Standing Up to Stuttering

How a Charlotte writer faced his biggest obstacle head on—and won.

Say something out loud.  A complete sentence, a phrase, anything.

Now, say the same thing out loud, only imagine that when you get to the first word that starts with a consonant you’re physically incapable of getting the word out. You know what you want to say—the word is right there—but no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you try to force it, the word just…won’t…come…out.

For the record, it doesn’t have to be a word that starts with a consonant. It could be any word, or a syllable within a word.  Stuttering doesn’t discriminate. If it wants you to stop talking, you’re going to stop talking.

My relationship with stuttering began when I was just a kid. I don’t remember a specific day, or a specific thing that caused it—and that seems to be in line with all the research. Speech-language pathologists have had to come to grips with the fact that there is no known cause, and there is no known cure. It has no beginning, and no end. It just is. The only thing you can hope for, as a stutterer, is that you learn to live with it.

Now imagine you’re in elementary school. Your class is taking turns reading aloud from a book and your turn is coming. Your heart is racing, dreading what’s ahead because you’re powerless to prevent your turn and the roaring silence that will come when you open your mouth to talk—silence broken only by the laughter of your classmates. I have memories of standing in front of the class and literally punching myself in the stomach to try to force words out.  Spoiler alert: That doesn’t work.

Now imagine you’re in high school, about to give an oral report. Your teacher offers to let you skip that part of the assignment, willing to alter the project to spare you the embarrassment of standing in front of the class struggling to speak. You politely decline the offer, not wanting any special treatment although you know it’s going to mean standing in front of the class, breathless, for six minutes fighting to put more than two words together at a time. The good news is that for the most part your classmates no longer laugh at you.

Expand that experience to anything that involves speaking: asking a girl to a dance, ordering lunch in the cafeteria, talking with your friends or your parents, talking on the phone (the absolute worst).  Every day is a minefield and you never know when you’re going to have a good day or a bad day or which words will give you the most trouble.

I did meet with a speech therapist for a time, I believe right around junior high school.  I came home after a particularly bad day and asked my mom if there wasn’t something we could do. My parents, who are nothing but supportive to this very day, did everything they could, but it had to be equal parts frustrating and heartbreaking to watch me work through this.

My speech therapist worked long hours with me, and while nothing we tried together really took hold (most of the tried and true techniques at the time were wildly ineffective, at least for me) I did learn something from him that I have carried with me ever since.

“You are always going to stutter,” he told me one day. “And some days are going to be really hard. But what you have to say is so much more important than how you say it. If anyone has a problem with that…it’s their problem. Not yours.”

Pursuing a dream

Now imagine, knowing full well the challenge communicating verbally presents to you, you’ve decided on a career—broadcast journalism. In my defense, it’s all I ever wanted to do. I watched the local news every day, read the paper, followed news and current events closely and knew my path early. If anything, my stutter pushed me toward writing, and I found my written voice early.

When I got to college, I really began to find my place. I was studying broadcasting and journalism and playing football and learning where I would fit in. I was producing and directing live television programs, appearing in front of the camera occasionally and I had a regular shift at the campus radio station.

Now I know I was learning to coexist with my stutter, falling in with people who didn’t see me first as someone who couldn’t speak fluidly. That’s not to say I was defeating it, but I was learning to manage it.

When I graduated and pursued my first job as a professional broadcaster, one of my instructors sent a message to the person I was interviewing with, encouraging her to look past my communication difficulties and calling me one of the most talented young producers he had ever come across—in spite of my stutter. I didn’t learn about that message until after I got the job, and it made an impact. I appreciated the gesture, but in trying to help me he had inadvertently created a situation. I didn’t want my stutter to be an issue, but it was going to be until I got it behind me.

I decided to do something drastic, so that my stutter wouldn’t define me.

I entered a local stand-up comedy competition. That oughta do it. If I could get up in front of people who didn’t know me and deliver material I had written and if I could do it without making it all about my stutter…well, then…I win.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of stand-up records, and I had what passed for a sense of humor—so I had a working understanding of the mechanics of comedy.  It was the early ’90s and stand-up comedy was experiencing a renaissance. Clubs were popping up across the country and every other person, it seemed, was climbing on stage for their moment at the mic.

Show time

The competition—at Connxtions Comedy Club in Lansing, Michigan—included one guaranteed six-minute set, with at least one more set if you advanced past the first round. As the room started to fill up someone asked me if I was nervous, and the honest answer was yes, of course, but I was equally excited for what was to come. I had confidence in my material (half the battle) but the variable was, quite frankly, me…and the 200 or so people in the club on that night. I knew I was going to stutter no matter what—the question was how bad would it be?  

The emcee brought me up and the first thing I noticed was that the stage lights were so bright I couldn’t really see past the first row of tables. That really helped.

I acknowledged the polite applause of the audience, took the mic from the stand, and started.

My opening bit explained that I am a stutterer and I spent some time describing what it was like, and how difficult it was in what I hoped was a funny manner. My first few jokes, about this thing I had carried with me my entire life, were met with what sounded like nervous laughter. Slowly that laughter grew, as the audience got comfortable with what I was talking about.  

Comedy, after all, comes from pain. The audience wouldn’t be OK with my material until they knew I was.

When I got to a joke I still use today (I can spin my stutter in my favor—it’s a six-minute set but I only have to write about 27 seconds of actual material) I got my biggest laugh yet…and my first-ever applause break. I spent the next four minutes doing material that didn’t involve stuttering.  

It’s not an exaggeration to say I walked off the stage a different person. I had recalibrated my own parameters, and would never again identify myself first as a stutterer.

After that night, I performed fairly regularly and even worked professionally at more than a few clubs.

Even better, I have a nearly 30-year career in broadcasting.  I’ve written, produced, and directed countless hours of live television, been nominated for an Emmy, broadcast college hockey on the radio for more than a decade, did a little on-camera television, have produced podcasts and other audio on the internet for the past 18 years, and wrote a book about podcasting and why everyone who wants to do it should.

Occasionally, I do still get on stage at Charlotte’s Comedy Zone, and it’s an emotional journey every time. Once again, I’m standing in front of a group of people, talking, and they’re laughing—but now they’re laughing with me, when I let them know it’s OK.

As I write this, I just completed a set a couple hours ago at The Comedy Zone.  Stuttering-wise, I had a good night. I now drastically abbreviate my “stuttering” material and tonight my set was maybe one minute about stuttering and nine minutes about other stuff. It’s a good feeling.

My set derailed itself midway through, when I started the bit I intended to finish on, got my biggest laugh, and then still had four minutes to go—but even that’s a win. I struggled tonight because I made a mistake any comic could have made, not because of something I have no control of. I can fix that.

I can’t help but think about how far I have come from that little kid, struggling to put two words together and punching himself in the stomach to force words out. I wish that kid could see me today. I hope he’d find encouragement.

Yes, I still stutter—but it’s not who I am. Six minutes changed all that.

Brian and his wife Terra have lived in Charlotte for eight years. He previously worked at WBTV, currently serves on the board of directors for Charlotte Speech and Hearing, and produces three local podcasts (The Comedy Zone Podcast, The Yelp Charlotte Podcast and The Charlotte 5 Podcast). In addition, he’s formed the Queen City Podcast Network, a collection of five Charlotte-based podcasts serving a variety of audiences.

Photos by Justin Driscoll

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