Unlearning My Family’s Wellness Values Taught Me How To Be Truly Resilient

Art: Taneasha White / W+G Creative

What have you done to be tired?

I’ve heard that refrain countless times during my adolescence and well into my young adulthood. As if fatigue is something that is reserved for people over a specific, but mysterious age.

Growing up, my household was not one that focused on wellness. I was not taught to prioritize my mental health over financial gain, or that how I felt inside was just as vital as how I appeared on the outside. I was not allowed to take time for myself, or to erect boundaries.

Instead, my family's tradition was to keep moving. To push what is difficult aside because those before you went through worse. That if you are only focused on upward mobility, you can't go wrong. It was ultimately in rejecting these lessons during my adulthood that I learned how to truly take care of myself—essential, given that I live my life at the intersections of several marginalized identities as a Black, queer woman.

Reaching an inflection point

My mother always used the term hustler as a positive attribute, effectively defined as someone who is willing to work hard to get to where they want to be. (Taking a break, on the other hand, was equivalent to being lazy, or so I had been taught.) On its face, there isn’t anything wrong with promoting the general idea of a good work ethic. The complication comes from the focus that is often placed on financial gain—how money, status, and tangible goods are the only things that determined your worth.

They say that hindsight is 20/20. During my youth, despite my internal disagreement, I had just quietly accepted that productivity was what I was obligated to center. Rest was an unfamiliar concept to me. But as I grew into my young adulthood, I was forced to reckon with my unchecked anxiety, realizing that the level of overwhelm I felt on a daily basis was not unavoidable—there were remedies and interventions that existed outside of compartmentalization. After a long talk with my parents (because I was still on their insurance at the time) I finally stepped into therapy during early college.

During one of these sessions, I discussed my long-standing relationship with stress and (a lack of) wellness and realized that I’d experienced my first anxiety attack during my junior year of high school. I was stressed over the SATs. At the time, I was told that I was just an overachiever.

I’m a work in progress, undoubtedly. I have to make room for self-compassion.

I remember rushing to school that same year, almost late for a pre-class club meeting when I was peppered with questions by some friends as soon as I’d appeared. Though I didn’t articulate my feelings at the time, I was overwhelmed, and I yelled at them both to give me some time. In therapy years later, I learned that anxiety sometimes presents itself as irritability. But back then, I’d been told I was just moody and had a bad attitude.

As I’ve learned, the expectation of Black women to take any and everything with a smile is a notion that goes back to slavery—our ancestors were not only responsible for keeping up the house and ensuring that slaveholder’s quarters were in tip-top shape, but were who ensured the monetary legacy continued by producing more children. Today, we are viewed as both sub- and superhuman: responsible for both being soft and empathetic enough to care for everyone’s children, but tough enough to not feel any “real” pain. What room do we have to center our wellness then?

Finding and defining my new normal

Because of the traumatic history we had overcome, my family believed that we owed it to ourselves to be the best, regardless of the emotional price tag. I refuse to categorize that as living anymore. Instead, I’ve learned that truly living means centering what is going to promote growth, peace, and wellness for myself.

My version of wellness might look a little different from the stereotypical fitted yoga pants and early-morning green smoothies. For one thing, rest and slowing down are paramount. I have set a clear boundary to never start working—no matter how much I have to do—before 8 a.m. Instead, my morning ritual includes snuggling with my partner and cat in bed for a minimum of 15 minutes to talk about our dreams from the night before, starting a pot of extra-strong coffee that I will drink entirely myself, and eating breakfast together over an episode of the latest show we’re working on together. I might do some stretching prior to coffee and breakfast, or my partner and I might do some silent, self-guided meditation in place of the dream recap. The bottom line is that it’s about what works for me.

I am a Black, Queer woman, and I am resilient, but that does not equate to withstanding any and everything.

Centering my actual needs, as you might imagine, is a new concept. Recently, I left a full-time job with benefits for two part-time jobs without any. I dealt with daily microaggressions and micromanagement and had grown weary of representing an organization whose actions did not align with their stated values. In my family’s view, the stability of a salaried job should have overruled any internal negative feelings I had. But the old adage of not being able to pour from an empty cup is painfully true. I spent so much emotional energy navigating this toxic work environment that there was nothing left for anyone or anything else. I had no patience for my partner. I had no motivation to write. I had no time to participate in the community events I was interested in. All signs that I needed to put myself first and leave for something new.

As an adult, I’ve also become incredibly intentional about self-compassion. Someone on the outside might see me as someone who is constantly on the move, vacillating between writing an article, taking graduate courses, editing an anthology, organizing a period poverty campaign, writing another article, making a veggie lasagna, and and and. But what they likely don’t see is my daily self-talk and affirmations. My intentionality around taking a nap at 3 p.m. before I start a new project because I want to give it my crisp and full attention. My choosing to order takeout again, because it’s a goddamn pandemic and I haven’t had time to wash the dishes. That while I have a five-year plan (with contingency plans for every six months), I allow myself the room to make mistakes, get things wrong, and renegotiate with myself.

Those are all things that I did not learn from my family of origin. Mistakes were not accepted, nor were they forgotten. So when I make a mistake—I take a beat. Breathe in for three, hold for four, breathe out for five. I’m a work in progress, undoubtedly. I have to make room for self-compassion.

Wellness might seem trivial to some, but to me, those things are integral to me staying well and whole and fulfilled. I am a Black, Queer woman, and I am resilient, but that does not equate to withstanding any and everything. If need be, I will cry, I will say no, I will take a break. It makes me all the more able to get back up and try again the next day.

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