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.
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.