Psychotherapist Mark Epstein talks about his disfluent childhood


As a child, I stuttered and had particular difficulty when we had to walk around the hall at school and introduce ourselves. I would become intensely anxious, repeating my name to myself in anticipation of my turn to speak, then having to push against an unseen force in order to get my well-rehearsed words out. When I was 9, I was fortunately helped by a speech therapist my parents got me who distracted me with board games while telling me stories of adults who stuttered more than me. She once mentioned a man who couldn’t do w sane and would therefore never introduce his wife as his wife. the w is can be especially difficult for some people, she explained. I knew it was true and was comforted to know that I was not alone in my affliction. I felt sorry for this poor gentleman and hoped that a similar fate would not befall me.

Mrs. Stanton, the speech therapist, taught me to distract myself with secret movements that no one could see or with small adjustments in the words I used. If I lifted my foot and placed it firmly on the ground just before I had to say something, I was often able to speak more easily. Or if I said “My name is Mark” instead of just saying “Mark,” my words would somehow flow more gracefully. I learned to anticipate the approach of a difficult word and adjust at the last minute. Like a basketball player entering a lay-up that avoids a block with a sudden, sneaky movement of the ball, I became reasonably adept at moving.By the time I was in seventh grade, I could successfully conceal the internal battle that had long plagued me. I don’t think anyone ever suspected that I was still grieving, silently, long after.

I wonder how much this childhood problem conditioned my attraction to Buddhism and motivated me to become a psychiatrist. Certainly, those early conversations with my speech therapist gave me confidence that obstacles like mine could be successfully addressed with the help of an expert. And the techniques that Mrs. Stanton taught me have to do with mental training which is an essential aspect of Buddhist thought. By teaching me to change my approach to my difficulties, she introduced me to the power that a trained mind can have over its daily anxieties. When I discovered meditation in my young adulthood, it was something I understood right away. I didn’t have to be at the mercy of myself. With a slight adjustment in my relationship with a difficult situation, I might have an easier time.

As my stutter became invisible to the outside world, I continued to be aware of it. The trauma of saying my name in class never completely left me. Some time ago, after my book Fall apart without collapsing was released, I went to a sound studio to record its audio version. I was asked to sit with headphones in a tiny, soundproof, air-conditioned phone booth. An engineer sat outside the glass walls watching over me, and I was instructed to read the book as perfectly as possible, without squealing or coughing, speeding up or slowing down, or messing up in any way. I had done it once with a previous book, and I was proud to have accomplished it smoothly. It had taken at least two full days and was like a meditation in itself. I had to be still, focused and attentive to the meaning of my own words and read as well as possible in order to avoid endless retakes. I remember that first engineer telling me that I had done as well as Vanessa Redgrave, who he said was a real pro. Needless to say, his praise made me proud.

On this occasion, however, my old speech impediment came back to haunt me. Go to Songs starts with the word “In” – a strange sound, when you isolate it and stop to think about it and convince yourself that you can’t say it. In its own way, it’s a sound as difficult as the w Mrs. Stanton warned me. I immediately felt that I was going to have a problem. the me its, like the first vowel of “England”, stuck to the back of my throat. “In the Zen tradition of Buddhism, there is the story of an intelligent and enthusiastic university professor who comes to an old Zen master for teachings,” the book begins. I couldn’t figure out how to get the first sound out of my mouth. Normally, if I got stuck like this, I would just change the wording a bit. My habit of being wrong was now so entrenched that I could do it instantly. I might start with “Once upon a time there was a smart and enthusiastic college professor”, for example, if I felt a similar difficulty approaching.

Here, I was reading on the pieces, and I was collapsing.

But in this situation, I couldn’t change the words. I had written them and I had to be true to my own language. I glanced at the top of the page to see if there might be an alternative in the chapter title: maybe I could back up a bit and start there. But the title of the chapter said “Introduction”. This word started with exactly the same sound and did not offer me any help. I tried the motor distractions my speech therapist had taught me. I lifted my foot and stuck it to the ground. I tapped my left wrist lightly with my right hand. Nothing worked. Locked in my own words, I settled back, my growing anxiety heightened by the inevitable irony of my predicament. I was there, reading about being in pieces, and I was falling apart. I remembered the contents of my book, how it advised the virtues of not always being in control. I tried to watch my breathing, to be mindful of my posture, to send kind thoughts to the engineer. But it was getting hotter and hotter in the air-conditioned cabin, and the silence was deafening. Finally, I heard a voice in my headphones.

“Dr. Epstein?” the voice intoned softly. “Is everything all right in there?”

The engineer’s voice shook me. I saw myself as I feared he would see me: the Buddhist psychiatrist, tied in the glass cubicle, an entire book stretched out in front of him. There would be no comparisons to Vanessa Redgrave today. I was myself.

I felt how anticipatory anxiety was making my problem worse. When I go to the doctor to have my blood pressure checked, the same thing happens. By trying to be relaxed, I inevitably sabotage myself. I get nervous that the reading will be high, then my heart starts beating fast and my blood pressure actually goes up, even though I’m trying my best to meditate. I had to buy a home monitor to convince my doctor that my blood pressure wasn’t always so high.

Something similar happened in the audio booth.

“I’m fine,” I said weakly, trying to be as reassuring as possible for the engineer. “I just need one more minute.”

I tried to meditate, relax, breathe out, and pay attention, but I knew I was stuck. The first word would simply not come. I had exhausted all my strategies; it was like I was back in second grade. I closed my eyes, contorted my body, and forced myself to begin, like I did when I was young. It was like jumping off a very high diving board for the first time. In this case, the pressure mounted, I was in extreme discomfort, I pushed myself against myself, something gave way and the words started to flow. Luckily, there was no embarrassing video recording of my efforts, and once that hurdle was cleared, the rest of the playback went smoothly.

Photo courtesy of Mark Epstein

It took me a long time to understand what teaching was in this situation. On reflection, the very story that I struggled so hard to read enlightened me. An elderly Zen master pours a cup of tea for a smart and enthusiastic young university professor, but continues to pour even after the cup overflows.

“An already full mind cannot absorb anything new,” explains the master. “Like this mug, you are full of opinions and preconceptions.” To find peace, he teaches his visitor, you must first empty your cup.

One of the things that filled my mind that day was the image of myself that I wanted to present. As an author and, more importantly, as a Buddhist psychiatrist, I wanted to appear relaxed, open, flexible, friendly, knowledgeable, and intelligent. I wanted to read like Vanessa Redgrave and become an accomplished practitioner of meditation. Like everyone else, I have an ego that needs to be affirmed and an image that I am aware of projecting. Stuttering, which frustrated and confused me from an early age, did nothing good for my self-esteem. I had worked hard to overcome it and assumed the identity of someone who had, to some extent, mastered himself. But the audio recording brought back my youthful difficulties. As conscious as I had learned to be, I was still not healed.

Loss, shame, blame, and pain were all tucked away in this little episode, but I didn’t give them the final say.

The Buddha once spoke of what he called the eight winds of the world. Gain and loss, fame and disgrace, praise and blame, pleasure and pain make the world go round, he said, and the world goes round after them. These eight winds blow through everyone’s life, no matter how well we have meditated or how accomplished we have become. They challenge us endlessly: we instinctively recoil from the discomfort they create while pursuing the ego gratification they promise. The Buddha suggested that this unnecessarily binds us to the vagaries of worldly life. The eight winds come and go constantly; as much as we try to choose among them, it is impossible to have some without others. While we can’t stop them, with enough foresight we can learn to approach them differently. Desirable things don’t have to seduce the mind, and undesirables don’t have to offer endless resistance. We can let the winds blow through us instead of letting them shake us.

Meditation failed me that day in the recording studio. Was it my fault or the meditation? It seemed important, at first, to find someone or something to blame. If I was a better meditator, I thought, I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time. Or if meditation were more powerful, I wouldn’t be so distressed. I noticed, however, that these thoughts died out rather quickly. I didn’t stay obsessed with them. As my ego took a hit – I wasn’t able to present a perfectly unassailable version of myself – to discover that my old self was still a part of me was perversely illuminating. As stuck up as I had become, I still rather enjoyed the humor of my predicament, at least in retrospect. That’s a lot more than I could have said when I was young. Loss, shame, blame and pain were all tucked away in this little episode, but as uncomfortable as they made me, I didn’t give them the final say.

Meditation didn’t save me the way I would have liked, but maybe his program was different from mine. Clearing my mind of blame, I found something I hadn’t expected. There, at the bottom of my cup, was a much-needed compassion for the young boy I had been and, in a way, still was.


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