I sat dejected across from a man that had just interviewed me for three hours. The interview was for a job that I had thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Afterwards, I no longer cared whether I got it or not.
In the three hours, I had spent more time convincing the interviewer of the physiological impact of my hidden disability than discussing my qualifications. I am not disabled nor am I failing to accept the label but the man made me feel as though I was which I hadn’t felt in years.
Communicating for three straight hours during any situation is exhausting for everyone but especially so for me because I stutter. And, by all accounts, stuttering for that long in an interview should have been a monumental success.
However, organizing my thoughts, processing them into speech, openly stuttering, and enduring the exhaustion from this effort left me on the verge of tears. I was made helpless and desperate, yet remained honest and stoic, though borderline combative at the interviewer’s ignorance. The man believed he was more than accommodating my repeated disclosures of how the side effects of stuttering were impacting the interview. I had no other choice than to convince him of my disability.
You may be wondering, where was your reasonable accommodation?
It was agreed upon and in place, or so I thought. I disclosed stuttering prior to the interview and how it would impact it. I had two productive conversations with the hiring staff who wanted to know everything about my “speech disability,” as it was denoted in my file. Disclosing is a standard operating procedure whenever I feel it is necessary. It took me most of my life to become comfortable doing it. Even though it helps eliminate the ambiguity surrounding what is happening when I stutter for others, it gives me the freedom to stutter without fear of retribution.
With a pounding headache, body pulsating encapsulated by the stress, my mouth, throat, vocal cords, and chest throbbing with a dull ache, and nearly gasping for air—all from the effort to stutter—I desperately thanked him for the opportunity to interview as I dragged my beaten down sack of flesh out of the room.
From the parking lot, the rage overwhelmed my tears and numbed my entire being with a thousand-yard stare. I felt dehumanized. A week went by before I recovered from the physical toll alone that it took to make it through the interview, the trauma to my identity may be lasting. I could not see a scenario in which I was going to accept what had just happened to me without a fight.
Since that day, the shame has made me feel that their hands are tied and they have to hire me because of my disability and the fear of what I may do if they don’t. Is that the kind of job I want to willingly accept, aside from the traumatic interview?
There is no cognitive dissonance here, nor am I hiding behind the rights afforded by the disability that I staunchly deny. The trauma endured still does not overshadow that this experience was an anomaly, and made possible to resolve by a shift in perspective that guides me through every waking moment of my life, always default to forgiveness.
For years, as a child and adult, I stewed with anger because these types of anomalies occurred often. I was the victim and I just received the blows, without any say it the matter. They used to be even more inescapable when I was younger since I had to endure them every time I opened my mouth to speak.
I lived my days in survival mode bouncing from one shame-inducing moment to the next. With stuttering, these moments generate largely the same traumatic experience if they do or do not happen. The uncertainty of how to escape it was relentless, and all I could do was numb the world around me. I was not capable of processing it all—the words I couldn’t say, the things I couldn’t do, and the person I couldn’t become because I stuttered. The only option was resentment.
No one can help me. Why doesn’t anyone know how to help me?
No one understands my stutter. Why can’t anyone understand that I stutter?
No one else stutters. Why am I the only one who stutters?
Resentment means bitter anger at having been treated unfairly. The definition says what it means, others have done something to us. This was where I was wrong. Living as the victim led me to resent the experience of stuttering as one that was foisted upon me by the reactions of others. I obsessed about how others should just accept my stuttering, know how to be patient listeners, and not treat me unfairly for something I couldn’t help.
This is where I got my stuttering edge. The edge was my militant opposition to the unfair treatment. I walked around angry on the lookout for perceived slights against me that had any semblance of a connection to my stuttering. This militancy colored each interaction with an underlying combativeness until I realized nothing bad was going to happen. A bitterness grew out of the years of unfairly projecting this resentment outward on my audience and to those who sought to help me. I had to stand guard, over every moment, in fear of what others might do to me.
I lived my life through this lens.
Militancy may be a bit extreme here but, to me, I was fighting a war against stuttering…for years. It was a war of attrition. If I wasn’t struggling, then I wasn’t being resilient enough. I had to keep up my stuttering edge so as not to surrender. The edge became my identity.
Ten years on since I gave up most of the fight and achieved enough self-acceptance with my stutter to peacefully coexist. I am now realizing that it had been this invisible edginess that had made me struggle more and prevented my escape from the wrath of stuttering. The anomalies—real discrimination, oppression, or trauma—that I actually experienced were too few and far between to have fueled such an all-consuming militancy.
I know I am not alone in feeling this way, in both unknowingly cultivating the stuttering edge and becoming aware of its presence. I have discussed it with many who stutter, and often see and hear it in their stories of stuttering. I am still working on smoothing out my edge so that I can use it in my favor.
It goes without saying that the anomalies, like the interview, still make me mad as hell, though time has revealed a healthier response, forgiveness. To forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake. Like Seeking Similarity (which I wrote about last week), forgiveness required a lot of work on gaining a higher level of self-awareness to stay present in moments of stuttering and to see what actually happened, over and over and over again.
The watchfulness is gone. My defenses lay at rest. And, openly stuttering has not generated the kind of reactions that I had feared the most. I no longer need the stuttering edge to protect me. Yet, without it, I never would have learned its self-limiting nature or when it is necessary to use it.
When is it necessary that I use the edge to my advantage?
When my livelihood is at stake and I’m vulnerable to harm. To me, livelihood equates to how I make a living. I have worked hard to only call on the edge when I sense this is the case. But, this particular interview was a surprise because of the steps I took beforehand. In these situations, I am better equipped to leverage the edge in my favor because I can stay present to defy harm and advocate constructively on my behalf.
When is it not necessary that I use the edge?
Every other situation, whether actually experienced or perceived as negative. The stillness and freedom that I have gained by giving up the fight has led to countless opportunities to show others how courageous it is to stand face to face with ignorance and choose the harder option. It was unnatural at first. My immediate emotional reactions wanted to drive me through the moments. But, I began to see that I did have a choice—be combative or forgiving.
The choice is now always mine. Only in choosing to do the opposite of what I had done for so many years could I have learned to choose forgiveness. People who don’t stutter will never fully understand stuttering—or think about it as often as I used to for that matter. I cannot expect them to always be in control of their reactions when they are caught off guard by the way I talk. Does it make their ignorance misguided? Of course.
Admittedly, my perspective on this is still evolving. But, I recognize that we—yes, we who stutter—must walk this fine line with intention. There is a certain catalyzing power to the stuttering edge that is still needed to collaboratively challenge the stigma. Without the militancy, though. The edge is the thread that binds our individual journeys through stuttering and is also what will allow us to show that we are strong. Being strong does not always require a fight and, as I learned, more often than not, forgiveness is a more powerful antidote to stigma than constantly acting in defiance of the ignorance, which only further divides.
Where do I go from here?
A wrong is a wrong. The interview will not be the last time that my livelihood is at stake, or that I’ll face ignorance. Forgiveness is an admirable pursuit and has challenged me in every instance. I know it will be hard to continue trying to solidify it as an automatic reaction. One thing it has taught me thus far is leniency in my reactions is more sustainable through the vicissitudes of a life with stuttering than militancy.
What did I end up doing in the aftermath of the interview?
I have capitalized on it as an opportunity to advocate on behalf of all of those in need of reasonable accommodations that will follow me into that very same interview chair. I will not stop my individual effort to confront ignorance and discrimination, though it will now come from a position of strength, forgiveness and compassion, which only increases the likelihood of change.
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