A blog by James Hayden

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 seven months or so.

If I’m being honest, dear reader, how I advocated is a big reason for why I took time off from writing, guest lecturing, appearing on podcasts, and participating in research projects. Over the past five years, I was: regularly guest lecturing at different universities across the states, working on various articles, 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 language pathologists. Write, present, and podcast for all the world to read and hear. Volunteer for any project that helps us better understand stuttering. I did this because I wanted the next generation to know its ok to stutter. Yet, my constantly saying “yes” came at a cost. After five 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 once loved. Writing went from something I loved to something I wanted nothing to do with. Opening A word document 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. Canceling guest lectures and speaking engagements became very tempting. Emails about research opportunities were instantly deleted. The resentment towards all the things I once loved led to guilt.

I felt guilty for not working on a new article. I felt guilty for 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 summer of 2017, where I was just James before I became James the advocate.  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. I went to networking events as me and not as someone looking for their next speaking engagement. I occasionally wrote because I wanted to and 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 on reflecting how I can continue to be an advocate without losing myself to it. My new way of being an advocate can best be summarized 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 organizations. In fact, my hiatus taught me that I actually enjoy those things; however, I didn’t enjoy how often I was doing those things. 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 stuttering related post 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. Besides that, I’m focusing more on one-on-one connections within the stuttering community. Whether that is through the support group I’m in or mentoring other PWS. Letting them know that their voice is strong, good, beautiful, and worth being heard. 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 just one big thing. 

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 each year, say “yes” to every speaking engagement, wear only stuttering related clothes, or share every stuttering related 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.  

Editor’s note: We’re very glad to have you back on our blog, James. And we look forward to publishing your articles when you decide to share them.

Posted Dec. 7, 2022