Wahala and the importance of caring for those who care for others

Take the Time to Honor Your Unsung Heroes

They say that in life you can be certain of two things – death and taxes. I am not too sure of this. Think Amazon. Personally, I think that in life, we can be certain of two things – big wahala and small wahala. Wahala means trouble/problems/worries in Yoruba, the language of my heart. 

This wahala that I am talking about, no-one is immune from. For some, they live life with plenty wahala and for others, wahala comes from time to time but nothing serious enough to fracture the rhythm of their lives. For some, wahala is neither visible nor made visible/public and for others, wahala is made public by force or by choice. To each their own wahala and their own level of wahala.

But whatever the nature of the wahala, you’d better pray that when it comes, there is someone by your side to help you or support you through it.

For me personally, I am forever indebted to the people that have helped me through the last 10 years of wahala and without whom I may not be here today.

But this week, a few things happened which got me thinking about those that step in to the breach or come to our aid when we are in trouble – whatever the nature of those troubles.

Because I blog mainly about mental health issues, I choose to focus on those who support me through my mental health struggles but this post is aimed at all who provide emotional or physical support to others.

The unsung heroes in my life

I am so fortunate to have had my brother by my side forever, but particularly over the past year, to help me through the process of refeeding. He has done so much to encourage me with food and to help me with my mood. I owe him a lot and I cannot thank him enough though he would probably tell me that ‘you don’t thank your own’.

 

I am also fortunate to have family members who try even when they don’t understand and who encourage me even when they have run out of words. I appreciate every one of them.

I know that my own struggles took its toll on them. I knew this at the the time but felt unable to get better. I definitely felt and feel guilt about what I put them through but I also know that people don’t choose to be mentally unwell and I am grateful that my family did not make me feel guilty or bad. I don’t know how much support they needed or received but I know it was not easy for them. I know there are some eating disorder units that provide support for family members but think this is perhaps provided more for family members whose loved ones are in residential or daycare facilities. I hope this changes.

Friends have also been a key to me getting to the ‘recovering’ stage. When I find/ have found myself Upshit Creek, I am thankful for their encouragement.

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I am thankful for those who knew me before they knew my problems and I am thankful that they know that I am more than my problems. I am thankful for the laughter we share and that I am in their lives and they in mine. They love and have loved in deed not solely in words.

Finally, I am extremely fortunate to have had good professionals from time to time who have supported me through the worst of things or made suggestions or told me that ‘I could do it’. I will not forget the doctor when I was in inpatient who kept on repeating this phrase to me over and over again (You can do it Funmi, you can do it) and the mental health professionals (past and present) who support(ed) me or tried to help me on the road to recovery and discovery.

But, I know from my time as a teacher that just because you help others does not mean that your capacity to support is an everlasting well. Please take a look at this BBC article which in part inspired this post.

My previous role as a teacher

I know that when I was teaching, long hours, a heavy workload, students with lots of wahala and trying to find ways to support them through it or trying to signpost them was the order of the day. And it was tiring. But it was a job I loved. I know that I was struggling to care for myself at the time and so found it more beneficial to invest in others because I did not see a way to overcome my issues at the time. I have no regrets about my time as a teacher but reflecting on this and the past fortnight helps me value those who support me and drives me to consider the care afforded to those who care for others.

I know I write from a personal viewpoint but in all honesty, I want this post to be about reflecting on those who work in caring roles or who take on caring roles: mother, fathers, children, siblings, friends, nurses, doctors, teachers, mental health professionals and anyone else that you wish to insert in this grouping.

What happens when we don’t take care of those who care for others?

  • On a basic level, if you are supporting people with mental health issues, it can eventually take a toll on your own mental and physical health.
  • Family structures can break down as the job of supporting a family member with mental health issues can drive individuals apart.
  • Worry can arise about the well-being of the person which can lead to anxiety.
  • People can lose heart or the motivation to continue supporting others even when they are good at the job or passionate about it.
  • Those who care for others may eventually become immune to suffering because they see so much of it so often (this is perhaps a sign that it is time to leave a role).
  • Burnout – plain and simple.
  • An inability to strike a healthy work/life balance.

What should be put in place to support those who care for others?

  • Emotional support – it should be a given that those who work in stressful roles supporting others should themselves be afforded emotional support to talk through the things they hear or do or witness or experience. Talking can be so cathartic. It can make a person feel they do not have to carry the burden alone. It always shocks me on reflection that when I worked as a teacher, the College did not see fit to provide emotional support save in the most exceptional circumstance. I did however have great managers who recognised at times that I was struggling even when I felt unable to say so.
  • Practical support – I know these are days of austerity but the workload that people who care have to put up with is ridonculous (purposeful typo). I have seen it happen that when a person leaves a workplace, they are not replaced. Their workload is simply passed onto another person. But how can we expect one person to do the workload of two people and not eventually break? This is how good, passionate teachers, doctors, mental health workers end up leaving the profession.
  • Space – to breathe, to recover, to be. I remember sometimes being desperate for team meeting days because it just meant a bit of a break from the daily grind. We all need this from time to time so we don’t burnout. It is up to managers to make this happen and up to those who care for others to demand it. In families, this sometimes means a period of respite away from the person that is unwell.
  • A culture of compassion – if we do not create in workplaces or other spaces (familial or otherwise) a culture of compassion, an environment in which a person can say ‘I am struggling’, then how will people ever feel they can be honest. I have read a lot of late from doctors with mental health issues who say they felt unable to be open at work. I don’t mean shouting down the hallway, ‘I am mentally ill’. I mean being able to talk to a superior about your struggles or being able to support a patient who struggled as you once did by giving them a small dose of honesty (like, I once struggled like you, it is possible to overcome it). This is not false hope, or inappropriate sharing (in my opinion), it’s real talk.
  • Boundaries – those caring for others need to put healthy boundaries in place to protect themselves from burnout and illness. This might mean making sure you leave work by a certain time or making your home a work-free zone. Personally, I remember having an open door policy during lunchtime when I was teaching. Eventually I got rid of that and though it was tough for some students to adhere to, they did eventually learn that just as they needed space away from me, so too, I needed space away from them. It did not mean I cared any less about their well-being. It just meant that protecting myself was the first step in my aim of protecting or supporting them.  

I leave you on this note, it is my sincere hope that those who care for others are also cared for in equal measure. No one is unbreakable and no one is free from troubles. Those who care matter just as much as those they care for. I just hope they get the support they deserve.

The use of ‘before and after’ pics in the ED recovery community: the case for and against

Image result for before and after pictures nature bad to good

Before I begin to assess this issue, I think it is important to state that I am a firm advocate of debating and conversing.

Far too often in our modern age, I notice a stubborn refusal by individuals to consider a point of view which does not align with their own. I think that if each side in an argument/discussion/debate insists on sticking rigidly to the viewpoint they entered the room with then there is no hope of progress or change. For more on this, please check out one of my previous posts entitled: The Dying Art of Conversation/Where Now for Rage.

What am I asking for?

I am asking that the Eating Disorder recovery community give due consideration to both sides of the argument in this debate. I am not hoping for a consensus but I just ask that you hear me out and that you hear one another out.

Please contribute to this discussion by adding your thoughts in the comments section at the end.

My own personal ED history and use of ‘before and after’ pics.

I have had an eating disorder for over two decades and now consider myself to be in recovery. I am an advocate of recovery and I believe firmly that one bad day in recovery is worth a hundred days stuck in the bowels of the eating disorder.

As with many people with eating disorders, I have taken on every aspect of eating disorders in the past (restriction, binging, purging, overexercise etc). As with many people with EDs, my weight was pretty ‘normal’ for the first 10+ years of my time with the ED. Normal in this context just means that I sat firmly within the ‘healthy’ BMI range. I do now think BMI actually stands for Bullshit Monitor of Individuals. For the final 10 years of the ED, I became emaciated. At no point in those 20 years was I free of the ED but treatment here in the UK became intensive only once my weight dropped. (Another bugbear of mine is that services wait till people become emaciated before intervention).

I was just as likely to die when I was classified as bulimic as I was when I was classified as anorexic. Both destroyed my mind and left me incapable of leading a normal, healthy life.

Eating Disorders are MENTAL not PHYSICAL illnesses. But the PHYSICAL representation is oftentimes the thing which shocks people into acting and reacting. It’s a sad truth but it’s the truth, at least here in the UK. When you look unwell, sympathy is elicited and extra care is given. I noticed a massive difference in the way I was treated when I was underweight compared to when I was a normal weight. It is the normal human reaction to act based on what we see more so than what we hear. That is not to say that I purposely became underweight. Having an eating disorder for me was and to some extent remains a way of managing the depression and the more my depression worsened/worsens, the more I struggle(d) with all aspects of food.

When I first started this blog, I think I posted pictures of myself at various stages of my time in the ED (varying weights) but I took it down in time because I just didn’t feel comfortable with having those pictures of me online. I once posted something on Instagram as a reminder to myself of how far I had come and they did include some pictures of me in a physically bad way. I did this for myself at a time when I was struggling in my own recovery. I was struggling with depression and could not appreciate how much I had achieved in terms of stopping restriction, purging and in terms of putting on weight. I wanted to celebrate my achievement and pictures helped me achieve this. I didn’t need to put it online but I did and I own it.

I do follow some people on social media who regularly post ‘before and after’ pictures and then use it to talk about the change in their life since recovery. I also follow some who are against such pictures and tell or ask others not to post such pictures.

Of late, I have come to rethink this issue because I have seen some people in the ED recovery community insist that others not post such pictures whilst at the same time reading posts from others claiming their right to post whatever they want because it is part of their story.

So let’s consider both camps.

Against ‘before and after’ pics

  • It promotes the idea that EDs are disorders of the body not of the mind.
  • It promotes the idea that EDs are all about weight
  • Weight restoration or being an average weight or higher does not mean you are recovered or are in recovery so the pictures themselves do not convey whether actual recovery has taken place.
  • It makes those who do not reach low weights feel less valid in their eating disorder/not sick enough.
  • Increases the negative body image some have of themselves because showing low weights increases self judgement and envy.
  • Encourages harmful comparisons within the ED community (like how low did your weight go. Oh, is that it? Mine went way lower, until I was at death’s door and this picture is the proof. Like my ED was way more serious than yours.)
  • It does nothing more than feed those who are looking for the shock value effect (media – Daily Mail more specifically)
  • Makes it seem that life without an ED is fantastic.
  • If it feels so wrong to discuss numbers in the recovery community, then why do images of people at low weights feel okay when it essentially has the same effect?

My thoughts

Life without an ED is not fantastic. It just is. It has a different texture and flavour. It is richer but it is still painful at times. My life is better without the ED but some days it feels harder because when the depression comes, I do not have my ‘trusted (but destructive) steed’ by my side to help rouse me from the coma of depression. I will always choose to be in recovery over being in the ED but life is still tough. It was tough then for different reasons.

There is a lot of competition within the ED community. Both amongst those who are in the illness and those who are out or recovered. Competition to see who can have the most followers, the most people say yes or ‘like’ to what we think, competition to see who was sicker, competition to see who had the toughest route to recovering or recovery. I will call a spade a spade. But this competition is not present amongst all in these communities. Sometimes people have good intentions in posting ‘before and after’ pics.

Pro ‘before and after’ pics

  • For some people, weight gain has been an extremely difficult part of their recovery and one which they wish to highlight.
  • People have the right to share their story and convey it in whatever way they see fit.
  • It helps others who are in a similar position (of being at a low weight with an ED) see that it is possible to let go of the need to remain at a low weight.
  • It helps others to see that it is possible to live and thrive at a higher weight

The role of ‘before and after’ pics in my own recovery

Before I started recovering last year, I followed very few people with EDs on social media. I found it extremely damaging to watch people who claimed they were in recovery yet still remained at alarmingly low weights. I eventually stopped following anyone on social media with an active eating disorder (not in serious recovery). I did not know about those on social media who had recovered and were now promoting the message of recovery.

When I decided to incorporate social media into my recovery, I came across the accounts of two women that I had followed for a short time in the days when the ED had its strongest grip on me. I think there must have been about a 2 or 3 year gap. When I saw how much progress these women had made from emaciation to weight restoration and beyond, it inspired me to let go of my fear of weight gain. I felt that if these women could rise from where they had been and were now learning to embrace life at a higher weight, then maybe I could do the same. One of them in particular who still posts before and after pics, said on one of her posts that no one cared what we weighed. Her written words stuck with me and helped me get on board with the inevitability of weight gain in recovery. I would also still be in recovery without seeing such pictures but I do think they gave me a bit of a mental shove in the right direction.

BUT, a word of caution. I was already beginning to embrace the idea of recovery before coming across these accounts. If I wasn’t then these pictures may not have made a blind bit of difference to me.

To a sick mind, all things will feed the sickness. One’s ability to tolerate these pictures may say more about the state of mind of the person seeing these images than it does about the benefits or negatives of the image itself.

To a well mind or one in search of wellness, then some of those things that may in the past have been harmful may no longer be. This again is a matter for debate. My word is not the final word. Nor do I want it to be.

I think that if more people speak for or against the use of ‘before and after’ pics in the ED recovery community then it might help those who are still unsure decide which way to go.

On the other hand, I think that for those of us who are in recovery or recovered then we need to be aware of the harm that some of these images can cause to minds which are still fragile or healing from the damage of eating disorders.

What we should ask ourselves before posting ‘before and after’ pics

  1. What message am I trying to convey by using these pictures of me at a healthy and unhealthy weight?
  2. Can I convey this message in a way which is less likely to cause harm to fragile minds?
  3. What message am I giving to those for whom low weight was never an issue by posting these images?
  4. What message am I putting out in the media and the public space by using these images?
  5. Am I more likely to hurt or to heal by using these images?

As for me, I will confess that even after all of this, I am not sure what I would do. I have only twice used such images, one of which I took down. Weight gain has been a massive part of my recovery and I guess for me, I needed to know that there were others who had been in a similar situation to me who had now moved beyond that state.

That said, the other key ingredient in my recovery were those who documented their recovery online as well as those who are now recovered and continue to make videos about recovery such as Elisa Oras. Her book helped me on my journey. I have never once seen an image of her underweight yet her message still spoke to me for some reason.

I do feel that one of the main things that ‘before and after’ pictures do is promote the idea that an ED is only serious if one reaches a low weight and I know that this is not necessarily the case.  Unfortunately, the body adapts to emaciation and makes changes to sustain life. Low potassium levels and suicidal thoughts were just as life endangering or perhaps more at times, than the fact of emaciation for me. Bulimia kills and so does anorexia.

Whilst I do not plan to post any more ‘before/after pictures (because that is not my calling and that is not what I choose to use to convey my message at this moment in time), I respect the right of others to do so and would ask simply that they think about whether what is gained from these pictures outweighs what is lost by others. I would also ask that they be reflective and honest when posting such pics.

What I will not do however is hide pictures of or burn or get rid of such pictures because that for me is about 10 years worth of pictures which document my life, not my ED but my life with family, friends and even on TV (Countdown)* I will not hide who I was but I prefer not to use it as the primary means of conveying my message about the harm cause by eating disorders.

Finally, if someone’s posts are negatively affecting your recovery, do as I did at one time and click the ‘Unfollow’ button. That’s what it’s there for.

* I will in a future post speak about how appearing on Countdown helped me begin the long and bloody difficult but worth it, road to recovering.

Ten things which bring me joy

I start with this track because this morning, this song is the one that I enjoy most. And that is what I am looking for today or trying to remember today. The things which I enjoy. The things which place me in-joy. So here’s my list.

  • Music: specifically at the moment, South African House music. Simmy’s track above is my track of the day. It’s hard to listen to it and not move my head or body or feet. I am also finding out that it is the best kind of music to cycle to, which brings me to number 2 of things which place me in joy. Other artists I enjoy are Robert Glasper, Hillsong tracks, Anthony Hamilton and pretty much anything which is jazz based.

Cycling: yesterday, cycling was the only thing that gave me some joy. Albeit temporary but I’ll take temporary for the time being. Normally, I also enjoy watching cycling races (the Grand Tours, small tours, any kind of tour as long as it is on 2 wheels and manual). My favourite cyclists are: the Yates brothers (Simon won La Vuelta last year and this year Adam is killing it),  Peter Sagan (built like a monster – in a good way) and Mathieu Van der Poel (anyone who can beat Julian Alaphilippe in a sprint gets my attention. I’m lucky that cycling is my only form of getting myself from A to B at the moment since it helps me retain my sanity.

  • Swimming: it’s been almost a month since my last swim and it is really hard to get out and it is harder to get out and swim at the moment but I do know this is something I have enjoyed in the past.
  • Watching dance videos such as the following https://youtu.be/FfPBi_xUID

5. Beating my brother at Monopoly: these raucous sessions are always guaranteed to make me laugh. And bring some true joy.

6. Blogging and reading non-fiction: does something for me on some level. Sometimes joy. So I will add this to my list. At the moment I am doing it more often because I need to rather than because I want to but whatever the reason, it is helping. I do love reading about other people’s lives, their challenges and how they have navigated the murky and clear waters of life.

7. Being in nature. Especially by the sea.

8. Walking out of the barbers with a fresh hair cut. Again, this is something I am struggling to do but I do remember that I always feel great after a good hair cut. This is one of my favourites. Simple but beautiful. #shorthairdontcare

 by @stepthebarber #naturallyshesdope

9. Spending time with good friends and especially spending time with one of my friends and her little kids. I do love kids and being in their company always makes me laugh. Kids always make me forget me. Kids remind me of joy, pure joy.

10. Watching comedy. My top selection is below. Some is intentional comedy and some is unintentional in its comedic element.

 

Writing this post has given me pleasure because it reminds me of joy.

 

The strange thing about depression…..

Is that yesterday, I was able to do so much (contrary to what we’re told depression is) and today just getting out of bed was a struggle. My jack in the box, I’m ready to take on the world morning routine of yesterday was today replaced by a long drawn out wrestling match with my mind over whether or not the day was worth the effort. How can the things which I do without thought suddenly turn into a mountain right in front of my eyes? I do recognise that this is what depression has been for me for a long time: weeks of struggling interspersed with days where ‘I get shit done’. I eventually made it out of bed thanks to something I’m currently using to combat the slowness of my brain and body at present – South African House music. Music really has helped me over over the past five months. Here’s one I prepared earlier.

Is that yesterday, I read an entire book in a day and today, the thought of even opening up a book is giving me a headache. I read a book called Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning which is a memoir about depression, delusion and mania in essence.

Image result for mind on fire

It grabbed me because there was so much I could relate to in terms of the link between grief and depression, the manner in which the interchange between joy and sadness can be so swift and most of all, the fear of facing the fact that it can and does take a long time to rebuild one’s life after a breakdown or a long struggle with mental illness or unwellness or distress or whichever term you prefer.

Is how I struggle to read or write fiction. I have read 2 books in the past 2 weeks. Both non-fiction, both memoirs, both dealing with what it means to be human. I have no patience or capacity for fiction when I am in this place. The words do not connect enough to make sentences. It’s weird. 

Is how zoned out I can be at times, how absent I can be at times when my body is most present. In the past week, I have pretty much given up on television as a way of helping me through this period. My eyes are on the screen but nothing is going in. I am not conscious that I have drifted until 5 or 10 minutes later, I regain consciousness and realise that I am not there mentally. I have in the past used TV to help me get through moments of intense distress but I feel positively bored by it at the moment which is no bad thing, I guess. The same happens at times when I am in the presence of others who are conversing and I am there one minute and totally gone the next. It is kinda funny at times but not when I think about the effect this thing is having on my brain, memory, concentration etc.

Is how yesterday, I was able to crack a joke with my dentist and today I am struggling to open my mouth to have a conversation. Depression is by no means a one-trick pony. Depression does not mean an inability to laugh or converse. It just means that sometimes, you come out to play for a bit, to be a part of the world, to be an acceptable face, person, but in private, you know nothing has really changed or is changing. I enjoy the company of others for the most part except when my mood is extremely low and I lose the desire to engage in conversations. At times, it comes across as sullenness but it is far from it. I have in the past had days where it is as though I have been stripped of my voice. It is the strange thing about depression. I love to laugh but sometimes, I don’t have the energy to do it. And when I am like this, the last thing I wish to do is inflict myself on others.

Is how much I still struggled with it when I was working as a teacher and when I was volunteering. I often recommended volunteering to my students and value what people can get out of being active, productive members of society but I realise that for me what happened was that I was able to care about others even when I cared little for myself. That is not a good thing. Eventually, it rendered me incapable of helping others, something which I continue to value. I don’t think depression is cured by exercising or working or any one thing. I do think it is a combination of things which can help. I guess I am still not at the point of believing one day I will not experience these episodes but what I do believe is that depression is not a sign that a person is only self-serving or self-seeking. I kind of feel the need to say this because of something I heard someone say which was basically along the lines of depression gets cured when you start serving others. I felt somewhat shamed when I heard this but then I know that we all have different experiences and that the person who said this sounded like he had no personal knowledge of what it is like to be depressed. If only ‘service’ was the answer to depression, then no doctor, teacher, nurse or other ‘servant’ would ever experience depression.

Is how the DSM which basically lists all ‘mental disorders and illnesses’ fits the human experience into neat little packages. Yet there is nothing neat about the human condition.

Is how quickly it can creep up on me. Like within hours.

Is how in the past, I would run for miles just to get away from it. Yet at present, I have little energy to fight even though I am not being particularly active. In the past, the combination of the eating disorder and depression meant I had an addiction to the one thing which helped me deal with the depression (or at least temporarily manage it) but which also put my physical health at risk since I was far too emaciated to be running at all. Now, I am physically in a different place but mentally too tired to use exercise (which is often touted is the magic which cures all) to combat it. I just want to sleep for a hundred years and wake up when it’s all over. I guess the other thing I have learnt over the past year is that for me, exercise has become a way to beat my body into submission in the hope that my mind will be too tired to linger on depressive thoughts. Sure, there are happy endorphins but there are also punishing regimes which in the end trigger another depressive episode because over-exercise is a one way road to insomnia for me.

Is how slow my brain and movements become once it sets in.

Is I’m really bored of it.

Is I’ve kind of forgotten what life was like before it.

Is that sometimes I just wish I would change the bloody record.

Is how much of my life it consumes so that it is as though I am nothing but my mind at its worst.

Is how I used to see it as a kind of laziness when I first started teaching and how short I was in compassion for my students who were experiencing depression. My own experience of it was what made me a more compassionate, empathetic person.

Is how I start to lack compassion for myself at these times and how shame and embarrassment begin to set in once more. The thing which helped me most in getting to a stage of being able to say, I am truly in recovery from the eating disorder was the compassion I showed myself and the compassion others showed me. I have worked with professionals who have been full of compassion and some to whom compassion was like dirt under one’s finger nails. I have always fared much better when I ‘llow myself. When I tell myself, ‘it’s okay’ rather than ‘you’ve wasted/are wasting your life away’. When I am mentally strong, I am more able to be compassionate and tell myself, ‘it’s okay, the past is in the past’ or ‘it’s okay, you’re just having a bad day’. When I am feeling more fragile, I am more self-critical. I am less a work in progress and more one constant and very hot mess.

I didn’t know I’d write this post today but I am finding that writing about this is the best way to keep myself going at the moment. The more I write, the more I process things and the more I hear my true voice, not that of an afflicted mind.

Today, since I am struggling with the basics, I will just practice and keep repeating to myself, ‘It’s okay Funmi, it’s okay.’

 

 

One year on from life and two years on from death, this is what it feels like.

This month marks a year since I started recovery/weight gain/living again and next month will mark two years since my mum died. Recovery has been like a kind of rebirth. It should be called ‘The Learning to Live Again Season’ since that’s essentially what it involves – learning to be/reconnect with myself and others, learning about myself and others and learning to live with the highs and lows of life.

I should (??) (I don’t tend to believe in ‘shoulds’ in life), I think, feel a sense of pride about how far I have come with my eating (not as dodgy as it was) and my recovery in general but the overwhelming emotion is sadness which then bleeds into an already fractured appetite – for life, for sustenance.  I guess the sadness is that my mother is not here to enjoy any of this – the good me/the better than I was me/ the less disordered me. This is why the end of my first year in recovery was filled with tears rather than celebration. I’m still glad I chose recovery and still grateful for those who have helped me make it this far but celebrating is the last thing I feel like doing.

Everytime someone tells me how much better I look now or how well I’m doing now, it stings and it hurts like hell because all this, my ‘betterness’ was meant for her, not for them. And everytime I’ve achieved something or done something new, a ‘hollowness’, a sense of emptiness, has been the accompanying feeling. Even my laughter has an echo.

Those who say time heals, are not speaking to me. I don’t think time heals. I think it simply shifts the shape of things. It turns circles into squares and then into triangles or rectangles or hexagons or your shape of choice. Whatever the case, the length of the thing still stays the same.

Save for one post (which I highly recommend to those whose parent(s) are still alive), I have avoided writing about or speaking about my mother’s death because it feels like this:

A failing heart

A herd of elephants sitting on my chest

I’m starving but have no appetite

A lifetime of writer’s block, a permanently blank page

Screaming but hearing nothing back

A permanent echo reverberating inside of me

A silent earth

There was no Before, only After.

Sometimes, I watch something on TV and a person is at risk of death and I hear them say ‘I don’t want to die, please don’t let me die’ and someone says, ‘don’t worry, you’re not going to die or we won’t let you die’ and I laugh because the truth is, we are all going to die at some point and so will the people we love. It’s a sad truth.

Death is not new. Grief is not new. I am not unique or immune in this sense but I guess this experience still feels very new. Uncomfortable. More than uncomfortable. It feels like strangulation. But some days, the hands around my throat release their grip and I feel just fine. And on other days, that grip is tightened once more and I am struggling to breath. I am never sure when those hands will loosen their grip or finally let go. Or when I will distance myself from those hands and let go or break free.

The death of a loved one, our own eventual death is part of the process of life. It’s something we all have in common or will have in common at some point and yet it is so hard to speak about. I can comfortably speak about death in an abstract manner but speaking about it on a personal level is still very difficult for me to do.

 

The myth of the ‘strong Black woman’

Image result for serena williams crying

I have been wanting to write about this topic for a while but it is a challenging topic for me to write about.

I want to explore the myth of the ‘strong Black woman’ and call it out as a myth because the possible foundations and consequences of this myth are both tragic and brutal.

The origins of the ‘strong Black woman’

Slavery

I think back to the suffering that Black people endured as slaves. The list looks a little something like this:

rape, torture, separation from homes and families, beatings, babies being forcibly taken from them, having to carry, deliver and then love a baby born as a result of rape, forced labour, abuse and constant dehumanisation…

Listing it like this does no justice to the reality of what Black people and in particular, Black women must have endured. All those crimes were inflicted because the perpetrators were able to cast Blacks as sub-human/savages and Black women as mere sexual objects.

In all the above cases, save for committing suicide (which some would have done – I highly recommend the fictional book, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan) Black women had no choice but to endure. There was no chance of escaping these brutal conditions and even when Black people were eventually ‘set free’, they were set free oftentimes with nothing but the clothes on their back.

Imagine if you can, what it would be like to endure 30/40 or more years of slavery and then to be released with no home, no money, no assets, maybe a couple of children in tow. What would your answer be? Breakdown, cry, say you cannot do it anymore?

For many Black women, strength has been and is nothing more than the result of the fact it feels like there is no other choice than to ‘get on with it’. You either give up and die (starve, kill oneself) or you keep going irrespective of the difficulties.

Maybe I am simplifying this? Maybe some will wonder why I am talking about something that happened ‘so long ago’. What I am trying to do is show that strength is not so much in our DNA as it is in our story. We are strong because we have had no choice but to be strong.

But let me take this away from slavery and come to more recent times.

The search for a better life/answering the call of the ‘motherland’

There is no doubt that one of the consequences of mothers and fathers leaving homes in the Caribbean and West Africa in search of a better life was the widespread separation of families. Even temporary separations resulted in permanent damage. Children would be separated from their mothers/fathers.

It happened to me and it has happened to countless other Black people. The shock of going from a two-parent family to suddenly being in a one parent-family and having to carry the load of so many children, certainly took its toll on my mother.

Sometimes, temporary separations became permanent. Oftentimes it was the mother or grandmother who was left raising children. Sometimes the woman would come to the UK to work and the kids would later follow. At other times the man would come to the UK to work and later send for his wife and kids. Whatever the equation, the result is that families were left battered and bruised by separation.

Children and parents reunite after may years but are now strangers. None truly aware of what the other has gone through during that period of separation.

The culture of Black children being fostered was prevalent in the 70s and 80s. Some, including me at one point, were sent to live with White nannies outside of London and this also affected the relationship that these children would subsequently have with their own parents.

Imagine being separated from your child and seeing them perhaps monthly or fortnightly because you felt you had no option but to put the need to earn over the need to nurture.

This is about truth not judgement.

Again, if so, private tears might be an option but the need to just get on with it prevails.

I know many Black women, of my mother’s generation who worked numerous jobs to provide for their families and never took a day off.

They were ‘strong’ because they had no choice but to be strong. Provide or your children suffer. It’s a false choice. It was a necessity, not a choice.

Dehumanisation/Super-humanisation

In popular culture too, there is sometimes a myth of Black people being superhuman or more able to endure. The Kenyans can run longer and faster than others, Blacks are stronger, more built, our heavy bones given as the reason for our supposed inability to swim etc.

This super-humanisation does the Black race no favours in the long run. Kenyan top athletes are just that – Kenyan top athletes. Not every Kenyan is a top athlete, not every Black person is fast and not every Black person is built.

Sometimes, what betrays us are not popular theories but our own skin colour.

I remember when my mum was ill in hospital and a doctor coming up to her and telling her that she looked a lot better. What this man seemed unable to see was that my mother’s skin was a funny purple-black colour. If she had been white, the changes in her skin would have been more visible and he would have realised the severity of her condition.

This doctor did not think to ask what her skin normally looked like because he likely had no idea that this funny shade of black was not at all normal for her or for Black people in general.

Sometimes, we betray ourselves as Black women by saying we are okay when we are not okay because we have learnt that it is not okay to say that we are not okay. Sometimes, this is about religion. I know that words are considered powerful in Christianity. Many a time have I heard a Black women say ‘praise the Lord’ when they are struggling or suffering. I heard my own mother say she was okay when she was far from it. I too in the past spent years saying I was okay and in the meantime deteriorating mentally and physically,

Dealing with double-invisibility: you’re not visible until you’re visible

As a Black woman who is familiar with being in majority or wholly white spaces, and having experienced both overt and covert racism, I sometimes, have no choice but to get on with it. What I would rather do at times is scream and shout in the room and rail against blatant biases or the fact that human beings have a tendency to embrace the known rather than the supposedly ‘unknown’.

For those of you who do not believe that racism or prejudice exists, consider the work colleague who told me that ‘Croydon was okay until the Blacks came in’. Consider the kids who thought that it was perfectly fine to throw stones at me because of my race. Consider the university worker in France who told me that I was entered for an easier exam (which I then aced) because they thought my level was not up to the standard to pass the exam which the other white students were taking.

These are more obvious examples. Now consider the fact that the White woman in the Croydon example had worked with me for over a year and had shown no evidence up to then of bias or prejudice. Consider that those boys who threw those stones on another day may just have passed me by and smiled. Consider that the lady in the university may just have kept her reasons to herself and I would have been none the wiser.

Now consider that as a Black woman and person, if you cannot give proof of racism or bias then you are considered to be just making something out of nothing or ‘always going on about racism’.

Consider that last week in Twickenham, myself and a white woman were approaching the start of an alleyway. She looked at me briefly and began walking down the alleyway. I walked behind her. Consider that it was broad daylight and that after about 30 seconds, she stopped walking, waited for me to pass and then resumed her journey with me now ahead and her behind.

Now consider why sometimes, I wonder if my paranoia or hyper-vigilance is well-founded and why I oftentimes feel like I just need to get on with it. Consider that at times, the weight of all these small acts of racism or bias or prejudice begin to weigh on me physically or mentally and that I no longer feel as comfortable in all white spaces as I once may have.

Consider that I have no option if I am to make it in the UK than to ‘get on with it’ and challenge the obvious and sometimes play down the less obvious so I can get on with my day.

It is not that I am strong. It is just that sometimes, I just want to get on with my day without having to consider whether certain acts are based on my race or not. Or maybe I am strong but I don’t see it as strength because it is just my normal.

The consequences of the myth of the ‘strong Black woman’

I recently read that there is limited research in the area of Black mental health in the UK (Fundamental Facts About Mental Health 2016 by the Mental Health Foundation) and I am oftentimes wary of stats. I have never taken part in a survey. Have you? So I will use stats only once.

a) There is sometimes an assumption that we have a greater capacity to endure pain and there is sometimes an inability to recognise when a Black woman is in pain. Sometimes because we do not use our voices enough and sometimes because those treating us do not believe or recognise the depths of our pain.

Black women in America are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than white women. A clinician in the article I took this stat from said, “The common thread is that when black women expressed concern about their symptoms, clinicians were more delayed and seemed to believe them less.” Serena Williams’ experience is also mentioned in the article (please click the link).

b) I come from a long line of ‘strong Black women’ and at times, I too have felt that I have no other option but to be ‘strong’. In the long term, it meant that I struggled with my mental health for almost two decades before I ever admitted how bad things were. In fact, I only admitted how bad things were mentally when my emaciated body began to betray me. There comes a time when denial is no longer an option.

c) It means that sometimes, we do not reach outside for help. Sometimes we are loath to get professional help. We feel we need to keep it together.

d) When we bear our burdens alone or with very limited supported, it eventually takes a toll on our physical and mental health. This means working oneself into an early grave, speaking in coded language about our mental health and never receiving help.

e) What some consider hardship, we consider normal.

The way forward

I truly believe that we as Black women need to stop perpetuating this myth of the ‘strong Black women’ by:

a) allowing our vulnerability (with the right people, in spaces where we feel able to be) to be our superpower.

b) not telling one another to ‘be strong’.

c) not allowing those who deprive us of help because of their own ideas about us, get away with it. This means stating our needs and demanding it.

d) not taking it as a complement when are told we are strong. I have to my memory no knowledge of being told I am strong by a Black person but I know it is possible for a person of any race to tell a Black woman they are strong as a complement. Perhaps it is not linked to race but and whilst I know it may sound like a complement, I have seen the damage done by this image, I would much rather not be called strong thank you very much. I am human. Fullstop. I bleed, shit, cry, love, hate and have desires like every human being.  I feel pain too like every human being. My threshold is no higher though I may have been conditioned to or learnt to endure pain.

e) we as Black women ought to speak more about our pain in a purposeful way. As a way of opening up the conversation and letting one another know that we are not alone.

If you got to the end, well done. You made it.

The final thing to say is, I can only speak about my experience as a Black woman. Sometimes I will speak generally about Black women but this is not done with the intention of stating that there is a universal ‘Black female’ experience. We are unique individuals who have shared and diverse experiences of life.

Sometimes, my race and therefore my culture is the least interesting thing about me and at times, it is the most interesting thing about me.

I’d love to hear your comments/thoughts.