Keep the Focus On Yourself

Posted by on Feb 19, 2014 in Crossing boundaries, Life | 19 comments

 

Kathy’s nine steps in last week’s post brought back memories that I’m ready to share. With Kelly’s comment on how difficult self-forgiveness can be, I was able to focus. I want to thank them both.

 

This is my story of how I moved from self-doubt to self-acceptance, from fear to self-forgiveness, and to self-love.  In keeping with the theme of my blog, I was crossing a border in a way. A new life opened up for me on the other side. But it wasn’t easy.

 

Like Kathy, I found a home in Al-Anon. It was, for me, a source of guidance at a time when I was no longer certain which way was up.

 

Along with the 12 Steps and Traditions, for which it is famous, Al-Anon uses pithy sayings that are easier to remember. You might recognize a few of them:

 

One day at a time

Easy does it

First things first

Keep it simple; surrender

And, the one I want to talk about here,

Keep the focus on yourself

 

The first time I heard this sentence, I’d shown up in Al-Anon desperate to get family members sober. It was Feb. 2, 1991.

 

But this is not a post about the alcoholics in my life. This is a post about how I came to a place of self-forgiveness, self-love, and self-acceptance — three sides of the same coin, if you will — through the unconditional understanding and acceptance I found in that meeting and in others I would attend over the next many years.

 

And, it’s the story of how my stuttering stopped controlling my life.

 

This is not what people usually say about Al-Anon.

 

Happy Face BIG

Thanks to qldsupercross.com

 

***

 

For years I’d been paralyzed by a debilitating stutter. Let me put it a little more honestly. For years, I’d been paralyzed by my fear that my stutter — or “Janet’s speech impediment,” as my grandmother would euphemistically say — would be exposed for all to see. And with that exposure, would come shame and humiliation.

 

My stuttering wasn’t simply something I did. No, my stuttering, in my mind, was always caused by something outside myself. There were always situations, subjects, or sounds at fault.


The situations
I blamed included telephones, microphones, spotlights, interviews, even just needing to give my name. I desperately tried to stay away from them.


The subjects
I blamed included any topic that hinted at needing me to convince or persuade. From these I stayed far away.


Then there were the sounds.
In among the many that caught me unawares, there were the “standards,” those I could always count on to trip me up. “J” was the first one I noticed, probably because it started my first name. Then, somewhere in junior or senior high school, “P” became the bigger challenge.  For these I had a special way of “staying away.”

Whatever the particular sound or word that was going to bring me humiliating exposure, I developed a facility to substitute a different word. That the resulting sentences sometimes made no sense was not nearly as important as the fact that, once again, I’d saved the day by NOT STUTTERING.

 

As you might imagine, with all this dancing around, I lived my life in a state of chronic stage fright. My stuttering was at the helm of every major decision I made.  I was a mess.

 

When I met people who stuttered, I wanted nothing to do with them. Their stuttering was a painful reminder of what I was trying so hard — and certainly more successfully than they — to hide. I didn’t want any part of it. Or them. I was aloof.

 

I fled if the subject of stuttering might come up. Simply, I didn’t want to think about stuttering. I didn’t want to do anything about my stuttering, except to make it go away. And the only way I knew to do that was to not talk. The other was to tune it all out.

To just not feel.


I was numb.

 

***

 

I’d gotten to this point by the time I graduated college. And so, as a numb, aloof mess, I went into my first marriage. We had children. I read them bedtime stories, ever so slowly. But I made only one phone call to another parent in all those years. And I introduced myself at a public meeting only once in those decades too.

 

This was my existence … for nearly forty years … hiding in a metaphorical closet … until my older son, then 17, was diagnosed alcoholic and I found myself in Al-Anon. I thank him constantly.

 

Over the next few years, I had pieces of the following conversation many times.

 

“Keep the focus on yourself,” I heard at my first meeting.

 

“But David needs me,” I replied. I saw him sinking into a deep dark well and I had to get him out.

 

“Keep the focus on yourself,” they repeated, kindly.

 

“It’s his father’s fault.” I explained.

 

“Keep the focus on yourself.”

 

“You don’t understand.”

 

“Keep the focus on yourself.”

 

“But I’m the one who’s responsible to hold this family together.”

 

“Keep the focus on yourself.”

 

“I don’t want to.”

 

“Good. What do you want?”

 

I had no idea.

 

Slowly,  I got it. With the unconditional support and acceptance of my friends, my therapist, and my sponsor, I came to understand how I could keep the focus on myself.

 

Mind your own business — another of their adopted adages — became my call to action, not some sullen put down.

 

“Attend to your own business,” it beckoned. “Leave other people’s business to them to figure out.”

 

“But my son needs me,” I challenged, always one for negotiation. Perhaps I would be the exception to the rule.

 

Then, during a weeklong retreat for Codependency, I came fully out of that closet I’d been hiding my stuttering (and me) in for so many years.

 

 

I was talking the way I’d developed over the years: a breathless, quivering voice that kept my stuttering at bay when the word substitutions were not enough. The therapist, Nell Taylor, stopped me, interrupting some monologue I was engaged in.

 

“Janet,” she said. “What’s going on?”

It was not the first time I’d gotten this question, referring to my rather bizarre speech. Ordinarily, I’d slough it off with some excuse.
“I’m not feeling well.”

“I was in an accident yesterday and am still feeling a little shaky.”

“I don’t know, what did it sound like?”

Any one of these generally sufficed and my questioner would leave me alone. This day, however, I dared to tell the truth. I stepped out of my closet, shared my secret shame, and forever changed my life.

 

“I stutter,” I confided, with honesty and determination. Then I sat back and waited for the laughter that usually came. But there was no laughter, nor were there any attempts to minimize my pain. There was only profound acceptance that whatever was, was OK.

 

The members of the small group were curious, interested, caring, and sympathetic. I told stories of stuttering memories, stuttering while I did so, and they listened attentively. I heard myself say, “See, that’s what it sounds like.”

 

For the first time in almost forty years, I talked about my stuttering without being paralyzed by feelings of humiliation and shame. I might still stutter, but my stuttering would no longer drive my bus.

 

With that, came the strength — and the curiosity — to start thinking about, looking at, and talking about my stuttering.

 

***

I never set out to fix it. That is so important to say. I set out only to accept it.

 

I believed that since my stuttering would never go away, I needed to accept the fact that this albatross around my neck since first grade needed to become my friend. I wanted to stop running away from it, to stop hiding it, to stop fighting it. And so I did.

 

I didn’t have to do it perfectly. In fact, I’d come to believe that I’m just human and, by definition, that means being imperfect. While I’d still always strive to do my best, I recognized that this would often mean falling short. And, that was, for the first time in my life, OK.

 

Slowly, I began to stay present with each stuttering event. I stopped numbing out when I stuttered and I started talking even in situations where knew I would stutter. This was harder than it sounds. Numbing out is a hard habit to break.

 

Over the months, as I introduced myself at each meeting and no one snickered, giving my name lost its power to paralyze me in fear. Slowly, I began to share more often within the meetings. And, often, I was asked to tell my story.

 

I stayed curious. There was a phase I went through, maybe lasting a year or more. Each time I stuttered, I would feel the stuttering approaching as though it was rolling up my right arm. Then I’d feel it in my throat — that was the stuttering — and I’d acknowledge it. Then, I’d feel it rolling out, down my left arm. The image was vivid.

 

What I was doing, I’d later learn, was starting to pay attention to what was actually happening, learning how my stutter worked. I found it all, frankly, fascinating.

 

And then, a year or more later, as I was telling someone about this vision I’d had — up the right, into the throat, down the left — I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d stuttered.

 

I’m still a person who stutters. That’s important for me to say. I borrow the idea from AA, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” and say “Once a stutterer, always a stutterer.” It’s also a political position for me, a badge of honor that unites me with a population of very courageous people.

 

And, as a stutterer, when those moments inevitably come, when a stutter pops in again, I can meet it with equanimity, with a delighted, “See, there’s a stutter. No big deal,” rather than my former, “Oh no. There’s a stutter. I want to die.”

 

I give credit to the 12-Step programs I worked for over twenty years. From the people in those rooms, I found unconditional acceptance, understanding, patience, and love. And it was against that background that I learned to love myself unconditionally too; to be patient with myself when I’d never been before; and to accept me just as I am, even with my stutter.

 

Self-acceptance, self-love, self-forgiveness. How difficult they can be. I’m not sure one can find them alone. We are social animals and as such, we need the support and kinship of others. When they are able to model that unconditional love we crave, we find it in ourselves.

 

And then we get to pass it along to others.

 

 

19 Comments

  1. Courage and candor are two words that come to mind when reading this post, Janet. We all have some kind of albatross around our necks that beg to be made friends with.

    Over and over I hear that readers connect best with writers who show their vulnerability. I would say you accomplished that today. Thank you!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Moments of Extreme Emotion: FlunkingMy Profile

    • Thank you, Marian. I think we all connect best through vulnerability, actually, not only writers. And I couldn’t agree more, we do all have an albatross of one sort or another; some are small and don’t weigh much, and others are quite heavy. But recognizing them seems to be the first step toward befriending them. Metaphors R fun, my new motto. Cheers

  2. Humans are . . . funny. We are each so conscious of what we see as imperfections in ourselves, ones that we might not even notice in someone else. And, if we did notice, then no big deal.
    Kelly Boyer Sagert recently posted…Happy 6th Birthday, Stormy Molina!My Profile

  3. Oh, how true, Kelly. I remember meeting my 7th grade homeroom and English teacher about 10 years ago now. One of my most painful memories of stuttering is from a presentation in his class. I asked him about it, but he had no memory of me stuttering at all, only of me playing the cello (something I’d put out of my mind long ago). Our own foibles often loom so much larger in our own minds than they do in others’. Good to check them out from time to time. Glad you stopped by.

  4. What a powerful piece. A friend posted this on my Facebook group page, “Women Who Stutter: Our Stories.” I am so glad he did. Your words resonated with me – I too felt paralyzed by my stuttering for so many years. I was extremely covert, forever afraid to let my authentic self out, for fear of negative social punishment.
    I’d had too many moments of torment as a kid – at the hands of peers, a teacher, and my own father.
    Today, I stutter without fear (most of the time!) I look to please no one but myself. My stuttering makes me memorable!
    And your co-story, of living with an alcoholic, also rang true to me. I found some salvation in Ala-teen and then Ala-non for a few years, when things with my mom were really bad. The kinship, unconditional love and acceptance are life saving, arent’t they?
    Thank you for writing these words of truth and courage today.
    Pamela Mertz recently posted…Lessons On Stuttering – Episode 113My Profile

    • Pamela, thank you so much for stopping and leaving your thoughts. I love your “My stuttering makes me memorable!” Our attitude does indeed make so much difference. I’m very glad to have you join us today. thanks again.

  5. What a powerful story, Janet. As writers, we conscious of finding our voice as we write. You have found your voice in a much more significant way. Wonderful!
    Carol Bodensteiner recently posted…Five writing tips from Julia ChildMy Profile

    • Hi Carol. Yes, I’ve used the ‘finding my voice’ as metaphor and as literal reality over the years. It’s still a powerful metaphor for so many. Thanks for swinging by. Always glad to have you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Keep the Focus On YourselfMy Profile

  6. Just by coincidence, I read this today: http://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-to-use-your-flaws-as-creative-inspiration/
    Kelly Boyer Sagert recently posted…Happy 6th Birthday, Stormy Molina!My Profile

    • Kelly, this was a fantastic read. thanks so much. I particularly liked this comment:

      “Over the years I’ve learned that creativity comes from within, from exploring your own interests of course, but also from exploring what you dislike or find annoying about yourself and others.”

      Why, that fits right into the theme of my blog, “… what you dislike or find annoying about … others.” I love it.

      Thanks so much

  7. Janet, your willingness to share your vulnerabilities with such courage and raw honesty is awe-inspiring. I am deeply touched that the nine steps I shared last week in some small way gave birth to this beautiful testimony. To overcome this debilitating and longterm fear of stuttering and find the powerful voice you now possess is truly a remarkable achievement. Thank you for sharing from your heart. You are the voice of inspiration. Beautiful!

    Kathy
    http://krpooler.com

  8. I had no idea! But then, that’s not the first thing that would have come to mind in thinking about you — if it came to mind at all. You’re too interesting in so many other ways.

    • And you are too nice. Keep up the good work for Lyn. I’m rooting for you both. And expecting to see him in the “other” Senate before too long. My best to Rose.

  9. Janet, thank you for sharing this. 14 years ago, my father in law died, and you were there with what I needed to hear, and was ready to hear. You suggested that sad times can bring opportunities for closeness, intimacy. This has stayed with me through the years. Last night after posting that my mother in law died, I read your blog. And again, you are sharing what I needed to hear, and am getting ready to hear. ( when the student is ready, the teacher appears” ( which I also think I heard from you first!) thank you

    Any chance you might like to come to FRIENDS convention in Chicago July 17

    • Hi Lee. My thoughts are with you in these times. And, I have to tell you, I can’t get the image of you and Tom stopping to see our “new” Chincoteague purchase when the kitchen was packed in boxes in the LR and there was no floor yet. I mean the KITCHEN, as in the oven et al, was still in the packing crates. I never imagined we’d not see you again here. Time goes by so fast. We must make it count. Let’s think together about FRIENDS. It’s been too long there too. Thanks for swinging by, especially in this time for you and your family. My best to Tom

  10. Janet, I am so delighted to have come upon this. You may remember me from your years in our Cleveland group. I have long admired your courage, presence of mind, determination, willingness to deal wwith your stuttering openly. You have given me many things to think about, for which I thank you. I hope I might contact you again as I continue deal further with my speech. Regards to your wonderful husband. From: Dr. Ted Maaarsh.

    • Ted. Hello. Of course I remember you. How very nice to hear from you. My email address is on my FB page. Are you on FB? Or, just do janet@janetgivens.com and I’ll get it on Sunday. I look forward to talking with you. .

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