Finding The Right Words
I pick up my guitar, ducking my head through the strap. The red light on the amp is glowing and the volume knob is dialed up past 9. The pick is sitting tight between my thumb and forefinger. I take a deep breath, calming my nerves, and my fingers come down on the strings. There’s a melody I heard in my daydreams, cutting through the static noise of the world during one of those peaceful moments of my day. I captured that melody and wanted to share that beautiful collection of notes with the world. So I stand in front of this audience, fingers finding the notes of this Lydian progression that paints the quiet moment of beauty I had, and I play for them. I hear each note in my head; I feel each one in my heart. This is something that can’t be kept from the world. It screams to be heard. The melody finishes, and relaxing my fingers across the strings to still them, I open my eyes to see the expressions of the audience.
They’re confused. Questioning. At first, I’m nervous that this song hasn’t connected with them, but then I look at my amp and see the problem: there’s no cable connecting the guitar to the speaker. And the audience is leaving, many of them shaking their heads in frustration. And I’m still on the stage, wanting to play. Knowing what to play. But the audience is gone, leaving me alone in an empty theater with the thoughts and feelings I want to share.
Aphasia is defined as an impairment of language ability, and one of the manifestations of this disorder is the inability to speak. Aphasia can be caused by a brain tumor or infection, but the more common causes are from either head trauma or stroke. I know someone who has this condition. In the way I understand his type of aphasia, it’s as if the words he wants to say form a train (the sentence) somewhere in the language sentence of his brain, but the track from that center that would normally lead to his vocal chords has been damaged by the stroke. So the train doesn’t get there in the same condition it left in. So when he communicates, he uses simple sentences and hand gestures. Most of what he says has nothing to do with the question he was asked. He hears the melody, but the guitar cable isn’t plugged in to the amp. He can’t tell you what he’s thinking. And yet I communicate with him. I’ve only known him for six or seven months, and the length of time I’ve sat with him at any given time has probably been less than ten minutes at a time. But I can tell you his hobbies, what he did in the military, and where he was stationed. And I learn more about him each time I see him. None of what I know was written down. I simply talk to him. I’ve been asked how I communicate with him, this person who uses a language that doesn’t follow an established grammar and has an extremely limited vocabulary, and to be honest, I don’t know how I’m able to. I only know that I have to.
We all live inside of ourselves with our thoughts and our feelings, and there are times when we take those thoughts and feelings out in to the world. My friend can’t. He can only get one foot out of the door. That’s as wide as the door leading out from his world can get. So I guess the only option I had was to step inside the room with him. That way, at least, he wasn’t alone anymore.
I could have gone to school and gotten an education in speech pathology. I could have studied nueroscience so I could understand the physiology of the damage his stroke caused, and then devised a treatment plan. But I never did. I just remember being the little boy who reached my hand out of my door when it wouldn’t open to let me out into the world.
When I began talking, I had a speech impediment. I’m not sure that that’s the right word; nothing I said was able to be understood. The sounds coming out of my mouth couldn’t even be called English. No one in my family or my small hometown could understand what I was trying to tell them, except for my mother. Apparently she got to the point where she could understand my mangled speech, and I’m sure her patience had much to do with it. But I wasn’t around her 24 hours a day. I was around people who couldn’t understand what I was trying to say to them. And, I think, once I figured out that reaching out, trying to communicate, was pointless and just as frustrating for them as it was for me, I pulled my arm back into my own little room. I left the world alone because it couldn’t understand me, and I think there’s only so much rejection a little boy can take before he realizes it’s just not worth the effort. I stayed inside with my books and my radio, living in a perfect world because I didn’t have to communicate with it. But three or four years of speech therapy later, I could speak clearly. But I guess it’s hard to forget the tough lessons. I had given up reaching out for the best reasons, and first among those reasons is that once you’ve opened yourself up to the world, causing confusion and frustration isn’t worth the risk.
I grew up. Made a few friends and made it through high school. Looking back, I can see how I developed a sort of mask to deal with the world through. My first failures at opening up and sharing how I felt with the world taught me to keep my mouth shut and just muddle my way through it all. It didn’t help that I grew up in a town that idolized high school football, and I found myself having to fight, sometimes physically, to keep my music, my academic successes, and my dreams alive, since I wasn’t charging down the field with a football in my hands. The world wanted me to change, asking me to give up every passion I loved, and I couldn’t do that. All I ever had was kept in that little room I had stayed in my entire life. And I never let anyone into that room. The people on the outside made fun of me for having that room, sent me to the hospital once before I decided I didn’t care about the trouble caused by fighting back, so there was never any question about letting someone in. Besides, no one ever knocked on the door and waited patiently to be let in.
It was my senior year of high school when someone finally did. And I found myself unable to say “no”. So she came inside my little room, asked me questions, and discussed my answers with me. And she genuinely liked it in there. Until the day, a few months after I let her in, when she got up and walked out. She realized that if she was going to be popular, she couldn’t share that room with me. She left without saying a word.
So I went to California to learn Russian for the Army. The irony was that I was learning a new way to communicate, when my most successful attempt at opening up and sharing had failed, leaving me questioning whether anything I felt or thought actually had any value. I went to the beach on most days, watching the Pacific surf crash along the shore. It was there that I decided the best place to share would be through my writing and the music I wrote on the guitar. That opening up just wasn’t worth the risk. So the boy from Texas who was born with a speech impediment learned to speak Russian, and the entire time kept to himself. I somehow knew that what I wanted and needed to share had some value to it; I just didn’t know where I could express it. My life at that point had been a series of failures when it came to opening up and sharing. All that I had was either made into a joke, ignored, or thrown away like trash. And I knew that what I wanted to communicate wasn’t any of that.
So I went through life, mostly keeping to myself. There were occasions when I would ease up on the door, opening up just a little bit to someone, but for the most part, I just re-learned the same lesson. It just wasn’t worth the effort. I went through a relationship where I was told I was stupid for thinking the way I did, and for trying my best to make someone’s life happier. Once again, the lesson was obvious: don’t open up. Stay shut away. Keep it all inside. I’ve learned to communicate without words, by doing all that I can for someone who needs it, over and over again, and still…and still the message wasn’t received. So the threads of my life came together and were pretty clear. I wasn’t able to communicate, to share, very well. It was as if my life, or the way I lived it, was the result of some kind of disorder that shut me off from the rest of the world. And the funny thing was, I became okay with that. Once something happens over and over again, no matter what you try differently, you just come to expect it. You learn to wake up with it. You learn to live with it. It becomes your argument for being alone.
One day, a man walked up to me, using a cane and leaning to one side. He tried so hard to speak to me, and I could see the frustration and the desperation for understanding in his eyes. And the adult who had grown up to learn Russian, the guitar player who goes to wild metal shows, the guy who ran around Europe before moving to the East Coast, the nerd who likes writing philosophy papers….that person was gone. The little boy in Texas, the kid with the speech impediment….that boy was in his room again, looking out at the world, wishing there was someone out there who could understand him. And the boy saw someone who knew exactly what that feeling of helpless alienation felt like.
So I walked around to where I could stand beside him, and I started communicating with him. And…he smiled.
Life is a very funny thing. For years I’ve wondered if there could have been a different way to try to connect to the world. If all of the confusion, rejection, and the solitude weren’t really necessary. But my friend with aphasia was able to tell me everything I needed to know in a single glance. He was having a hard time connecting with the world. And he walked up to someone who knows exactly how hard it is to live with that feeling. All of the jokes that were made about me, the people who wouldn’t listen because I couldn’t talk right, everyone who decided I wasn’t worth getting to know because of what I shared with them, the ones who never took me seriously…given the choice, I wouldn’t change anything. I never could have reached my friend if I didn’t know how desperately necessary it is to be able to make a connection. So I can live with all of it-the failed attempts, the hurt, and the loneliness, all because I was able to reach him. I don’t think there was any other way.
I titled this blog’s address with the (abbrv) word “speechimped”. It made sense because that’s really where all of this started. I’m in my room, shut away from the world, and I’m letting the door swing open a little bit.
Plugging that guitar into the amp, so to speak.