Hi there. Nice to see you again.
You know those words that stick with you forever? Years ago, a college pal said to me, “James, never speak in absolutes.” I’ve carried those words in my back pocket ever since. However, I added an “almost” before the “never”, because, once in awhile, you know 100%.
For example, I know 100% that relationships are doozies. We all have them in some form or fashion, and we’re all constantly trying to figure them out, trying to make them better, or trying to accept them as they are.
Even if you’re lucky enough to find your person, that’s only the beginning of a long evolution – a modge podge of easy and hard, happy and infuriating, wisdom and nonsense, and a plethora of other dichotomies. We are, after all, beautifully imperfect humans attempting to share our lives with other humans in enclosed spaces. It’s meant to be a journey.
This is probably why relationships are the #1 topic of books, movies, and other “old-school” entertainment created for attention spans long enough to last more than 140 characters. Speaking of which, I’ll try to keep this brief.
I’ve been in many relationships, but my longest relationship by far is with my stutter. My stutter has been a steady companion for over thirty years now. For awhile, I called it my Big Stuck, but that didn’t quite capture it. So, at least for now, I refer to my stutter as a “she” – because I’ve learned that, ultimately, my stutter is part of me.
It’s a complicated relationship. But I’m sure you get that.
I’m at an Upper East Side dinner party, the kind where you know only the host, who, as a people collector, has gathered a random hodgepodge of guests. I’ve finally found my party groove, inserting myself into a conversation that I can contribute to in a meaningful way. I’m elbows deep in big ideas when, wait – Yes. There she is, in all her foolish glory: my stutter.
“Have you heard of B-”
Seriously?! You haven’t piped in all evening. Why now?! Okay, I know. You don’t like her name. That letter combo – the b, the r, the e, all in a row like that – throws you for a loop. But, you know what, that’s unfortunate, because I can’t back out now. We’re doing this. Hoist up your big girl pants!
I try to soften the “B” by relaxing my jaw and tongue. That sometimes works, right?
Nope. UGH! Work with me here! I don’t want to fight you, but you’re making it difficult. Okay, fine. I’ll do my spell-it-out schtick, even though it always feels stupid.
I can already feel myself about to stick on “It’s…” – as in “It’s like Renee, but with a ‘b’”.
Wait – seriously? THROW ME A BONE ALREADY! What’s that? Think “What would Audrey do?” Well, she would just roll with it, gliding gracefully through. Okay, fine. Time for a spelling demo. Whatevs. It’ll be great.
“B, r, e, n, é. So, like Renee, but with a ‘b’”.
Good god. Obviously, this poor woman is confused about what is happening right now. What’s that expression on her face? I can’t tell, but I don’t think she’s caught on to me. Yet.
Alright, I get it. I’ll give in a little. Just help me get this name out of my mouth.
The air tastes like stale crackers, and it’s suffocating.
“Brene?” she says.
I can’t quite read this woman’s smile. Is it hopeful? Masking exasperation? Has she had just enough wine that she’s completely unaware of the painfully prolonged name game we just played?
I pray for the latter and smile back. “Yes. Brene.”
“Anyway, she has an incredible TED Talk on shame.”
FINALLY. That’s all I wanted to say. Yes, I know: you got me. But I’m already over it, so…thanks for playing.
I don’t remember when my stutter and I met. There was no event, no falling in. Suddenly we just were. I don’t remember those rocky early years either, but I know that we were always together, for better or worse: conjoined voices fighting for airtime. She let me sing smoothly, and she granted me an effortless spotlight for my one-woman shows. Other than that, she was kind of clingy. Like an annoying younger sibling, she forced me to drag her along.
I didn’t really understand her, but no one else seemed to notice her, so I believed she didn’t really matter. I knew that, eventually, I would outgrow her. Though it might feel a little sad in the way that outgrowing my favorite puff-paint t-shirt felt sad, it would be better for me that way.
Little by little, she surrendered. Or maybe I became a more skilled partner. I’m not sure. Probably both. Either way, we adapted. We learned each other’s languages, and we eventually reached an unspoken (pun intended) agreement based in mutual respect: I stopped trying to change her, and she gave me the upper hand. For the most part.
Now, three decades in, our commitment is certainly not without turbulence. Still, we’ve come a long way. About 90% of my day is smooth sailing, a far cry from our early days together. The other 10% is her airtime. That’s when she butts in and makes her needs known. Her tactics might seem sadistic to an outside observer, but I’ve learned that it’s just her way of coping. She puts up a good fight from time to time, but we’ve definitely softened into each other.
She seems to know me better than I know myself. I know, that’s the dream isn’t? Meh. Not always. Spending your life with someone who knows you so well isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I can’t keep anything from her – she knows my tells.
Still, ours is a relationship built on mutual understanding. I work with her fears, she keeps me in check. It’s kind of a secret game we play. You think I’m naturally this eloquent? Ha! Gotcha! I’m just using fancy words because the simple ones won’t come out.
Yes, relationships are complicated, and I’m still learning. For instance, someone recently suggested that my speaking confidence is a testament to how hard I worked to not allow my stutter total control. I hadn’t even considered that before, but, of course, it makes perfect sense.
There are some things I will never fully understand, but I’m okay with that. Relationships are doozies. All that matters is that my stutter is a part of me, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without her.
Not sure how “brief” that was, but thanks for hanging in there. And keep sharing your stories, because someone wants to hear them.
Jamie Wolff (aka James) is a New York creative arts therapist – turned personal trainer – turned health coach and curriculum developer. As a writer Jamie believes that stories matter; the stories we share and the stories we tell ourselves – they matter. Jamie serves as the NSA Spotlight Writer.