knew I knew. This felt different to what usually happens in my therapy room. Time seemed like it stopped and I felt the compassion build up in me and flow out to him.
Then the moment passed and I helped him carry the desk down to the ground floor and waved him off. I climbed back up the stairs to my rooms and the space we had formed was still there. I reflected on that perfect moment and the wonderful people in AA, FWBO, ECC and all the other comradeships of kindness I had connected with over the decades since I stopped drinking and drugging. When I’m at my best I get out of the way and let this kindness flow through me with the full knowledge that it’s not mine and that I need to give it away if I want to keep it.
I wondered if I would have felt this, had I not understood suffering and the journey around suffering to acceptance. I felt very grateful that although I had little control, it seems, over my vocal chords, I do have some control over how my mind work and where to place my attention. I felt gratitude for my many teachers.
So, the moral of this story is, girls and boys and boyz and grrlls, give things away. They’re not really yours in the first place; they’re just borrowed.