Isolation and Stuttering: reflections after two months of lockdown

Written by Lynne

On 23rd March, the UK went into lockdown to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 and my life completely changed, along with the lives millions of others both within my tiny cluster of islands and beyond.

On the 8th April, I released a YouTube video on my YouTube channel StammerOn to tie into World Health Day (which is actually on the 7th April, but let’s pretend I was fashionably late and not just panicking over the final video edit). In this video, I talked about how people I know and the international stuttering community as a whole was responding to the self-isolation and lockdowns being put into place across the world. At this point, we’d been in lockdown for about 2 weeks. I thought I had a good idea of what isolation was and how it was affecting me.

I had no clue.

Lockdown begins

I thought that the hardest thing was going to be working from home, where I would have to make more phone calls and have less contact with people. To not see people every day, and therefore not get as much regular experience of speaking, meant that speaking became more of an event. And speaking events generally create more pressure.

This was a concern that I heard from many of my friends who stutter, that they were stuttering more in isolation because they were unable to practise their speech as regularly. As with any situation, the more you do something, then the more desensitised you are to any fear or nerves that that situation may cause. Whether we stutter openly or use techniques to help our speech (or a combination of the two), regular practise of speaking can help to build confidence and normalise it. Without that regular practice, old fears can return and cause us to doubt ourselves.

At work, I requested that our team calls could be done over video call, with video on, so that we could see each other. My stutter presents as silent blocks, so talking over the phone can be stressful because people can assume that there is a problem with the phone line when I block. Over video call, they would at least be able to see that I was stammering (as long as internet issues didn’t cause my video to freeze). My team agreed that we would always have our video on, and it hadn’t occurred to them until I asked that this small adjustment would help me to feel more comfortable.

I was also very happy to see video calls being organised within the stuttering community, as different organisations and groups began to host regular video calls to allow people who stutter to speak to one another and share their stories, whether of lockdown or just their general experiences of stuttering. At times like this, it’s even more important for people to feel like they’re not alone, and having the chance to connect with other people who stutter is always a great thing.

So at first it felt like I would be okay. It’s a crazy situation, but everything I needed seemed to be in place.

An unexpected challenge

The biggest (and most unexpected) effect that the lockdown has had on me is on my mental health. After a couple weeks of lockdown, my productivity and motivation seemed to vanish, and I felt like I couldn’t complete any tasks. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but my anxiety has peaked to the extent where I’ve been too busy worrying about the fact that I haven’t done something to sit down and actually do it.

Logically, I know that it’s counterproductive to beat myself up over this, but since when was emotion logical? Thus I trapped myself in the loop of not completing work – whether professionally or as part of my own projects, then panicking too much to sit down and get it done. (At the time of writing, I haven’t released another YouTube video since my video on April 8th, and it’s taken me a good few weeks to sit down and write this article even though the idea’s been in my head for a while.)

This lack of motivation has also extended into video calls. Over the last few weeks, I’ve also been less motivated to join the calls that I was championing at the start of lockdown. I still think that video calls are really valuable for allowing us to maintain contact with friends and our stuttering support groups, but I think that I pushed myself too hard at the start of lockdown to join EVERY call that I could. I’m a sociable person by nature, but even I have been hit by “Zoom fatigue” (other video calling services are available).

There have been multiple articles written on the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue”, e.g. by BBC Worklife, TED and many more. In a video call, the awareness of being on camera creates more pressure to look ‘engaged’, and greater focus is required to see visual cues from others (especially in calls with multiple people who may or may not be having connection issues). It can also be harder to fade into the background in a video call, and it’s harder to just be present and listen without feeling the pressure to join the conversation when you don’t want to. Additionally, many of us are taking multiple video calls during the workday, making us more reluctant to join them in the evenings when we’re tried and want to get away from the computer screen.

So what now?

Restrictions are being lifted in the UK now, but the need for self-isolation is far from over and will likely not be over for another few months. In regards to my mental block, I’m resolving to be fairer to myself going forward. I’ll still try to attend as many video calls as I can, but will also try not to feel so guilty if I don’t feel able to attend one. My own comfort is also important in these times. And, as for my productivity, I need to remember not to put too much pressure on myself. It’s okay if things are taking longer than usual at the moment, but as long as I’m taking small steps in the right direction then I’m still making progress. I’ve spoken to my manager at work and let her know of my concerns, and she has offered her full support and reassured me that I’m doing okay. And, hey, this article has been written, so that’s one thing I’ve managed to accomplish!

In times like these, it can be easy to punish ourselves if we feel like we’re not doing as well as we see others doing, but dealing with the current pandemic is not a competition for anyone to win. We all just need to get through in the best way we can and accept the help and support where it is offered. I’m often guilty of offering support to others while accepting none for myself, but I’d like to change that going forward.

I’m definitely not alone and I can do this.

View my original thoughts on stuttering and isolation here:

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