Monday, September 15, 2014


I have recently started to talk a little bit about the fact that I struggled with a speech handicap as a child.

It seems like a small thing when I type it that way– matter of fact, black on white. But it wasn't a small thing at the time.

My best theory has been for a while now that it stemmed from the fact that my family completely uprooted our lives and moved to a third world country when I was just shy of 2 years old, only to do the same thing 18 months later when we returned to the States. When we first got back from mission work, we spent a stretch of time hopping from house to house, staying with whoever had room– an experience that deeply troubled 3-year-old Mary, who was clingy and insecure. I am told children with speech handicaps often are that way because of some massive life upheaval in the years they're developing speech. I figure this qualifies.

The primary way it manifested was that I couldn't pronounce any "R" sound, and "J" posed significant difficulties. In part because I was aware of the deficiency, I often ended up stuttering or slurring to cover it up. I spoke this way until I was 11 years old.

Imagine this dorktastic mini-human speaking a high percentage of words totally wrong.
11 is old enough to encounter an awful lot of bullying for any child who shows signs of abnormality. I was ridiculed for it so often (by relatives, friends, siblings, even adults on occasion) that I learned very early on not to speak much. I also learned early on the alternative: writing. Every word I was too ashamed to speak got turned around, invested, captured on a page. My expressions were primitive at first, rough, like any child holding a new tool in their hand. But I accelerated, leaning into the words, finding in their potential a way to be weightless. By 11 I was reading Shakespeare and writing my first novel.

But of course that wasn't usually particularly clear to the outside world, a world where I seemed branded as slow and stupid for the fact that I did not speak in public, or if I did, I could not seem to speak correctly. And it weighed on me tremendously.

My parents believed for a while that it was a discipline problem, and found various ways to try to motivate or punish me into speaking correctly. After one such night where it was explained to me that I just wasn't trying hard enough, I locked myself in the bathroom for hours. I painstakingly repeated words over and over, trying to make their sounds fall into place, looking in the mirror to try to make my mouth work the way everyone else's did so effortlessly. I fought with my unwieldy tongue until I was hoarse and sobbing, 8 years old and deeply convinced of the truth: I was a failure. I somehow had to try harder.

When I was 11, my mom found a book that they used in special speech therapy classes. We couldn't afford those kinds of classes, but my mom patiently sat down and started to work through it with me on our own. The book had diagrams, descriptions, and exercises. Somehow it clicked. And after a few days, I was able to say my own name correctly for the first time in my life: Mary Rose. I remember it caught in my throat.

The first reaction was fear. I had sounded a certain way for as long as I could speak, and now the familiarity afforded by that brokenness was being taken from me (I have always been this way: I would rather the familiar hurt than the unfamiliar hope). But soon the realization of being able to do it right, no longer being an outsider in the realm of speech, overtook that apprehension. Within a few months, most surface level traces of my old habits were gone.

I've been turning this over and over in my head lately as I've been exploring my desperate need for approval and how to overcome it. In a lot of ways, I am silenced by shame these days as surely as I was 13 years ago.

When I first learned to talk honestly about my life and my faith, it was new and hard and not always perfect but so beautiful. And then I started to realize I wasn't always doing it right (by the standards of others). I was sometimes too liberal, sometimes too conservative. Sometimes too "Christian," sometimes too irreverent. Sometimes too feminist, sometimes too traditional. Sometimes too intellectual, sometimes too simple. So I stopped speaking what I believe about a lot of things, and then I became afraid to believe those things at all, afraid to call attention to my wrongness. I began to feel any opinion at all was more valid than mine.

And it started bleeding into every other area of my life. I have heard people saying that things I have experienced are not valid, that they don't understand them-- so I stopped speaking the truth of those things I have lived, started trying to erase them from my presentation of myself. I have become ashamed of almost every aspect of my story. I am aware that for every moment I have lived, there is someone somewhere with an opinion that would say that's not right.

I am not particularly sure when I started focusing so much on what is approved rather than what is true. But I am extremely tired of it. I am weary of being afraid every waking moment that I'm not meeting someone's standard.

Throughout my teen years, the old speech habits of my childhood rarely surfaced. I only saw them in college in moments of extreme stress, such as before giving presentations in class. But last year I found something that could wake it: a demanding job in food service and a life mostly devoid of tangible human support.

On the bad days, there would be a chain of anxiety triggers, small things stacking, until I'd be taking someone's order and feel letters dropping out of my sentences, slurring, stammering, scattering in the noise. I'd fight to hold my pronounciation together. On a few occasions I ended up dashing to the bathroom where I locked myself in a dirty stall and dry heaved until the panic passed and my words arranged themselves again.

In a way, the upheaval of the last few years has triggered more than just the recurrence of that childhood monster. It's silenced me in those other ways, silenced my story, silenced much of my ability to be honest even with myself.

I am aware that my honesty would, in many cases, cause discomfort, disagreement, and potential heartache. I am aware that in other cases it could cause healing, a sense of resonance from others who have experienced similar things and do not feel free to express them. 

So these days I am constantly weighing the question: where is it worth it? Where does the potential for healing outweigh the potential for hurt? I don't believe in speaking my mind just for the sake of speaking; that quickly turns into arrogance, or gossip, or group pity parties. But I strongly believe in honesty for the purpose of healing, for having conversations that matter more, for true soul-deep closeness, for shedding light in dark places, for uncovering and recovering truth.

That second kind of honesty is the kind I am trying to uncover again, regardless of whether it would earn approval from the right list of people (whoever that is-- sometimes when I ask myself who are you trying to please, I can't even pin down a name). And I am trying to uncover it in a way that provides more healing than damage to others in the process. I would rather (always) be kind than "right," but there has to be a way to do that without feeling the need to evaporate as a kind of self-regulated damage control. I want my silences to become motivated only by gentleness, not by shame that tells me you can't say it right, can't be right– your hardest efforts are not trying hard enough. 

I want to leave this world marked more by mercy than when I found it, not embedded with the shrapnel of graceless rants. I don't particularly know the way to get there. But it's going to look like some careful relearning. It's going to look like practice. It's going to look like letting go of the fear that I am not really myself without my shame. 

It's going to look an awful lot like learning to speak.