“Did you forget your name?”
I feel myself deflate as I hear that familiar phrase.
Nevertheless, I laugh it off, shaking my head. I hear some excuse come tumbling out of my mouth as I try to remain the epitome of poise and casual coolness.
This is why I never go to parties. Some variation of this interaction always happens and makes me remember why I wish I didn’t stutter. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, like when I’m talking to my mom or to my high school friends who have known me forever. But I am slammed back into reality by expectant stares and sarcastic comments.
I have been bracing myself for them since the moment I was diagnosed with childhood onset fluency disorder. I was five when it happened, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t stutter. I can’t remember a time when words were easy, or when I didn’t feel embarrassed every time I opened my mouth. My life has been dominated by remaining silent, or, when it is unavoidable, scrambling to find words in my head that I won’t stutter too badly on. Ironically, though, the one phrase I have always had the most trouble with is the one that is the most unavoidable.
Chloe Elizabeth Gambol. My name. Sometimes I want to get it tattooed on myself just to feel like it’s actually mine. To look down and always remember that no matter how difficult it is to say, or how the sound of someone asking for it is a trigger for my palms to begin sweating and my heart to start racing, it belongs to me. Maybe some subconscious part of me is looking to mend our broken bond. My name has seldom felt like a blessed identification given to me by my parents, but rather a burden I was unfairly asked to carry.
It’s not just fellow students at parties that send my head spinning and make me force fake smiles and lifeless laughter. It’s dreading my 18th birthday because I knew I would have to pick up my own prescriptions and make my own doctor’s appointments, or freaking out when I discovered I would have to speak my own name at my high school graduation.
I remember the first time my mom told me to go to Giant Eagle by myself. Her betrayal felt like a knife to my heart. How could she make me humiliate myself? I remember the screaming, crying fit and hiccuping as I got in my car and drove to what felt like my very own circus: I am the clown, the star of the show. Everyone, start laughing.
My memories are littered with these moments. Passing comments, raised eyebrows, questions from people asking about my abrupt pauses that amount to the misshapen me: a girl whose words are trapped in her head. A girl who could never say what she wants to, could never be understood for who she is. Never seen for how she sees herself. My real personality is so buried beneath the weight of those words that were never said.
Most of my time since beginning college has been spent just trying to dig her out.
College social life is defined by the parties I am too anxious to go to, or the dates I am too scared to go on for fear that people will find out I stutter and decide I’m not worth the extra time and effort it takes to talk to me. It is defined by the clubs I’m too scared to join, or the leadership roles I’m too scared to take for fear that I will be seen for who I am: a fraud. A pretender. The Harvard student who can’t talk like a Harvard student.
Harvard is filled with people who know exactly what they want to do. Future politicians, confident pre-meds, mad computer scientists, ambitious world-changers. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting somewhere, that maybe I can finally be like them, but then I’m in my bedroom pulling my hair out as I struggle to say, “Hello, I’m Dr. Gambol,” and I’m back to the beginning.
I want to go out and make those ever-important connections, but the notion of having to introduce myself and then somehow appear smooth and unflawed, makes uneasy churning scramble my stomach. If I say upfront that I stutter, though, that I’m achingly vulnerable every time I open my mouth — that’ll be it. I won’t be someone defined by my accomplishments, or my interests, or my character. I will be defined by my stutter. I will be the girl who can’t say her name. At least when I laugh it off at parties I can pass it off as having too much to drink, or the music being too loud. I can hope that they will forget, and by the time I stutter substantially around them again they will have deemed me worthy enough. They will have deemed me worth the extra time, the extra effort, the extra patience.
Each first day brings me back to those moments. Each introduction, each icebreaker, each time I have to say my concentration or where I’m from. Each time I order a coffee, or the french fries from the Adams House Grill. Each time I say my name.
How do we then recognize ourselves when our name escapes us? When the syllables refuse to roll off our tongue? When nobody will give you the time to say it?
I think back to that devastating question. “Did you forget your name?”
No. I didn’t. I didn’t forget my name.
Don’t worry, though. I’ll smile and laugh and pretend I did — for both your sake and mine.