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As I stand in line, I take a few deep breaths, gently bouncing my leg to work up a rhythm.  “We can do this”, I whisper.  I’m at my favorite hideaway cafe in Troy. It’s been a hard day and I’m certain the answer to my problems are tucked inside the Almond Joy Latte I’ve been dreaming of all afternoon. I need the sweet combination of mocha and coconut to rescue my nerves and lull me into the evening. My boyfriend playfully nudges me toward the counter – it’s my turn. I take another deep breath.

“Hi. Can I have an Aaaa…Aaaa… a vanilla latte?”

I’ve earned a reputation among my friends for being indecisive. I’ll spend all day talking about the guacamole burger I want for lunch…only to get the grilled chicken pasta when the time comes to order.  My friends think I’ve changed my mind under pressure or developed situational amnesia. They don’t understand what’s really going on. How could they?

Word swapping is the part of my stutter they can’t see.  It’s the mental scrabble I play any time I open my mouth to speak. It’s when I have to match the word I WANT to say with the word that I CAN say.  It’s not always graceful, but it is effective. Sometimes.

Even as a child I knew the importance of word selection. I’d answer the phone with a cheerful, “Thanks for calling!”, not to be clever, but because the breathy “h” of “hello” was too much to bear.  When I’d tattle on my brothers, it was never that they “pushed” or “bugged” me.  P’s and b’s were too hard. Instead they “repeatedly touched me without consent”.  Did this occasionally earn me talks about accusing people of inappropriate touching? Sure. But I was silent during those talks. My teachers seemed especially confused. They didn’t understand how I’d do so well on exams, but would always reply “I don’t know” when questioned in class. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t grasp it. It was obvious.

Animals are given claws to protect them from predators. Similarly, I was a walking Thesaurus.

Growing up, my stutter never prevented me from enjoying life’s greatest pleasures. Things like ice cream, pizza or hamburgers were mine for the taking. I owed this to my father. He had little patience for my stutter and preferred I point to things on the menu so he could order for me. This should have landed me in therapy, crying about how my father never understood me and how boo-hoo-traumatic it was. But I loved it. I loved the attention and the secret dinner pow-wows on my dad’s knee. I’d point to what I wanted, whisper any instructions in his ear, and he’d order it for his stuttering Lisa Pizza. Our system was flawless.

Or it was until I outgrew the age where it was socially acceptable to eat with my parents. Suddenly my word swapping was a liability. To me and my stomach.

Word swapping goes hand-in-hand with my people-pleaser gene. Through word swapping, I ease not only my own struggle, but other people’s in dealing with me. I order food I don’t like because it’s easier for me to say and for them to hear.  I don’t correct people when they mishear me and accidentally answer a question I didn’t ask. At restaurants, I drive my boyfriend crazy by eating things we both know I didn’t order.  As a teenager I’d buy LIRR tickets to Northport when I really wanted to go two stops over to Huntington. Word swapping was a way to take the course of least resistance, but I know there’s been a price.

Back in the cafe, I sip my second-choice latte and watch my boyfriend as he reads the paper. I would recognize him anywhere. I know him by his favorite lyric, his favorite smell, his favorite sound.  I don’t have that.  

My favorite lyric is the one that’s shortest.  My favorite smell is one that doesn’t start with a vowel. He’ll never know me the way that I know him.  I’ll never know myself the way that I know others.  Somewhere, without realizing it, I did what I promised myself I’d never do.  I became recognizable for my stutter instead of the things that make me.  That’s what my father was trying to protect me from.  He wasn’t shielding my speech from others, he was trying to shield his daughter from it.

I don’t worry about that tonight. I’m tired and right now this vanilla latte has to be like so many of the word swaps that have come before it — a delicious workaround.

6 Responses to “Life As A Word Swapper”

  1. Pam

    Wow, this is great. So insightful, really grasping the nature of this thing that can so ultimately consume us. I did that for years too – I loved Hazelnut coffee from Dunkin, but hated when it came out – h-h-h-h-hazelnut or hhhhhhhhh-hazelnut, especially in the rive-through. I always imagined everyone inside laughing. I often got French Vanilla, because it was easier to say that day. Same thing with pepperoni pizza – my favorite, but I will not call and order it. It is mortifying at my age to still not be able to say it smoothly over the phone. Sometimes I go into "I Love NY" pizza close to me, and get two slices. I have troubles both with the "s" and the "ch" for cheese, so I sometimes will say "two of those over there on the far rignt".I am much better these days, as I allow myself to just go ahead and openly stutter and not avolid, but still the fear of judgement, shame, and embarassment creep in. Old habits and fears are hard to break. This is such a good start. Keep writing. Share the feelings – for stuttering is not what comes out of our mouth, its all the other stuff that we don’t let anyone else know or see.This is the link to an article I wrote and had published inthe Albany Times Union two weeks ago. Recognize anything it?

  2. Burt

    I’m reading this blog, upon recommendation of Pam, and poooof, now I know I am not the only person in the world who purchases train tickets systematically for the wrong station, just because of its name. It’s still leaves two options: buying a ticket for a station closer from the point of departure (thereby paying less, but with a constant risk of being caught), or for a station beyond the genuine objective (thereby paying sort of a stutter tax to the train operator). From which of these two schools are you? (I’m from the second)Congratulations for this very well written blog.

  3. Lisa

    Hi Burt! Yeah, you’re definitely not alone in this one. I’ll typically pick a location that’s easier for me to say that comes after where I really want to go. And you’re right, it’s definitely a "stutter tax" though I’d never really thought of that. Sort of like how I’ll accept it when I get something I didn’t order or when I have to call back three times because the person on the other end just hung up on me. It’s a tax for how we live. Thanks for commenting. And thanks to Pam for pointing you this way. 🙂

  4. Burt

    Yes, and one day I actually had to explain to a friend why I took a ticket for two stations more. I did not want to address the stuttering issue, so I had to invent a plausible reason for going in an implausible place. Suboptimal choices in restaurants also ring a bell. I used to have the dream that at least it would teach me to like a variety of dishes. But it does not work this way.

  5. Steve Marchant

    Hi Lisa;Pam was right. You are an awesome writer. What an amazing account of what it is like to be a stutterer. I could totally relate. I can’t count the number of times I drove past a McDonalds, Burger King, or some other fast food joint telling myself that I was not hungry when in reality I was "starving". Or pretending that I did not hear the telephone ring. Saying "Hello" is also tough. When answering the phone I would often resort to saying "yellow" or just "yeah". I have to admit there are days that I still fall back on these tricks. When you talked about the train tickets it reminded me of the book "Stuttering-A life bound up in words" by Marty Jezer (not sure if that is the exact title) where he talks about the same situation. I would highly recommend this book. I have struggled with stuttering my entire life. For many years I tried anything and everything not to stutter. But the more I tried not to stutter the more I stuttered. I still stutter, but working on accepting and being okay with my stuttering has made a little eaiser. I continue to have my ups and downs, which is common for most of us who stutter.It was great meeting you yesterday. Hope you enjoyed hanging out with us. Steve

  6. Sophie

    Wow. It is so cool to find that other people actually do the same weird things in order to avoid stuttering. When I’m a starbucks, I always stare at the menu for such a long time, trying to build up courage to ORDER WHAT I WANT. Only thing is, I’m never quite courageous enough to actually do it, I ALWAYS order Vanilla Lattes (which I don’t like anymore at all). I’m looking forward to reading more from you! 🙂


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