These dreaded ten letters are powerful and life- changing. They bring chaos and confusion into my life. Yet, at the same time, they accessorise my being with a dose of irony, drawing out the hidden strengths inside me.

From the age of nine, I became aware that my speech was unlike that of my classmates, teachers, and strangers. Repeatedly, my message was neither understood nor received well, largely because I was pre-occupied with trying to get words out of my mouth and stopping my hands from gesticulating too much. It did not, however, occur to me that I had a speech impediment. In fact, I shouldered the embarrassment, thinking that it was a punishment from Heaven.

My speech difficulty hindered my ability to speak fluently during lesson hours and oral tests (viva voce). Time and again, I struggled to be heard, on occasion feeling like as though there was a pair of invisible hands wringing my neck, choking me, determined to send me off to my ethereal home. Soon, fear set in and I forced myself harder to speak “right”, unconsciously with my fingers clenched into fists moving up and down madly in the air. Often, I would be told that I looked possessed with a red face that was blanketed in sweat.

In the mid 1990s, I was diagnosed with severe stammering (or stuttering), characterised by consistently-occurring blocks (with occasional word substitution as a coping strategy), and accompanied by secondary symptoms of gymnastic hand and head movements. Quite frankly, it brought immense clarity to an otherwise mysterious affliction, and for the first time in my existence, I finally understood why I spoke differently from others. However, it also stirred fear and panic in me, simply because I had no idea of what to expect in the subsequent chapters of my life, an emotion akin to a hiker lost in a seemingly, endless abyss of forested wilderness.

Quite frankly, it brought immense clarity to an otherwise mysterious affliction, and for the first time in my existence, I finally understood why I spoke differently from others.

 

In truth, I was ashamed of myself, and it felt like I was trapped in an endless circle of pessimism. For a very short phase in my adolescence, I experimented with not speaking, in its place I took to only writing my replies with the occasional assisted hand gestures. Though drastic in action, it actually brought peace to my mind as I could “communicate fluently” with everybody (although many must have thought that I had gone absolutely mental).

The next phase was task avoidance: I did individual assignments (instead of group work), and sought creative ways to escape from doing class presentations whenever possible. Religiously, I avoided reading in class and making impromptu speeches. Basically, I did all that I could to escape from the need to advertise my shame.

These “compensatory” strategies sustained me for a brief period but I clearly knew that they had a short life-span. When my secret was out that I was a stammerer, I was surprised at how some reacted with understanding and even offered to help me with my difficulty. Conversely, I was also at the receiving end of taunts from bullies. Strangely, though, the tormentors had a weak vocabulary, often recycling their verbal abuses, and I surmise that it was probably due to an acute lack of fertile imagination.

As with all things in life, there is a balance like Yin-and-Yang. From darkness springs forth light, so despite the difficulties, my growing-up years were not entirely in gloom.

I was always happy to “speak” whenever I had the opportunity to do drama in school. Incredibly, I did not stammer when I played a role. Instead, I was able to project my voice, expressed my emotions, and unlocked my fluency (1) while suffering from little stage-fright at all. This must definitely be one of life’s mysteries (I am proud to announce that I received the honour of the “Best Father-In-Law Acting Role” title (멋진 시아버지 상) in an inter-class, play-acting contest for the story 《거울》 (Mirror) at the Language Education Institute of Seoul National University in 2007).

stammeringsimchongteck

Chong Teck is pictured (bottom right) in 2007 at Seoul National University, with many of his Korean language classmates and teachers who provided unwavering support and encouragement to him while studying in Seoul.

 

Likewise, thanks to stammering for making me speak through written words, I had tasted some successes with my writing as a student. My poem on stammering, composed in my mid teens, was displayed at the defunct Speech Clinic Pte Ltd in mid 1990s, and my paper on genetic engineering was entered into a national science writing competition by my Molecular Biology lecturers in 1999/2000. Incredibly, as a post-secondary student, I was blessed with the opportunity to study Freelance Journalism at the International Correspondence Schools (via distance-learning), as well as be fortunate enough to learn directly from Singaporean writer Colin Cheong and writing instructor Brenda Lee.

I was always happy to “speak” whenever I had the opportunity to do drama in school. Incredibly, I did not stammer when I played a role.

 

Similarly, it was through my private speech therapist that I became aware of special-needs education and the varied learning differences. Moreover, in slightly under five years of treatment, apart from spending long hours teaching me compensatory strategies, re-building my non- existent confidence, and mending my tattered self -esteem, she also assumed the role of a personal educator. Being inquisitive in nature, and always seeking new inspirations, I had found school to be a tad too static (not much room for exploration). Hence, my speech therapist worked with me as I dabbled in a myriad of non-school subjects that ranged from linguistics, story writing to literature and self-improvement matters.

The fusion of drama, writing, and stammering together meant that art, books, music, sports (spectator status), and movies became my constant companions as a student. Coupled with a passion for travel, through them all, I gradually developed a keen understanding of the complex intricacies of human affairs; in a way, that built my foundation for my later foray into Cultural Anthropology and Silk Road studies. In short, having had been immersed in a rather “individualised” learning environment, it had helped me to develop my own stamp of personalised style and voice.

I am extremely determined not to allow stammering (and/or any other difficulty) to take over my life.

 

Presently, the severity of my stammering has greatly improved, and I am now able to speak almost quite fluently; nonetheless I still encounter the occasional hiccups in my speech (but it no longer gives me that much grief). In terms of psychology, I am extremely determined not to allow stammering (and/or any other difficulty) to take over my life. As an added booster for my confidence, I participate regularly in hospitality- related volunteer work. Indeed, it is a great way to help me to break away from my shyness and anxiety, and to topple the psychological wall which I have erected as a defence mechanism to protect myself from hurt.

Honestly, I doubt that I would be able to fully accept my speech impediment, despite knowing full well that closure is needed before one can move on forward. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the love-hate relationship that I have with stammering. Personally, I know this sounds twisted (and maybe headstrong too, I must admit), but then reality never gives one a straight answer anyway.

If the world could really be seen as a huge stage, I strongly believe that stammerers would shine brightly in the world; thus the following quotation serves as an inspiration to me always to live life to the best of my ability.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

[As you like it (Act II Scene VII), William Shakespeare]

A word of thanks:

On the 6th and 8th of June 2013, I was a student of the “Understanding Speech and Language Impairment (SLI)” short course at DAS Academy delivered by Ms Helen Driver. Overall, it deeply resonated with me because I could relate well to the materials that were covered during the lessons. Many a time I actually felt uncomfortable. Why? Purely because memories of times past flooded my mind as I watched the videos, read the slides, and heard the personal stories of the other participants. However, the uncomfortable feeling was actually cathartic, as it made me realise that I had come a long way since I was a young boy, and I have today succeeded, to a great degree, in combating my speech impediment, and no less deserving of a pat on my back.

 

STRANGE AFFAIR

Once not often we hear ourselves speak,
Blushing cheeks of embarrassment we not seek.
Wicked laughter and jeers hurt our sensitive souls,
Crying a thousand thoughts alone hides these painful sorrows.

Once not often we hear ourselves speak,
Blushing cheeks of embarrassment we not seek.
Through time we gain strength and confidence,
Able and determined with the uttermost competence.

Once not often we hear ourselves speak,
Blushing cheeks of embarrassment we not seek.
Understanding and accepting the truth of fate,
Realising the wonders of this unusual hate.

 

Learn more
(1) For more reading on this phenomenon and more information on the positive relationship between stammering and acting can be found from this website: http://www.stammering.org/specialaboutacting.html

Learn more about DAS Speech and Language Therapy here.


About the Author:
Sim Chong Tek
Participant, Understanding Speech and Language Impairment (SLI) Certificate Course 2013
DAS Academy


This article was first published in FACETS