Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Everyone agreed with my assessment and said encouraging things, but my dad said something that made me think:
"People always tell me that they are impressed with what you have accomplished in spite of stuttering."
In spite of. That phrase stood out to me. I began thinking about the accomplishments of which I am proudest, and it hit me that most of them were done in spite of something. For example, I have only won bike races in bad weather or with some kind of mechanical problem. When the sun is shining and my bike works perfectly, I can get second or third, but I have never won.
Last weekend, I drove four hours to a cyclocross race in Fayetteville, TN. There was a prime (cash prize) on the first lap, so I took off at top speed. I quickly got a small gap and poured it on. I was going to get the prime easily... or so I thought. I overcooked a turn and landed on my right shift lever. It broke off and left me with one gear and no control over my rear brake. To make matters worse, I was using a different front wheel than I had planned to use, so my front brake was not set up properly and barely touched the rim when I pulled the lever.
While I assessed the damage to my bike, the whole field passed me. By the time I got going again, I was at least half a lap down. I rode easily to the start/finish line where I planned to pack it in and head home, but when I crossed the line, something clicked in me. I didn't drive four hours to do one lap. I was going to finish this race, and I was not going to get last.
I began to pedal like a man possessed. I couldn't brake going into turns, so I would unclip my inside foot and try to slide. I was riding "tape to tape" with a good amount of speed and little to no control. Things weren't going well - I was in my element.
As the laps ticked off, I made steady progress. The crowd was great and cheered me on every lap. In spite of three more crashes (due to my lack of brakes), I managed to finish in fifth place. Right after I crossed the line, the race promoter handed me some cash even though I had finished out of the money. "You put on a good show," he said. "You got back up and kept racing in spite of a disabled bike."
There are many afflictions that are far worse than stuttering, and I don't pretend that my life is any harder than anyone else's. In fact, my life might be easier because stuttering has taught me how to succeed in spite of.
Now, if I could just figure out how to act when things go right...
Happy Tuesday, everybody.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Last week, I was at the start line of a cyclocross race, and I noticed that a fellow racer was running very narrow tires, so I asked him what size they were.
Me: Are th-th-th-th-those t-t-t-t-tw-tw-twenty eights?
Him: No, they're th-th-th-th-th-th-th-th-th-th-th-thirties.
About half of the racers started laughing, and I turned my gaze toward the ground. When the race started, I decided to go all out for the first lap to "get back" at the guy. I must have been fast, because after the first lap, there were only three of us at the front, and he wasn't there. After the adrenaline wore off, the wind went out of my sails. It hit me that the one place I was safe from stuttering (my bike) was no longer safe. I rode the rest of the race halfheartedly and finished third - last of the selection that I had created.
After the race, I didn't hang around for the podium. I just rode back to my car and drove home. I felt like an inhuman shell. I was not a bike racer. I was not the guy that rounded out the podium. I was the guy who couldn't talk.
I guess that's what I get for trying to make small talk with strangers.
Monday, July 19, 2010
When we got there, I took the piece of paper up to the counter and began to read. My mom had requested a six inch turkey sub on whole wheat with everything except hot peppers. As I stuttered through the list of ingredients, the woman behind the counter strained to make out what I was saying. It was touch and go for a moment, but the sandwich was completed.
Next, Sarah ordered her sandwich: tuna on wheat with lettuce, tomato, pickles, vinegar, salt, and pepper. I caught myself feeling jealous about her effortless delivery.
I was up again. I began to recite my father's order, but the woman behind the counter could not understand me. She apologized and seemed genuinely upset that she was unable to decipher what I was saying. I tried again... and again, but as my tension level mounted, my stuttering became worse. I did something that I never do.
"Sarah?" I looked to my wife, and she immediately knew what I was asking. She gently took the piece of paper from me and read it to the patient sandwich artist. I looked down at the floor in shame. "It's OK, baby," Sarah said.
I couldn't go out like this. I began my own sandwich order, and I stuttered like a fool, but I got the idea of a chicken-salad-on-flat-bread across to my friend the sandwich artist. She smiled sweetly and made my sandwich. That was the worst part.
When someone makes fun of me, I can choose to let it go, or I can choose to get angry. If I let it go, I am not bothered. If I get angry, I can deal with it. On the other hand, when someone is sympathetic, I feel crippled. I feel like someone for whom people should feel sorry. That is hard to let go. I haven't had to ask someone to speak for me since I was a child. Today, I felt like a child.
After a hard ride (and one or two adult beverages), I feel OK, but today hurt.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
A police officer came and took our information, but he made it clear to us that the bike would not be found. It was gone. I was supposed to race that night in a race for which I had trained for months, but I did not have a bike.
A wonderful company called SRAM allowed me to use a bike that night, but it was not a good fit, and I finished anonymously in the pack. The next day was even worse. I borrowed another bike from SRAM, and I was involved in a crash. I hurt my knee pretty bad and got a concussion, but I managed to get back into the race and finish anonymously in the pack once again.
If it weren't for bad luck...
People often tell me that I have bad luck. They might be right. Within the last twelve weeks, my house burned down, my bike got stolen, and I crashed bad enough that I have to see an orthopedic surgeon. Sarah and I seem to go from one crisis to the next, but it never seems to affect me. I deal with disappointment well. Stuttering strikes again.
Life as a stutterer is a series of small disappointments. I picture myself telling a joke to a rapt group of friends who laugh hysterically as I deliver the punchline, but in reality, I stutter so bad that they lose me halfway through the telling of the joke. I picture myself ordering lunch without having to spell out my chosen menu item four times, but in reality, I end up getting extra onions instead of no onions or two kinds of cheese instead of no cheese because the server just can't understand me. I pictured myself saying my wedding vows clearly and loudly, but in reality...
All of these little disappointments have taught me that there is light at the end of the tunnel (if only so another tunnel can begin). No disappointment lasts forever, and I only lose when I stop trying.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
I could give a whole slew of excuses for my lack of posts, but I will not. I will just say that much has happened since the fire and leave it at that.
I'm back. Will you have me?
The last two months have made up what I like to call a "bad speech cycle." My speech has been garbled and strained, and I have endured more than my share of awkward encounters. For example:
I leave on Thursday for a pair of races in Pennsylvania and DC, and my bike needs a new bottom bracket bearing. This specific bearing is a little bit hard to find, so I had to call every shop in my area on Saturday. Almost every single shop hung up on me or told me that I was "breaking up." Each time, this made me a little angrier. I would call back and say "hi, I just called looking for a bearing and you hung up on me. I stutter. Please stay on the line."
Each time, the person on the other end of the line would say something along the lines of "I'm so sorry" or "I didn't mean to offend you." They didn't mean any harm, but damn - a new bearing for my bike shouldn't cost me my dignity.
I have experienced countless other similar encounters recently, and I'm starting to lose my sense of humor. I mean, yeah, I can be quite a spectacle, but is stuttering really so rare that people just don't know how to respond?
Enough bitching - time for some good news:
Sarah and I are finally about to move into an apartment, so it looks like we'll have greater stability. That means I'll be back to blogging. Let me know if there is a specific topic you would like for me to discuss.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Last week was Speed Week (a series of criteriums in the southeast that draws the biggest stars of the American cycling world), and I was lucky enough to earn a place on the start list of the series. The first race was last Saturday night (April 24) in Athens. I had planned to update this blog as usual because all of the races were at night, so I had each day free. It was not to be.
On Saturday morning, I woke up to some bad news: my family's house had been struck by lightning and caught fire. My parents were there, and they and all the dogs got out unharmed. The house did not fare so well. We have spent the last week in a hotel (with four dogs), and Speed Week was pretty much a wash. (A little back story - my wife and I are living with my parents while we look for a house).
I was only able to race in four of the seven races, and the races I did start were marred by mechanical problems and lack of focus. I couldn't get my head in the game. I realized how much I take for granted this week. There is something to be said for having a home and "stuff."
I hope that each of you has had a better week than I have! Thanks for all the support. Check back tomorrow for a new post about stuttering.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
You should kick life in the crotch.
Since UGA has no use for my letter of intent, I figured I would post it here:
My name is Mark Babcock, and I am a severe stutterer. I don’t just repeat a word here and there, and I don’t just “have a little trouble when I’m nervous.” I struggle to put my thoughts into words. In my head, my thoughts are clear and concise, but they come out garbled and truncated. When I talk, I sometimes contort my face and run out of breath. My head often jerks uncontrollably. My listener usually breaks eye contact, and I follow suit out of shame. I feel like I make quite a spectacle.
I used to say “I don’t know” in school when a teacher would call upon me to answer a question. I did know. I always knew, but the knock to my pride was easier to deal with than the shame of stuttering in front of my peers.
I do not tell you this to gain your sympathy. I tell you this because my “affliction” has made me a natural sociologist. Let me explain.
When I talk to someone, I get two reactions. The first is the person’s response to what I say. For example, they might say “eleven fifteen” if I ask for the time. The second is the person’s response to my stuttering. Some people give a look of shock or confusion. Some laugh or make a joke. Some try to finish my sentence for me. Others give a sad, sympathetic smile.
As a child, I began to notice patterns in these responses. Men tended to be less sympathetic than women. Older people were more patient than younger people. As a teen, I found that the “popular” kids would make fun of me in a group but not in a one-on-one encounter.
In my head, I began to catalog people into types based upon the reaction that I expected from them. I used these types to avoid confrontation in my life. If I went to the grocery store and had the choice between a male cashier and a female cashier, I would always choose the female. If I encountered a pretty girl, I would not talk to her when she was around her friends. The list goes on and on.
Without realizing it, I was “doing sociology.” I developed an interest in why people from similar backgrounds or with similar character traits tend to do similar things. I never had a name for this interest, but it was always there. It was not until well into my college career that I found sociology.
I began college with high hopes. I was going to UGA where I would get a degree in math or chemistry, meet new friends, meet the girl of my dreams, and graduate in four years with my life planned out. The reality was different. My first year at UGA was difficult for me. I was going through an especially bad stuttering cycle, and I failed to meet friends. I endured a very public disappointment with the SpeechEasy device. [To make a long story short, I became the poster child for a device that was supposed to cure stuttering. I went on Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote this device. The device “cured” me for a few weeks, but then my stuttering came back.]
This series of events led me into a long depression. I began to work full time at a bar and nearly failed out of school. I just didn’t care. For the next few years, I bounced from major to major making B’s and C’s when I was capable of A’s. I began to manage a bar and toyed with the idea of dropping out of college. I loved learning, but I felt that my stuttering would keep me from doing anything useful with a college degree. Somewhere in my head, I knew that I was settling for less than I was capable of, but like I said, I just didn’t care.
After two years of this, I met Sarah, the woman that I would eventually marry. She helped me see that I was more than just a stutterer. She helped me get my college career back on track and urged me to look into psychology or sociology. When I took my first sociology class, a light bulb went off in my head. This was what I had been doing my entire life! As I sat in that crowded auditorium listening to Dr. Beck explain the basic tenets of sociological thinking, I felt like I knew what he was going to say before he said it. I went home that evening with a sense of purpose.
There is much more to me than stuttering. I am a semi-professional cyclist, I love music (I play the string bass and the guitar), and I have a soft spot for animals (especially dogs). I am a dedicated husband, a devoted son, and a reliable brother. I only focus on stuttering for this letter because I feel that it is the best way to convey to you why I am a good candidate in “1-2 pages.”
Thank you very much for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
There has always been a bike in my life. When I was young, I jumped curbs on a bmx bike. In high school, I explored the woods on a mountain bike. In college, I found road racing.
At the top levels, bike racing is a hard sport. It makes no allowance for weaknesses. To be anything more than pack fill, you need to put in 15-25 hours per week of saddle time (depending on the time of year). Simply put, if you are not prepared, you can't play. Success is hard to come by, and failure awaits at every turn. High speed crashes are common, and lycra doesn't provide much protection. Why do I do this?
I love it. I wouldn't put myself through seven hour rides in the rain in January if bike racing didn't have a piece of my heart. I wouldn't pass on pizza, beer, and ice cream for eleven months of the year if I didn't dream of crossing the finish line solo with my arms raised above my head. That said, there is a secondary reason for my dedication to the sport: bike racing is the great equalizer.
At a bike race, it doesn't matter that I stutter. At the start line, I'm not worried that someone is going to make fun of me or that I'll miss out on an opportunity because someone thinks I'm "not right in the head." During a race, I can let my legs do the talking (even if they don't always have much to say). The best part? The benefits of bike racing don't end when I cross the finish line.
The bike disposes of bad stuttering energy. I leave for a training ride with the weight of stuttering on my shoulders. Somewhere along the way, that weight turns into fuel, and when I get home that fuel is spent. The memories of rude comments have lost their sting. The tension in my facial muscles has drained away. I feel physically tired, but my mind is quiet, and I am at peace.
If you happen to be in Athens this Saturday, look for me at the start (and hopefully the finish) of the Twilight Pro race. There will be a lot of things going through my mind, but stuttering will not be one of them.
Friday, April 16, 2010
We did this every year until high school. Around my 14th birthday, I came to the realization that at some point, my mom and dad would not always be there to pave the way for me. I had to be my own ambassador. This realization had been coming for a long time, but its arrival was sped up by a visit to the National Stuttering Project convention.
The NSP convention took place in Atlanta that year. For three days, my parents and I drove to the convention hotel and listened to lectures and met with stutterers of all ages and backgrounds. It was an eye opening experience. I met stutterers who were almost completely fluent, and I met stutterers whose afflictions were profound. I met stutterers who held high profile jobs, and I met stutterers who worked in whatever job required the least amount of talking, regardless of their qualifications. It was nice to meet the successful people, but it was in meeting the downtrodden and beaten that I found the most value.
These people were victims of their stutters. They felt helpless to change their situations, and many of them looked to the NSP to change the world for them. The NSP was their version of mom and dad calling a meeting with the teachers. The NSP taught that if we, as stutterers, educated the public about stuttering, the public would accept us, and It would be o.k. to stutter. The NSP's way of thinking did not make sense to me. The way I saw it, people were still going to laugh and make rude comments unless I wore a sandwich board that read:
IT IS NOT NICE TO FINISH MY SENTENCES, LAUGH, OR MAKE FUN.
The logical parallel was that if I continued to let my parents fight my battles, I would be unprepared when "the real world" hit. I was going to have to leave the nest and bulldoze through life on my own. It was going to be scary and painful, but I had to do it.
Stuttering is not the listener’s problem. A person with no experience with stuttering should not be expected to react perfectly the first time they talk to me or any other stutterer. I have reached the point that I can forgive an initial misstep on the part of a listener. Some of my closest friends laughed at me when we first met. They weren’t being mean; they were just unaware. Stuttering is not incredibly common, so it is possible to go through life without encountering it. Furthermore, there are no visual cues associated with stuttering. When someone sees me, they expect me to talk they way they do. SURPRISE!
Stutterers, keep on bulldozing. You’re going to get made fun of, and it’s going to hurt. Try to give people a second chance… but maybe not a third.
Before I get any angry comments, let me clarify a couple of things:
1. I do not blame any of the “downtrodden and beaten” for feeling the way they feel or making the choices they make. Stuttering affects everyone differently. Given different circumstances, I may have ended up downtrodden myself.
2. I realize that the National Stuttering Project (now known as the National Stuttering Association) has changed its views. They now discuss the rights of the listener. This is a very positive step. The NSA must deal with both sides of the equation, and from what I understand, they now do.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Now that I am done whining, let’s get positive. I’m probably going to have problems to deal with tomorrow, and I am probably going to stutter tomorrow, so I need to figure out how to handle these things.
I recently found a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn that stopped me in my tracks:
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
Mindfulness? This might be the tool I have been looking for. I get so caught up in the effects of stuttering that I let myself be a passenger to it. If I could pay attention “on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” I might be able to take back the reins. I might be able to stop the snowball effect that stuttering has on my life. I might even overcome shame and fear. This is exciting stuff.
I wish I had more to share about this topic, but this is a brand new journey for me. I’ll keep you updated.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
It has never made me feel better to know that famous people stutter... until now. I just found out that Bill Withers, who is responsible for such songs as Lean On Me, Lovely Day, and Use Me, stutters.
Monday, April 12, 2010
This anal retentiveness has not always endeared me to those who play it "fast and loose" with grammar, but it has served me well in my job as an editor. I clarify dangling participles. I use commas to keep the parts of a sentence where they belong. I acquaint subjects with verbs of the proper number. I hack through confusing verbiage and bring forth the point of a story. When things get confusing, I'm the language hero.
I have always understood how language works. I used to wonder why we had to cover grammar in school. I thought that everyone had my intuitive grasp of language. As I grew up, I realized that this was not the case. There were smart people, people I respected, that didn't know when to use "its" and when to use "it's." I began to wonder why I seemed to have been born with an English teacher on my shoulder.
As I discussed in an earlier post, the beginning of college was a tough time in my stuttering career. Stuttering became the defining factor of my life, and I grew more cynical by the day. A high level of cynicism leads to excessive correcting of others. I was all over people. Nothing got by me. I had turned into a true grammar nazi. My brother, a frequent target of my wrath, finally called me on it.
"Why do you care?" he asked after I had corrected him yet again. "You know what I meant. You're kind of an asshole sometimes." This made me think. Why did I care? Also, why did no one else seem to care as much as I did?
I figured it out while sitting in my freshman writing class. The teacher, a grad student, was handing back our most recent paper. He gave me mine, and I noticed that under the grade - which was an "A" - there was a comment: "No more papers on stuttering." It hit me that every paper I had written for this class was in some way related to stuttering. Was I obsessed? I gave this a lot of thought that day, and I never came to an answer. I did, however, realize why I was such a stickler about language.
Stuttering had made me value language above almost anything else. I have to work for every little bit of communication, so if I am going to say something, it is certainly going to be worded correctly. When I see a fluent person speak with no regard for grammar or pronunciation, I feel like a starving man watching someone throw away food. "Your words come automatically," I think. "You haven't blocked, jerked your head, drooled, stomped your foot, bit your tongue, or even run out out of breath, yet you still end your sentence with a preposition?!"
Targets of my wrath, let's make a deal. I'll ease up on you if you'll realize what I have always known: language is a valuable tool and deserves to be used with care.
If you see any grammar mistakes in this post, feel free to chastise me. I deserve it!
Saturday, April 10, 2010
I am at the beach this weekend and will not post today or tomorrow, but please check back Monday.
Have a safe and relaxing weekend!
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
1. Have you always stuttered?
As long as I can remember.
2. What causes stuttering?
There are three schools of thought.
The first holds that stuttering is a learned behavior. All children have some amount of disfluency when they begin to speak. Most children outgrow this disfluency, but a few children develop anxiety about their disfluency and continue to stutter into adulthood.
The second holds that stuttering is a psychological disorder and should be treated with psychoanalysis.
The third holds that stuttering is the result of a neurological problem. This is what I believe.
3. Haven't you tried speech therapy?
Yes. I have tried many different types of speech therapy with varying levels of success. A speech therapist in grade school advised me to skip the first letter of each word. Instead of "my name is Mark," I would say "y ame s ark." I'll let you guess how that turned out. The same therapist also told me to try singing instead of speaking. I'd rather stutter. At the Atlanta Speech School, I was hooked up to a machine that monitored my breathing while I talked. If I breathed "correctly," a balloon on a computer screen would inflate. I could inflate the balloon, but I still stuttered.
After those shenanigans, I began working with Tim Mackesey. Tim did not cure me, but he did help me learn to live as a stutterer. We talked to salespeople at malls or made phone calls to businesses, and I would stutter. People laughed at me, but I survived. Tim gave me tools to deal with the mechanics of stuttering, but more importantly, he gave me the confidence to live in spite of stuttering. Tim will be the focus of a future blog post.
4. Can't a stutterer just slow down and think about what they want to say before they say it?
If it were that easy, I would not still stutter. Let me know if you need more clarification.
5. Should I try to finish your sentences?
No. Please don't. First of all, there's a good chance that you don't know what I am going to say. Second, if I've worked my ass off trying to get a word out, I at least want the satisfaction of saying it myself. Third, interrupting is rude.
6. What if I can't understand you?
Ask me to repeat myself. Say "what?" or "huh?" You won't offend me. You will offend me if you pretend to understand what I'm saying when you don't.
7. Can I make jokes about stuttering?
No, but I can, and it's a lot of fun. For instance, if I'm having a particularly difficult day, I will wait until someone says "huh" or "say again," and I will pretend to be offended and say "DID I STUTTER?" People don't know how to respond, and I get to laugh.
Actually, some people can make jokes. The people that can make jokes wouldn't want to. It's a beautiful catch 22.
8. So if I shouldn't finish your sentences or make fun of you, what should I do?
Listen patiently (or at least as patiently as you would with anyone else), let me know if you didn't understand me, and always feel free to ask questions.
If you have any other questions, post them in the comments. I look forward to answering them.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
It was a miracle. I could talk. I went to Subway, and for once I got exactly what I wanted. I didn't pick ingredients that were easy to say. That may sound like a small thing, but when you have always settled for foods with easy-to-say names, it feels pretty damn good to get tuna on honey wheat with banana peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, spicy mustard, American cheese, vinegar but not oil, and pepper but not salt. I was free.
I'm not exactly sure when I noticed that the device wasn't working for me, but it wasn't very long after my Subway "eureka" moment. At first, I began to notice the feedback that the device produced. It was sometimes hard to hear the person to whom I was talking, and I was all but deaf in public spaces. I knew that there would be an upgrade soon though, so I shrugged this off.
Soon, I noticed that I was stuttering more. I blamed myself. I was clearly not using the device correctly because anything that costs $5,000 must do what it claims to do. No. It wasn't me. It just didn't work.
My first thought was "how am I going to tell my family?" Everyone thought that Mark The Stutterer was gone. He was vanquished by science! In his place stood a confident, happy, silver tongued devil with the world at his fingertips.
I slowly stopped using the device without telling my family. I was away at college, so this was pretty easy. When they called, I would just say that the battery was dead or that I had just gotten out of the shower. It worked for about a month, but my mom eventually caught on.
She understood my reluctance to talk about the problems I was having with the device, but she pushed me to get in touch with the people at Janus. She said that they could help me.
I humored her for a little while before finally admitting what I had know for a while: the SpeechEasy device did not work.
The next 6 months were probably the worst of my life. My dream of being fluent had slipped through my fingers. I withdrew from friends, I stopped going to class, and I drank. I finished spring semester with a 0.5 GPA, and I was put on academic probation. I blamed everything but stuttering for my downward spiral. I refused to accept that I actually wanted to be fluent that much. The let down had crushed me.
That summer, I decided to rejoin the world. I bar backed at a local bar and made plans for the next school year. I contacted a few friends and even dated. I was going through the motions, but my heart wasn't in it. I was convinced that I would always be Mark The Stutterer and never Just Plain Mark. I had a built in glass ceiling. I tried not to take it too hard when my boss at the bar told me he wasn't going to give me the prime bartending job he had promised me because "I just couldn't talk to customers." He was right. Who would promote a guy like me?
Since then, I have struggled to convince myself that I can do all the things that Just Plain Mark can do. I married a beautiful girl, I graduated college, and I now spend my time racing bicycles and laying out and designing books for Deeds Publishing. My life isn't perfect, but its imperfections cannot be blamed on stuttering.
What was I saying? Oh yeah - SpeechEasy. Give it a try if you must, but don't get your hopes up.
Thanks for reading.