“As a Black woman, I cannot afford to not have it all. I have to be the leader at work, leaping twice as high and working thrice as hard. Then I have to come home and switch into the submissive role so as not to emasculate my partner. I can’t afford to be broken.”
These are the words I uttered while being interviewed for the book “UPPITY: Women, Race, and Class in America” by Tanzina Vega [Twitter]. The query of a woman’s ability to have it all in itself is an ordinary, well-worn one. Still, I remember the deep sigh I let out prior to answering. A sigh to perhaps relieve the excruciating weight of a familiar burden. My answer too is one well-worn; understood well by sisters yet requiring more explanation than we often have energy for with others. The pride and pain of Black womanhood is our incomparable resilience. It fuels the flames of both our survival and ultimately our demise.
We have willingly taken on more than we could or should handle: our own pain, the pain of partners we choose to love, and the painful plight of our people. We are the mothers of those murdered by state-sanctioned violence as well as its overlooked victims, we are the forgotten daughters, we are the champions on the frontline confronting the never-ending injustices of our communities. We pull it together. We hold it together. We are so good at being savior to everyone else that we forsake ourselves.
But what if we do all of this work only to keep ourselves busy? What if we’re just too afraid to acknowledge what being broken means?
“Hmm… are you sure you’re not a therapist?”
I have an uncanny ability to process emotions with intuitive logical deduction and reasoning. With all due modesty, I’m really great at parsing through the shitastrophic lives of others. So naturally, I’m the resident 5¢ psychiatrist in my sister circles.
The gift of being all things to all things is the ability to forget ourselves and appear as a martyr. I talk Natalie* out of her latest bout of self-doubt and anxiety, a mirror of my own struggles with imposter syndrome. I listen empathetically to Eva* painfully restate words from her spouse that shattered her entire world, an all too real reminder of the quiet insecurities of my mind within my own relationship. To them, I am a listening ear and source of wisdom. To me, they are a magnifying glass of my own wounds that I cheerfully ignore in exchange for the heroism of my role as healer. Being broken is an exposure of our flaws. Brokenness reminds us of our emptiness, sadness, and open wounds.
The Cape of Black Womanhood is one we often suit up with pride. Our very survival depends on our ability to lay aside our humanity to assume immortality for those around us. Each role we play in life is subject to depths of criticisms unique only to us. Patriarchy requires our perfection as mothers, lest we be held responsible for the increasing rates of single parent homes. Capitalism requires that we navigate work environments that often despise and ridicule us, forcing us to codeswitch our tongues and relax our strands for the relaxation of others. Even in our dogged tiredness, we dare not ask for or hire help in order to free up ourselves. “Nannies? That’s some white woman shit. Y’all gettin’ these degrees and forgetting who you are.” Yet, even when breathing feels like a herculean effort, we proudly display our capes as our strength.
“I like it when you’re vulnerable, babe. It makes me feel like you need me.”
Perhaps there is no greater reflection of our unhealed issues as women than in our romantic relationships. We nurture partners/spouses who are often neither our equal nor our savior at the expense of ourselves. The Christ-complex within us convinces us that we are capable of transforming people into whole people by offering our love wholesale. We eagerly pay the tariffs of our emotional and, in some cases, physical well-being in a gamble for the love and affection of emotionally unavailable people. If we didn’t, we’d otherwise be forced to pay the high price of singleness. After all, the years of grooming in our relationship ethics teaches us that singleness is an acquiescence of our brokenness.
“My therapist asked me: are you being triggered by your actual partner or by your origin family?”
An argument with my Boo Cup ♥ brings fresh triggers and I carelessly put the blame on him. I tell him that his silence means he’s emotionally withdrawn from me. I tell him that our one breakup is the source of my fears that he will leave. Self-preservation pushes me to stay one step ahead, prepared to pick up the pieces when he leaves. I decide that I cannot give space to my own fractures. I cannot tell him the truth. The cost of betraying myself as weak in any regard is one I’ve not been willing to pay again.
“No love didn’t come to set me free. Love you only left me waiting on my knees. Loving you is like trying to burn the river down.”
I cannot tell him that I fear he will leave because I remember Daddy choosing his second marriage over his relationship with me, so I think every man will choose another woman eventually. I question his intentions because I’m terrified that maybe, just maybe, I’m going to be the starter girl again; grooming him into the man that becomes the husband of another woman’s dream. I cannot tell him that his silence triggers my insecurities because I wonder if he’s finally had enough of my shit.
I’ve spent so much time preparing for his departure that I haven’t honored the conscious choice he makes to stay. It took five years before I finally believed him when he said he was in this for the long haul. Five years to recognize that his declarations of love are not empty promises. Five years to realize that maybe I’m a woman who has grown weary of having to be so strong.
My need to feel safe is in constant opposition of my need to save myself from threats both real and imagined. I recognize that my own internal conflict does not excuse his handling of my heart. Yet, I still withhold from him the truth that perhaps he’s not as much to blame as my own perceptions of him are.
I recognize his imperfections and work to be a healing balm, making me the ride or die heroine that I have skillfully crafted for myself. My brokenness shows up as an appearance of Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde. I let him think I’m moody rather than betray my well-constructed fortress of strength. I reason that the hand that his own life has dealt is enough of a burden for him to bear without needing to bear my infirmities as well. So I swallow it all, offering myself on a sacrificial altar created only by me.
I cannot afford to be broken. Black women pull it together. We hold it together. We are the savior, not the saved.
I’ve known for at least two years that I wanted, nay, needed to begin therapy.
The moment of realization was not being forced into the role of caretaker for my ailing father after years of my building resentment towards him. It was not the suicidal ideation I had in 2007 as I nearly flunked out of college. It wasn’t even the visceral reaction I had when seeing a pack of ramen noodles in the grocery store, a searing reminder of living on their sustenance for months in a seedy extended stay that I called home. When I slid hopelessly down my wall two weeks after my Father’s death, wailing through blubbery tears that I was sorry I couldn’t protect or save him, it was then I realized I needed to be healed. The weight of my cape was slowly cutting off my air supply.
Black woman, the savior. Black woman, the condemned.
I’m a huge advocate for access to mental health services, particularly for communities of color. So it is not that I have a qualm or aversion to mental health. I have every reason I need to seek out therapy: loss of a parent, ending a decades long friendship, career transition, quarter-life crisis, YOU NAAAAAME IT! Yet I convinced myself that I was simply too busy to dedicate the time to finding a therapist to begin care. While the demands of our lives leave little space, the cost of our willful blindness is too much to bear.
The reality is that it is fear, not busyness, that keeps me from seriously pursuing therapy. When I build my courage to face my fears, the ever-present conundrum of doubt presents itself. What if I’m broken? What does that mean for the image I’ve created of myself in my mind and to others? Worse yet, what if I’m broken beyond repair? What if therapy leads me down a path from which there is no comfortable return?
“I had to have this talk to with you because my happiness depends on you and whatever you decide to do.”
We often ask the wrong questions in an effort to avoid the answers we do not wish to hear. For me, the problem doesn’t lie in if I am broken. There is nothing inherently wrong with brokenness. We cannot change and grow without brokenness, so it is not a state that we should fear. The true question is why do I fear being broken? Why do I go into a sheer panic at the thought of being broken? The weight of my answer sends me spiraling.
I fear brokenness because it will force me to redefine my strength. I fear brokenness because I’ll have to face the possibility that what I once believed to be strength is actually the key to my weakness. Brokenness is the kryptonite that strips me of the cape that I’ve shrouded my inadequacies within.
So I volley between vulnerability and stoicism. I unceremoniously decide that I cannot afford to be weak. I cannot afford to be broken. Surely, if I can be a source of healing for others then I am more than capable of healing myself. Yet, maybe I simply don’t know how to confront an unknown level of trauma that possibly resides within me.
The trauma of experiencing my first sexual violation at the age of 8, you know, the one I can see in my mind’s eye as if it happened yesterday.
The trauma of growing up as part of the working poor complete with evictions and constant moving, living often in a state of uncertainty.
The trauma of being raised by a mother with her own unresolved childhood trauma, trying desperately to make my own infinitely better.
The trauma of being raised by a Father who never fully grieved the loss of his mother.
The trauma of having my Father snatched from me when we had so many plans and so much more to learn and love about one another.
The trauma of losing critical friendships with other women in my life with no closure or reconciliation.
“Well it’s like cranes in the sky. Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds.”
For me, these are traumas I like to think I’ve made peace with. And I am terrified that therapy will serve as a wakeup call that I, in fact, have not dealt with it. Facing the brokenness within means I can no longer hide behind the grace of my cape. So I drown it out by busying myself with the work of saving others.
I worship it away, praying the lyrics of the melodies in my ear are enough to drown out the mind that is begging for solace. I rescue it away, counseling others on their lives with deliberate obtuseness for the self I see in their situations. I service it away, turning myself into a mouthpiece for justice so that I can use the words of my tongue for everything and anything else than admitting that I am broken; I am hurting.
Well-masked brokenness is a cape that I’m beyond ready to retire. I simply cannot afford to withhold my vulnerability any longer. I do not open up to this level of transparency as an appeal for sympathy. Quite literally, my next level of success depends on my removal of a cape that no longer enables me to fly. I cannot become the woman of my hopes if I’m too afraid to own the woman I am. I can’t be the leader I want to be if I am not honest with myself and others about where I am emotionally. I cannot be the wife I want to be if I cannot be naked in my (un)wholeness. And while I’ve yet to birth children, I know that I do not want to raise another generation of traumatized saviors.
I’ve since begun therapy and each session gives me a freedom that I’ve only before yearned for. My strength is being made perfect in weakness. I’ve found no greater strength in my life than I have in submitting myself to vulnerability. I’ve only just begun my therapy journey but I no longer fear the brokenness. Finally, I know that there is wholeness on the other side.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned.