My Semi-Out-of-Body Experience

by Charles Repine

When the approach-avoidance conflict achieves nuclear fission

The Universe’s Most Powerful Force: Brain Itch

Navigating the world as someone who stutters, I experience the approach-avoidance conflict on pretty much a daily basis. For those of you who aren’t aware, the approach-avoidance conflict is a term from psychology for the tension we feel when faced with something we simultaneously want to do and don’t want to do. Normally it leads to indecision until eventually one side wins over the other — either the approach drive wins and you do the thing, or the avoidance drive wins and you don’t. For example, say you want to go to the gym, but you also don’t want to work out. That vaguely uneasy feeling you have when debating with yourself is the approach-avoidance conflict.

It comes up a lot with stuttering because so much of our time is spent weighing the pros and cons of speaking in any given situation. If I can’t find something in a grocery store, do I wander the aisles until I find it, or do I have an uncomfortable conversation with an employee for 30 seconds? I usually wander, personally. If someone wants me to “give them a call,” I will almost certainly not be doing that. I only make phone calls in emergencies or to correct financial mistakes. Those are the only times when approach wins out over avoidance. I’m a picky enough eater that I won’t choose what I order at a restaurant based on what’s easier to say — though I know many people who stutter that have done so — but if my order comes out wrong I usually only send it back if it violates my religious dietary restrictions. And even then, if I can just pick off the bacon or whatever, I just let it ride.

One thing I will never do, under any circumstances, is stutter into a microphone in front of strangers. I cannot imagine any scenario where my approach drive would win out over my avoidance drive. There are even open mic sessions set up at the annual National Stuttering Association conference where people have the opportunity to say whatever they want into a microphone if for no other reason than to have done it, and I’ve never gotten up the nerve to do it. I would rather die than stutter into a microphone in front of strangers, even supportive strangers.

…until Wednesday night, anyway. 

I went to a book signing in DC for Atlantic writer and editor John Hendrickson, who rocketed to fame (as far as that sort of thing goes) after an article he wrote in late 2019 about Joe Biden’s struggle with stuttering. That started him on a journey of discovery and reckoning with his own stutter that culminated in him writing a memoir about his life as someone who stutters.

Now, John has what we would call an “overt” stutter. Which is to say, he stutters similar to how I do. People notice it. There are two main types of stuttering: overt, in which stuttering behaviors are noticeable to the listener; and covert, where the person is able to appear fluent, but at great mental and emotional expense. I often joke that I’m always as covert as I can be at any given moment, but my biology makes that difficult.

I originally wasn’t even planning on going but a friend of mine from speech group sent an email to our listserv asking if anyone else was going, and since it had been a while since I’d seen him in person — we do speech group over Zoom these days — I decided to approach, y’might say, even though I don’t enjoy driving to or in DC. And I’m glad I did. I got to see several of my “stutter buddies” that I haven’t seen in person in quite a while. Plus I got to have the closest thing I’ve ever had to an out of body experience.

The event itself was a pleasant interview by Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg that allowed John to talk about the backstory of the Biden piece that precipitated this whole ordeal, his experience as someone who stutters, his experience interviewing people for his book, etc. But he said something during the conversation that really perked my ears up. He said that he didn’t know that stuttering was a neurological disorder or that it had genetic components until he started doing research for his Biden piece.

I’m sorry, what?

As I said, John stutters overtly, similar to how I do. I’ve read about how he hated going to speech therapy in school, just like I did. He’s written about how he would often eat at home rather than order something from a restaurant, just like I did. It sounded like we had very similar formative experiences. I also think we’re similar ages, and he’s clearly a well-read guy, so we’ve presumably had similar access to information. What do you mean you just learned it was a neurological disorder in 2019? I’ve been on Team Neurological Disorder since at least the mid-90s. He was obviously stuttering that whole time, and stuttering noticeably. He went through multiple therapists and other, uh, “treatments” to manage his stuttering. What did he think was causing it? How did he experience such a thing on a daily basis without seeking some sort of explanation for it?

It gave me what I call a “brain itch.” Brain itches are when something makes me so curious that I can’t focus on anything else until I “scratch” it. It usually manifests itself in the fact that if I vaguely recognize an actor in something, I can’t keep watching until I figure out where I’ve seen them before. Or I’ll often get little snippets of songs playing on a loop in my head that will nag me until I can figure out which song the snippet belongs to, like putting a puzzle piece in its proper place.

But this might have been the most acute brain itch I’ve ever had. I just HAD to know why he had never researched the causes of stuttering until, in lifetime percentages, 10 minutes ago.

So as the interview ended, they opened it up to questions from the audience. During the interview, John asked for a show of hands from the audience for anyone who stuttered and he seemed genuinely taken aback when, like, friggin’ 30 of us raised our hands. (Buddy, I came here with five other people who stutter, there were five more I knew when we got here, and most of them brought friends who stutter. This is basically a Taylor Swift concert for us.) With that information, John asked if someone who stuttered wanted to ask the first question (I guess in a show of solidarity?). And we all sort of looked at each other in stunned silence because it turns out that I’m not the only guy who stutters who has qualms about microphones.

I sensed an opportunity for one of my patented fluid asides, so I said loudly to no one in particular “…the FIRST question? Not really…” It got a nice laugh from the crowd. But I still wasn’t going up there. Luckily my friend Tim went up and broke the proverbial ice, as well as the stuttering taboo. I was hoping he would ask my question — surely I wasn’t the only one fascinated by it — but he didn’t. I assumed someone would though. They had to, right? How could they not also be curious about this?

But one by one, people got up and asked their questions, none of them mine, until I’m essentially trying to telepathically will someone else to say it. And then it starts occurring to me that no one else is going to ask my question, so I started bargaining. Arguing with my own brain.

Maybe it’s not that good of a question.

Are you serious? The guy reached the pinnacle of his career by writing about stuttering, he has a whole memoir about what it’s like to be a person who stutters, and he didn’t even look into it until he started writing about it. That’s not utterly fascinating?

Yeah, you’re right. Maybe I can just email him. I’ve emailed him before and he answered, it could happen again.

Come on, doofus. The guy’s going on a national book tour. Ain’t nobody responding to your email.

Well I’m not going up there and stuttering into a microphone in front of all these people.

Yeah? And then what? You’re gonna be mad about it the whole way home. You’re not gonna sleep, it’s still gonna be bothering you in the morning, your brain is gonna be on fire with regret and shame and — worst of all — not knowing, and your wife’s gonna find you dead in the shower with blood coming out of your ear. So either get up there or get your affairs in order.

One of the things I struggle with most about stuttering is the idea of “accepting my identity” as someone who stutters. Which is funny, because it’s one of the most undeniable aspects of my identity. I think I could more plausibly pass as a woman before I could ever pass as a fluent speaker. But it’s nevertheless the aspect of my identity that I most seek to suppress. I still, to this day, enter into most speaking situations desperately wanting to be fluent. At almost a molecular level, I resist stuttering. And while I can write about stuttering and my identity as a person who stutters to my heart’s content, I still don’t like being seen stuttering. And even in the scenarios where I will allow myself to be seen stuttering, I can virtually never address it verbally unless I absolutely have to. And those times when I absolutely have to, I have yet, as far as I know, to do so in a way that actually puts the listener at ease. As much as I might try to verbally make them comfortable in hearing and seeing my stuttering, I think my body language belies anything I might’ve said. It’s something I’m working on.

A friend of mine in speech group is doing similar work on identity acceptance, and he said something the other week that really stuck with me. He said that when he goes into speaking situations, he simply tells himself “I stutter, and these people are going to see someone who stutters.” I hope we wouldn’t mind me saying (hi Jay), but it seems like more of a zen thought for him. As in, “to stutter is my nature, and these people will see my nature.”

But me, I’ve started adopting it as more of an act of defiance. A rallying cry. I stutter, and these people are going to see someone who stutters, goddammit. And when I’m done they’re going to think to themselves “now that guy stutters” and I’m going to look back like Bryan Cranston as Walter White and scowl “you’re goddam right.”

So I’m sitting there in my chair, approach-avoidance conflict reaching Ragnarök levels. The unstoppable force is meeting the immovable object. I have to ask this question, but I am not talking into that microphone.

The Q&A session is clearly winding down when Jeffrey Goldberg asks if there are any more questions. I sort of sheepishly, half-assedly raise my hand — I guess I figured if he didn’t call on me I could convince myself “well, I tried.” But instead he looks me dead in the eyes and says “you sir, please go ahead.” And now that Jeffrey Goldberg has called me sir, I guess this is happening.

As I said, it was as close as I’ve ever come to an out of body experience. I don’t even remember my feet touching the floor on the way to the microphone. I briefly thought that there was still time to just continue walking past the microphone and dive out the window.

But I stopped.

“I stutter, and these people are going to see someone who stutters, goddammit.” And boy did they.

Or at least I assume they did — I honestly have no memory of what I said or if it made sense. But what I intended to say was “If I heard right, you said you didn’t realize stuttering was neurological until you started writing your Biden piece, so I was wondering what you thought caused it before then, and how that affected your identity as someone who stutters.” [Update: After checking the tape (see below), I got pretty close!]

About midway through all that, or whatever version of that my brain was spitting out without my input, I noticed my mouth was dry as a bucket of sand and my knees were getting wobbly. Luckily there was a support column next to the microphone that I could lean against, making it look as if I was just casually asking my question rather than relying on it to keep me upright.

At some point I stop talking and John says “wow, great question…”

Oh shit, was it? I blacked out. There’s a line in a Ben Folds song that goes “I can’t recall my statements, I only know I made ’em because my face vibrated.”

John proceeded to answer my question — or whatever sequence of noise that came out of my mouth — and it honestly struck me as a little sad. To hear him tell it, he simply never thought to learn about stuttering. He never googled it, he never even looked for support groups. He just viewed it as “his problem.” Stuttering is lonely enough with a vast support network. I spent a lot of time in my younger years feeling like the only person in the world who stuttered like I did. It pains me to think he felt that way well into adulthood.

Sad as it was, the answer scratched my brain itch — and thank God for that because I didn’t want to hemorrhage in the shower.

As I went back to my seat I realized my adrenaline was out of control. I could hear my heartbeat. I checked my Fitbit heart rate monitor and saw that my heart rate was higher than it is most days when I do cardio. I felt like I could pull my car home like a dog sled. As Churchill said, there is nothing in life more exhilarating than to be shot at without result. I didn’t exactly face down death, just something that I would rather die than do, which feels close enough. I was so amped for the rest of the night that I still barely slept, but for more tolerable reasons than I otherwise would’ve.

I waited to get my book signed, and when he gave it back to me, I noticed he’d inscribed it “For Charles, a fellow traveler.” I’m sure he signs it that way for all the people who stutter, but it was still a nice touch. As I was moving through, I said to John “when I got up this morning I didn’t think I’d be stuttering into a microphone in front of all these people.”

And I’m sure they were thinking to themselves “now that guy stutters.”

You can watch the entire event here. You can see me lose consciousness around the 1:01:00 mark. It didn’t occur to me that they were livestreaming the event. I noticed the cameras, of course, but I just assumed it was some sort of in-house documentation for the Atlantic. I had not considered that there were hundreds more people watching at home — some 900 views as of this writing. If I had, I’m not sure if I would’ve done it, though probably. One of the quirks of my fear of stuttering is that once I get beyond a handful of people, it’s all the same to me. Stuttering in front of 10 strangers is the same as stuttering in front of 100, is the same as stuttering in front of 1,000.

It was another exercise in identity acceptance to even find myself in the video. As much as I dislike stuttering in real time, it’s even more agonizing to watch myself stutter in the third person. And beyond that, it’s entirely another thing to actually direct people to a video of me stuttering and struggling so mightily. The vulnerability hangover from this is going to be epic. Although the best way to avoid a hangover, I’ve heard, is to just keep drinking. (I don’t think that’s medically true, but it feels like it should be, y’know?)

This piece also appears in Charles’s blog, Digressions and Dysfluencies.