A blog by Jordan Northrup
I was a 30-year-old Marine Corps Captain sitting in a conference room on Marine Corps Base Quantico. Like with all large meetings, it was customary to go around the room and introduce yourself. The general started the meeting. “Good afternoon, I’m Brigadier General Smith. I’m the director of the Capabilities Directorate here.” One by one, Marines around the room had their turn. My heart began to race. I could feel the blood pounding in my veins. I could feel the silent blocks building up in my throat. My turn was coming soon. The guy right next to me said “Good afternoon, I’m Major Adams, I’m in the Plans Division.” My turn. My throat locked; my vision blurred. “Good after... (hard block, eyes squeezed shut) ...block released...noon...I’m Captain Jordan N-N-orth... (Hard block, 6 second pause)...ruuuuuup. It was over, a complete humiliation in front of my peers.
For those of us who stutter, this experience is all too familiar. Whether its school, the office, church, or dinner with friends, it doesn’t matter. We’ve all been there. These experiences have shaped how we think of ourselves; they’ve created a “self-talk” and a framework for who we are. And, as you might expect, it’s not always pretty. We feel the need to continually reinvent ourselves away from our stutter into something more acceptable; it’s a vicious cycle that never ends. I was desperate to be anything, anything but a stutterer. I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that I am not alone.
During my early years, I reinvented myself as an introvert, shy kid who was too afraid to speak up in class. My heart sank whenever I was called upon to read aloud to the students; the mocking whispers in the classroom or the bullying on the playground confirmed all my fears. I was damaged goods. It didn’t get any better as I grew up either. I was always on the fringe of my peer group. I wasn’t popular, even when I tried to be. I was just the kid who stutters – the only one at my school.
By the time I was 18, I was desperately looking for a way to reinvent myself out of the box in which I’d placed myself. I wanted to go where no one knew me. I wanted to start over; no one needed to know my history. I wouldn’t be able to kick the stutter, but at least I wouldn’t have all the baggage from high school following me around.
One such opportunity presented itself in college. I chose a school out of state; close enough to get home when I wanted, but far enough away where I could break free. I overcompensated for my introversion by making friends with partiers; the kids who skipped class, drank themselves silly, and took risks. My niche was buying alcohol for underage kids; it was a lousy thing to do, but it gave me an identity apart from stuttering. Students didn’t care how I spoke if I could buy them alcohol. Once I started down that road, it was only a matter of time before I came to consume more alcohol than I purchased for others.
But try as I might, I couldn’t outdrink or out party my stutter; it was always with me. As my college years came to a close, I still hadn’t found answers to meaning and identity. Who was I? I was 23 years old, abusing alcohol, with no job prospects after graduation. I was lost as could be. Then something big happened. Terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center on 9/11. While I grieved for the nation, I sensed opportunity; I decided that I would reinvent myself through the military.
I chose to join the United States Marine Corps. The Marines gave me a poise and confidence that I could never have achieved on my own. Earning the title, U.S. Marine, placed me into a brotherhood that very few Americans could claim. Of course, I continued to stutter, but with a higher confidence level, I had the tools and the fortitude to come to terms with the embarrassment caused by my speaking abilities. Despite these challenges, I thrived in my new career. I had the opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School where I was able to earn a commission as a Second Lieutenant. This new trajectory catapulted me into leadership situations that I didn’t think were possible. A mere two years earlier, I was a senior college student coming off a weekend bender, and now I was leading a 75-Marine platoon through the streets of Fallujah, Iraq. It didn’t seem real, but it was. Professionally speaking, I had been transformed into a high-caliber combat leader. If only that new identity had been enough.
My professional career took off like a shot. I was well respected by my peers and superiors. I was given assignments of increasing complexity and difficulty. I received awards and accolades. Through it all, my stutter continued to plague me. Weekly staff meetings and public speaking were very difficult for me. I knew what I wanted to say; I had the experience to contribute to the conversation, but my body just wouldn’t cooperate. It was a source of never-ending frustration for me.
Now, behind the scenes in all this, there was another identity competing for dominance, an identity of alcohol abuse that held me in a vice-like grip.
Drinking was a way for me to ignore my fears and step outside of the social box in which I’d placed myself. At the same time I thought it was helping me, I was building a prison around myself. My drinking intensity increased to the level that I had a serious alcohol problem by age 29. I knew I needed help but found myself powerless to stop. I couldn’t bring myself to put the bottle away. I wasn’t a functional drunk. I couldn’t have 2-3 drinks throughout the day to take the edge off. No, I was a binge drinker. Friday evening would find me hunkered down in my house with a refrigerator full of beer and liquor. Once I took that first drink, I went to blackout. I’d wake up at 3 AM, start in again, and go all the way to the next blackout. I’d go hard until Sunday night when I’d crash into bed for not having slept since Friday.
This trend progressed until I was 32 and found myself getting married. I have no idea how I managed a relationship through the drinking, but I did. I thought reinventing myself through marriage might do the trick. I was wrong and she left me after 15 months. My divorce, combined with failing health and years of self-loathing, were enough to cut through the fog. At long last, I was ready to get help. That story is beyond the scope of this article, but I can tell you that I tried all the self-help and 12-step programs out there. I failed at any coping mechanism I tried. I needed something that was beyond my abilities to mess up. I needed to be delivered from this addiction.
Having grown up attending church, I knew all the Bible stories and verses. I knew all the songs. I knew how to pray. But for some reason, it hadn’t felt real to me. Maybe it had all become tame to me. I put on a good show when I needed to, but that’s all it was. A show. I’d gone to Sunday school. I went to a Christian college. I gave lip service to the faith, but it was hollow. My first love wasn’t God, it was alcohol.
Now, all these years later almost by random chance, I called the counseling center at a local church I had been attending in Virginia. I was connected with a counselor named Donn because he had extensive experience with men’s substance abuse issues. My initial meeting with him blossomed into a two-year counseling relationship. He taught me that my drinking was caused by brokenness. Brokenness from my parent’s divorce. Brokenness from stuttering. Brokenness from being an outcast. Brokenness from not liking the guy I saw in the mirror. He taught me that the true means to sobriety was through placing my faith in God and relying on His strength each day. It was His grace that would sustain me and keep me from drinking. As I began to do the hard, self-reflective work, I began to reconcile some things on the inside. I had to accept the things I’d done while no longer being defined by them.
I claim April 19, 2014, as my first real day of sobriety. I woke up to that beautiful spring morning knowing that I was different; knowing that I’d reached a point in my journey where I could put the bottle away for good. I took each day at a time, but before I knew it, one week became two. Two weeks turned into a month and a month turned into a year. One became two and two turned into eight and on it goes. My sobriety continues to this day.
These days I am remarried with two beautiful children. I write books and speak about my life to anyone who will listen. I am still a Marine. I am living my best life with God being the bedrock of all I do.
So, reader, what is the answer to the question, "Who am I?" Am I Marine? Was I a drunk? Was I a failed husband? Am I a Christian? Am I a stutterer? The answer is that I am all those things and probably more that I haven’t yet discovered, but I am not bound by my attributes. Who Am I? I’m a Child of God. The rest is just stuff I’ve done.
I still stutter...and I’m ok with that.
Posted Dec. 29, 2022