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Our Shared Burden?

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

This article was originally published on the website of The Indian Stammering Association. It details a travel experience by someone who stutters.

Written by Vinnie

I never even knew why I wanted to go to India, only that it was because of reasons of great importance. I heard the stories: a country poor in economic capital and rich in everything else. A place where the modern and the traditional meet and where all the hippies went to seek liberation. It was this strange exotic pull towards the different, that otherness, that finally made me land at Indira Gandhi international airport at 1:30 am at the end of January. An event that was preceded by me looking intently at the screens on the plane, seeing myself sliding slowly towards that big country. It filled me with an adrenaline-fueled mix of anticipation and nervousness that kept me awake the entire night.

Exiting the airport was arduous. Heavily jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I was dragged through the different checkpoints, being requested to fill in the same forms a hundred times. The cloudiness in my brain was getting worse by the minute and I longed for a bed. But the Kafkaesque Indian bureaucracy first had to eat me up and spit me out repeatedly. I was exhausted and close to collapsing when I finally entered the entrance terminal. But the lack of focus got the better of me. It had me pacing back and forth for a while, looking for the right exit.

One of the members of the military, spotting someone repeatedly passing by, seemingly without a goal, approached me. Equipped with a machine gun, he asked me where I was going, and why I was pacing around.

I was terrified. Barely able to say a single word. I tried to form a sentence. To put words together in order to say ‘I’m looking for the right exit.’ But they didn’t come. The words got stuck, as they often do. I tried to pull the ‘I’, the start of that dreadful sentence, out of my mouth. It didn’t want to. My face twisted in intense concentration, trying to fight the harsh blockade I found myself in. But the fatigue, the stress, and the fear of being approached by a member of the military were too much. I stood there for 30 seconds, trying to get the sentence out. Closing my eyes. Trying to focus.

When I gave up, I opened my eyes.

The military man was walking backward slowly. His face showing a mixture of disgust and fear, like I had some contagious disease that would jump on anyone trying to approach me. He turned around, picking up his pace, trying to get out of my sight. Occasionally, he glanced around, staring at that strange horrified boy standing alone in the middle of the airport terminal. Uncertain about where to go and what to do.

My anticipation of entering an alien world got replaced by dread. I started mulling everything over in my head. I felt as if I wouldn’t be able to say a single word ever again. How will I cope for three months? How will I be able to ever find a bus or a cab? How will I ask for food? The entire prospect of my journey got overshadowed by this one big dark shadow: the fear of speaking.

The thought of that moment found a place in the back of my head while I tried to survive my first few days. The culture shock was severe, having to realize that there is no reason in chaos and that chaos can be a reason in itself. Fear can be something insidious. Even if you push it away, it still creeps in all your thoughts and all your actions. Forcing you to crawl back into your own ‘safe’ space in the mind. Being confronted with so much suffering originating in my head, I started wondering: how can I become happy again?

In India, people occasionally asked me whether I was happy. This is a strange question, having grown up in the West, where people normally only ask about the weather and to tell you your shoelaces are untied. ‘Are you happy?’ was a question I then started asking myself daily. Was I happy? I was lonely, miserable, exhausted, and couldn’t say a word. I couldn’t even find the courage to use the speech exercises I learned back in Belgium. No matter how hard I pushed the rock, it always came rolling back down the mountain. I had plans, things I wanted to do while spending time in Delhi. Yet, all things seemed superfluous. I wanted to go back. To my own room and my own bed. To my own ‘safe’ space.

I searched for the next available plane home, unwilling to face the reality around me. Finally,

I booked a ticket. But it wasn’t a plane ticket. It was a ticket for the train to Agra. A new destination and the start of a journey that would eventually cover over 10.000 km and a vast range of stories and emotions.

Vinnie with the Delhi SHG

I find it hard to reminisce about that moment. What changed? What drove me to take this leap of faith? Somehow, the feeling that things could be different drove me to think about things differently. After the initial culture shock and exhaustion wore off, I tried to regain my footing, trying to come out of my mind to look at the world without fear. It was with that mindset that I attended a self-help group for People Who Stammer (PWS), organized by The Indian Stammering Association, in New Delhi.

These kinds of groups are nothing new to me. In the end, we can only help ourselves and help others in helping themselves. So self-help is, to put it bluntly, the only kind of therapy that truly matters. With that positive attitude, I came into the meeting, held in Connaught Park, with an open mind. My experience of stammering awareness in India had, so far, been very negative. Someone even approached me, saying that ‘I shouldn’t talk like that. People would think I was making fun of them.’ On another occasion, a girl, wanting to chat, said that ‘I shouldn’t talk like this. I should just speak fluently, like her.’ If only I had thought of that myself!

Since India is so different, I expected to see something entirely new in this SHG. Having only interacted with my fellows in Belgium, I was biased believing that, somewhere else, something would be different. But when I arrived, everyone greeted me, we introduced ourselves in a circle, did some speech exercise, approached strangers, and stayed for a chat afterward. The speech exercises, also, took in the same trend as the ones I encountered in Belgium. Focusing on slow, calm and controlled speech. Even in Mumbai, a good distance from Delhi, this modus operandi remained exactly the same.

Practice session with the fellow PWS in Delhi

While practicing, I saw, in the eyes of my fellow PWS, the same drive, the same struggle that people in Belgium had. Recognizing that, behind the thin veil of cultural difference, laid a wealth of experiences not so different from ours. I saw the same characters and the same ambitions. It was a thing of profound beauty. Through stammering, I was able to connect with people from different cultures on a deeper level. Appreciating our common struggle and our common humanity.

I met a young boy in Kolkata. He had a stammer and had never met anyone with the same kind of speech as him. We hung around the city for a couple of evenings and he said that I ‘reminded him of himself so much that it brought tears to his eyes.’ Experiences such as these motivated me to approach the ‘problem of stammering’ from a different angle. After all, how could something that helped me connect with my fellow humans, that created such close bonds among people, be possibly a bad thing?

Especially in the West, we are often conditioned to think about our speech as a burden, a thing that is bad, a hindrance, that needs to be controlled. Otherwise, it will impact your life in a negative way. All your presentations, job interviews, etc… will go horrible and people will think about you as something lesser. At least, that’s the idea you get. In practice, things aren’t so bad. Stammering is, in its most basic form, simply a fact of life. That it is considered something to get rid of, is only a consequence of what is described on the TISA-website as ‘the expert coming by.’ From the get-go, something that has been with us from the start, something that transforms our life in profound ways, is labeled as something ‘bad’.

I believe it is the positive attitude of acceptance and empowerment, holding a more central place in the East than in the West, which is central to this process of transformation. After all, trying to control everything is ridiculous. Like a surfer trying to shape the waves according to its will, rather than riding whatever the oceans throw at him.

My fellow PWS told me about Hrithik Roshan. One of the most famous actors in India. He is sometimes described as the one who ‘put a face on the problem of stammering.’ Researching him, the attitude of empowerment is telling. He himself refers to it as ‘our problem’, recognizing that stammering is something that is shared among vast numbers of people. The media calls it ‘his dark secret’. Stating that Hrithik was a ‘special child’. All indications that the stammering is seen as something weird and different, rather than as a fact of life. As something that is no more strange than having a certain color of eyes or a certain height. Hrithik didn’t take to this ‘defining of a problem’. He worked tirelessly to pursue acting, to transform his stammering instead of controlling it. One could say that it is the overcoming of stammering that led to his great success. I would contend that is the transformation of it.

Remember that quiet kid with a stammer at the back of the classroom? The one that is immensely shy. We have often been that kid. Would you contend that he has a problem? He might not be the most fluent speaker, but being at the back of the classroom, he became a great listener. A great observer. Someone that would rather listen intently than talk endlessly. He is a humble person. Something who doesn’t take the ‘obvious’, like fluent speech, for granted. He is a great person. An empathic person. One day, he could be a great actor.

It is telling that we immediately describe Daredevil as being blind rather than a selfless person who does good. But, in the end, what defines him the most? It is not too bad to stammer. It gives valuable knowledge and skills. And by attending SHG’s, you could even make a few great friends.

I had no shortage of people wanting to ‘help’ me throughout my journey in India. One evening, someone took me to see an astrologer so the star charts could tell me what went wrong in a previous life, and what I could do differently to do things differently in this life. I don’t know about previous lives, but I sure as hell wanted to take the advice of ‘doing things differently in this life’ serious.

A yoga teacher asked me to make a facial expression like a lion, and roar. It is called the Simhasana: a yoga pose that is said to help fluency of speech. Again, I was skeptic about its use, but it got me thinking. Why would roaring like a lion help? Perhaps because it forces you to recognize the lion within you. After all, the question of why a lion roars is not of much use. A more profound question would be: why won’t it? Likewise, stammering is seen as a problem because it is badly understood. But, in fact, we don’t understand it so well either. That is not an issue and you should not blame yourself. At the end of the day, you can roar like anyone else. People easily assume that PWS are bad speakers. But you would be surprised at what happens if you give them time and space. They got a lot of time to think while being silent. And when they eventually roar, they ROAR! We are not our speech. We are so much more. But it shapes us. Forms us. And we are all the better for it.

In an ever fast-talking world, we have the blessing that we need to take it slowly. In a world that tries to be increasingly extroverted, we have the need to look within. It is empowering. It can be both a burden and a gift, but in the end, you can choose what it is. We have learned to be fearful, now we can learn to be grateful.

I learned that the difference between cultures is the difference in the stories we make up about the same things. They are just words and feelings that we give the power to control our thoughts and actions. If we deny them that power, the only thing left to make up the story is you. You have that power. Why would we think about how stammering negatively impacts our life? We should be asking ourselves how it positively impacted our life. It might not be always sunshine and rainbows, but looking at the positive sides of it, would you have it any other way?

When they asked me whether I was happy, and I responded hesitantly, they would ask: ‘why not?’ Indeed, ‘why not?’

“Sometimes, the wrong train can take you to the right station.” – Quote from ‘The Lunchbox’.

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