Tuesday, April 20, 2010

No Grad School for Mark

UGA's Sociology Department recently informed me that I was "not recommended" for their PhD program. When life hands you a lemon, what should you do?

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.


Mark Babcock

Stuttering and the Bike

Bike racing is my passion, so in honor of Speedweek, today's post will be about stuttering and the bike.

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

Whose Problem is Stuttering?

Before each new school year from kindergarten through eighth grade, my parents would call a meeting with all of my new teachers. My mom and dad would introduce me to the teachers and tell them that I stutter. I would answer questions when asked. We would come to the agreement that I would not be called upon in class unless I volunteered. I would feel less scared about starting school.

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:



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

A Fish Called Wanda

Stutters hated this movie when it came out. I think it's hysterical.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Stuttering and frustration are a volatile mix. When I’m having a difficult day, one bad block can make me break down. It is the proverbial insult added to injury. Let’s take yesterday for example. I ride my bike for two hours to a training race (I race bicycles – more on that in a future post). I planned to do the race and ride home. My chain breaks when I get to the race, and I have to sit on the sidelines while I wait for my wife. I go to my local bike shop and ask for a chain. I stutter, and the sales guy laughs. I know he doesn’t mean anything by it, but it stings. I’ve been on my bike for three hours, so I’m tired and lacking patience. I want to go home and relax with my wife. Instead, I get home and find that I have made a mistake on a work project. Now instead of relaxing with my wife, I have to stay up late and fix it. I go to tell Sarah and find her on her computer with her back to me. I start to talk and launch headlong into the mother of all silent blocks. I dance a silent jig in the doorway while I try to force the words out, and she doesn’t even know that I’m behind her. When I finally get the words out, they sound angry. Now Sarah thinks I’m mad at her. Crap. I call my dad/business partner to discuss the work issue, and by now my stuttering is on ten. Thankfully everyone in my family is a certified stutter translator, so my dad magically understands every word I say. Even so, I get off the phone even more tired. I end the day feeling worthless. All I can think about is stuttering. The point of this story is that a broken chain and an error on a work project are easy things to deal with. Stuttering makes little annoyances seem monumental.

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

Famous stutterers

There are a lot of famous stutterers. A list can be found here. So what?

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.

Click here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Stuttering and Grammar

I am a corrector. I cannot tolerate grammar errors or mispronunciations, and I often point them out in casual conversation. "Me and Jim?" I believe you mean "Jim and I."

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

Unil Monday

I am happy about how this blog has been received. I've gotten a lot of great feedback. I hope that everyone who reads it can relate or learn something.

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

Stuttering F.A.Q.

I always try to discuss stuttering early in a personal or professional relationship. I address the obvious (yes, I stutter), and more importantly, I let the person know that I will happily answer any questions that they have. Below are some frequently asked questions.

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


A few days ago, I was interviewed by stuttertalk.com about my experience with the SpeechEasy. In 2002, Good Morning America followed me as I tried the device out for the first time.

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.


My name is Mark. I stutter. I don't like to talk about stuttering, but my stuttering is severe enough that it often becomes a topic of conversation. In this blog, I will talk about it openly. I will answer questions, I will post stories, and I will vent.

Thanks for reading.