How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Affecting My Stuttering

James Hayden
Man talking to friends or coworkers on Zoom.
Man talking to friends or coworkers on Zoom.

I’m a creature of habit.  I enjoy my routine and the sense of stability it provides me. Needless to say, good ole’ COVID-19 has destroyed my routine and sense of stability. In addition to wrecking my routine, COVID-19 has done a number on my speech. The precautions and a new way of living, caused by COIVD-19, have served as accessories to this wreckage.

My stutter is clinically classified as mild to moderate or, as I like to say, consistently inconsistent. Yet, the events of the past few months, in my unprofessional opinion, have made it more moderate to severe. I’ve noticed that I’m stuttering a lot more than I typically do.  In situations where I would have only a few stuttering moments, I’m having several stuttering moments.  In situations where I typically have several stuttering moments, I’m having what seems like a million stuttering moments during a two-minute conversation.

I’m also blocking a lot more than I typically do. This was evident when I was talking to my friend, Brad, the other day via Discord. It seemed as if I was blocking at least once during every other sentence. We had a four-plus hour conversation, so needless to say there was more blocking and stuttering moments than there are episodes of “Survivor.”

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I think the excessive blocking and stuttering moments are due to my lack of a regular routine, the staples of my life being on hold, the stress caused by the uncertainty about everything associated with COVID-19, and spending too much time worrying about how bad the second wave will be if/when it occurs. Since the end of March, my work schedule has changed many times. As someone who had the same schedule for two years and liked it, that adjustment took getting used to.

I’ve played the “what if myself or someone I love gets COVID-19” game so many times I’m now an expert at it. For the past three months, I’ve been super cautious about who I’m seeing, where I’m going, what I’m touching, and how quickly can I will be able to wash my hands that I’m not able to fully enjoy what I’m doing, but more importantly it’s causing me more undo stress. I’m also spending too much time longing for a return to some sense of normalcy.  Realizing that pre-COVID-19 life is not returning anytime in the near future is causing me more undo stress and anxiety, resulting in more stuttering.

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The side effects of the world closing manifest themselves mostly when I’m meeting virtually with others, ordering food, wearing a mask all the time, and in my mental health.

Like the rest of the world, Zoom has become a staple of my life. Instead of being able to guest lecture in person, I now guest lecture via Zoom.  Instead of having National Stuttering Association (NSA) meetings in person, they’re now held via Zoom.  Although Zooming has its perks, I’m not a fan.  I miss the intimacy and connection that comes with in-person meetings.

My biggest issue with Zoom is that it requires me to look at myself while I stutter.  Yes, I know I can turn my camera off, but that doesn’t feel right to me and I keep my camera on as a result. I’ve used Zoom a couple of times before this and I’ve recorded myself before, so I’m used to seeing myself stutter.  Yet, it’s a sight I’m still not comfortable with seeing. Hearing my vulnerability is one thing, but seeing it in action, and more pronounced than usual, is a whole different level of vulnerability.

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And if I’m being honest, at times I’m uncomfortable with the image I’m seeing in the box that has “James” in the bottom left-hand corner. I wonder, “If I’m uncomfortable with this, then how uncomfortable is my audience?”  When I think this, I once again remind myself that my audience cares more about the content of my message and not so much the delivery of it.

Back in speech therapy, ordering through a drive-thru was always on my goal list. In the four semesters I was in speech therapy, I never scratched that one off the list.  When I first got involved in NSA, I’d always bring up my aversion to drive-thrus. I used one for the first time in almost two years late last year after a member of my chapter challenges me to use one.

Since the world closed, I’ve ordered via a drive-thru more in the past three months than I have in my 10 years of having a driver’s license. Overall, it’s been a mixed bag of experiences. Sometimes I’m fluent and the person on the other end doesn’t know I stutter. Other times, I stutter on most of my order and it’s a non-issue, as it should be. My order is correct and I go on with my life.

There have been a couple of times where my stutter has gotten in the way of my exact order. They were minor moments in the grand scheme of life, but in that moment they were major. They were major because I allowed my stutter to win. My stutter won because in those moments I didn’t feel like dealing with stutter by asking for an unsweet tea instead of a sweet tea.  In those moments I have to remind myself that “it’s OK,” and to forgive my hard days.

As we all should be doing, I’m constantly wearing a mask out in public and at work.  I understand and appreciate the reasoning, but it sucks. When I’m out in public it’s not that big of a deal because I don’t really talk to people. I get what I need at the store and leave.  I may make small talk with the cashier, but that’s about it.

Work is a whole other story. I find that my voice is muffled, which causes me to speak louder or repeat myself a few times before my coworkers hear me.  Whenever I have to speak louder, I tend to stutter more. Whenever I have to repeat myself, I’m inevitably fluent the first time, but stutter a lot when I repeat what I said.  Another reason I hate wearing masks is that I can’t see my audience’s reaction nor can they see mine. My non-verbal cues to let them know that my stutter is OK and nothing is wrong with me are severely limited because of my mask.

All of this is doing a number on my mental health. I’m having more bad days than I’m having good days with my stutter. Over the past few months, it’s been hard to embrace this vulnerability of mine.  I’m hyper-aware of how much I’ve been stuttering recently. This isn’t to say I would take a magic pill to get rid of my stutter, because I’m not there. Rather, I’m having difficulty finding the good in my stutter. I’m not making the daily choice to embrace my stutter. I’m having great difficulty embracing this vulnerability of mine. And that’s OK. That’s all part of the rollercoaster ride that is my journey with stuttering.

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