This month I wanted to write about my experience of starting therapy but everything in my life feels eclipsed by race issues right now. In January I watched Queen and Slim and Just Mercy and said that I had met my quota of black trauma viewing for the year. The year had other plans, clearly.
Imagine you wake up, you have a great morning, you exercise, you pray, you eat and then you get on the TL and see videos of black people dying at the hands of police, again. You remember for the first time that day, that you are black. You’re no longer just a human being existing in the world, a member of a family, someone who has a career, plans and a vision for the future etc. All of that is secondary because once again, you remember oh yeah, I’m black.
Forgetting and remembering blackness is part of being black in a majority white country. You exist through your own eyes until you remember that you exist through other people’s eyes too. What I saw online, was people being violently reminded that they are black and being reminded of what that has meant historically as well as what it still means in some minds today: That your life is disposable. What I also saw was a lot of white people suddenly realise that too and suddenly express feelings of guilt and shame en-masse. It was the first time I’d seen that. I later realised that it wasn’t the first-time other people had seen it, but it was my first social media rodeo and boy did I get swept up in it all.
One of the things I was working on in therapy was my ability to process anger. Much of my childhood was spent bearing witness to the anger of other people and I decided very early on in my life that I would not let myself be that kind of person, so I suppressed a lot of my own feelings. My work during therapy was to learn how to sit with and be with my anger rather than rushing into healing (which I tend to do). I’ve not felt anger as wholly as I did in the last two weeks of May. I woke up angry. I ate breakfast angry. I sat down angry. I jogged angry. I smiled angry. I went to sleep angry. My nervous system was constantly shaking and on constant alert. I danced a lot. I moved a lot. I soothed a lot. There were moments of stillness brought by feelings of exhaustion and the overwhelming hurt of it all. I was hurt that the people I love were hurting. I was angry at the history of colonialism and white supremacy that brought us to this point. I was hurt that people had lost hope because of it. I was angry that protesters were being vilified. It was hurt that in 2020 we’re still having arguments about whether its ‘all or just black lives that matter’. I was angry that George Floyd’s murderers were not held to account and it was painful to see people around me break because of all of the above.
It’s interesting because part of my job in life is literally to hold space for people’s hurt and anger and I wondered why this felt so different. Why I felt so unable to do so. I can only say it was because it was so uncontrolled. So overwhelming. So uncontained. The same process I watched everyone else go through I went through too. The pain of knowing that someone who looks like you had their life taken from them, just because they look like you and not like them.
Anger can be a destructive emotion but it's also very constructive when given a righteous purpose, and if there is one thing I believe in, it is turning pain into purpose. I’d recently had a number of white mental health staff follow me and I decided that I would use the opportunity to give them and others an insight into the mental health difficulties of afro/Caribbean communities since there is a narrative in services of our community being hard to reach and hard to engage. I’d been in a meeting a week before where I spoke about BAME groups not engaging with services not because of stigma within afro-Caribbean communities, but out of the weariness of engaging with systems that are inherently racially biased against them.
I had stories running through my head of black people being misunderstood by services and having basic human experiences pathologized due to lack of understanding. There are many, but the one that always sticks out in my consciousness is the young black boy who was thought to be ‘delusional’ by staff because he had said that ‘he felt like a coconut’. If you’re black, you know what that means automatically. If you’re not, it means that he felt like he doesn’t feel at home in his skin. That he feels that he identifies more with ‘white culture’ on the inside, but that is not reflected by his skin tone. That’s what he was trying to communicate, but it got lost in translation.
With that in mind, I shared black experiences that I was bearing witness to, highlighting underlying issues and with points of reflection on how to engage compassionately without escalating the situation. I collated it, so it’s there for future reference and understanding too. Almost like an on the ground research study. Nobody asked for it, but it was the only way I could engage online and stay sane. I had all this extra energy and anger and that seemed the best way to channel it constructively when what I really wanted to do was burn everything down. I didn’t want anyone to misunderstand the display of pain as we moved from hurt, to anger, to protests. They did anyway of course.
A lot of people engaged with it but on reflection I found myself asking whether I was doing too much. My friend said that if you always do what you’re led to do you will never be doing too much. I believe that I did the right things initially, but I think around the ‘blackouttuesday’ I became reactive rather than purposeful. It hurt, to all of a sudden see brands and organisations suddenly make statements saying they value black lives just to avoid the social media backlash of not doing so. It would have been better for them to be silent because we who are left will have to pick up the pieces of those broken promises. At the time I felt like my role was ‘accountability’. I didn’t judge anyone, but my posts that day were to highlight that, today you’ve made a statement that I hope you remember to live by. I believe that was valid, but it was definitely led by hurt and a desire to try to protect everyone else from more hurt too.
Noticing that makes me feel silly. I feel silly for letting myself be led by my ‘emotions’. It feels silly to care so much. I have wondered whether all the posting is the equivalent of people rushing out to buy toilet roll, but I know it's not the same because there were tangible changes were made as a result of the online movement. It just feels silly sometimes to care a lot and I often wonder whether that is my strongest asset in psychology or my biggest downfall. There weren’t any negative outcomes from all the posting, but I am conscious that the place I was in at that time was not at all grounded. I also wasn’t able to focus at work or focus on building the initiative that I have been trying to build that speaks to these very same passions. I don’t mind that so much because we are living through multiple crises at once and I needed to shift my priorities to feeling and grieving for a while, but it’s where I felt that I went beyond what my purpose was in the moment because I felt unable to disconnect from it. It's only in the past two days that I've started to dream again and that my mind has started to clear that I've been able to say wait, where have I been these past few days? I haven't been present at all.
I have gotten very clear that part of my purpose on this earth is simply to facilitate people feeling well in their souls and that’s why I am in this field, and that was why I shared in the first place. I couldn’t hold space, but I could share information that would help people who care for black people help them to feel safe in their soul. That’s what I did in my meeting. That’s what I did online too. I think overall, this month was about learning how to identify what I can offer in different spaces while also caring about myself and my longevity. I was reminded that this work will be tough, that I can't do it all at once, and that as much as I don’t want it to be, it is ultimately political because injustice, racism, sexism – are all threats to our wellness but are entwined in our being and the systems we work and live in.
So, there must at times be protest, there must be anger, there must be confrontation, there must be tearing down. There must also be however, the understanding of the role you play and where that begins and ends. There are some movements that we lead in, some that we follow in, some that we take part, and in some that we cannot be part of because we have to be a part of others. There must be the understanding of what you as an individual have to offer in each moment, what your capacity is, what your gifts are. There must be the understanding of the need to rest, of the need for joy and silence. There must be a constant checking in with self and God.
I understood in this month what Audre meant when she said self-care is revolutionary. In a world dominated by greed and the desire to exhaust every resource to achieve its aim including people, rest is the most powerful revolution. I learnt so much about self-care, community care and wellness in this time. It will take a bit more reflection and organising to unpack what I learnt into something meaningful, but I believe that in these moments just passed, I played my part and I learnt what I had to learn about myself and the world and I know how to take those learnings and use them to create interventions and to move forward. I am finding peace with that enough to lift myself out of the thick of it to not be swayed by the pressure to do more or subject myself to more than I can or need to. The truth is that we can only each do so much, and if we want to go far, we can't burn out in the first stretch just because everyone else has decided to care about the issues we have burdens for. Other people will pick up the batons when it gets to their stretch - I don't have to run those miles too.
(I know that 'black' as a category is redundant and that it would be better to refer to ethnicity but I'm using it here for ease).
- What is your own relationship to race and racial issues? Are you comfortable discussing race? If no, why?
- We all are responsible for making sure that the world is a safe place to live. What is your way of doing that?
- Do you notice when you are functioning outside of your purpose and capacity?
- What are the ways that you rest and how do you fill your cup when feeling burnt out?