Tuesday 15 April 2014

Stuttering badly, but thinking of Hank

Hank Aaron, a man who could focus.
I have developed the mental equivalent of a stutter, a seriously debilitating one.
This post starts out with a man called Rob, and brings in Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.
What have they got to do with it?

Well I'll get to that below.
But first Rob.
I met Rob at college in my home town.
He was a real nice guy, but was cursed with a terrible stutter.
He would start a sentence and most times he would finish it.
But regularly he would come upon a word that would set it off.
Then his face would contort, and he would utter a series of "unhhhh!", noises.
Sometimes it wouldn't be too bad, and he would get through to the end of the sentence without too much trouble.
However, on occasion it would hit bad, and he would sometimes have to leave the conversation, and go off by himself until the stutter burned itself out, and he could return and recommence talking with us.
Thankfully, we were living in reasonably enlightened times and Rob had many friends, and no one made light of his affliction.
However, it must have looked somewhat comical to an observer, seeing us rock forward in unison with each "unhhh!" that Rob emitted, hoping, willing him to get the word out.

What causes a stutter?
Well, like hiccups, no one really knows.
I seems to be stress related.
I asked Paula the wonder therapist this, and even she didn't know, but said she would look into it.
Until she reports though, I will at least tell you what I learned about it.
On one occasion the unholy mystery of stuttering was fully revealed by Rob.
He began a sentence then the stutter kicked in, his face contorted more than usual and we realized that it was a bad one.
Rob uttered ten or so "unhhh!" noises, then out of the side of his mouth he said, "Wait for it".
We broke up with laughter, not at him definitely.
It was genuinely funny, and that seemed to help him in this current instance, and with only a few more "unhhh!"s, he got the rest of the sentence out.
Also Rob seemed to do much better with people he knew, meeting people was an unholy trial for him.
He would be introduced, then had to hope that he could reply to the new person without the "unnhhh!" noises appearing, making his new acquaintance wonder if he was some sort of mad man.
As the study year went by and Rob became friends with many, his stutter did seem to reduce.
Again, indicating that stuttering is stress related, and with people he was comfortable with he could converse more or less normally.
The most interesting part of Rob's story occurred a year or so after I left that college.
I returned home from my new Uni in Sydney and went and caught up with friends from my home town college.
One of them told me a fascinating story.
Not long after I left, Rob's father died.
Rob went home for the funeral, and spent some time in his home town.
Then, my confidant told me, when he came back to college, his stutter had reduced massively, and eventually had disappeared altogether.
Turned out Rob's father was quite a brutal, domineering man, and had had a massive impact on Rob's equanimity.
Such an impact, that Rob had developed this stutter.

Probably the two most notable movie portrayals of the trials of a stutterer were A Fish Called Wanda, and The King's Speech.
In Wanda, Michael Palin plays Ken, an animal lover who is cursed with a stutter.
At one point John Cleese's character desperately needs Ken to tell him where the baddie has taken Cleese's lover, Jamie Curtis.
And sure enough, at this most stressful juncture of the film, Ken's stutter kicks in, and we all moved forward in our movie theatre seats hoping Ken could get the words out before the baddie, Kevin Kline, makes it out of the country with the girl and the loot.
John Cleese, driven to distraction, and yells, "OH, COME ON!!!!", then stops and says "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know you're trying".
Eventually Ken gets there and they race off to the Cathcart Towers hotel at the airport in time to catch the baddie.
But it was an unholy struggle for Cleese to be patient, to not make Ken stutter worse.
And that's what is required of you if you are conversing with a stutterer.
The other film, The King's Speech, showed another side of the suffering of a stutterer.
Which is, avoiding certain words.
If, for example, the word "day", sets off the stutter, the sufferer will obviously avoid the word.
So instead of saying, "it's a nice day", they will say, "Isn't the weather nice?"
That's fine for ordinary folk, but the king in the King's speech, was required to deliver scripted radio addresses to the populace, and within the speech would be scattered danger words, that couldn't be avoided.
So a whole elaborate training schedule, including practising with weights on his chest was devised to help the King get through his vocal work.
Talk about pressure! Colin Firth as King George VI addresses the masses.
I should say, it was a time of war, and England needed it's king to lead, and so there was no hiding for him.
He had to get these speeches done.
Additionally, when doing a speech in a radio studio, it could be recorded, but he also had to speak in public, which must have been a horrendously stressful process for him.
So if you know someone with a stutter being patient with them is all you can do.

So what's happened to me?
Well I haven't got a speech stutter, but instead my mental illness, high anxiety, has developed to full blown OCD, and exhibits in my checking things.
It's really bad now, and takes me up to thirty minutes to leave home in the morning.
That is, I'm ready to leave, dressed, shaved and breakfasted.
The car is packed with my gardening tools for the day, but then I have to add thirty minutes or so, to endlessly circulate through my flat, checking and rechecking that the oven is off, the electric jug is off, the shower and bathroom taps are off, etc, etc.
And I'd like to bring in another very good movie here: As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.
Jack plays a man with out of control obsessive compulsive order.
He can't get out of bed till he taps his feet in an intricate pattern on the floor.
He can't walk on certain parts of the sidewalk.
He can only eat breakfast at a certain restaurant, and only when Helen serves it the right way.
When I saw this film, I thought it was good, but remember thinking at the time, that "This is a bit over the top, no one could be that OCD".
Well, now that I am the same, I have recalibrated that statement, I can tell you.
So why am I writing about this?
I am certainly not making myself look cool, that's for sure.
Well it helps me gain some perspective on the whole thing, but as usual when discoursing on mental illness, I'm hoping that it may help someone else recognize it in themselves.
Here I am counting that all the switches on my oven are off.
This picture was about the twentieth check of the morning,
I did about twenty more before I was able to leave the house.
And go get some help.
I have examined this truly tedious and exhausting process, trying to discover why I do it, and that has helped.
It is undoubtedly worse when I have to leave the house and go somewhere a long way away to do my gardening.
For instance this morning I went to Ballina.
The logic there is of course that when I am around town (Byron), if I have a sudden panic attack and want to check that everything is (still) off, I can just go home and look.
But obviously, if I am in Ballina (30k away), I can't just drop everything and go home.
So away days are exceptionally stressful.
What's at the bottom of it?
It seems to be to do with the years I spent homeless.
Being homeless is so awful that it has created an overwhelming-to-the-point-of-catatonic fear that I may be homeless again.
So why does that fear lead to this over compulsive checking?
Well the "logic" my over active cortex follows is that if I leave the oven on, or a top plate burner, a fire may start and then I will have nowhere to live.
I will be homeless again.
It's a logic of a kind.
People who have no understanding of the completely irrational nature of this checking try to help me.
"Why don't you just say in a big loud voice, 'THE OVEN IS OFF!', and then go?"
No help.
"Why don't you allot five checks per morning, and then go?"
No help.
All the oven switches are off.
The jug is unplugged.
The only person who did have a genuinely helpful suggestion was my friend Michael, who suggested I photograph my appliances each morning so if I do panic, I have a visual record that the power is off.

In the end though, the only thing that could really help me is having a million dollars in the bank, then if I do burn the place down, I can buy a new place.
But that ain't gonna happen, so for the moment I have to live with this checking stutter inside my head.
And a long morning round of checking and rechecking my appliances.
So if you're one of my clients reading this, and I am late to mow your lawn, you can now know that I am still at home checking that the oven and the electric jug are off.
So what of Hank Aaron?
For those Australian readers, Hank was one of the greatest baseballers ever.
I tend to think of him when I'm under pressure with my checking, for Hank went through a true hideously flaming hell-on-Earth, and held it together under the most extraordinary pressure that anyone, sportsperson or otherwise could imagine.
Hank played in the Major Leagues from 1954 to 1976.
He was what's known as  "slugger" and was famous for his mightily-hit home runs.
As his career moved on he began to home in on Babe Ruth's all-time record for home runs.
Babe watches a dinger sail away.
Now Babe was a truly popular iconic, larger-than-life figure on the baseball stage.
He was popular with the fans, he was popular with the ladies.

He played in the twenties and many of his records weren't broken till the sixties, he was that good.
The point being, Babe was white, and Hank is black.
So when Hank began to close on the record, it set off an unholy torrent of racial abuse and death threats, toward him, his family and his team.
Even his local paper in Atlanta was not immune and many calls were received declaring the paper was written by "nigger lovers".
Such was the torrent of this filth that the editor quietly prepared an obituary for Hank, in case one of the threateners achieved their stated aim.
Hank himself tried to play it down, but like Mississippi Burning, another great film, America was at war with itself.
Ignorant whites wanted to see Hank fail, the entire population of black Americans wanted Hank to succeed.
In the end all Hank could do was to just keep batting.
He couldn't stop, as that would give in to the racists.
And that is why I admire Hank Aaron.
Anyone who has played sport at any level, will know that achieving on any given game day is hard enough.
If your at the top level, in this case the Major Leagues, that is many factors of ten harder.
Just hitting 'A' baseball for us mortals is hard enough.
So for Hank to achieve the home run record, which he did in 1974, all the while wondering if his family and friends were safe, is another universe of pressure again.
So whenever I am under pressure I don't say, "What would Jesus do?", I tend to say, "Hank had to handle a lot more than this."
I was going to nip home and make sure I haven't left the oven on, but then I thought of Hank and decided to go surfing instead.

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