Stuttering My Way Through Covid


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In the middle of my journey with stuttering and COVID-19, a stuttering president was elected! It’s very exciting, but I also find it stressful to watch him; it’s like I’m afraid “they’re” going to decide a stuttering president was a mistake. I wonder how the pandemic has affected Biden’s stutter…

Rachel Plasky, News Editor

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Content Warning: This article mentions suicide

Something Mrs. Fish always drove home at meetings for The Fordian was the need to document the times. This is something I meditated on for a long time, and, by that, I mean procrastinated on until now, June 9th at 8 pm. So, here I am, about to graduate high school, with another entirely-too-personal article (and my second overall article this school year—wow!).

I can’t pretend to represent or speak (gratuitous pun: check) for other seniors, that’s one thing I’ve learned in 12 years, but, somewhere buried beneath my unique circumstances, must be relatable human emotions. Yes, that’s how I’m justifying this bloated blog post. Alright, that’s enough qualifying.

One could consider this my stuttering “coming out”…I’ve told very few people about it, usually only out of necessity. One major way to avoid disclosure is to simply not talk so as to not be disfluent: some of this is purposeful, but the rest becomes an anxious response. So, uh, let me know how well I hid it, I guess. Remember this behavior, however. It’s a surprise tool that will help us later.

Here’s some backstory because you’ve earned it for getting this far. I was born with multiple developmental delays, one of which was a speech delay (It’s almost like I took this line straight out of a college essay.). When I did finally begin to speak, I would stutter. I did the speech therapy thing and that took care of that. The end. This article was a false alarm.

. . . So my stutter came back again in fifth grade like a sequel nobody asked for, and, this time, it was angry. Long story short, I was engaging in harder, more advanced kinds of stutters. Long story shorter, it’s only gotten worse since then. I got back on the therapy-wagon (that’s a special kind of imagery.), but now I was sentient and had a generally bad attitude, so it didn’t work like before. I was asked to leave a practice because they didn’t think I was getting anything out of it.

So it’s early March 2020. I’ve got a handful of sounds I know are going to be issues, but I can make my way around in life without too much hardship. I think you know what happens next. Now, it doesn’t take a speech-language pathologist to figure out that isolation, being trapped in a small area with your parents for the foreseeable future, and a pandemic raging on can’t exactly be helpful for someone who stutters. And masks, in this specific context, are so problematic because people can’t tell you’re having a disfluent moment, and it creates further social isolation for someone who is already challenged in that way. It got debilitating quickly. I was getting stuck on sounds that were never an issue. The tension and contortions were more distorted than ever. Talking was exhausting, and I could tell that listening to me was, too.

My only outlet for social interaction for some time, outside of starting an argument with my parents, was watching this Japanese reality show. It was very cathartic, and it modeled many of the encounters I might have had in an alternate spring of 2020. I got very attached, and my parents actually got invested as well. Then one of the cast members committed suicide. That messed me up for a while. The one positive thing I had going for me began to rot as I realized how toxic the premise of the show was. So, yeah, that didn’t help.

The summer happened. My original plan was to devote this time solely to the college application process. That didn’t happen. I got through my 500-some Chrome tabs and some other media I had been putting off since the fall. Recalling my quarantine experience at an MIT interview (Yes, I had the audacity. The interviewer went to Haverford, was in all of the same clubs I was in, and loved Mrs. Fish, but, alas, her powers are only so strong.), I (accidentally?) really talked up this period, saying how I was able to dive into all of the interests I’m not fully able to invest in during the school year and how fabulous that was. Which, on some level, is true but is ignoring the whole part where my stutter got somehow even worse and more excruciating.

There were some spots of hope. At a certain point, I was able to see my friends masked and spaced out, and I usually wasn’t as bad around them. One day, I got a haircut and almost felt normal.

Senior year had a virtual start, but I don’t have to tell you that. I’m somewhat unusual as a stutterer in that I dread phone calls more than human interactions, but Zoom occupies this uncanny valley that has the advantages and disadvantages of both mediums. It’s hard interacting with the void, but it’s also just the right amount of social avoidance. It was a necessary set-up but one that set me back; I’m sure that was true for most people. Hybrid was better. . . but it also had built-in whiplash: it would feel normal for a minute, but then we’d be shut out for two days. For a certain amount of time, I was fairly fluent in school which was probably because I was so happy to be anywhere. That fateful spring, I was someone who quickly learned how much I appreciated normal school, which is the exact opposite reaction some people had, but it made these transitions this subsequent fall a bit more bearable to me.

If this sounds like it’s starting to sound positive, it is not! Before we were even fully in-person, the whimsy of school wore off, and the bad patterns I had at home started to transfer over. Then, things were “normal” again, but I was at my worst. Fear. Everything became fear. Do me a favor, yeah? Imagine not being able to say your name, “thank you,” “hi/hello,” “the,” and “I.” I just—it’s not something I would wish on anyone. Now, I know there’s no such thing as “not being able” to say something, but that’s what it is practically speaking. Literally, cart me away for my poor attitude, but the mental gymnastics necessary to deal with this is a full-time job! My heart would just about explode every time there was even a chance I had to speak. I was hiding from people I thought might approach me. I figured out how to communicate in strategic noises and nervous laughs that almost sounded real. And I use the past tense like it’s over.

But I know this all makes it worse! I know I make it so much worse! My speech therapist tells me not to blame myself for my stutter, but I certainly don’t help things. It’s the constant struggle of something being bad in some way so you avoid it, but then that makes the original thing worse than it was. It’s that way with so many things; this is just a fun variation on it. The world being what it is makes the fear greater, the avoidance easier, the chain reactions more earth-shattering. When I’ve mustered the courage to dip my toe in, I always come running back to the shore at the first sight of a wave.

It’s been a rough, what, almost year-and-a-half now? I am extremely lucky to have not lost anyone to COVID-19 or to have experienced financial hardship, but that doesn’t make what I have experienced easy (Thanks, Sherlock.). I don’t know what happens now. Things are getting normal at an unusual rate, but I don’t seem to be improving in tandem. Is this just how it’s going to be now? is something I keep stopping to think about. A very limiting perspective, I know, but it’s what this wall looks like.

I leave for a college soon in the middle of nowhere where I know no one. My grand scheme is to shock myself into having to be more fluent (What am I supposed to do? Actually carry over the strategies I’ve learned in therapy into my everyday speech? Don’t be ridiculous.). I’m not sure what the data has to say about this method, but I’m hopeful something will give. If I write “I mean, it can’t get any worse,” but then acknowledge that it definitely will after I’ve said it, will it cancel out and work?

This is the lost art of limbo, the view from the window being my own reflection, a story I’ve written so many times and just keep tacking onto. A sob story and a twisted comedy routine. What I might say if I could. I’ll deprogram my brain if you deprogram yours.

Well, don’t let me overstay my welcome. This amount of activity on a senior Google Account right now must be suspicious to the technology department. It’s past 12:30 am now, and, while I might want to say I feel better after having “vented,” I must remind myself that I don’t have to create a happy ending just to make the reader feel better. No, feel bad in fact. Feel so bad you feel good.

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