“Dreadful Hellos”

by TaShika Lewis

There have been many times when my stuttering has caused me stress, embarrassment, and anxiety. Throughout my life, I have mentally suppressed certain moments. Some childhood memories are tough to forget and stand out more. Looking back during these moments still causes slight anxiety, stress, and embarrassment. Let’s start with one moment – the telephone.

As an adult, my involvement in Avoidance Reduction Therapy for Stuttering (ARTS®) has helped me better understand the struggles associated with my stutter. During this therapy journey, I mentally unpacked moments from my youth which shaped my identity as a stutterer. As a child, saying “hello” was so difficult for me. When answering the telephone, the greeter would say hello to the caller. I stuttered, trying to get the sound associated with the word hello. I’d open my mouth, and nothing would come out.

Take a journey with me to this challenging time. I grew up in a small apartment with my divorced mother and younger brother during my youth. Growing up as a stutterer, my mom always made me answer the phone. I thought that was the cruelest house chore.

A family’s home has certain sounds associated with living that are calm and soothing. The air conditioner hum, the refrigerator clicks as its temperature changes, and the furnace occasionally rattles. Those were familiar house noises that didn’t bother me at all. Honestly, those familiar noises were music to my ears. However, there was one sound heard in my house or even yours for that matter, that would cause my anxiety, stress, and embarrassment to rise, catapulting me into a terrorizing mind frenzy.

The telephone rang. Ring. Ring. Rrring. My age at the time was around 7 or 8 years old. Once the phone rang in my household, you’d never hear me exclaim, “I’ll get it!” Nope, not me. Not ever. After a few rings, my mom would say, “would someone pick up the phone!” I wondered but would never dare say out loud: “Why don’t you answer it? You always tell everyone that this is your house. You’d proudly state that you pay all the bills. Why not take authority and answer that awful, beastly, disturbing, anxiety-causing, fear-inducing telephone? The phone loudly rings again from several devices throughout the tiny apartment: the kitchen, living room, and my mom’s bedroom. Three phones rang at once. The sound was deafening. Rrrring. Rrrrrrrrring. Rrrrrrrrring.

Mom yells from afar, “Shika, answer the phone! I am cooking dinner, and my hands are tied!” I slowly walk over to the house phone, preferably from another room in the apartment where no one can witness my shameful struggle. As I inched closer, the phone’s constant ringing is louder and louder. I stare at this communication device with disgust. I step closer to the telephone’s handset; my palms are dripping with sweat, my mouth gets dry, and my heart is pounding fast. My head is swarming from the full-on panic attack. I lift the handset to hold it to my ear.

I take a deep breath and open my mouth to say the simple but complicated five-letter word: hello. There is no sound in my voice. I open my mouth wider to say hello—still nothing. Dead silence fills the moment. A part of me is relieved that the loud ringing has stopped. However, the terror has only begun as I have to verbally greet whoever is on the other end of the line. The caller is very confused as I hear them frantically say, “Hello? Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?” Why would they assume no one is here after that exhaustive action I just experienced walking over to this ghoulish telephone to answer it? As if I had a choice in this matter not to be here? Boy, I wished I weren’t here at this moment in time. I’d rather be anywhere but here. Begrudgingly, I was overwhelmed by three things: me, the caller, and this awful telephone.

After moments of silence that seem like an eternity, I finally respond, “Yes, I am here.” The caller then asks me: “why did it take you so long to answer the phone?” I would reply: “I thought my mom would answer it.” or deliver another tall-tailed lame excuse. The caller asks the inevitable. “Is your mom home? I need to speak with her.” I had to ask the person’s name if unfamiliar with the caller. Now, you can imagine that I am entirely mentally stressed out. Full of shame and anxiety, I walk to whatever room in the small apartment to locate my mother, and she’d always snarl at me, asking, “well, who is it?” I’d tell her the caller’s identity, and then she’d decide whether to take the call.

At this moment, I am filled with rage. I was unhappy with myself, the caller, and my mother. I wondered why my mom could not overhear my struggle with answering the phone in this tiny apartment. Why was I subjected to this mental and emotional torture each and every time the phone rang? These growing pains associated with my stutter made me realize that when I was old enough to live alone, there’d be no phone in my house. No way. No how.

There are a few pivotal moments in this modern day. My mom moved in with me, and I’m the head of the household. Well, to be clear, I do not rule the kitchen. The kitchen is mom’s domain. Recently, we gathered in the kitchen to prepare dinner together. I shared my memory of answering the phone as a child. My mother listened to my experiences and said, “Wow, I had no idea you were struggling with answering the phone.” I could not entirely blame her for not knowing my struggle. I struggled to talk openly about my stutter with her as a child. The anxiety, stress, and embarrassment from stuttering were reasons why I created many covert escape behaviors. My mom did apologize, and she asked if I am ok with answering the phone now as an adult. I replied, not entirely. I am learning how to say what I want with ARTS®’s help. There is no landline phone in our home due to mobile devices. I thank the inventors of caller ID, voicemail, and texting. These inventions have allowed me opportunities to prepare for the dreadful hellos associated with answering the telephone.

Until the phone rings again, thank you for reading my tale of the dreadful hellos.

Goodbye, for now.