About the presenter:
Ames Bleda was born in New York City and developed a severe stutter when he was six years old. He has a degree in accounting and when living in the New York area, was very involved with the stutterers' self-help group, Speak Easy. Ames has also been an active campaigner for the civil rights of people who stutter. He is currently living in Las Cruces, New Mexico where he teaches workshops and works for ResCare. He and Linda have been married since 1993.
Linda Bleda can trace dysfunctional relationships back at least four generations in her family, and had two bad marriages herself before the age of forty. Comfortably established in a career as a Subway train operator for New York City, she was not actively seeking a serious relationship when she met Ames. With his encouragement, she pursued training as a hypnotherapist and went on to become an ordained minister, as well as assisting Ames in his workshops and meditation groups. The best thing in her life: sharing the surprises of each new day with Ames.
I was born into a severely dysfunctional family that included a pattern of stuttering. My father was a severe stutterer and remained so throughout his entire life. My only sibling, an older sister, stuttered mildly for about six months. There was also a male relative who was said to stutter but whom we never met.
The principal source of the family dysfunction, however, was my mother. Throughout her entire life, she suffered from an inferiority complex that convinced her she could never be really loved and, as a result, she was determined that her husband and children would be the captive audience that would always love her unquestioningly. She worked to accomplish this by combining guilt - "After all I've sacrificed for you, how could you possibly deny me anything I asked of you?" - and a subtle turning of my father, my sister and myself against each other, to make us dependent upon her for love and even acceptance. One unfortunate result was that my father and I were unable to bond and share our experiences, our insight, our pain, as fellow stutterers. This meant that throughout my youth the one other stutterer I knew remained remote, unreachable and at times even threatening.
I began to stutter around age six, which not only coincided with my starting school but was when I was hospitalized causing a traumatic separation from my family. Ironically, possibly to blot out the negative conditions under which I was raised, I have no substantial memories before the age of six, and as a result, I have no real memory of myself as a non-stutterer.
Throughout my youth and adolescence, I had a few close friends, although I don't remember ever feeling I could really open up to anyone else. I dated sporadically - mainly for big events such as dances, boat rides, etc., but again never intimately enough to relate meaningfully to another person. During the whole period, I attempted various therapies available then, but the tension at home and the need to devote almost all of my energies to struggle to become my own person with my own identity overrode almost every other consideration. I rebelled every chance I could, was usually physically beaten for it and then rebelled again at the next opportunity. The tragic result of this constant warfare was that I could never get control of my speech and I never developed the image of myself as a person with the right to pick and have what I wanted.
When it came time to marry, I unfortunately followed the old American adage and "brought home a girl just like Mom." G was the only child of violent alcoholics and early developed the notion that, as long as a husband and wife were not physically abusing each other, the marriage was acceptable. Because she could never bring friends home and her parents were the "black sheep" of the family, she never learned the basics of socialization that friendships and other lasting relationships require. And, because she never learned them, she rejected them. All the rest of humanity was wrong; her ways were good enough for her.
This led to G's wanting me strong enough to take care of her, and therefore, any weakness, such as my stuttering, warranted criticism, put downs and ridicule. But, at the same time, she also feared my dominating her and so tried to personally cut me down in every way. She later called it "psychological castration." Plainly, the marriage would not be a positive growth experience. G would continually demand that I do more to advance my accounting career, but would stand next to me when I made a business call, raise my tension to the point of dysfluency and then criticize my poor performance. She would criticize every time I stuttered in social conversation, even though, as they got to know me, our friends took much less note of it than she did. At the same time, her inability to interact socially left her constantly more isolated. I joined Speak-Easy, a stutterers' self-help group, to benefit from peer support but she refused to participate with "those people who stutter."
Into this battlefield our daughter was born and many wondered just how she would fit in. But G's inability to maintain an intimate personal relationship even with her own child soon manifested itself and the constant battling and tension expanded to include three. I now found myself defending another person as well, but, for the first time someone had come into my life with whom I could be myself and not always hide my feelings. To this day, the relationship with my daughter continues to be deep and meaningful and through her I found the courage to open to others as well.
I found myself more and more creating a life outside of the home. At one job, I collaborated with fellow workers to bring the first labor union into the New York City community settlement house system. After being elected president of the New York City chapter of Speak-Easy, I was invited to join the Board of Directors of the New York City Self-Help Clearinghouse, an umbrella organization set up to assist self-help groups throughout the metropolitan area. Despite my severe stutter, I became an effective public speaker on behalf of stutterers' civil rights, addressing audiences, raising consciousness, and networking with other minority groups, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. This finally culminated in my addressing the New York State Assembly Subcommittee on the Handicapped, chaired by Rep. Jose Serrano. G may have felt some admiration but it was never expressed and none of it really brought us closer together.
In the meantime, the tension of the marriage deepened and became more pervasive. I was less involved in it and finally we divorced.
The period of my divorce was particularly traumatic because it coincided with several other life-altering events. Within the space of a year, my mother died and I lost all access to the apartment where I had struggled through the emotional trauma of my youth, I lost my job and started a new career and I ended my life-long affiliation with my church. I was very frustrated, especially with myself. My speech seemed beyond my control and everything seemed out of focus. During this time my only anchors were a few close friends, Dr Karin Wexler, my speech therapist, my daughter and her fianc», and two loyal cats. But the human spirit, when threatened, will often not only fight to survive but to gain new ground and slowly a new life began to take shape. And the most important shape was Linda!
The first thing I noticed about Ames was his incredible blue eyes; the second was his severe stutter. As the two oldest students in our meditation group, we naturally found we had much in common. When I saw him the following week, I greeted him with "You look like you could use a hug." Of course, he hugged back, and a friendship was born. I soon discovered that his shy faŃade hid a quick and playful wit and an original mind. Over the next several months our friendship grew, and when our teachers asked us to collaborate on leading a group meditation, we found that we worked well together.
The night we were scheduled to do the meditation, we joked about running away rather than face the class, but once we slipped into meditation consciousness, Ames became totally, beautifully, and temporarily fluent, and I had my first glimpse of the depth of intellect and the loving soul that was usually obscured by his hesitance to put himself forward in speaking situations. By the time that evening was over, I knew this was a man I could love and respect.
About a month later we had our first 'official' date, dinner at a local restaurant. I remember we talked and talked while our neglected food grew cold. Ames recalls that I asked about his stuttering, a subject about which I knew very little at the time, although I was to learn a lot more in the coming months. I do know that I was determined that his speech would not become an issue between us, as he told me it had sometimes been in previous relationships. For me also, it was the first time I had someone I could really talk to, and talk we did!
Ames, I noticed, was most fluent when he was relaxed and comfortable. Being generally stressed out, talking about highly emotional subjects, or just being tired or hungry, made his stuttering worse. Free and open conversation was very important to both of us in a relationship, so in the beginning we set about establishing a comfort zone where anything could be discussed. Often, this meant letting Ames pick a time and place where he felt ready to talk about a particular topic.
Ames had an excellent speech therapist and my early role consisted mostly of being a mirror reflecting his successes back to him, as he was inclined to be overly critical of his performance. Success brought the expectation of success, and his comfort zone expanded with his renewed belief in himself.
We had both come through bad marriages and unhappy lives and so, both had a strong sense of what to avoid in a new partner. As we became more serious, we were determined to really know each other and to avoid repeating prior mistakes. I quickly found myself talking more openly ≠ reaching deep to bring out more - and often more fluently. When I did block, Linda let me know she was anxious to hear what I had to say and would wait. She also read all she could about stuttering and accompanied me to the self-help conventions where she enjoyed meeting "those people who stutter." We ran workshops together teaching other stutterers the importance of the "right" significant other.
If she didn't like my viewpoints, she immediately took issue, but I always knew that her issue was with WHAT I said, not how long it took me to say it.
We were married less than a year after our first date at an informal ceremony with just our immediate circle held in the forests of the Ramapo Mountains in New York State. We overcame the challenge of reciting our marriage vows when we realized that I hardly stuttered if I read a prepared script. So we wrote out our vows and recited them fluently while my daughter and her fianc» watched.
Coming to live together was a real experience. We had talked so thoroughly about everything beforehand that there were virtually no surprises. And we each kept our word. What was new and wonderful however was the realization that our love and bonding were very real and were to be the basis of mutual growth. When I did my daily speech practice, I did it in front of her, just the opposite of my avoiding anything that called attention to my speech in front of G. Whether ordering in a restaurant or making a phone call, I encouraged her to "stay close" and tell me later how she felt I had done. Her response was never a put-down or impatience - it was always either outright praise or patient encouragement for next time. In all of these things, the more Linda encouraged me, the more I tried and grew; the more I tried and grew, the more she found to appreciate and encourage.
True to my goal, I began a new career in retailing. I obtained a position selling directly to the public, with a national sales chain, where my sales performance earned me the title of "Mr. Rubbermaid." I also began teaching workshops on aspects of meditation, sometimes with Linda, sometimes alone, but always she was an inspiration.
Eventually, when her health became a factor, we decided to relocate out of the New York area. Linda researched thoroughly and, although we had no family, friends or job at our new location, we packed a rental truck, towed our car behind and drove to Las Cruces, New Mexico. (A first for us!) In order to break into the local job market, I temporarily went back into accounting, obtaining a position with a local health food cooperative. After two years however I honestly felt that I had reached the point in my life when I had earned the right to do what I really wanted, and so I applied for and obtained a position giving physical and emotional care to the disabled. In my application and interview I stressed that I had no prior relevant experience, but that I had worked with stutterers' groups and was handicapped myself. The job is entirely verbal, because even physical care involves commentary. In the office, an unspoken acceptance seems in effect: if I'm speaking to a manager, I usually stutter, so they expect and accept this. But if I'm with a client, I'm generally fluent. Since my main focus is on working with clients, everything else is taken in stride. I really love the communication and interacting of this job. However, Linda later confided that she had serious reservations when I first took it - nothing in my background and typical temperament seemed to qualify me for it. But such is the nature of our bond that she believed in me first and would have interfered only if she had to. And she was right!
Of course, in ten years together, we've had our fair share of rough times, disagreements, and occasional shouting matches. Once, when I thought his approach was a little too simplistic, I snapped, "Sure, that's easy for you to say!" We just looked at each other and laughed. Love, trust and open communication have truly made it easier for both of us to speak freely.
I've spent the first half-century of my life being raised in a dysfunctional family and then perpetuating this negativity in a bad marriage. Human beings are not meant to live or grow alone. In forming our self-images, we rely - at times too much - on the opinions of those we feel close to. When those opinions cut us down, we can similarly cut ourselves down to the point of becoming stutterers or victims of other emotional or nervous disorders.
More recently, I've known the joy of marriage to a woman who had to overcome her impatience at my stuttering to appreciate what I was going through and then to appreciate me. Her love and praise triggered my self-love and faith and, as she believed that I could reach new heights, I reached them.
As I continue to move into my second half-century as a stutterer, I do so, loving myself because I am loved and achieving because someone close and important believes that I can achieve.
And the best is yet to come!