I am writing this because I have just read Katherine’s book and although what I am about to describe is not to do with my speech, it is still to do with communication and the massive disability that it can cause in one’s life…in this case, mine.
In 1998 I noticed for the first time in my life (I was 19) that I was beginning to struggle with eye contact. Actually it was more like one minute I was fine, then the next minute it had become a problem for me. As I look back at this time I can see the possible driver for it. I was just starting the second year of university in North Wales and my friend, who was supposed to be living in the room next to me, dropped out of uni without any warning. I thus found myself living on a corridor full of rugby/football playing lads all doing a teaching degree, all mates…and there was me, apparently friend-less, doing a completely different degree and struggling to fit in. I know now that I felt incredibly lonely and just the perception that I had ‘no friends’ was incredibly painful.
Eye contact is an incredibly intimate thing, or at least it is when you become conscious of it. That’s what happened to me. I became incredibly conscious and self-conscious. I wasn’t really aware of what was happening and fought against it and did everything I could to hide it. It’s not that I couldn’t meet peoples’ eyes, but it was painful for me to do so. I would force myself to do it, but I could see the confusion or perplexity in their reaction as they unconsciously knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was definitely fear in my eyes.
One of the most painful things of all was that at school, I remember eye contact being one of my strongest attributes. I was a fairly quiet lad, but I was popular and was confident about my identity. This all changed come 1998.
Bringing it up to the present day (the bit in between is a book in itself!) I am now a self-employed Personal Counsellor, working one-to-one with people and their emotional difficulties. I have been on a very long journey with myself to get here and you may suppose that my eye contact problems are now over. How else could I work face-to-face, one-to-one, in the very intimate setting of a counselling relationship? The reality is that I face it every day, sometimes fight with it, regularly grapple with it, but each day and each person I speak with, the fear of eye contact looms large for me.
I continue to work hard at dealing with it and working with it, but overall I am a lot wiser and stronger for it. Yes, it still has the power to knock me to the floor on occasions, but now I am not so hard on myself. I figured that in order to get ‘better’ I had to become my own best friend, in a way. No one else could give me as much support as I needed whenever I needed it, so I learnt to be there for myself. This is opposed to more distant days when I would drown my sorrows by eating too much cake or biscuits (my alcohol at the time) and then feeling physically crap afterwards to boot.
Like many people who stutter, the road to recovery can be long, arduous and down right unfair (or so it feels). But, the journey itself is rich with self-knowledge and self-understanding, the likes of which I would have never discovered if my eye contact had been ‘perfect’. It is great to know that I can turn to myself and be there for myself. Hopefully one day I can do for eye contact sufferers what Katherine has done for people with speech disfluency. Thanks for reading.