In 'It's Hard Being You,' Sharon Emery explores disability and grief
This story was updated at 9:25 a.m. on April 1, 2022
Sharon Emery is a stutterer, a fact that made her career choices, journalism and public relations, especially challenging. Communication is, after all, crucial in those fields.
How she made it work, in the same lifetime that included family tragedies, is outlined in her first book, It’s Hard Being You: A Primer On Being Happy Anyway.
The first time WKAR reporter Scott Pohl met Sharon Emery many years ago, he made the same mistake a lot of people make when talking with a stutterer. He tried to help by finishing her sentences for her. It didn’t take her long to put him in his place. What’s best is patience, not help. She thinks it’s painful for fluent speakers to listen to someone who is disfluent.
In a TEDx talk a few years ago, she turned the situation on its head, framing the audience as the ones with a disability - not being able to listen properly.
“Some of the facial expressions that my listeners exhibit, I think they would be shocked to see what they look like to me,” Emery said. “And my TEDx speech showed that. So, I think that it was a real eye-opener for the general public.”
Emery says her employers in journalism and public relations found her speech pattern to be challenging, but once she found jobs where she was given a chance, she gave it everything she could. She found ways to prove herself.
There were challenges at home, too. Emery’s daughter Jessica had epilepsy and intellectual disabilities. Emery says she learned a lot about how to relate to people with disabilities by being one, and raising one.
At age 25, Jessica drowned after having a seizure in the water. Only six months earlier, Emery’s sister Jan had taken her own life. Emery calls those two tragedies the starting point for her book.
“What I came to realize is that grief needs to be stated,” she said. “It needs to be screamed, in fact, and then you need to do something with it. You need to find a place for it.”
Over time, Emery has discovered that her grief is always there, if not always front and center. It shows up unexpectedly. Finding a place for that grief, she says, is the way she survived.
Emery says the book’s title, It’s Hard Being You, grew out of a process she used for protecting her children from being hurt by bullies. A kid whose mom stutters and whose sister has intellectual challenges can be targeted that way. Emery says on those days, she would listen, and she’d agree that their problems were real.
“If you as a parent keep listening and keep responding with that affirmation, 'it is hard being you,' " she said. "Even a kid gets it, that the next question is 'now what?' ”
You might think Sharon Emery considers herself to be somehow heroic. Being an inspirational figure, though, is not her objective with It’s Hard Being You.
“My message, is that we are all fellow strugglers in this life, and it seems to me our overriding purpose is to make life easier for one another,” Emery concluded.
There’s a book launch event for Sharon Emery’s It’s Hard Being You Sunday, April 3, at 1 p.m. at the MSU Community Music School on Hagadorn Road in East Lansing.