What Taking a Hiatus Taught Me About Advocacy
20th January 2023
You may have noticed our regular contributor from the US, James Hayden, has been quiet lately. Here he explains why, and highlights the importance of not putting too much pressure on yourself.
What does being an advocate mean to you? According to the Merrian-Webster Dictionary, an advocate is 'a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy'. While I believe that to be true the way I live that definition has changed over the past nine months or so.
If I'm being honest, dear reader, how I advocated for stuttering is a big reason why I took time off. Over the past five years, I was regularly guest lecturing at different universities across the United States, as well as working on writing various articles for STAMMA and other organisations, speaking to local networking groups, presenting at national and international conferences, appearing on any podcast that would have me on, and saying yes to every research project opportunity. I said yes because I believed the best way to advocate was to do the big things: guest lecture to the next generation of speech and language pathologists; write, present, and podcast for all the world to read and hear; and volunteer for any project that helps us better understand stuttering. I did this because I wanted the next generation to know it's OK to stutter.
Yet, my constant yes came at a cost. After 5 years, I hit burnout and it impacted my mental health. Not the burnout that's featured on Instagram. I'm talking about the burnout that makes you hate and resent the things you were once passionate about. Writing went from something I loved to something I wanted nothing to do with. Open Word documents on my laptop gave me even more anxiety than I typically have because I felt the (self-imposed) pressure to create content. I dreaded leading support group meetings. Cancelling guest lectures and speaking engagements became very tempting. Emails about research opportunities were instantly deleted.
Through it all I felt like James the person was being lost to James the advocate. I wanted to go back to the summer of 2017 when I was just James.
The resentment towards all the things I once loved led to guilt. I felt guilty for not working on a new article or not participating in a research project. Instead of looking forward to speaking engagements, I was looking forward to their ending. Between the constant guilt, heightened anxiety and burnout, I started to wonder if this was all worth it. And honestly, I was tired of wearing the mask of being a public figure. Ironic huh? For so long I had worn a mask of being OK with the fact that I stutter. And now I was wearing a mask of being OK with talking about my stutter. Through it all I felt like James the person was being lost to James the advocate. I wanted to go back to the summer of 2017 when I was just James.
As a result of all this, I decided losing myself to advocacy wasn't worth it and I was going to take an indefinite hiatus. I had no timeline on if or when I would get back into public advocacy. And if I'm being honest, I was OK with never getting back into it.
During my hiatus, I spent time on myself. I got back into my first hobby, reading, and rediscovered my joy for it. I somewhat lived out a dream and played in a fan-made Survivor game (my favourite show). I went to networking events as me and not as someone looking for their next speaking engagement. I occasionally wrote because I wanted to, not because I felt that I had to. I learned to say no to speaking engagements. I worked on my mental health. I focused on setting boundaries for myself. Through it all, I spent time reflecting on how I can continue to be an advocate without losing myself to it.
My new approach to it can best be summarised by the Mother Theresa quote, "Do small things with great love". Allow me to explain. I'm still open to writing, podcasting and speaking to different universities and organisations. In fact, my hiatus taught me that I actually enjoy those things; however, I didn't enjoy how often I was doing them. Now, I'm focusing on being an advocate in small ways. This can be something as simple as wearing a stuttering-related t-shirt out in public. Or sharing a post about stuttering on social media. I've done these things for years, but always saw them as being an addition to the big stuff instead of being enough.
I think sometimes doing many little things well is better than doing one big thing well.
Besides that, I'm focusing more on one-to-one connections within the stuttering community. Whether that is through my support group or mentoring others who stutter. Letting them know that their voice is strong, good, beautiful, and worth hearing. Validating them and being a listening ear for them on their rough days. Or just being someone they can talk to about whatever. I think sometimes doing many little things well is better than doing one big thing well.
Ultimately, my hiatus taught me that living my life to the fullest is the best way to be an advocate. I don't need to write so many articles a year, say yes to every speaking engagement, wear only stuttering-related clothes, or share every stuttering post on social media. Those are great, but I can still be an advocate without doing any of that.
A friend put it best when she said, "Advocacy is not another check on your to do list, you LIVE it". So that's what I'm going to do: live a life that shows it's OK to stutter. A life where stuttering is just one small part of my story and not my entire story. A life that is good, beautiful, and enough.
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