all the right words by nico pas­cual

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NICO PAS­CUAL tells the story of his con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with lan­guage.

I dreaded the day I had to go to the front of the class and in­tro­duce my­self. The or­deal felt like drown­ing, ev­ery time.

Slowly, things around the house­hold be­gan to change. It be­came a game of who could say the least words per day. Morn­ings be­came ded­i­cated to quiet good­byes and silent car rides to school. Ges­tur­ing be­came com­mon­place, as we sat down to eat our fam­ily din­ners in stark si­lence. I was learn­ing to be com­fort­able in si­lence, and this con­tin­ued as I grew up.

When I first started school, it be­came clear to me that it was a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment. eo­ple here would re­mem­ber rst im­pres­sions. eep­ing up ap­pear­ances was a must. I dreaded the day I had to go to the front of the class and in­tro­duce my­self. I re­mem­ber hav­ing a hard time get­ting words across. The or­deal felt like drown­ing, ev­ery time.

Iron­i­cally, it would be words that kept me com­pany through­out my school­ing. My love of read­ing be­gan when I dis­cov­ered a few tat­tered short story col­lec­tions ly­ing around the house. The Gift of the Magi was one of the sto­ries I vividly re­mem­ber from that time. The tale re­called a man and his wife who ex­changed Christ­mas gifts know­ing that they can’t af­ford to buy presents for each other. The man pro­ceeds to sell his gold watch to buy an or­na­mented hair clip for his wife. The wife sells her hair to nance a gold chain for his watch. The themes of the story are ac­cep­tance and sacri ce, both of which I had to un­dergo due to my lack of words.

The Stut­ter­ing Foun­da­tion of Amer­ica de­fines stut­ter­ing as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­or­der in which the ow of speech is bro­ken by rep­e­ti­tions (li-li-like this), pro­lon­ga­tions (ll­l­l­like this), or ab­nor­mal stop­pages ( no sound) of sounds and syl­la­bles. In my case, I ex­pe­ri­ence stop­pages in which I have trou­ble breath­ing. I of­ten have to stop and start over due to los­ing my train of thought each time my mind says, “Stop.”

Some­times, there may also be un­usual fa­cial and body move­ments as­so­ci­ated with the ef­fort to speak. When I stut­ter, my fa­cial mus­cles be­come dis­torted and tense due to the strain on my vo­cal cords try­ing to get words across.

Stut­ter­ing may oc­cur when a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors come to­gether and may have dif­fer­ent causes in dif­fer­ent peo­ple. While there is no con­crete data on stut­ter­ing in the Philip­pines, the Stut­ter­ing Foun­da­tion re­ported that more than 70 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide or about 1% of the world­wide pop­u­la­tion stut­ter.

I re­fused to speak to oth­ers about my con­di­tion. I dove into books and the In­ter­net hop­ing that a study or an ar­ti­cle could bring some much-needed re­lief. I once read in an online study con­ducted by the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia that women speak an av­er­age of 20,000 words daily as com­pared to 7,000 words for men. On most days, I speak less than half of the 7,000 word daily av­er­age.

Long con­ver­sa­tions ex­haust me, and I only talk at length when­ever I have to be po­lite or in spe­cial sit­u­a­tions. Over time, I be­gan to rel­ish these quiet mo­ments. One time my girl­friend asked me why I was grin­ning over a cup of cof­fee. “Be­cause I or­dered it with­out paus­ing,” was my re­ply. This mun­dane task of or­der­ing food felt like a tri­umph given the strug­gle I go through ev­ery time I speak.

As I grew older, the stut­ter­ing wors­ened to a point where I was un­able to speak co­her­ently at all. Strangers nished sen­tences for me, and breath­ing be­came dif cult due to the strain of talk­ing.

This is when I de­cided to seek help, rst from my par­ents in a pre-re­hearsed speech taken from an ad­vice col­umn. I re­mem­ber get­ting the mes­sage across af­ter four or ve takes, not aware that the road to re­cov­ery would be a long and ar­du­ous af­fair. I took a leap of faith and started speech ther­apy ses­sions shortly af­ter­wards. My ther­a­pist told me some­thing af­ter I be­gan my ses­sions: “Take time to un­der­stand your­self and your stut­ter­ing. It is im­por­tant to ac­cept your­self be­fore you can ex­pect any­one else to ac­cept you. Do not be afraid to ask peo­ple for help or to talk about the speech im­ped­i­ment. At the end of the day, what you say is more im­por­tant than how you say it.”

At this point I felt a mix­ture of re­lief and ex­cite­ment, be­cause for the rst time some­one was sin­cerely in­ter­ested in what I had to say. Even though my speech was dif cult to un­der­stand and it took me a while to nish sen­tences, she al­ways nod­ded in en­cour­age­ment.

These ses­sions felt dif­fer­ent from the usual class­room setup that I was used to. Back in school we were tasked to re­cite on com­mand, and I was scared each time my name was called. Here, it was dif­fer­ent. These ope­nended con­ver­sa­tions re­minded me of a piv­otal scene in The Catcher in the

Rye, where Holden Caulfield paid a street­walker ust to lis­ten to him ram­ble about life.

Flu­ency didn’t come easy at rst, and I spent the ini­tial ses­sions sit­ting there mulling over my words and stop­ping al­to­gether when my mouth started danc­ing like a con­vul­sion. So this we did, day in and day out, and de­spite those harsh hos­pi­tal lights that de­noted fear, I felt glad there was some­one will­ing to lis­ten to my case and point me in the right di­rec­tion.

My ther­a­pist dis­tilled stut­ter­ing into “word blocks.” It helped me un­der­stand that speak­ing, like breath­ing, is a se­ries of me­chan­i­cal steps. The repet­i­tive na­ture of word-breath-word slowly helped me gain back con­trol of my speech. My ther­a­pist ex­plained that these word blocks must be nav­i­gated through in or­der to en­force uent speech. Much like the cre­ative blocks that artists have, break­ing words down into small man­age­able chunks helped con­ver­sa­tions ow bet­ter.

At the be­gin­ning, I re­mem­ber ask­ing that ques­tion most peo­ple fear the an­swer to: “Is it cur­able?” My ther­a­pist replied, “No, but it can be man­aged.” The only thing I could say then was “Okay,” while try­ing to hold back the fear that this con­di­tion would be a life­long strug­gle, and some­thing I would have to live with.

But I kept push­ing on, un­rav­el­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of how words were formed and why I had the pro­nounced dif­fi­culty of speak­ing them.

To­day, there still is a stigma as­so­ci­ated with those suf­fer­ing from com­mu­ni­ca­tion dis­or­ders, with the public’s un­der­stand­ing of speech im­ped­i­ments po­lar­ized into two camps: those who view it as a men­tal ill­ness, and those who see it as a quirky per­son­al­ity aw. Even main­stream media is tak­ing note. Take for in­stance the 2010 lm The King’s Speech which is about the stut­ter­ing ing Ge­orge I. It won four Academy Awards in­clud­ing best pic­ture, best di­rec­tor, best ac­tor, and best orig­i­nal screen­play.

The King’s Speech is a heart­felt por­trait of a man who is try­ing to live out his life de­spite the im­mense pres­sure on his shoul­ders. As the ing it was his duty to make wartime speeches to soothe his fright­ened and bat­tered na­tion. I ap­plauded the di­rec­tor’s dar­ing move to present this sen­si­tive and well-ridiculed is­sue in a pos­i­tive light.

I sym­pa­thize with ing Ge­orge, know­ing fully well you can’t get any­where with­out ac­cep­tance, sup­port, and trust. But af­ter tak­ing off my rose tinted glasses, I be­gan to see that peo­ple aren’t al­ways root­ing for those who are dif­fer­ent. At some point, com­mu­ni­ca­tion breaks down and feel­ings are hurt. For those who ex­pe­ri­enced hard­ships, what is there left to do but to keep push­ing on?

In The Book Thief, Mark Zusak’s novel about the Nazi Oc­cu­pa­tion, a young girl’s our­ney cul­mi­nates with her pro­fess­ing her love for words. The last line in her di­ary reads, “I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” The words strike me as clear and bru­tally hon­est. I’ve lived my whole life be­ing afraid of words, and it’s quite ironic that now I see my­self in the busi­ness of telling sto­ries. As long as I re­mem­ber, I have wanted to write for a liv­ing de­spite my hap­haz­ard speech.

There is some­thing about lan­guage and it’s in­fi­nite vari­a­tions that ex­cites me and pushes me for­ward. Words some­how have the power to cross borders and I want to be there in that thresh­old, pen­ning sto­ries the best I can. I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I can make them right.

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