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‘Covid-19 forced me to face my stutter’

Updated: Nov 26, 2022

Cartoon and writing by Willemijn

March 11th was the last day I went to school and the last day I saw my friends in real life. That week, the measurements to limit Covid-19 from spreading were set in place in the Netherlands, where I live. I knew I was going to stay at home for a long time. I didn’t encounter any speaking situations for the first two weeks of lockdown, because my school had some stuff to figure out first. I enjoyed not having to talk to anyone and staying in my room. I knew this wasn’t good for practicing speaking and battling my fear of speaking, but I was also lazy and glad I had an excuse not to do the exposure exercises. By the time my school had adapted to the situation and continued its lessons, my stutter had gotten significantly worse. There was a lot of tension in my body and it was like I had forgotten how to speak. When I had my first lesson over video call, my body was so tense that I physically could not get the words out. I left my camera and microphone off and forced my teachers to communicate with me through the chat box. Most of the times they did; other times they forgot about me. In lessons that followed, I did speak a couple of times, but my stutter made it really difficult. Video calls were not the only time where my body froze because of sudden tension. On one occasion, I wanted to congratulate someone because of their anniversary. In the Netherlands we would normally do that with a handshake and three kisses. But because of the social distancing rules, we had to stay distant and avoid touching. My body was so confused by all these unnatural behaviors that it froze again and couldn’t get out the word ‘congratulations’ in Dutch. It was pretty awkward. It happened again when I had to wear a mask on public transport. I had thought about how wearing a mask would influence my stutter before that. It freaked me out a little bit to know that people couldn’t see when I was trying to speak, and I expected to stutter more because of it. When I finally had to wear a mask I realised there was more to it. I often use non verbal communication such as facial expressions to compensate for any communication issues because of my stutter. With a mask covering my mouth, a big part of these facial expressions were lost. My speech was the only thing left to communicate with, and with that my stutter was exposed. I felt I was super out of control over what I was trying to communicate. I had less control over how people would perceive me. That created more tension and made me stutter more. Writing about this, I now see that losing control over how I communicate is what connects all those sitatuons where I would freeze up. During video calls, there is so much non verbal communication that is lost. Little sounds to let people know I want to say something, the timing of reacting to people, and spontaneity. There was nothing left I could do to compensate for my stutter. I felt like I was reduced to a face and a stutter on a screen. With not being allowed to touch people, almost everything I could do to distract myself and others from my stutter was lost. Normally I could shake their hand and kiss them to congratulate them, and now there was only the words left. This put so much pressure on the words that they got stuck. This lockdown and all the measurements that were taken took everything I unconsciously used to compensate for my stutter away from me. There is no way around it anymore. I have to face my stutter every time I communicate. But I’m glad. Although it sucks right now, I know this experience will be very good for me in the long term. Everytime I have to speak is an exposure exercise now. I enjoyed those two weeks of not talking at the beginning of lockdown, but it’s definitely not gonna happen again!

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