Speaking Between Breaths

A story stuck on words

by Kaitlyn Hickmann; illustration by Emma Kearney

"Dan Rood-Ojalvo. I have a stutter. So excited to get the opportunity to talk. Just want you to know, I use these b-breathing exercises, longer pauses, and speaking techniques to be able to say the words I wanna say.”

Dan’s stutter emerged when he was four years old. Before then, his speech was fluent. Over 90 percent of speech impediments dissolve by the age of 18, the remaining 10 percent worsen over time. Dan, now 22, finds himself in the latter 10 percent.

What began as b-b-bumping or ssssliding progressed to blocking on words, being physically unable to move, and being stuck in that space for m-m. Pause. m-m. Pause. m-m. Pause. Deep breath. Exasperated sigh. Deep breath. m-m. Pause. Minutes.

Physically speaking, the blocks occur in one of three places: the movement of the diaphragm, the vocal chords or the articulators. “Based on the particular sssssssound I’m making it’s pretty clear where the phhhhhysical discomfort is.”

Because no conclusive information on the cause of or cure for speech impediments exists, Dan considers his stutter a personal battle. He is the perpetrator, his own worst enemy. He also must be the hero of his story if he wants to change his life.

“I feel very much like it’s an inconvenience for everybody else and very much like even if I’m speaking beautifully and saying the words I want to that they’re being heard very differently.” Pause. Deep breath. “People don’t know how to handle the pauses. They feel like they have to react.”

These reactions often include nervous laughter, clumsily filling the silence, mocking or joking. 

He tells me about an average day: From across the room, he makes eye contact with a person he met yesterday who now stands in a circle of friends. He walks over and says, “Hi, I’m D-d.” No. “D-d.” I hate myself. “D-d.” Costal diaphragm. Deep breath. “D–”

“Forget your name?” Snickering erupts from the group.

Colorado College was the first place Dan was laughed at frequently. He understands people use humor to handle situations they don’t understand, and he concedes that this is usually a positive conversational tactic. Despite this, he explains that to be laughed at by someone who doesn’t understand who you are is crushing. Too often, when Dan blocks on a word, the person he’s speaking with patronizingly puts a hand on his shoulder and says, “It’s okay. Don’t be nervous,” despite the fact that his speech impediment is not brought on by stressful situations or anxiety. It’s arbitrary. 

“So much of my personal struggle comes from thinking surely people can see that I can’t say words, that I’m changing words, and that I’m doing all these things that are so freaking apparent to me,” he says. He wishes people would respond considerately, without pity or cruelty, possibly with a patient smile and a nod. He wishes people would stop trying to explain his stutter to him. This month, it might be s’s and f’s he can’t say, and next month it could be d’s and g’s, and then the h’s and then maybe vowels–it’s unpredictable. And sometimes, he finds he can’t say the word “burrito.” And he detests himself for that.

When he gets stuck on a word, he changes his words or expression or speed or spacing to get the words out and suddenly they’re not quite what he wants to say. “It’s a ssssself hatred that comes boiling up.” His distant, pensive gaze reflects this self-deprecation. “It’s a feeling of inadequacy and lack of self respect and hopelessness in the world.”

He knows he possesses the techniques required to change his life. “For a long time, I told myself, ‘Once you are ready to make a change, it’ll happen’.” Despite being more than ready, despite longing to be better in each interaction, the change he craves hasn’t come. The self-doubt and disappointment he feels each time he doesn’t meet his expectations for a fluent interaction devastates him. “It’s tough to see myself be so sad and so lonely and so disconnected and still not be making the whole change.”

Dan’s escape resides in books. Books that tell stories of heroes, of people who make the choice to challenge seemingly insurmountable obstacles and emerge victorious. “I’ve always wanted to be someone who rose up and blew the odds away, and it’s very clear that I have the opportunity to meet the challenge and that I’m not.” Dan’s adversary is 18 years of counterproductive speech habits. 18 years of b-b-bumping, ssssliding, top-up breaths, rephrasing, avoiding conversation and blocking during conversation. 

His frustrated gaze focuses on a corner of the table; his hands are balled into fists. “It has to be every interaction,” he says through gritted teeth with an urgent motivation. “It has to be all the time. Right now, that’s not how it has been, so it hasn’t been enough.”

Dan’s ideal day includes at least four hours of speech work. This work focuses on physical and psychological aspects of speaking. He begins by breathing with the correct muscle set. Then, he moves upward to ensure his vocal chords and articulators can make any sound. He proves to himself he can say the hardest words in the world.

He won’t let himself avoid sounds, change the words or change his phrases. These habits spiral downward and inevitably fail. He must be deliberate in every interaction. Every breath is intentional.

In a perfect world, he would be able to practice s’s or f’s for as many hours as he wanted before any interaction. He would be completely confident in the way he speaks. He would be capable of verbal expression in his native tongue. He would string the words he carefully considers in his mind in the correct order, hear himself say those words out loud, and see his intentions always come to fruition. He would be able to speak without feeling that he was burdening everyone else.

“I definitely stay on the fringes of conversations,” he says, speaking with deliberately long pauses, staying under five words per breath, avoiding top-up breaths, utilizing deliberate disfluencies and checklists and directions and hexagon stairways and the costal rather than crural diaphragm. “I have things to contribute but know that it won’t come out fluently. It’ll most likely just disrupt the flow of a converssssssssation.” Pause. Deep inhale. “I really let other people have those connections and feel very much disconnected from the world.”

Each phrase that leaves Dan’s mouth could determine whether he feels extremely happy or extremely sad or anywhere in between. “I wish they knew how much attention I’m really trying to pay to everything.”

Even if he were to overcome his frustration with himself, channel a deep patience from within and foster a fundamental belief in who he is, he knows he is still at risk for ridicule. Even if he felt comfortable and appreciative of his pauses, the deep, breathy tones and deliberate disfluencies, he knows others wouldn’t share his patience. “Our society in particular is so normative that to be anything but [normal] is really extreme.” People would misinterpret him as a dysfunctional human. He wouldn’t conform and therefore wouldn’t fit.

“I make out the world to to be this place that doesn’t want me,” he explains. Part of speech exercise is the psychological aspect of self-acceptance, of introducing yourself and your speech impediment to strangers on the street and recognizing that “you are beautiful and they think so too.”

Dan undertakes the massive challenge of cultivating his own self-worth. He struggles to remember he belongs as an individual, despite the contradictory experience of being in a new space with new people and feeling the resultant pressure to compare himself to these people. The introductory clichés at the beginning of college perfectly exemplify this standard comparison. “Everyone says ‘You’re all going through the same things’ and I’m like ‘No! No one knows what I’m going through because no one else can’t speak’.”

As a co-leader of GROW, CC’s mental health support group, Dan believes in the power of creating safe spaces for people to be individuals and to share genuine feelings. He is certain we have the potential to achieve our best selves. Rather than letting his speech impediment intimidate him, Dan chooses to fight. He understands the importance of authentic human connection in each interaction.

“I think I’ve learned to listen better. I think I’ve learned to appreciate words more, particularly the expression of them.” He feels patience and a capacity to let people be unique. “We have been taught to hide again and again and again. I might be trying to walk around the world as a vulnerable human being but it doesn’t mean everybody else is.” He speaks with the urgency of someone whose impediment has allowed him to better understand great oppressions, who acknowledges the absurdity of humankind falling short of its potential. At the same time, his voice projects the calmness of someone who knows the responsibility to challenge oppression and shape the world we find ourselves in. His words exude a non-judgmental frustration. His genuine tone speaks to his own burden, the responsibility he carries, the practice of his preaching. Above all, Dan wishes that when entering interactions, people would assume difference and seek commonality, rather than assuming commonality and being confused or disgusted by differences. He believes this simple shift in perspective would allow people to be open to the often unexpected beauty of the individual. 

“That is the world. That’s the only thing that makes a difference right now: the way the tiny things are happening. It’s so damn beautiful or so damn depressing.”