Crumbling Black woman: A real-life tale

On Sunday, March 19, I sat down to write my weekly blog post. I didn’t get very far.

Instead of writing the piece, I ended up having a panic attack that lasted for well over an hour. Despite using all the tools in my panic attack toolkit to make the attack end, nothing helped. In fact, things actually worsened to the point that I called 911, concerned that maybe I wasn’t just having a panic attack.

The paramedics on the island that I live on arrived and hooked me up to a portable EKG machine, which indicated nothing out of the ordinary going on with my heart. But the blood pressure check revealed that I was rapidly approaching hypertensive emergency level. The paramedics strongly suggested that I be taken to the local hospital to make sure that I wasn’t about to have a stroke. 

Two ambulances, a fire boat, and several hours later, the ER physician felt comfortable assessing that I was most likely having one of my perimenopausal panic attacks, especially since I had a similar episode less than a year ago and had extensive testing done at that time. However, while my blood pressure had dropped to just a “normal” level of stage one hypertension, he suggested I follow up with my primary care physician and prescribed a single dose of Ativan to get me through the night. 

I made my way back home that evening, slightly subdued thanks to the Ativan but with a lot to think about. Since my early 40s, I have been teetering on the edge of almost having hypertension but generally using lifestyle changes to keep things in check—except when I am too stressed out to work out, do yoga and meditation, manage my sleep hygiene, and eat in ways that support not needing hypertension medication. In those moments, I fall back into self-destructive patterns of survival that threaten my overall wellness—and for the last two months, I have been in a cycle of just trying to breathe as I navigate uncharted waters professionally and personally. 

In the last two years, I have struggled to maintain consistency in my wellness plans because, to be honest, I am fucking stressed out and rarely have more than three days of peace before I have to jump back into boss/manager role and carry all the weights that honestly make me feel as if I am suffocating at times. The thing is, I am solidly middle-aged now—with a family history that does not bode well for longevity—and after years of being a strong Black woman who appears to do it all, I am crumbling. 

My situation is not uncommon for Black women, as Marita Golden writes in her latest book The Strong Black Woman. For Black women, our so-called strength is literally killing us as it manifests in disturbing health metrics. We are more likely to develop health conditions that directly lead to our deaths, including being three times as likely as our white counterparts to die from heart attacks and strokes. Too many of us are living with high blood pressure and diabetes that will shorten our lives, while the popular cultural narrative is that “Black don’t crack.” Black don’t crack is seen as a positive affirmation of Black women’s strength and magic, when the reality is that it’s a noose around our collective necks. We wear our masks and are rarely given the space to crack in healthy and productive ways, and that harms us terribly. 

Thankfully, a few days after my ER visit I had a mini-getaway for 48 hours that originally had been scheduled in January. It became 48 hours to rest, reflect, and start thinking of a better way to navigate stress. I almost could hear my father’s voice reminding me that I am no longer as young as I once was, and if joining him and my mother early in death is not on my to do list, this was my wake-up call. 

How many more signs do I have to be given that I am playing with my life and that the decisions I make now and my ability to follow through on them consistently will determine whether I outlive my genetic legacy? I don’t know. But I do know I feel it in my bones that I have to make sustained change, including getting over my reluctance to embrace Western medicine. More importantly, I cannot live at the pace that I have been living. I have to downsize my life immediately so I can breathe and sleep normally. 

There are certain stressors baked into my existence. Running a non-profit at times is part orchestral conductor and part house mom. My youngest child who has struggled with her mental health in recent years is turning 18 and there is a lot of energy swirling around that. My eldest child, while a successful and well-known musician, still has enough going on in his life that keeps this Mama Bear up late at night. My partner is navigating his own full plate that keeps me concerned, and then there are the financial realities of being a divorced 50-year-old woman who is still paying off student loans with nowhere near enough saved for any form of retirement in 20 years. The reality of 27 years of working for social change is knowing you can retire as broke and penniless as the clients you once served.

There is also the very public side of being Black Girl in Maine and the expectations that others put on me, like the non-stop requests for almost always free labor in the spirit of community. At the same time, needing to constantly take on side projects to bring in more money. Let’s not even talk about the microaggressions that are still very much a part of my professional life at times. Philanthropy is very much steeped in the culture of white supremacy and, well, the dance of raising money to sustain the work of racial justice requires the duality of vision for a better future while being skilled at getting those with the resources to part with their money. The irony of doing anti-racism work while using the tools of white supremacy to raise the money to fund that work does not escape me. 

I share this not to make anyone feel bad for me, but for people to understand that my existence is not unique. I can bet money that any Black woman whom you admire or look up to as a strong Black woman, especially one working for social change, is living some form of my life. Those are the things we discuss when we fit in time with one another—when we lay our masks down.

Our woes go far beyond anything that therapy will fix. It is embedded into the culture; it is the legacy of what Black women in the United States are born into and endure. It is the real life cost of our tears and emotions having no weight for change. A white woman cries and everyone pauses to assist; a Black woman cries out and people remind her of her strength with empty platitudes or affirmations of other “strong” Black women. 

In fact, I posted a picture from the ER on my Instagram account, and someone who no doubt meant well told me that I am an inspiration and to remember that I am strong and will get through this. Others have sent me quotes and inspirational quotes from strong Black women. 

I had my first child two weeks after turning 19. I was poor, young, and married and I had been told that my life and the life of my son would amount to nothing. I had my first panic attack four months after my son was born and I have been going hard ever since. I put myself through college and graduate school, becoming the first in my family to earn both an undergraduate and graduate degree. I turned a hobby of blogging into a nationally known platform, I have spoken across the country and even did a vaunted TED talk.

I have worked three or four jobs at a time. I have eaten government cheese and lived off food stamps and hope. I have done everything to ensure a better life for myself and kids and along the way, I managed to do meaningful work that makes a difference. I dropped out of high school and at least once a year, someone I went to high school with—who has discovered that I am the stoned kid they went to high school with and has actually made something of my life—will reach out to me, stunned at who I have become.

I know I am strong, I know I am a “strong Black woman.” However, I am more than that. I am a human being. I am more than the sum of my Blackness and strength. All Black women are. 

Yet in our culture, Black women too often are reduced to being avatars and mascots of strength and inspiration. So much so that it is a running joke in political spaces about how Black women keep saving the United States. We literally save this country from itself but what does it do in return for us? 

How often do you think of the cost to Black women for being strong? How often have you ever showed up for a Black woman in crisis? Have you ever sat and held space with a Black woman when she is crying—when the weight of being strong threatens to destroy her? Has a Black woman ever asked for your help but you deflected to her strength and inspiration or, even worse, turned her moment of being real into a way to seek solace from a woman who you really see as a Mammy. 

I am strong and I am starting to crumble. You can’t see it, but I feel it. It is most certainly present in my body and is a manifestation of what I am dealing with in my world every day. Even perimenopause and menopause are harder on Black women because of our stressors. 

If your anti-racism praxis fails to see the humanity of Black women beyond what they give, you aren’t really doing the work. You are placating yourself and being delusional about being an anti-racist.  As for me, I will keep speaking my truth, become more intentional and insistent in asking for support but—more importantly—I am shedding my strong Black woman cape and just opting to be perfectly imperfect in my crumbling humanity as I work to decrease my stressors.

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