Khinali Bagwandeen watched the world watch her father stumble over his words, and it spoke volumes but not about her father. (Lucy Pemoni, Reuters)

Stuttering blues: The cadence of social anxiety and identity

Khinali Bagwandeen
He is a father, husband and businessman but the one thing that defined his social existence also taught his daughter an important lesson.

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He played the Rolling Stones and cradled me to sleep at night. He worked. Blood, sweat and tears, he worked — 12 hours a day, to be precise.

He’d make guest appearances from his workshop with worn-out hands, grease-stained cheeks and a smile on his face. He joked, but not those jokes that leave you gasping for air and in stitches, those “roll your eyes” and giggle jokes, just to give you a boost. He never answers the phone unless you call twice and he will never place his own order at a restaurant.

“Fuck … ” he says. “Fuck,” he says again.

You wouldn’t be able to tell. Behind the man of culture and his light-hearted humour, there’s an impediment. It defines him — it has orchestrated his social existence: my dear father, and his shame of having a stutter.

Some people stop listening to him after he stammers out the first four “I’s”. They don’t have the patience for it. Their eyes gaze over him, urging him to “spit it out already” so that they can move on.

His eyes plead with you to stay.

The world moves at a fast pace around him and so do the people. Nobody has the time to listen; nobody wants to hear the same syllables being (repeatedly) stressed out of the mouth of a man begging you to hear him out. He’s wasting their time.

Most people we meet think that my father is a quiet and timid man, but he isn’t. He reminds me of Charlie Chaplin — to the world he seems black and white, but there’s much more to him than being “the funny guy” who speaks when necessary.

It doesn’t mean that he has nothing to say. It means that he is afraid of your laughter because it is all that he has known.

He is a grown man with three daughters, a grown man who is literally light-hearted from having his chest cut open, a grown man who architected a successful life for himself with nothing more than a grade eight education and the undying will to provide for his family.

You would think this would make this grown man proud, invincible almost. But no, he has one obstacle that he will never overcome, and that is you. You, and how easily your laughter silences his voice, how swiftly you take it away and how ready you are to do it. Unashamedly so.

I suppose that all it would take is a plea to his audience to just give him a little time to get out his words, but even doing this might take him ages.

Instead, he has spent the past 50 years of his life searching for a cure that wasn’t really there.

He has sat in psychologists’ rooms, he has been hypnotised, he has meditated. He cannot change who he is, he shouldn’t have to, but he has been apologetic for it ever since he was a little boy.

Upon first meeting you, he observes your body language, your mannerisms and responses. This determines his relationship with you.

He will swear. A lot.

In the first five minutes, you will probably hear the word “fuck” at least twice with the most innocent grin dressing his face.

This is his coping mechanism — a vice, if you will. It comforts him and his verbal insecurity.

“Thank fucking God for profanity,” he says.

He says that when he speaks it feels like he is marching up a very steep hill. As he utters a word, the hill gets steeper and his ankles are being weighed down by an imaginary force. He is weakened before he gets to the last letter.

Imagine being a businessman who is afraid to speak. Or a father who has to meet friends and teachers, but just sits there anxiously avoiding conversation, yet having so much to say All of this sounds like a bad dream.

Growing up I watched my father, my personal Jesus, lower his head and walk with the fear of being ridiculed. I’ve seen his stutter turn him into an insecure little mess before my eyes. But you know what? I’ve seen his strength in it too.

This devious stutter has made my father the most honest and sincere man I have ever met, a man with humility. It has taught him how to be kind, not to just listen but to hear people and to be tolerant.

And in turn, it has taught me patience.

Khinali Bagwandeen is a journalism student at Rhodes University. You can follow her on Twitter @KhinaliB

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