Call me Dave Cal. Christened David and addressed so by parents and a few others, but Dave or Dave Cal will do just fine. Anyway, I’ve perpetuated this little naming anomaly myself. The dee sound is one of those ones that doesn’t always escape my lips with the greatest of ease. One of my earliest memories is of trying to pronounce the Irish word ‘d’fhag’ in primary school. Now that I think of it, it must have been second class, but it hardly matters. I read my piece out in front of the class, competently pronouncing those oddly formed words the Irish language is so fond of, but I came undone on a sentence near the end of the performance. Silence. A total block in which nothing resembling a meaningful sound – in fact, no sound at all – came from my vocal chords. Tongue squirms around in the roof of your mouth and attempts to conjure up something, but some invisible force prevents it from doing so. Shift uneasily in your chair. Some comforting movements of the arm; a scurried glance in the direction of the window; chin hits the chest.
‘I can’t say that word, Miss,’ I somehow manage to mumble out after a time.
‘Which word?’ came her well-intentioned but ironically misguided question. No reply did I make, but much fidgeting and glancing communicated enough.
‘The first one there, is it?’ she asked, recognising the flaw in her previous enquiry.
‘But you know that word. It’s “d’fhag,”’ she said gently and with loving patience, pronouncing it in a laborious and clear fashion. ‘You already know that one, so try it again, if you can.’
No sound came forth. An uncomfortable silence settles over the classroom and a few of my peers begin to look at me. It wasn’t the anticipation or demand of expectation so much as a raw curiosity, their overarching inquisitive bearing towards me. But David is really good at things like that, thinks one, I wonder why he won’t read it now, but it’s lunchtime soon, yay. I hope I don’t have to read next, thinks another. I don’t want to do stupid Irish, ponders yet another.
‘Try it without the ‘dee’ sound,’ said our instructor encouragingly, a very wise woman indeed, somehow sensing my difficulty to be rooted in the offending consonant.
And I did. I read the rest of it perfectly well, dropping the dreaded ‘dee’ from it’s rightful place and simply carrying on as though it didn’t exist.
It became a bogey word, however, and d’fhag would follow me around for the rest of my Irish-speaking days. Her advice stayed with me, but there was always an element of perfectionism in my efforts to do what was required of me by the education system, and so I would continue to demand of myself to pronounce the word the way it ‘should’ be.
Should should should. A dangerous word that brings with it connotations of demand and necessity and requirement, and leads many’s the person into falsely thinking they ought to be doing something else, saying otherwise, and thinking differently to what they already are. There is no requirement to do anything a certain way. Do as you do, in whatever way you do it, and once your intentions are good, what you do will be more than sufficient; nay, it’ll be near-perfect.
But we have an in-built hypercritical voice, an internal quality control expert, an entity not easily satiated, no matter what one does. More is always asked of us, by us. And there is no end in sight.
So I set high standards for myself. Or did I? Perhaps I falsely believed there was a certain standard I felt I had to meet, one that society set for me, one that I believed I had to meet in order to be approved of by the people around me. And if I didn’t meet it? Shame at not doing so. Shame is hard to recognise in oneself, though, and even harder to admit to.
Years later, I began seeing a therapist, and four years into it I finally admitted to experiencing shame, something she’d been hinting at heavily for the better part of those four years. There is almost a shame at feeling shame. The fuel and the smoke become one and the shame.
But shame is not something I knew an awful lot about when I was trying to pronounce ‘d’fhag’ in 1991 at the tender age of nine or thereabouts. All I knew was that I didn’t like reading in class and that, if I got unlucky, I’d be stuck with my bogey word, which seemed to come up more than I felt was proportional. But then one anxiety-provoking event is always going to be more prominent than the hundred or more non-anxiety-provoking, ordinary tasks we engage in on a daily basis. Gavin Rossdale put it best when he said “ever know that what you fear is what you find.”
So, armed with my partly imagined and intermittent impediment, I ploughed on. Things escalated, however, and I somehow extracted a more general problem from a very specific one. Matters quickly transcended language, and it made little difference which tongue I spoke in after a while. The ‘dee’ letter/syllable – I suppose it’s both – seemed to be where the problem wanted to channel its energies into, and so I found myself in the unfortunate position of sometimes being unable to utter said syllable, and this further proliferated to the point where any syllable beginning with a dee-based sound also became a problem. And therein lay my biggest problem for many, many years – somewhere between fifteen and twenty – that dreaded name of mine happening to begin with that very sound.
You get away with it in primary school, especially in a small one where everybody knows everybody and you’ll probably only have to introduce yourself once, that very first day when you’re four or five years old and left to your own devices in the regulated jungle early school days can be. Still, it follows you everywhere, and reading becomes a constant worry. Fortunately, I was reading the stories and other material at home and it was never much of a bother to me to catch up and know what is was we were studying at any given time. I’m lucky that learning came easy to me during those early days of primary school. If it didn’t, I would have been at a major disadvantage.
Secondary school brought it all, pushing me to the very limits of my social functioning. I was hardly alone, might I add, as it’s a daunting challenge for all who face it, but it felt like I was alone. Egocentricity is something I still struggle with now, frequently choosing to be believe it’s just me and that I’m definitely experiencing more difficulties than everyone else out there. But I’m not, and I do know that deep down, but there’s a selfishness that creeps in. Is it wrong to be selfish? Entirely necessary, some would say. And I agree with them. Others argue that it’s only socially that we truly exist and that to live it all alone is a waste and a futile exercise. And I agree with them, too. Like all things, balance is required, but we must be selfish sometimes. Only you can walk your path, and only you know how to walk it.
Avoidance became second nature with me and I soon learned to dodge as many reading opportunities as possible. But that only took me so far, and my general verbal communication outside of reading was soon affected too. I don’t believe very many people were even aware of it when I was younger. I was just thought to be quiet or shy or slightly socially afflicted. And maybe I am some of those things too – I definitely am some of those things – but the single biggest thing that held me back from being more involved and talkative was the fact that I simply couldn’t get the words out. Plenty to say. Nearly always had an opinion on whatever was being discussed. But I just said nothing. I wouldn’t stutter; I never attempted to get that far; I simply said nothing. That I said nothing wasn’t an issue. He’s just someone who says little, and that’s that.
I wasn’t, of course, mute, and I would find myself involved in many conversations. That’s containable, general verbal interaction, as you can avoid all the words you don’t want to say. If it’s not written on the page in front of you, no problemo. Change a word. Avoid a word. Substitute a word. Rely on crutches like ‘um’ and ‘ah’ etc, and generally work around the problem. But then the real problem presents itself in the form of those capitalised demons better known as proper nouns. Can’t avoid them. Place names. People’s names. Your own name.
And still I had this drive for perfection compelling me to say things as they should be. That type of thing has been pathologised now, the necessity to do something in a certain way, and while I’m not sure where I stand on that particular pathologisation, I can vouch for the fact that it – such difficulties with speaking – causes a great many people a great deal of distress. If I don’t say something as it’s meant to be, then that, I have long believed, constitutes failure. This is a very unhealthy attitude, and one that has caused me untold damage.
It’s followed me around like a puppy, accompanying me into every single social setting I’ve ever encountered. Saying my name holds a lot of fear for me. The intense pressure to say it as it’s meant to be said drove me to the very edge of my sanity. Every person I met, every interaction I faced into, every phonecall enquiry…they’ve all required it to be said, and that has, if not created, then at least exacerbated my social phobia.
Like any problem left untreated, it multiplied prodigiously. Working in overdrive, the malevolent forces at work deep inside my fragile mind decide for me which words are going to be difficult to say. The aforementioned proper nouns go without saying – pun not intended but more than welcome all the same – but then the rest of my vocabulary slowly became infected with the impediment. Words crop up here and there, and unconscious forces designate them as bogey words. ‘Remember’ is one that gives me great trouble, and so I end up saying ‘recall’ most of the time, even when it seems a little inappropriate. ‘Familiar’ is another, and that’s not so easily substituted. At the present time, vowels give me great trouble, and when proper nouns that begin with a vowel crop up, I’m royally snookered.
The impediment generally takes the form of a mini block, and I usually get the word out eventually, so you might wonder where the problem lies at all. What’s wrong with him? Some people, you might say, have real problems, real things that hold them back from leading fulfilled and rewarding lives. Just another example of a trivial first-world problem? Yup – absolutely. So, we’ll all just drop our petty complaints and be thankful we live in a society that surely represents the epitome of decadence. We really should, you know, but things are rarely as simple as that.
This is my problem. My Achilles heel, and I understand it in only the way that I can. It’s the ever-present problem I return to when I solve the other crises life throws at me. Get past the temporary obstacle, but your old adversary always lies in wait.
And so, for some reason, ‘Dave’ is easier to say than ‘David’. And that reason is because it’s not my actual name, and that saying ‘Dave’ is, to me, a mispronunciation of my real name, and thus one of the avoidance behaviours discussed above. A verbal crutch, if you will. And so that’s why you can call me Dave.
And yes, it’s likely entirely psychological, and perhaps not an impediment at all, but try telling that to someone who’s been keeping quiet for twenty years because they feel they can’t get the words out.