On Being Different

by John C. Harrison


The road to Morocco was full of discoveries

Back in the early 70s my wife and I spent an adventurous two weeks in Morocco, and the third day of the trip found us in the little mountain town of Chechaouene. After breakfast, we set out to tour the medina, or Arab quarter, with a little 12-year-old boy who had adopted us and who was determined to be our "official"guide. As we wended our way through the narrow whitewashed streets, we came upon a group of young girls on their way to schoool. For a few minutes we all walked together which gave me a wonderful opportunity to practice my French. For me, as always, it was deeply satisfying to connect with people of another culture, and in their own language as well.

As the girls and I seemed to be developing an easy rapport, I thought I would have a little fun with the group and decided to play a game with them that I had learned years ago from an old friend of the family.

"J'ai une souris dans la poche (I have a mouse in my pocket)," I said to them, at which time I reached into my pocket and pulled out my hand, slightly cupped, as if it contained a mouse.

"Ecoute, elle va parler." I said. (Listen, it's going to speak.) At that point, just like the old family friend did years ago, I squeezed my palms together several times and then pulled them apart, each time making a squeeking sound that was caused by the breaking suction.

Then I balled up both fists. "Dans quel main est la souris?" (In which hand is the mouse?) I said to one of the little girls. She pointed to one of the closed fists.

"Ah, non,"I said, "Ce n'est pas la." (It's not there.) I opened my fist to show it was empty. Then I closed both fists again.

"Ou est la souris maintenant?"

The little girl pointed to the other closed fist.

I pretended that I was transferring the mouse between hands, then opened the fist that "formerly"held the mouse to reveal that it was empty.

"Non, ce n'est pas la."

"It's in the other hand," the little girls shouted. "Open the other hand."

Again, I made a show of supposedly transferring the mouse and then opened the hand from which the transfer had been made. "Non, ce n'est pas la,"I said, showing them my empty palm.

They thought they were on to me. "It's in the other hand,"they said excitedly. At this point I extended both hands and simultaneously opened them to show that they were empty.

"Elle a disparu." (It's gone!)

That stopped them cold. No mouse.

Now was the crowning moment of the ruse. When I was a little kid, the family friend had reached behind my ear and said, "Here it is. It was in your ear." And he had made a pretense of grabbing at my ear and pulling something out of it back into his hands. Then he squeeked his palms together to show that once again the mouse was safely in his hands.

"Ah, la voila!"(There it is!) I said and reached toward the ear of the nearest girl. As my hand approached her ear, she jumped back, startled. Then all the girls jumped back away from me. Suddenly, I was standing there alone.

Their reaction startled me, and my heart started beating madly. People I had been in intimate contact with had unexpectedly recoiled from me. I felt like a leper.

Making my best effort to look non-plused, I continued on with the routine, showing (by squeeking my hands) that once again the mouse was safely hidden between my palms.

The girls continued to relate to me, but from a safe distance. Eventually, they turned off toward the school, and Doris and I and our young guide continued our tour of the medina.

I was upset by the event, and that upset persisted for more than two days. It didn't make sense. It didn't seem like what happened should have been such a big deal, yet, I was profoundly distressed and couldn't shake myself out of it. Why was my reaction dragging on for so long? What in the world was this all about?

I became intrigued. The feelings were familiar. I had experienced them before. But where?

Ah yes, I remembered. I had experienced them whenever I had been locked up in a lenthy speech block, and people had looked at me strangely. I would be in school or in a social situation. I'd lock up and couldn't talk, and then I'd be upset for several days afterward because I thought I'd appeared weird. The feelings were identical. However, this incident in Chechaouene was not about stuttering. But if it wasn't stuttering that got me so upset, then what was it? That was a real head scratcher.

It came to me while we were in a little shop buying trinkets.

I was afraid of being different. Being different meant that people might turn away from me, and I might lose my connection with them.

My fear of being different was a bottom line issue in my life. As we drove through the desolate Moroccan landscape on the way to the sprawling markets of Fez, I started playing with the concept. I asked myself, "Suppose that all four billion people in the world stuttered. Suppose stuttering was the norm. Would my speech blocks have been a problem?

Of course not.

What I understood, as we drove the highway through the stark countryside, was that my negative feelings about being a stutterer were never, at the deepest level, about stuttering. My fear was in being different, in looking strange. I wanted to be like other people. I wanted others to be comfortable with me. I wanted to belong. Consequently, to avoid any risk of upsetting others, I was constantly modifying and adjusting myself until I presented an image that they liked, because I believed that pleasing people was the only choice I had. Unfortunately, in changing myself to please others, I paid a price, because I lost contact with the real me.

It was a hard bit of reality to swallow, but there it was. For years, I had given away my power to people I thought could make me okay, which was everybody. I had allowed other people to define my life, simply because I thought I needed something from them. I would do anything not to look different, and thus, I was quick to hold back my spontaneity if I felt that it might be judged. For years, I had restrained myself in my speech, and this bottling up of my energy contributed to my speech blocks. Now, I could see so clearly that the self-judging and the holding back were still present in my life. True, I didn't let the reaction of the schoolgirls stop me from connecting with them. That was good. But inside, I had died a small death because they had jumped back from me.

I had taken it personally.

Twenty-five years have passed since our trip to Morocco, but the reality of that morning encounter in Chechaouene remains with me. I know that my oversensitivity to other people's reactions is something I need to stay aware of. If I hold back, or apologize for who I am, or only reveal a sanitized version of myself, I stop feeling good about myself. If I do this too much, I can initiate a downward spiral. If I allow it to go on too long, well, who knows. Perhaps I could even bring back the mindset, feelings, and beliefs that created the stuttering system. Would the stuttering blocks come back? Theoretically, I guess they could. But before that happened, I'd have to turn a blind eye to everything I have learned and experienced.

My Moroccan encounter was useful in that it showed me how much I still looked to others for validation. What about you? Can you allow people to have their own reactions, even if those reactions are not what you'd like them to be? Or do you take everything personally?

Do you hold back only in your speech, or do you hold back in other areas of your life as well? How much of yourself are you willing to give away in order to have someone say that you're okay?

How much do you blame your stuttering for the "inability"to do what you want to do, when in reality, your problem may lie in how you give away your power.

If you currently block or struggle when you speak, are you willing to be up front about it? Or are you compelled to hide what is real, just so you can feel you're not different from everybody else?

If you're afraid of being different, how can you possibly say and do the things that are important in your life? And if you don't show us the real you, then how are you ever going to give up the protective behavior that underlies the speech block?

For me, recovery from stuttering began when I was willing to own up to what I thought and felt and be fully up front about it. I had to assert myself in risky situations, have my discomfort level zoom off the scale, and still reveal who I was and what I was feeling. I had to start making it okay for me to be me.

Giving up protective behavior begins by recognizing that, indeed, all of us are different. This difference isn't bad or good. It's just who we are. Embracing who we are and recognizing our own uniqueness is what gets us in touch with our power, and that, in turn, is what leads to easier, more expressive speech. When we unleash that power--as the NSA's Russ Hicks found out when he won the Regional III Humorous Speech contest in competition with more than 30,000 Toastmasters--people will relate to us positively, stuttering and all.

For the Moroccan schoolgirls, now all grown up, the American with the mouse-in-his-hands has probably faded to a pleasant and amusing story. For me, it was a reminder that although the stuttering had gone, the mindset had not, and that I still had some real work ahead of me.

John C. Harrison is the editor of Letting GO.