rewriting (again) or reimagining this post I wrote a while back called “Recovery.”
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
-Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters
“–let me go mad, Grandmother. Let me bleed and be forever lost and no one.”
-Toni Cade Bambara from “The Survivor,” Gorilla, My Love
The ones on the top row were the first to go.
I spat them out on a plate one day, next to the wrecked remains of chicken bones, and watched them sink into the orange oil smeared across the porcelain. I looked on, bored, almost as if they were not for me.
The wisdom ones went next, the irony so apparent it was almost nauseating.
They shattered into someone else’s mouth. The time has long come and gone, and they still can’t tell if that is grit or bone or me causing their jaws to grind and stick, worn down and rusty as an forgotten mill
Finally, it was right up front, on the left.
I missed the silent warning. The root perishing in place, turning the enamel outside slowly brown and darker still ’til the surface was crumb like the sugar I love in my tea.
How could you let it get this bad?
Well, I decided to crack and vanish myself little by awful little.
I really am fine, or as fine as I can be, all things considered…
Teaching is incredibly rewarding and my thesis is pretty much writing itself after all the obsessive research and more than a few false starts.
I’m working on getting the care that I need. If you know me well enough to be worried after reading this blog, you also know that writing is my automatic response for anything that happens in my life, and not necessarily a cry for help nor a word-for-word rendering of the parts of my life no one can ever really know but me.
I’m caught in a place that is familiar to most people who are trying to find the joints between art, activism, academic work, and living as a whole human being. You can do you research about people and cultures, solidify their place in history, but by the time your work is actually done, the people you claim to care about could be long dead. What use are you to them while they are still living?
I just need to write.
When the bus plunges forward to an abrupt stop, I feel as though the force is going to take me with it. Take me out, through the window and onto the asphalt on a bed of broken windscreen and motor oil. The woman next to me is laughing too loud, to deep, to wide, too open; all the way back to her wisdom teeth and down her throat. Something on that stranger’s sandwich smells sour, as if it has been sitting on a glass shelf under a sweating spotlight for more hours than the package would recommend. Everything is entirely too much. Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed, and not just by the unending stream of news reporting brutality and collapse that is most certainly not new, but feels somehow even more urgent and threatening by the day.
I’m overwhelmed, so that every late-night message alert from one of my students, or an email reminder “touching base on your student loan,” feels like a bell ringing right next to my ear drum. Goddess forbid someone drop a heavy object upstairs, because that might as well be a rubber boot stomping on the inside of my head. The blender in the kitchen next door is a drill hammering directly onto my collarbone, and the shower running two doors down is more like a burst pipe emptying onto the floor around my bed. I’m overwhelmed in a way that I can only explain in these exaggerated terms, (except this is how it really feels), to demonstrate how any emotional or physical stimuli seem to have taken on several additional dimensions beyond what one would expect of livable reality.
The usually reliable neatness of my symptoms list is now no more than black marks skidding across the page where there used to be words (ants are too orderly). At least, it might as well be, because the sensation of the world pressing against my skin to the point where the pain is unbearable is new and doesn’t fit anywhere between “nervousness” and “paranoia.” Another new and even more concerning development is the compulsion I feel to punish myself for…what, I’m not completely sure. Self-deprecation is one thing; I’m so familiar with that mild sort of shame that my footprints leave footprints in the same grooves where I have stepped down that path many times before.
Normally, my issue is that I’m embarrassed or annoyed with myself for an inconsiderate or cruel thing I did or said years before I could have claimed to know better.
But this is different. The problem now seems to be that I exist at all. My smallest infractions send me spiraling around and down towards self-loathing and other horrid and unutterable thoughts. My default setting is now that I don’t deserve rest or reward because I haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t graded enough papers, haven’t written enough pages of my thesis, haven’t been pleasant enough to the people in my life who become collateral damage to my chaotic self.
Because it’ll never be enough. I’ve been given too much I don’t deserve and there will never be a way to pay…I’ll eat when I’ve completed a satisfactory amount of work, which is usually hours after the stomach ache from hunger itself gives up in the hopes that I’ll change my mind and stop for food at some point.
I’ll take a break and go to meet with that person, or just go outside for fresh air when I’ve earned it, so probably never.
I’ll pause and join the rest of the house for a chat when I’m done reading this book, I need it for my research, I need it to tell me how to more present, to be more useful and the next and the next…read on the bus, in bed, in between in-betweens, even when fatigued from learning more about how we’ve created a world that is killing us all some more quickly than others.
I’ll wash and oil and braid my hair when I have a moment to spare, so not for the next few weeks until the next deadline passes, or until my curls and kinks can only be coaxed out of knots with a wide-toothed comb (and I am sure to lose a lot in the process).
I am my own predator. Anything about myself is fair game. Every unanswered message and missed meet-up is another failure. Any mundane setback is evidence of another thing I can’t do, another indication that I am not worthy. My current target is now the cavernous gap between my political convictions and the way I am living my life. Cavernous because my only option is to fall fast and far through the weak foundation of what I think I know and what I actually do…
Girl, like the one and only time you gave in to name-dropping an influential, or maybe even [in]famous, relative to slide around the bureaucracy of the passport office at home. Is “one and only” one time too many when I claim to understand how corruption works? Let’s hear some of that talk about privilege, hmm? How many volunteer shifts missed until I just stop going? How many times to be judgmental, or to compromise my own humanity by my inability or unwillingness to empathize with anyone who cries “white tears?” Or like the fact that I’m using this space to seek validation that I am indeed a “good” person doing my best? Is that what I’m doing? Who has time for my self-indulgence/self-flagellation-self at all?
Whatever is happening now is ugly. My writing has turned from confession and the occasional celebration into another opportunity to turn against my myself. I am living the combination of trying to move around as an artist concerned with what my work is going to mean in this world, attempting to navigate how I wield power and squirm under its heel at the same time, and this genetic? hormonal? all of the above? tendency to be ruthless with my self where I should be gentle. Whatever is happening now is ugly, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened.
Here are some of the things outside off (but not necessarily unrelated to) my self that I’ve been thinking and talking and teaching about over the past few weeks (and also trying to figure out things I can *do*.) Give them a read? It’s urgent.
I’m so grateful that my professor in the fall non fiction workshop, Jerald Walker, recommended my essay to be published in the May issue of Slice Magazine! My bio is just casually on the same page as Edwidge Danticat! I had a few more thoughts, because unfortunately the essay is as true for me today as it was when I wrote it in October. I’m doing alright for the most part, even though it may not necessarily seem like it. I’m grateful to be alive, and to have had the chance to focus completely on my writing in a way that I may not have done so easily had I not gone the MFA route. I’m just trying my best to navigate this thing called my 20s, along with everything else happening in the world right now, while still finding room for a little joy and some rest.
My favorite kind of message to receive is from people who read this blog and tell me that my being open about my mental health, anger among other things resonates deeply with them, or that my words have expressed their own personal experiences in ways they hadn’t been able to do before. This has nothing to do with any potential massages to my ego, but is completely about the relief I feel that I am not as alone as I may think, and that this writing practice, this thing I love to do the most out of anything in this world, has been helpful in some small way for others. I had recently started to think that I got such a positive response on posts about all these raw emotions because people love to consume others’ pain, particularly if the writer or artist is a Black woman carrying many things on her back. This may be true to some extent, but mostly people genuinely appreciate seeing themselves reflected in art, and it brings me such joy to be a part of that process.
I still feel isolated, because “opening up” in writing and in person, and setting boundaries for what I can and can’t take from others doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. I’ve tried to shift from cries for help buried in jokes and sarcasm to speaking plainly about my needs and my hurt, but somehow the resounding response seems to be “You’ll be fine. You always are.” Loneliness seems to be the best way to describe the resulting state of being after the “just checking on you” messages stutter to a stop, or the person in need of my care or advice has found their solution or someone else to lean on. As I’ve said before, I don’t resent at all being called on at any hour to put out a little fire, but it would be amazing to hear from people just for the sake of a pleasant chat, or “just thinking of you.”
There’s this phrase in Ewe my mum says regularly, whenever a friend or significant other begins to take one for granted. Loosely translated it means “loosen the rope” or “loosen the thread,” as in, begin to distance yourself. She’s always reminding me that life is too short to endure more heartbreak than is necessary, when one can just uproot oneself and leave in pursuit of contentment and more equal and nurturing relationships, platonic and otherwise.
I understand where that advice comes from, but I used to wonder, if I start pulling away the minute someone disappoints me, won’t that mean I’ll eventually have no one left? If we all take this approach, where would that leave us? Self-absorbed and unable to see past our own noses, and miserable and unloved all at the same time? I find myself wishing that people would just actually listen and be a little more gentle, so that we wouldn’t have to resort to coldness and withdrawal in the hopes of getting our needs considered more seriously. (It hurts even more when the “loosening of the tie” goes unnoticed, almost as if you’ve ceased to exist unless to offer some humor or a word of advice.)
Which brings me to the essay I had published in Slice Magazine in May, “My Secondhand Lonely,” The title comes from one of the most painful moments for me (among many) in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. My piece is about keeping up the kind of performance I’ve learnt from my mother, to always pretend to be well-adjusted and available for others, no matter the pain I’m going through. The timeline of the essay ends right before my first visit to a therapist and learning about PMDD. I also talk about recognizing this always-on-top-of-things performance in Molly from the HBO show Insecure. I wrote this essay before the point in the TV series where they turned Molly into a walking think-piece and began using her character to showcase what felt like every problematic worldview possible; homophobia, classism, respectability politics, you name it. There was just something about her strutting her flawless self around the office, paralleled by her crying alone in the bathroom at her office that felt so familiar.
Ultimately, the essay is about feeling ashamed for yearning for the company and care of others, because according to Sula the fearless, and the trope of the independent Black woman I see everywhere, I should be enough for myself. On some days, I do feel like enough, unstoppable and self-sufficient. Mostly, I’m still human and in need of connection with others, just like other human beings, but unsure of how else I can make this known without becoming irritating or repetitive (I fear I already am the latter.) I don’t think it’s sustainable to live this way, to weep privately, like I did while writing this post this evening, to grin and joke in public, and to keep loving and caring with little reciprocation while deteriorating on the inside. At the moment though, I don’t know how else to be.
You can read a preview of the essay and get a copy of the magazine here.
(Image: Cover of Slice Magazine Issue 20: Corporeal. Artwork by Jenny Morgan, courtesy of Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York. Cover design by Jennifer K. Beal Davis.)
The list of PMDD symptoms on the clinic’s website are clearly separated with bullet points marching down the page like ants following a trail to their nest. “Psychological Symptoms: Anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed or out of control. Sensitivity to rejection. Social withdrawal. Physical: Abdominal bloating. Appetite disturbance (usually increased). Sleep disturbance (usually hypersomnia.) Behavioral: Fatigue. Forgetfulness. Poor concentration.”
The list may as well be a roll call of old friends from my contacts list. They explain why I have been known to snap my reply to my roommate’s simple question, “Are you the one boiling water?”
I am becoming increasingly fixated on and disgusted by my bloated belly during the weeks leading up to my period and remain unsatisfied when it reverts to its usual and lesser roundness in proportion to the roundness of my hips and thighs.
I got home early from work a few days and was driven by this latest preoccupation to spend all afternoon trying on all the fancy dresses I wore during my graduation season in 2015 to make sure they still fit.
I spend entire days in deep sleep and unable to complete the simplest of tasks when I wake– send that email, reply that text message, braid your hair, take a shower. Every single mundane obligation seems to require effort that I can’t find in any corner of myself.
The dependable memory I often brag about feels more like a mosquito net with huge holes in it, details of stories I heard just days before immediately escaping after I hear them; Ah, didn’t I already tell you this?
My messier, more complicated states of mind defy the order of any list. The minute I start searching old text messages and emails for hurtful or unprofessional things I said, no matter how many years have passed since, I can bet my entire student debt that it’s two weeks before my period.
Two weeks of picking through past mistakes obsessively, the time I was a terrible student leader and sacrificed a team member’s well-being for the “reputation” of our organization, or when I ended up hurting and losing a friend for venting about ways she irritated me to everyone but her, or the time at morning assembly circa 2010 when I made a rude comment about a girl’s outfit loud enough for her to hear. I now feel compelled to provide a disclaimer that I’m not rolling out these memories in some complicated attempt at self-deprecation, to paint myself as the supremely self-aware person who has grown for her past mistakes.
The kind of guilt I feel at these and a multitude of other mistakes sits on my chest at night like a bully daring me to get up, to fight back, knowing that I do not have the strength to. The list of wrongdoings extends before me, off the edge of my bed and into the shadows of my room; like the time I missed several office hours meetings with a professor I respect greatly because I just couldn’t make it out of bed and didn’t fully understand why at the time. I’m just burnt out, I thought. Senior spring after all, I thought.
The bully’s voice gives way to a more sinister one, something like a hiss, working hard to convince me that this collection of evidence affirms what I ready know, that I am undeserving of care or even the right to exist at all. Where do I fit these on the approved symptoms? How much of this is regular human obsession over cringeworthy moments? How much should I worry?
Again, I feel compelled to interrupt myself, to point out that I use metaphor not simply to grab your imagination, but to express that I hear myself being hateful to myself, sometimes like a schoolyard enemy, annoying but mostly harmless, sometimes like something much more cruel and dangerous. I’ve taken to carrying out painstaking scrutiny of my past self, dedicating whole essays to tearing down my half-formed politics from years past. (I’ve done that once here, and there are a few other posts I never put up on this blog.) Mean-spirited navel-gazing, if you will. I mean, girl. how can you claim any kind of radical feminism when your CV includes an organization founded by THE feminist imperialist herself, and another named after Woodrow Wilson? How? And those study abroad blog posts you wrote, girl…
This song improves my mood almost instantly and motivates me to get work done, despite containing the lyrics “Who needs a degree!”
Paranoia is another state of mind that refuses the precision of a bullet-pointed list.
Are the whispers in the next room about me? Did I do something? What did I do?
This is why you are trash.
What does this text message really mean? Was it clear that I was having a hard time, or is this person being dismissive because they can’t pinpoint the gravity of my tone?
This is why you’re trash.
Am I breathing too loudly in this elevator? Did I seem interested enough in that conversation? Am I talking too much? Am I wasting their time? Why aren’t they talking to me? Did I do something?
This is why you’re trash.
Was that story too personal for this setting? Have I used the term PMDD too many times in this conversation? What is self-care, and do I deserve it?
The conclusion to all these unrelenting questions is always, I’m trash, and everyone is just pretending they don’t already know. See? This is why.
What scares me is not being able to draw a straight line through all these elements, to categorize what is “normal” for my at times scattered emotional experience and what isn’t. I would hate to find out that there are more acronyms and names previously unknown to me that describe some other mood disorder. (Is it presumptuous of me to even hint at a self-diagnosis so casually? Am I being too casual?)
It’s been a while since I decided to leave the curtains open to my performance. I offer full access to what happens behind the scenes in the name of full disclosure. I’ve been trying to transcribe the terrible questions circling around inside my head like some nightmarish carousel. In this spirit of full transparency, a few more realities I’ve been trying to share instead of hiding–
I sometimes cancel plans because I can’t bear to leave the house again once I return from work, and not because I have too much homework to do. I’ve chosen to say hidden in my room, hungry and thirsty because I can’t bare to face any human being, purposefully isolated but wishing someone would check in on me. It’s so frustrating to feel completely stuck, craving company and flinching from it at the same time behind my closed bedroom doors. I once spent an entire weekend in intermittent panic, self-loathing and bouts of crying because I felt so awful for not finding it in myself to be as welcoming to a person dear to someone dear to me as I was expected to be. Selfish. This is why you’re trash.
I detest the saying “something’s gotta give.” Of course, I can manage. Keep in touch with everyone, run your errands, calm your nerves if you need me to. I’ve only recently realized, after dropping some of the many conversation threads and obligations I’ve been juggling, that more often than not that “something” is me. For every time a friend reminds me that someone or something in my life is demanding too much time and energy, or is being neglectful and careless, I am often left confused when that friend isn’t able to apply those boundaries to their own actions. “Prioritize yourself, except when it comes to me. And if you don’t hear from me, well. I’m sure you’ll be fine. You always are!”
I almost resisted at this point, but am inevitably giving in to the guilt of how selfish the preceding paragraph may read. What’s even more upsetting is that these voices, or symptoms, are working their hardest to convince me that hardly anyone has noticed the slip in my act. No-one is wondering where you’ve been. No-one will wonder if you’re gone. And again, the guilt reminds me, I am trash for expecting…what? Round the clock attention? For my friends and family to be punching bags for all my emotional twists and turns? To avoid me or hover and fuss at my whim? To drop everything they’re doing and pay attention to me? Whose job is it to do all this? I don’t even know what I want or need. One of the few things I’m sure of is that I don’t expect to get away with hurting or neglecting others because of my chaotic internal life. I can hold myself accountable, I just need to express how much time I spend hating myself just for living.
For the moment, I’m done explaining. I think I’m now generally a more tolerable, maybe even interesting, person than I was when I was an insecure teen torn between the respectability politics flying around my head and the carefree irreverence my mother was constantly nudging me towards, cover up those thighs (or don’t), get that extra piercing (or don’t) ladies don’t curse when they’re angry (but they do), do as you please so long as you are comfortable (your body is a temple).Very soon I must write about how my mother fiercely held on to her agency and autonomy in a male-dominated field that punished her for daring to do so while being brilliant and the best at her job. I will never be as amazing as she is.
I’m off to go write about that, among other things. I’m taking a break from this blog, because I have a thesis to write and joy to catch up to even as it may continue to elude me. There’s so much important work to be done, and I’m trying to ignore the guilt and fear of empty self-indulgence long enough to get it done. I’ll be back to post updates if anything exciting happens in my life that I may want to share. Wish me joy!
I set out to write a funny post about a [literal] goddess going to the salon to get her hair braided because I’m tired of the intensity in my writing (and life) lately, but instead here I am breaking the social media contract and “over-sharing,” rather than posting selfies and cute holiday updates.
The therapist I’ve been seeing for about two months keeps reminding me that people will never be able to read my mind, and that if I need support or someone to vent to, I need to say so directly. I’ve realized that I’ve become resentful of having to “speak up” to be heard because I’ve spent so much energy picking up on people’s silent cries for help to the point where I expect others to do the same for me. I’m now realizing that this expectation is unreasonable, as unreasonable as the burdens that I carry for other people. At the same time, I’ve been struggling to explain to the therapist the most painful part of my reality, that most of the time even when I “speak up” the people who are supposed to care are only mindful of my situation so long as it doesn’t interfere with their need for me to listen or comfort, or advise, or make jokes, or whatever is necessary in the moment.
It’s uncomfortable sharing this not just for how carefully I’ve kept these things hidden, but because even as I write, I’m berating myself for being self-indulgent or entertaining an over-blown sense of importance, and for extending this to the point of paying for professional advice that my budget can barely accommodate. What I haven’t shared until now, is that this same therapist has confirmed that I have Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder, a condition that probably affects a lot more people than is documented because it’s easier to dismiss our internal suffering as hysteria and irrationality rather than addressing it with the seriousness it requires.
I started noticing what I now know are symptoms of this disorder in late 2013-2014 at a time when several other things were going on that could act as scapegoats for the terrifying depression that visited me every month anywhere from 7 to 10 (and sometimes even as many as 14) days before my period. I probably would’ve enjoyed my semester studying in Dakar much more, had I not been secretly miserable for most of the time I was there. The summer following my study abroad program I returned home to Accra, interning at a publishing house in the day time and staying up all night, almost every night, obsessing over how little anyone would care if I was no longer living, even going so far as to imagine how I could end myself. I would then leave the house in the morning with a smile fixed on like nothing was the matter. The most obvious cause for all this seemed to be a relationship that I ended in the fall of 2014. I felt isolated and misunderstood, but was trying to hold on to someone who was showing signs that he wanted to be let go. Of course, it was easier at the time to point at phone calls trickling into non-existence and the general decline of a relationship as the source of my sadness, than to face the possibility that what I was experiencing was more than me making excuses for being a terrible girlfriend who asked for too much and hid behind “I’m just really emotional but it’s something that I’ll have to work on.”
Despite how closely my symptoms followed my cycle, it has taken me this long to actually seek help partly because I was, and still am, fearful of being the selfish person I believed myself to be in that relationship, someone who expected unlimited leeway for my erratic emotions without any consequences or consideration for others. I know this isn’t true, but it’s hard to unlearn an idea that feeds on pre-existing anxieties, particularly when it came from someone whose opinion meant more to me than most. In the spirit of fairness, I have to point out that it must have been draining and confusing for the person I was with to deal with someone who needed more care than he was unequipped to provide, especially when I had no clear idea of what was going on and what I needed. It is possible that I am stretching the benefit of the doubt further than it should probably go, because there were things that may or may not have occurred that had little to do with my behavior. A writer and professor I admire greatly recently told me that I’m free to share anything I choose in non-fiction writing as long as I own up to the part I played in the events I’m describing, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Even now, a lot of the old self-doubt is needling its way back into my mind and making it difficult for me to finish this piece, as though this account of my condition is an even more elaborate excuse for bad behavior that I’m trying to apply retroactively to make myself look better. There is also the fact that having time and access to resources to be able to take care of myself is a luxury that so many other people don’t enjoy, and it would be much better for me to keep it moving instead of wallowing in the depths of my diagnosis. Writing this and sharing it publicly is part of my attempt to disarm the effects of PMDD as much as is possible before I head down the much-dreaded route of medication, and to hopefully let others know that “keeping it moving” isn’t admirable or wise, nor does asking for support invalidate how incredible you are for surviving. I’m also trying to defy the fear that I’m standing on a podium addressing an empty auditorium because all the people I expect to show up had somewhere much more important to be. After all, there are far more frightening things happening in the world, need I re-cap the past year?
Here I am, anyway.
If I’m restless and irritable at home but have no desire to go anywhere, it’s because spending time with people means pretending I wasn’t crying uncontrollably on the way there. If I’m unusually slow to answer messages or calls, it could be that I’m busy, but it’s also likely that I’m trapped inside myself too frightened to give an honest response to “Hey, how are you?” If I miss multiple dates, appointments or deadlines in a row, there’s a great possibility that I’m in bed ashamed for not being able to drag myself into the world to carry on the farce that until recently has been comfortable and safer than telling the truth. This is where my usual apology usually comes in, but I’ve done enough shouldering blame for something that is completely out of my control. I’m grateful for the people who I don’t have to lie to about how or where I’ve been, and for this blog that gives me full permission to speak my truth out loud even if it will go unnoticed.
Last year, The Guardian published an essay by Chimamanda Adichie in which she described her experiences with PMDD and depression. It was later removed from the site because according to Adichie, the site published the piece without her final consent and approval. It was the first thing I read about PMDD and I cried mostly with relief because it echoed what I have been going through in so many different ways.
Image: Lloyd K. Sarpong the great, once again capturing me and the third housemate/my sister killjoy on a day I felt (and looked, to be honest) the best I have in a long while.
It is a wonder there are any parts of myself left to write about. Take the rusty hook digging into my cheek, forcing my face into a grimace for a smile. I am the one holding it, it is this pen and workshops and operating rooms and places other sharp objects sit waiting to tear and reconstruct ugly parody of natural self. Recovery is not a destination; it is a place I keep writing myself away from
She is holding the scalpel ripping away at herself and now she has turned it on me. I am pulling further away from her and she has not noticed that her attempts at comfort and commiseration feel like the same unnecessary procedures she has had to endure. Just because our bones settle together into the same shape does not mean I want to die her sort of death
reversal of the order
is impossible. I’m writing against recovery but cannot write myself into wholeness. I speak most fluently in broken teeth spat into a hand– not mine– small strips of flesh hanging off the edges of my nail beds, splits in damaged hair pulled together too roughly. Is there anything else left to disfigure in the name of getting over and beyond…recovery will never be a destination
I have written too far away from it and everyone expects my remains as proof
reverse the order
I will still end up in ruin where I have put myself every single time, but she helped me get here and so did you
Rewrite after poetry workshop, spring 2017
(as Michelle Cliff tried to do)
It is a wonder there are any parts of myself left to write about. Take the rusty hook digging into my cheek, forcing my face to form a grimace for a smile. I am the one holding it, it is this pen and workshops and operating rooms and places other sharp objects sit waiting to tear and reconstruct ugly parody of natural self. Recovery is not a destination; it is a place I keep writing myself away from.
My spirit mother is holding the scalpel ripping away at herself and now she has turned it on me. I am pulling further away from her and she has not noticed that her attempts at comfort and commiseration feel like the same unnecessary procedures she has had to endure. Just because our bones settle into the same shape does not mean I want to die her sort of death.
I’m writing against recovery but cannot write myself to wholeness. I speak most fluently in broken teeth spat in my hand, small strips of flesh hanging off the edges of my nail beds, splits in damaged hair pulled together too roughly. Is there anything else left to disfigure in the name of getting over and beyond–
Recovery will never be a destination. I have written too far away from it and everyone expects my remains as proof.
Teri Joseph, Nicole Ari Parker’s character on the TV series “Soul Food,” was one of my first introductions to the idea that being a successful black woman involved suits with over the top shoulder pads, a brisk purposeful walk, and waking nightmares lived in secret; shortness of breath and blinding panic quickly stowed away before anyone could come to discover what was wrong. The other woman who taught me that lesson was my mother. She always said that the worse she felt, the better she made herself look. Shoulder pads slightly more understated than Teri’s, dark brown lipstick to match an immaculate manicure, cheekbones accentuated with face powder for that “try me” effect.
Years after my 8-year-old self watched these women display in public like they were untouchable, like everything they did was effortless, I adopted that costume as well, and the words came so naturally to me that I forgot that they weren’t originally mine. I’m trying not to look how I feel. The worse I felt, the better I looked; not severe lack of sleep, not a messy breakup, not homesickness would make it beyond the walls of my room, not even beyond the boundaries of my own body. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one around me was explicitly asking for me to perform flawlessness, but put on a show, I did (and still do.) Minimal makeup, but enough to trick the inexperienced eye into thinking that my skin is naturally glowing and free of blemish. Dramatic eyeliner becomes the sharpest weapon in my arsenal of self-preservation and self-destruction. Form-fitting and low cut, bright and quirky, all outfit choices carefully selected the night before for precise execution the next morning. Every compliment is validation, and added pressure to never let the mask slip. I would make people feel uncomfortable otherwise, and I can’t have that.
Beyond aesthetics, the performance includes frequent and thorough conversations about other people’s problems to which I didn’t always have the answer, but always tried to channel all the calm I can conjure to make sure I say something comforting, helpful, or at least something that makes them laugh. I’m never too busy, tired or uninterested to talk through family conflicts or school stress, anxiety about debt, or a hostile work environment. There were also my own studies, jobs and several extra-curricular activities, all to be done with supposed ease. In the process, I’ve learned to fasten my facade a little more tightly, with obstacles like metal gates topped with broken glass and barbed wire between myself and anyone who suspects that all is not as OK with me as I insist.
Yeah I’m free what’s up?
Of course I can talk!
Nothing ooh, just tired.
I feel guilty for resenting the constant act I feel I have to put on and for resenting the people who have assigned me this role. Stop being a martyr. This is what friends are for, to be there for each other whenever necessary. In the past, I attempted to unload on the one person who I believed should and would be there for me no matter what, not realizing at the time that there were things about myself I didn’t yet know and understand, and that I was basically using that person in the same way I was being used. I’m sorry. I’m not apologizing for existing as the person I am, which I often felt compelled to do when that person was in my life. I couldn’t have “worked on myself” in the ways that I said I would, because I’m not broken and in need of “fixing.” As regretful as I feel sometimes for relying too heavily on that person, I’m also glad that their confusion and frustration with my chaos was drowning out my attempts to understand myself.
Now I’m getting ready for a long day of work, meetings, a four-hour class, and hopefully a chance to hear Angela Davis speak at my school. Minus shoulder pads, but still bearing the anxiety of over-extending myself, of having agreed to undertake projects of which I actually don’t want to be a part, of having too many tasks between me and the weekend, and not enough hours to complete them while feeding myself anything other than coffee to keep going. So, I try my best to look radiant. Here’s the latest perfectly drawn eyeliner wing, the left side always comes out better. Here’s the latest collection of rings I’ve stacked on every finger, again another aesthetic borrowed from my mother. Here are the picturesque Somerville houses in neat rows with statues of the Virgin Mary praying from every other front yard, the first thing I see before my commute downtown. What you won’t see is the pacing around the bedroom, the shortness of breath, the tightening in my chest, the pajama shirt to muffle myself, the tears streaking the concealer I just put on, the frantic phone call to my mother while I try to collect myself before I miss the bus and complicate my day even further.
Even this blog is part of the performance. How much of it is fiction summoned from an overactive imagination with only so many outlets to release itself? How much of it is lifted directly off the pages of my journal? Maybe today I won’t try to hide faint cries for help behind self-deprecating jokes. On multiple occasions, I’ve spent hours talking with professors and other people who I know really mean, “How are you?” when they ask, but every time I feel close to actually expressing parts of this, I stop myself. I’m being self-indulgent and inappropriate, and it really shouldn’t be anyone else’s job to deal with my confusion, aside from a person who is paid specifically for this purpose. The relentless highlight reel showing murders of black people by the police in the US, along with people being killed in protests against the government in the DRC, and the awareness of the backs I have stood on in order to be alive and well right now, all work together with many other factors to aggravate the low feeling I’m carrying around. Writing is the only thing that allows me to unburden myself of some of these feelings, but the crowding of too many other commitments means that I write less, which only deepens my anxiety.
I’m frightening myself, mainly because it’s slowly becoming more difficult and less appealing to put on my stage persona before going out in public. There are also a few other things at play that I don’t quite understand and am not ready to share. What I can say is that I want to be loved in the way that I try to love people, completely, in all ways, on panicky 4am phone calls, in ‘I’ve missed you” conversations turning into “Actually, I need your help…” in impromptu trips to the city if it’s affordable, just to be there in person with whoever.
It feels very isolating to consider the possibility that there are so few people in my life who can love me the way I love them, to the extent that I’m about to make an appointment to speak with someone professionally trained to help me to do this “work” on myself. People are either too practical, too busy, too engrossed in what I think are far more critical situations, or awkwardly silent. Sometimes they aren’t able to see far enough backstage to realize that I’m not ready for the conversation to move on to lighter topics, that I just want to be seen, even if for just a moment.
Maybe it’s my fault for not knowing exactly what kind of response or support I’m looking for. Maybe I’m too self-centered and over-estimating the role I play in the lives of the people closest to me. The one thing I’m sure of is that I have to want to thrive for myself, to just be, rather than to do so because I can’t answer the question, “What would so-and-so do without me?”
Actually, no. Everything isn’t fine. Can you please talk to me?
(Image: My mum looking absolutely gorgeous on our way to one of the many weddings we used to attend. I had on a a dress with drawings of fruit all over it.)