Blog by James Hayden
July 8, 2020

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 both my routine and sense of stability. In addition to wrecking my lifestyle, COVID-19 has done a number on my speech. The precautions and a new way of living we have adopted to stop the virus spread 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. In times where I typically have several stuttering moments, like during a quick conversation, I’m now having what seems like millions. I’m also blocking a lot more than I typically do. This was evident when I was talking to my friend the other day via Discord. It felt like I was blocking at least once every other sentence. We had a four plus hour conversation, so there were many blocking and stuttering moments - even more than there are episodes of Survivor.

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 loved 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 I can wash my hands. Because of this, I’m unable to fully enjoy what I’m doing, but more importantly, feeling more undo stress. Realizing that pre-COVID-19 life is not returning anytime soon is providing more stress and anxiety, resulting in more stuttering.

The side effects of the world closing impact my mental health when I’m meeting virtually with others, ordering food and wearing a mask.

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. I’ve used Zoom a couple of times before this and have recorded myself previously, so I’m used to seeing myself stutter. Yet, it’s a sight I’m still not comfortable seeing. Hearing my vulnerability is one thing, but seeing it in action, and more pronounced than usual, is a whole different level of vulnerable.  And if I’m being honest, at times I’m uncomfortable with the image that 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 challenged 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 the ten 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. However, 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 must 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 to 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 is 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. I also can’t see my audience’s reaction, nor can they see mine. My non-verbal cues to let them know that my stutter ok and nothing is wrong with me are severely limited because of my mask.

To be honest, all of this has 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 that I would take a magic pill to get rid of my stutter. Rather, I’m having difficulty finding the good in my stutter. More times than not I’m not making the daily choice to embrace it, even if I have great difficulty embracing this vulnerability of mine. And that’s ok. That’s all part of this crazy rollercoaster ride that is my journey with stuttering.