It’s one of the most basic of human desires, the need to communicate, to speak and to be heard. When the thoughts are there, the ideas are many, the gift you want to share is on the tip of your tongue, but the words refuse to come easy…this is where courage must be summoned, for the world is waiting, because every voice matters.
The Sunday Series (54): Say What You Need To Say
(Lyrics from Say by John Mayer)
Walking like a one man army,
Fighting with the shadows in your head,
Living out the same old moment,
Knowing you’d be better off instead
If you could only…
What’s it like to know you can talk, but feel you can’t say the words? When your brain knows the sounds, but the path to turning those sounds into a sentence is unnerving, paralyzing, making the act of speaking a lifelong challenge, one that some people never overcome. Now imagine being a child trying to make your way in the world, learning, wanting to communicate but battling to do so, and fighting those demons every day of your young life…which sometimes becomes the rest of your life.
It’s called stuttering and 70 million of us live with it every day, including Taro Alexander. But Taro turned his struggle into a personal mission which is changing the lives and giving the gift of voice to thousands of young people, an organization called SAY: The Stuttering Association for The Young.
To speak, to be heard, and not to live in the darkness of tortured silence. For Taro, when it came to speaking, much of his life was spent in that darkness.”I started stuttering around 5-years-old”, says Taro. “And I grew up not meeting anyone else who stuttered until age 26, yet somehow I found my way around it. I used my fair share of avoidance techniques. What was frustrating was my fear and just trying to get through the day without anyone finding me out. Don’t talk, don’t stutter. It was a sad way to go through my school years and to select the moments to talk when I knew I wouldn’t stutter and to choose my words so carefully… and limit my involvement in life. I was standing on the sidelines and watching life happen and wanting to participate, paralyzed by the fear of someone laughing at me, or making me repeat my stutter. I lived in fear of those moments and when it did happen it would crush me and send me to a dark place.”
Taro is not alone. Plenty of children who are stutterers suffer in silence, a self-imposed silence because of the fear of being different, of being found out, of being ridiculed, or the fear of, as Taro describes, “the look”. The smirk, or look of impatience as others stare at you waiting for you to get the words out. The silence of those waiting on the other side of your next sentence makes the struggle to say the words you want to say even more difficult and frightening.
How about as frightening as even saying the name of the person who gave you life. Taro says, “In school my mom’s name was particularly hard for me to say and I remember people asking me what her name was and I would go into this hugely uncomfortable routine, pretend I forgot it – ‘can you believe I can’t remember my mom’s name, I mean who does that, I must be sick, I can’t think of her name, something must be wrong with my brain!‘ Then I would spend a month avoiding that person, just so they wouldn’t come up to me and say, ‘hey do you remember your mothers’ name weirdo?! I’d rather have them think I was strange, then to stutter. I so wanted to talk like everyone else. I was living a life of fear.”
Have no fear for giving in,
Have no fear for giving over,
You’d better know that in the end,
It’s better to say too much,
Then never to say what you need to say again…
With so many people who stutter, there is a release, a time when you don’t stutter at all. It might be singing, or getting into character with another voice, or as in Taro’s experience, simply stepping onto the stage. Acting became Taro’s calling and his refuge from the daily suffering of silence, albeit temporarily, it gave Taro a new lease on life. He appeared in the national tour of Neil Simon’s play, Lost in Yonkers. He did a guest stint on NBC’s Law and Order and he traveled the country as part of the cast of Stomp. But it wasn’t until the stage and the stuttering collided that Taro’s life truly changed.
“I was 26-years-old, doing a play in Colorado”, remembers Taro. “And one time during the show I stuttered on stage…it felt like the end of the world. Next night it happened again, a little bit longer and it was at that moment I realized I had no one to talk to about it. Not my parents, not my friends or a speech pathologist. The third day when it happened again I was in panic attack mode and needed to talk about it, so I frantically called over a guy from our show and I just unleashed on him and told him about this thing called stuttering – told him my story. He listened for 30 minutes and then he said, ‘I stutter too.’ It floored me. What do you mean I said? I never heard you stutter before! He said as a kid it was severe, but he had worked through it.”
It was the conversation which changed Taro’s life.
“Just the knowledge of meeting someone else who stutters opened up the blinders to me. I went back to New York and read, A Life Bound Up in Words, by Marty Jezer. I was highlighting and underlining every word. For the first time in my life I am reading the story of someone else who is living with the same thing I am, and he gets it. I went on to admit to my family and friends that I stutter, that’s who I am. I thought my toughest conversation would be with my older brother, because I idolized him. I was convinced the reason he didn’t want me to go to parties with him was because I stuttered. I gave him this whole speech and told him it was OK, because now I know the reason he didn’t want to hang with me. He says, ‘Woah Taro – I was 17 and you were 9. What 17-year-old wants their 9-year-old brother to hang out with them? All of a sudden it was obvious. But when you feel that insecure about something (stuttering) the truth of what is happening goes out the window, because you are so caught up in your own insecurities.”
Even if your hands are shaking,
And your faith is broken,
Even as the eyes are closing,
Do it with a heart wide open…
The time had come to do something about this. It was about the time Taro had his revelation that he got the part in Stomp, and would meet the woman who would become his wife, Leigh, who continues to inspire him to this day. But Taro was tiring of being an actor. Fueled by the work of his dad who was a director of a non-profit arts organization, Taro suddenly had an idea. “In April of 2001 it hit me”, he says. “A lightning bolt moment. Combine the things I am most passionate about doing and so something about stuttering. Wouldn’t it be great if young people who stuttered could be in this creative environment where they could talk about stuttering without fear of being interrupted, or simply in fear of speaking, and use it in their every day life and build confidence?”
SAY was born: The Stuttering Association for the Young, (http://www.say.org/)
Taro says he is a firm believer that to each his own. What SAY attempts to do is support each child, in a range from ages 2-to-18, find out where they are in life and with their challenge of stuttering. There is no single approach that works for everybody, it is centered around each child’s unique situation. “The old cliche of you can’t judge a book by its cover, is true”, says Taro. “There might be one kid who stutters a lot and you think their day must be so hard, they must be having a tough time in class, or asking someone out on a date… but you come to realize they are just fine with it. Then there are the kids who you don’t hear stutter at all, but instead are living their lives in fear and it is ruling their choices in life.”
“We ask each child what they want to change. One kid might just want to pick up the phone and order a pizza. Maybe his greatest fear is getting hung up on. So maybe they get hung up on in the safety of our facility and realize, it’s not so bad. Your worst fear is not as bad as you think.”
It’s all about the shared experience, just like it was for Taro, realizing that other people in the world, some of those closest to you, stutter as well. “You gain the confidence of doing it with others”, says Taro. “So when you are in class and are about to stutter you might think about your experience at SAY, maybe when you were up on stage, with 100 people cheering you on and you think ‘now I can do it, now I can say what I want to say.'”
Speak for all to hear. In 2008 the voice of SAY got even louder when Taro and company started Camp SAY for children ages 8-to-18, where young people who stutter can have fun while developing effective communication skills, build self-confidence and forge friendships to last a lifetime, (http://say.org/camp/).
“We, (those who stutter), can get very used to living a certain way,” says Taro, “or used to giving up on things you want to do or to be a part of. You can get very used to that idea. We want to counter that and let these kids know you can do what you want to do and be who you want to be. I have to say working with these kids the past 14 years is the best and most rewarding thing I have ever done and every day they teach me compassion and make me listen, because they are so incredibly brave and they learn to not let stuttering hold them back in school, at home or in extra-curricular activities.Even though they don’t know what is going to come out of their mouths next.”
Taro continues, “Every voice matters, not most, but every single voice. Every single human being has something to say and it’s important and we as a society should give everyone the time to speak and support them and accept them and if we do that I truly believe each child can grow and reach their full potential.”
Take all of your wasted honor
Every little past frustration
Take all of your so-called problems,
Better put ’em in quotations.
In quotations: here is mine – “I’m a stutterer and I have been one for most of my life. I only wish Taro Alexander and SAY could have been a part of my experience when I was young. But I fought through my fear and demons to live a life of my choosing. You can ready my story here: http://markbrodinsky.com/the-sunday-series-40-with-mark-brodinsky/. – Mark Brodinsky
Don’t let anything or anyone scare you from living the life you deserve, especially yourself. You have a voice and it matters, every voice matters. We are all meant to shine. So – Say what you need to say.
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.
Credits: Say, by John Mayer.
Mark Brodinsky, Author
The #1 Amazon Best-Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
The Sunday Series with Mark Brodinsky. Real Stories of Courage, Hope & Inspiration, Volume I