|About the presenter: I'm Harry Dhillon. I work in IT, I'm an investor in real estate, I'm a father, a husband, a friend, and oh, a stutterer too. I live in London and am involved in the stuttering scene in the UK, and am always looking for opportunities to link up with similar people worldwide. I have presented speeches and workshops both in the UK, and overseas, and was recently appointed the President of a Toastmasters club, an opportunity which is helping me to gain self-acceptance.|
Sometimes we're so busy chasing one particular dream, that we overlook what our real dream actually is. For three years, I had wanted to become a good public speaker. Now, as President of a Toastmasters club in London, having fulfilled this dream, I realise that that my real dream was far greater......
The story begins 3 years ago. In a fleeting moment of confidence, I had decided to visit the local Toastmasters group as a guest. I sat there in a room with about 25 others, listening in awe, to the great speeches being presented. I was busy making myself feel inadequate, when the Toastmaster announced that he would like all guests to come on the stage and introduce themselves. A massive wave of fear washed over me. A part of me felt like leaving the room, but a part of me was tired of running away all the time. I braved the next few moments where, in a state of numbness, I made my way to the stage and I mumbled something about having lots of fear of public speaking. Once I had returned to my chair, and the shaking had stopped, I knew I wanted to do more of this, and I signed up right away. It's strange how our greatest fears can also be the source of exhilaration once we choose to face up to them.
Jump back a few decades, and I can remember the day I realised I had a stutter. I was sitting in a classroom; it was a gorgeous summers' day; the hot sun was shining through the big windows; the little girl that I secretly fancied was sitting just a few feet away, and all was well with the world. And then it happened. In walked a new teacher, and decided to go around the class asking everyone to say their name. I suddenly felt more and more nervous, and when it came to my turn, I found myself saying..."H...H...H..." I couldn't say "Harry". I didn't know what was happening to me, but in the 15-20 seconds it took me to say my name, I had experienced my first block. And life had taken on a different colour.
Roll back a couple of years earlier still, and everything had been perfect. I was born in Kenya, but we left for India shortly. We spent the next ten years there, before moving to London. My Indian childhood was dream-like - it was a throwback to that by-gone age where innocence and naivety were normal, where everyone on the street knew everyone else, and kids played with hand-made toys, and flew kites, and modern technology didn't exist. Life was simple. Life was beautiful.
The move to England had been exciting, even though I didn't know English. The first few months at school were spent trying to decipher what other people were saying to me, and attempting to eat with a fork and a knife. Being the youngest of six children, I watched my oldest siblings desperately trying to find work in a country where they couldn't speak the language, and support the rest of us as we lived in one room in a rented house. Even though all eight of us slept together on the floor for months, it didn't feel like deprivation. We were in a new country, starting a new life. And the emotional deprivation was to come later.
A few years on, I found myself in my teenage years having acquired an un-wanted associate. My stutter accompanied me everywhere, and it was the boss. Now I knew English, but I couldn't express myself. Strange how our stutter moulds us, and deforms our personality. I'd thought of myself as an extrovert, but being forced into an introvert position by my stutter was incredibly painful to me. And one of the cultural peculiarities for my family is that stuttering is a taboo. It was never spoken about or addressed. I had never heard anyone else stutter, and did not know where to go or who to ask for help. So, I became a recluse, and drowned myself in books.
Another peculiarity of my family is that my parents didn't speak English, even after many years of living in England, which was limiting for them, but meant that we kids had to largely become self-sufficient. And I remember realising one day at the age of 15 that I could no longer read the writing on the blackboard. Knowing my eye-sight was deteriorating, I faced a difficult situation. I had to go to an optician, and the very idea of walking into the store and speaking and saying my name, filled me with dread. I carried out a lot of reconnaissance missions, where I would walk past numerous opticians many times on Saturdays, building up the courage to go in, and always returning home disappointed. Months later, unable to see the blackboard, I was copying the notes from another kids' book, and the teacher thought I was cheating, and severely reprimanded me in front of the whole class. The shame and humiliation was enough to make me walk into the opticians the next day. "I...I....I....have a stut...stut.....stut...." were my first words to the receptionist. The rest of the conversation was a blur. But I got my glasses.
This incident became a defining moment for me. Many similar incidents were to follow in the coming decade. And the once happy, chatty kid who grew up with a myriad of friends had grown into a lonely, forlorn adult who feared waking up each day. And in the meantime, my family had slowly become dysfunctional. Expressions of family love, and open conversations became alien in our household. My own deep sense of inferiority and my bottom position in the hierarchy meant I had little right over parents' time and affections, and sadly my mother and siblings have never really gotten to know me. To this day, they do not know the struggles, nor the achievements that I have experienced. And I have yet to hug my mother.
I remember that in my final year at university, when applying for jobs, I soon ran out of companies who employed Chemical Engineering graduates. I would get to the interview stage, based on my exam results, and always fail at that hurdle when they heard me speak. I also remember physically crying for the first time as an adult, having realised that all those years of getting grade 'A's meant very little if one couldn't even hold a cohesive conversation. Luckily a government owned company came to my rescue, and offered me a job, in its quest to fill ethnic-minority quotas.
Sometimes, growing up close to poverty gives us a lot of respect for money, and instils the values of hard work and determination. It fills us with a burning desire to escape from the environment we grew up in, and accomplish something. If there was one area where not even my stammer could hold me back, it was my desire to achieve financial security. In fact, the interview failures at university drove me ferociously onwards. After my first job, I changed careers, and moved into software development. This suited me perfectly, as in subsequent interviews, I could sell my technical skills and my stutter was less of an issue. I became an expert in my field, and worked as an independent consultant. I invested my savings in real estate, and a decade after leaving university had achieved my financial targets.
In my thirties and happy, on the surface at least, I had a wife and children. My self-esteem was rising with non-speech related accomplishments. I got interested in personal development and started pushing out of my comfort zones, and taking on adventurous pursuits. I invested in real estate in Spain, and started travelling a lot more. But whilst having business and personal success, my relationship with my siblings and mother was still very distant. And something else was a problem. I was still living in constant fear of my stutter. Some therapy had helped me in the short term, but generally my stutter was as severe as it had been in my teenage years. And I was still ashamed of it. Groucho Marx once said "I will never join a club, that would have someone like me as a member", and like him, for many years, I stayed away from the stuttering scene. I was in denial, and I didn't want to see other people stutter, as it was a reflection of me. But I finally took the step of joining the British Stammering Association, and suddenly I had found myself a new family. I found a place where I could be myself. I started attending stuttering related conferences, and wanted to contribute. This new found sense of belonging pushed me to explore the "final frontier" as I called it - public speaking.
After my first speech in Toastmasters, I stayed away for months, too frightened to attend meetings. When I eventually returned, I had massive butterflies in my stomach, and took on speaking roles very tentatively. Some evenings, I would even hide in the bathroom and wait for the meeting to start before emerging, in case I was assigned an un-filled speaking role at the last minute.
My third speech at the club was about stuttering, and this changed everything. It was very well received and I won the 'Best Speaker' ribbon for the evening. It's amusing how a small, humble looking ribbon, can bring such joy to a grown man. I started winning more ribbons, and then went on to win Speech the Evaluation Contests at our club. I had learnt so much, and changed considerably as a result of the contests. My beliefs and thoughts about public speaking were changing. My beliefs about myself were changing. The crippling phobia had been replaced by manageable nerves, and public speaking was becoming enjoyable.
Now firmly established as one of the core members of the club, I was asked by the then President to be his successor. My immediate response was "Thank you, but I don't think I'd project the right image for the club". After all, I thought to myself, how can an overt stutterer, with severe blocks, be a President of a public speaking group? Surely, it's a contradiction. And it might lose credibility for the club.
It's odd how we sometimes convince ourselves of what reality is, based on our biased perceptions. I spoke to some of the other members in the club, and they told me that having a stutterer as a President would actually be good for the club, as it would highlight what is possible through perseverance. And with that shift in perception, my reality changed.
I had been chasing the dream of fluency for most of my life, and had overlooked what I really wanted - to be my true self. To accept myself as I am. To let go of the shame and guilt of being a 'defective' son.
I realise that I may forever be a PWS, but I am becoming the person I was always meant to be. I realise now that happiness and stuttering need not be mutually exclusive. And that happiness is that fleeting, un-definable feeling that comes not always with 'having' something, but more often by 'being' the person we were born to be. As the stuttering stranglehold weakens, life is slowly returning to its glorious multi-colour that I last saw in my carefree childhood days.
But in this glittering rainbow of colour, there is a small, dark patch. Neither my siblings nor my mother know that I'm the President of a Toastmasters club. Or that I give key note speeches and run workshops. Or of my business successes. To them, I am a stutterer.
One of these days, I will sit with my mother and explain what a thorn-filled path I have travelled. And then she can get to know her youngest son.