She said, “save yourself.”

“Save Yourself.”

With those two little words, my wise, straight-dealing grandmother was telling me that pretending to have no needs, no hurts, and no complaints, wasn’t worth the trouble.

I’m not used to that idea, especially when it comes to me.

What I AM used to is appearing under control at all times. Partly a product of my introverted personality and overly analytical brain, I choose to try to understand a situation before I allow it to engage my emotions.

But truth be told, I have often skipped emotions altogether. More than the result of a deeply analytical personality, it is mainly a maladaptive coping mechanism. It’s something I do to avoid the emotional intensity that often comes with conflict. I had let my emotions take the lead before and the momentary loss of control scared me.

A simple school yard fight, that wasn’t really a fight, is what started it. It was just a little pushing and tussling before it was broken up. Though hot and intense in the moment, when the rage I felt had faded, all I was left with was embarrassment. I had completely lost it and in front of everyone.

I’ve heard it said that depression is rage turned inward and I believe it’s true. Because after that singular experience, I decided that I wasn’t going to let anything or anyone take me there again. I was going to always keep myself completely under control. And because of that decision, my anger, no matter who or what caused it, had nowhere else to go, but back in my direction.

Fast forward to adulthood and the world of work. At work, my need to not lose my cool in difficult situations turned into a warped display of strength. Somehow, not letting other people get under my skin, or even think that they had, became a victory for me. It became a twisted (and prideful) signal of professionalism and “being the bigger person.”

As I found myself increasingly in mostly white spaces, I felt my coolness during conflict stand out in sharp contrast to what I could see was expected…the angry Black woman. I saw the widened eyes and bated breath as people waited for the fireworks to start, complete with snappy insults and the obligatory neck roll.

Well, I wasn’t going to be anyone’s stereotype. I would skip over all the emotion and get to the heart of the matter or ignore it altogether. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was rapidly developing another maladaptive coping mechanism… unamused silence in the face of conflict.

It’s the approach I have taken when faced with micro-aggressions and even blatant racist hatred and sabotage in the workplace.

It’s something that I am realizing that people often mistake for weakness.

In saying “save yourself,” Ma was saying, “to hell with that.”  And could I blame her? Nope. But I can’t shake that this somehow feels incomplete to me. Even if I got it all out, what about the hurt part of me? How does that get healed? It’s a question I ask wondering if my grandmother would have an answer.

In her book, In My Grandmother’s House, Yolanda Pierce remembers crying in the safety of her office after one too many microaggressions. She wondered why, with all that her grandmother and church mothers had taught her, hadn’t she been taught how to care for herself in these painful moments.

She would eventually learn that she needed to offer herself compassion and kindness, not just a steely resolve to push through. She would realize that it was okay to need, pursue, and receive that loving attention. But what she would also realize was that those skills could not come through her grandmother and co., because they hadn’t known how to give it to themselves. It hadn’t even been an option for them, and you can’t teach what you haven’t been taught. My guess is that it was probably true for my grandmother too.

For the me that I am now, I’m seeing that saving myself must include authentically reacting to what is happening around and to me, without the hang-ups about how others will perceive my words or actions. I must give that freedom back to myself. But I also owe myself another important and related freedom… love.

©2022 Creatorskind

Words of wisdom

“Don’t let someone piss on your head and call it rain!”  These were the words that rose to the surface of my mind during an EMDR therapy exercise. I immediately erupted in laughter.

Though not in her voice, I instantly recognized the personality behind the words. Memories of my grandmother’s sharp wit and no-nonsense attitude streamed through my mind as I considered whether she would say these words to me in real life, and not just in a dream. Another laugh straight from the gut is my answer. Yes, she would… emphatically yes.

This is how she would react to my stunned silence at my supervisor’s behavior. She would want me to call him out on his garbage and get it all off my chest, professionalism and consequences be damned. She would want me to fiercely fight back in any instance where I have been mistreated. So strongly would she have felt this, that I am certain that if she were alive, she’d offer to tell him off herself.

Ma was a smart, funny, kind, and mannerly woman. Through her influence, her children (grandchildren and foster children too) were renowned for our exceptionally polite and respectful ways when in the company of adults. Visitors would say, often in genuine astonishment, that we were “so well-behaved”. When we were guests of someone else, an invitation to return “anytime” was the norm. She expected her family to be respectful and respectable. But she was also a street-smart fighter.

She didn’t take crap from anyone and never hesitated to put someone in check, if need be. For her, it was always better to nip it in the bud. And she didn’t mince words. Ever. Her epic no-nonsense and no B.S. attitude is one of our favorite topics of conversation in my family. And regardless of what the actual scenario is, it’s often hilarious, simply because it’s true. So, those initial words were no surprise to me. But as we resumed the exercise, the next ones were.

“Save yourself.” 

Now THAT gave me pause. We were using EMDR to try to break down some of the stress I’ve been having about the situation at my job, along with some particularly difficult past trauma around race and work that continues to come up.

Because I’ve been so concerned about what my grandmother would think of me and how I’ve handled these experiences in my life, my therapist thought it would be a good idea to envision a conversation with her about it. Like the one in my dream, I would meet with her and see what comes of it. I don’t know what I expected, but whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t that. But in an instant, I knew what those words meant.

“Save yourself” was a call to arms. It was a call to come out from under the strong Black woman stereotype, even if I didn’t know that I was hiding within it. It was a call to let go.

The strong Black woman is resilient by reason of necessity. She is familiar with hardship. But is expected to be hardened to all of it, racism included. Stoic. She is expected to stretch herself to superhuman proportions, unemotional about the dizzying shapes in which she contorts herself.

When presented with less than “enough” of whatever, the strong Black woman somehow manages to pull everything together. She juggles multiple plates and takes on more without ever letting one fall. She does not disappoint.

She does this at home. She does this at work. She does this in her relationships. She is the person who endures anything, gives everything, and asks for little to nothing. And that is the curse.

She appears to handle everything so well, even the hard stuff, that no-one thinks to offer her help or protection. No-one expects that she needs it. So, she grins and bears it, while her legs buckle under the weight.

Inherent to the strong Black woman stereotype is self-sacrifice. Her needs, wants, hopes and passions come last in-order to wear the crown that comes with lifting everyone and everything else up above herself.

You can argue that it’s a choice. But it isn’t always a conscious one. Without having the language for it, this kind of fortitude was built into my childhood ideas about Black womanhood through example. As a product of strong Black women, and The Cosby Show and Living Single era, I fully expected to do it all and have it all. I just didn’t know that eternal self-sacrifice was one of the trade-offs. I also didn’t know that in-order to reverse course, I would have to fight against another stereotype… the angry Black woman.

©2022 Creatorskind

There’s more to the story

The room that surrounds me is filled with light.  The sun’s rays stream through the large windows on the room’s northern side, despite the heavy chill of winter.  Plants nearby stretch and lean into the rays with desperation, like fish out of water gasping for air.  There are half-read books on nearly every surface and neglected artwork on the dining room table.  Dishes are piled in the kitchen sink and laundry overflows its hamper in the bedroom.  Though it isn’t orderly and not quite chaos, in every room there is evidence of a life being lived.  But with it, much unfinished business. 

The last time we met, I introduced you to my grandmother through a dream that I had only a few weeks before. But it wasn’t the whole story. It didn’t end with the loving gaze shared between us, with my chin in her heaven softened hands.  After that lovely silent moment, she started fussing. 

I have no recollection of what she said or even my full reaction to it.  Whatever it was, it might’ve been spoken telepathically, because I don’t even remember seeing her lips move.  But even still, I know it was out of love.  She was setting me straight about something I had gotten wrong. It was a teaching moment that I needed. But it’s only in the last few hours that I’ve begun to glean anything from it. 

I often wonder what my grandmother would think of me now.  While I know that she would be proud of the woman that I have become and have a sense of pride in my accomplishments, I wrestle with how she might perceive my struggle with mental illness.  This woman who never slowed down, never got sick, and never seemed overwhelmed, I wonder, if she looked at me, what would she see? 

This woman whose physical pain was evident only in the silent rubbing of an arthritic knee. This woman who had lived the Great Migration and the traumatic indignities of overt and systemic racism in the South and the North. What would she think of me and my blues? Would she chastise me? Or would she share her own?    

Last week, I found myself in the middle of a depressive episode.  I felt myself sinking when a week or so before, I began crying at the drop of a dime. I cried at tv commercials. I cried while gazing out my window. I cried while scrolling on Instagram. I just cried.

With my period on its way, I figured my body was playing musical chairs with my hormones again. But depression and PMS do not mix, and I was afraid that it would trigger an episode of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which I’ve experienced as I weened my body off of medications that didn’t work for me. I didn’t consider that there could be something else brewing; some event in my life that was adding more weight to the sinking that I was feeling.  

Again and again, I find myself in work environments where painful micro-aggressions and overt racial bias are not considered to be evidence of a hostile environment, but instead as innocent mistakes and misunderstandings.  In recent weeks, I have seen my supervisor knowingly sacrifice my well-being for his own comfort and convenience.  In other words, a walking micro-aggression was promoted to a supervisory role.

It didn’t matter that there was a clear track-record of overt hostility from this person. He made a calculation that I would probably quit as a result and decided that he could live with that. The potential loss of my knowledge and experience did not matter. But he was surprised to find that the promotion would not be enough and that he might lose two people at once. Then he tried to back track. The whole thing felt dehumanizing, painful, deeply insulting and manipulative. And while I am positive that I will be moving on in the near future, I feel overwhelmed about how that future might look and how I will deal with this stress in the interim.   

This experience is not unique, nor is it confined to my job or career field. I have too many friends in other professions and environments that have similar experiences. And this isn’t my first rodeo. Unfortunately, as difficult as this scenario is, I’ve experienced worse, much worse, than this.

At this point, I’m just tired. But my hurt and fatigue don’t pay the bills. And here’s my distressing dilemma: there’s nowhere to go. There is no escape or even respite. Racism is everywhere. And grappling with that reality is depressing in the literal sense.    

I wonder what my grandmother would think about my psyche’s reaction to that fact. Would she respond to my self-neglect and despair with contempt or a kind word? Would she think I was weak, lazy, or worse … not black enough?

Mental health and mental illness have only recently begun to be culturally accepted by Black people, at least, in the U.S. Back in my grandmother’s day, things like depression and anxiety were thought to be luxuries afforded only to whites. Black people were too busy trying to survive to be depressed.

The fact that most Black people were trying to navigate a country that was outright hostile was a traumatic experience shared by everyone you knew. Trauma was the norm, not an illness. And often, prayer, faith and worship were a remedy for a pent-up pain. The strong black woman stereotype is based on a real, hard-won resilience that both empowers and burdens Black women. In the here and now, it underscores my distress, while the dream of my grandmother’s fussing plays heavily in my thoughts.  

©2022 Creatorskind