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What It Was Like Playing Virtual 'Survivor' as Someone Who Stutters

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You might be blindsided by this news, but I’m a bit of a “Survivor” superfan. So much so, that recently I participated in an online reality game of Survivor better known as a Survivor ORG (insert your judgement here and here). These are typically played over Skype or Discord and last about six weeks. I knew these things existed, but I had zero desire to ever play in one. That changed in May when the host of this ORG, Survivor: Tierra del Fuego, recruited me via Twitter. I applied because why not?

I completely forgot about it until I received an email five days before the game started saying that I was on and asking if I still wanted to play. I told the host that I was ready to go. I had five days to figure out my strategy, but more importantly, figure out how my stutter could/would impact my game.

A bunch of questions raced through my mind during the days between accepting my spot and day one of the game. What would be the best way to disclose my stutter? Would my tribe mates care that I stutter? Would they use my stutter as a reason to vote me out early? Would they believe the false narrative that I’m stuttering because I’m lying? I also had
to get comfortable, or as comfortable as I could get, with the fact that I would be watching myself stutter a lot over the next few weeks. Knowing we would be using Skype was hardest part of the pre-game period for me. As I’ve recently mentioned, I’ve been uncomfortable watching myself stutter as a result of everything going on. When I do use video chat platforms, it’s with people that I feel comfortable with or it’s for SLP classes that I’m guest lecturing for and they don’t care about the fact I stutter. Yet, even then I’m uncomfortable with the image I’m seeing in the box that has “James” in the lower left-hand corner. Knowing I would be video chatting a lot with strangers, in a game setting, made me a bit apprehensive to say the least.

All these questions were quickly answered within minutes of day one. Once the game started, I was put in a group chat with the other nine people on my team, called tribes on “Survivor.” We started talking about what we did and where we live. Within minutes of meeting everyone, I typed in the group chat, “I just want to let everyone know that I’m a person who stutters. All I ask is that you don’t try to finish my sentences. If you have any questions, then please ask me. For more info on stuttering, click on the link below.”  Everyone on my tribe (shoutout to Hanúha) was instantly receptive to it and thanked me for sharing. With those words, they proved to me that my stutter would be a non-issue in this game (as it should be) and would not be a reason for me to be voted out early. I’m glad I disclosed when I did because shortly after meeting, we decided to do a video call to put names to faces. Since everyone knew, it was a non-issue and my tribe mates knew that I was stuttering and not having internet issues or lying. Whenever I was video chatting with my allies or at tribal council, everyone was respectful and gave me the space to stutter openly and without judgement. That was and is much appreciated. When I swapped tribes on day 10, I once again openly and quickly disclosed and once again it was a non-issue with my new tribe members. My disclosure on day one was the quickest I’ve ever disclosed to a group of strangers who weren’t SLP student. I think it has to do with the fact that the National Stuttering Association’s at Home Conference was the same day as day one and that gave me a little boost. I think a part of my quick disclosure is also due to me being more comfortable and open about this part of myself. I think my instant disclosure helped me make connections during the first couple of days in the game.

One of my biggest insecurities about stuttering, being recorded, greeted me very early in the game. Every round, we had to give at least one confessional about what was going on in the game. We had the option of writing our confessionals, but I thought it would be best to record them. I knew people were following us live and I wanted to give them a show. I also felt giving recorded confessionals would best show how I felt about the game because I could use body language and change my tone when needed. I recorded my first confessional and immediately watched it back, which is something I never do. I watched it to make sure I covered everything I wanted to cover. When I watched it, I didn’t notice my stutter that much. As the game progressed, I continued recording my confessionals. The more I watched them back, the more comfortable I got watching myself stutter. What made me uncomfortable was how cocky, confident and comfortable I came across. Those are three cardinal sins in this game and I fell into them.

In addition to recording my confessionals, our tribal councils were also recorded. That’s something I was unaware of until I went to my first tribal council. During that first tribal, I didn’t give much thought to the fact it was being recorded because I was too busy trying to not give away the blindside that was about to happen. Only after tribal did I process that it was recorded, but I didn’t care that much. I was just excited to play the game and being recorded was an afterthought. During my
subsequent visits to tribal, I kind of forgot that my biggest vulnerability was being recorded to live forever on the internet.

I ended up in 13th place out of 20 and just missed making the merge and jury. The three C cardinal sins I mentioned earlier came back to bite me and I was blindsided in a pretty epic way. As a superfan, it sucks to just miss the merge and jury part of this game. Yet, I got a lot out of this experience. I proved to myself that I can play this game and do it well. I just need to tone down the confidence and not be too comfortable the next time I play. More importantly, I became comfortable with the uncomfortable.

For years, being recorded and watching myself stutter are things that I hated doing. I would only do it when the situation required it and I would rarely watch it. The first few times I showed my TEDx talk to people I left the room because of how uncomfortable it made me. When I watched my TEDx talk for the first time, I almost turned it off after 10 seconds because I was just that uncomfortable. Recently, I’ve been using Zoom more for meetings that would’ve taken place in person. During those meetings, I was extremely uncomfortable with the image I saw in the box that had “James” in the lower left-hand corner. It made me wonder just how uncomfortable the rest of the people in the meeting were watching me stutter.

I can honestly say I’m now comfortable with the uncomfortable. This experience taught me how to become comfortable watching myself stutter and being ok with my biggest vulnerability recorded for posterity. I didn’t come close to winning, but I won in my own way. And for that I’m thankful for my pre-merge downfall.

Getty image via LightFieldStudios

Originally published: September 30, 2020
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