Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part II)

I began Mental Health Matters with the acceptance of my own mental health issues, and so, as I shift to share how I’ve developed healthier coping mechanisms, I’m returning to acceptance.

Accepting my adoptee status has been no easy feat. I was ashamed for a long time that I didn’t know who my parents were. Everyone around me seemed to be raised by their biological families. Why wasn’t I? Also, I grew up in the 70s and 80s, where we watched TV shows like, Diff’rent Strokes and Webster and movies, like Annie. Each depicted adoption by wealthy benefactors. My mother was a woman who went to dialysis three times a week and received a disability check; my father was a pharmacy technician at Northwestern Memorial. Many times, I questioned why I got the seemingly short end of the adoption stick.

Accepting my mother’s death and my father’s abandonment has been challenging. I frequently wish that I had “regular” parents and a typical situation. I understand that many families are dysfunctional, but I also know that some familial relationships function with what most would deem normality. Some people have two living parents who call, visit, and have healthy relationships with their grandchildren. I know this exists because I’ve seen it with friends and other family members. Again, I believed I’d been gypped.

Accepting I don’t belong with my biological family has also been tricky. While I didn’t think each would hold me in a long embrace, I did think most would recognize me as part of their “family” and attempt a relationship. I figured they’d want to know what I’d been up to the last forty or so years. But I was wrong. I ignored the fact that I was entering the middle and end of their lives. With my father, specifically, it seemed I’d disrupted the carefully crafted lie man he’d constructed himself to be. For his wife and three of his children, my existence symbolized indiscretions and his flawed human beingness. It was too much for any of them to face.

But by the time I’d found my biological father, I was too grown to be ashamed of anything else.

Years ago, I began unravelling who I was and how I got here as a way to accept myself and my narrative. We…all…have…a…story. And each one is different. My story includes a schizophrenic mother. I mention her mental illness a lot because it’s a part of acknowledging her existence as a part of my own. Without my mother, Joyce, I wouldn’t be here. Equally important is my father, Jerome. During our initial phone conversations, he apologized profusely for inviting my mother up to his apartment that day. I assured him just as many times that there was little reason to feel regret. Without his lust, I wouldn’t be here.

In 2011, I decided to stop interacting with my adoptive father. He’d never understand my point of view or be the father I thought I deserved. Before I ceased communication, I created a ritual to forgive and accept the way he cast me aside during adolescence. A year later, he developed Stage 4 throat cancer. Two years before he actually died, he offered a face-to-face verbal apology. Accepting his “I’m sorry” helped me to accept our circumstances. My adoptive father was who he was, with his own set of challenges, and our lives had intersected and happened the way they were supposed to. In kind, I accepted my adoptive mother for who she was. She wasn’t always physically fit or financially secure, but she was mentally sound. And who am I to judge anyway? The same way I bore children with my imperfect an unhealthy self, she chose to adopt and raise me as her own with her imperfect and physically unhealthy self.

Accepting each of these parental parts has made it easier for me to accept myself. Additionally, acceptance for me has meant acknowledging my origin story. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, but I do accept the reality of it. Every now and then, I relapse into dream-like thoughts of the “perfect” family. But the majority of the time, I now know being me is nothing to be ashamed of.

Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part I)

Mental Health Matters: Codependence

I discovered the idea of codependence last year around August. I was displeased with my daughter’s choice of boyfriend, as I had been in the past, and was looking for reasons why she seemed to have fallen in love with the same personality – again. Google is one of my best friends, so I used it to search for specific traits that I’d noticed in both her current and former beau.

No matter what phrases I used, codependence popped up. So, I clicked on a link and read the characteristics:

Low self-esteem

People pleasing

Poor boundaries

Reactivity

Caretaking

Control

Dysfunctional communication

Obsessions

Dependency

Denial

Problems with intimacy

Painful emotions

codependencyJeez Louise! You know those movies that show people’s lives flashing before their eyes prior to their deaths? That’s how I felt reading this list of descriptions. It was as if someone had written an outline of my life. I stopped worrying about my daughter and the men she’d chosen and instead began reflecting on myself and the choices I’d made from childhood through adulthood. The proverbial light bulb went off and I realized (as my sister once said) I’d been codependent as f—k!

From the low self-worth of abandonment to the eventual numbing of painful emotions established in adolescence and further perpetuated as a grown woman, I exhibited each codependent trait. I was stunned, but suddenly, my life made sense.

While most wouldn’t describe me as a people-pleaser, there were specific people I rarely told, “no.” My grandmother was one. The example I repeatedly describe is when she’d told me that she wanted me (and the rest of our family) home for Christmas. We could do what we wanted for other holidays, but December 25th was different. So, even though Dwight and I moved our family a thousand miles away, we drove up and down the interstate every other year for seventeen years with our daughters in tow just because I thought I had to and also because I feared telling her no. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I said, “We’re not coming,” but I avoided the conversation and disappointing her for almost two decades, all while ignoring how the situation affected my family and me.

Another way codependency showed up in my life is through a lack of boundaries. I could write another twelve posts about this, but I’ll just share two specifics. Prior to 2014, I had no personal boundaries “based on awareness of my own unique needs.” It’s easy to do this when you’re unclear about who you are. How could I know what I needed if I didn’t know who I was as an individual or what I liked? As a result, whatever others liked, I liked. Whatever they wanted to do, I did. You’d never hear me say, “No. I’m not doing that!” It was more like, “Sure. I’m down with anything.”

Similarly, I had very few relationship boundaries. I’ve written before about the ease with which I can become friends with others. However, in the past, I’ve also befriended former students, even when they were still under my tutelage. Years ago, each one had access to me through my cellphone, where we’d chat for hours, discussing their personal business, and depending on what was happening in my life, mine too. I wanted to be a “caring teacher,” but blurred lines and unresolved issues, helped me to become a codependent one as well.

As a current teacher educator, of course, I advise against this; it’s unprofessional. However, reflecting on those ten years, it’s clear that poor boundaries permeated both my personal and professional life in another attempt to prove I mattered.

Another clear way codependency manifested is through control. For much of my life, I didn’t feel as if I was in control of myself. As an only child in a family of older relatives, times were far and few between when I knew what was best for me. Also, losing my mother at sixteen and being sent away at seventeen showed me that I was in control of nothing. Anything could happen at any moment. This led to two issues: I trusted everyone’s opinion, except my own, and I eventually tried very hard to control everything around me, including other’s actions, so as not to be caught off-guard by life, ever…again.

This revelation of codependency really changed my outlook as it gave me a new way to take responsibility for myself and my behavior.

From this point on, I’ll continue to share how I developed healthier coping mechanisms, in addition to conversations with those in the field who can support us in actualizing healthier lives.

Until then, tell me…are you familiar with this term? Have you ever been codependent?

Source 1

Source 2

Mental Health Matters: Suppression

My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the back door, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.

“She’s gone,” he said.

Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.

When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.

The first person I dialed was my grandmother.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”

She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.

“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.

My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.

Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.

“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”

img_6673Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.

That Monday I swallowed my pain.

The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”

They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.

“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.

A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?

img_2576I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.

This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.

Corona Chronicles: You’re Stupid!

My grandmother’s go-to question when she believes you’re doing something she doesn’t agree with or something she doesn’t understand is, “Are you stupid?” I’ve heard this question a million times in my life. It’s the reason I haven’t played checkers with her (or anyone else) since I was a teenager. When I used to put my little red piece in danger of being jumped, or worse, double jumped, I’d face the dreaded question, are you stupid? Or, if she didn’t want to be implicit, like when I helped my illiterate cousin write a letter that was later used in court, she announced, that was stupid, with extra emphasis on the first syllable, so that it  sounded like SSSTOOOpid.

Although I knew otherwise, I always felt like the dumbest person in the world when she said it, as if she had top-secret information for not doing “stupid” things in life. As if she, alone, held the keys to making intelligent, sound decisions. As if she’d never done anything someone else could call, stupid.

And so, I’m hypersensitive to the phrase.

But I’ve never heard it used so much and so flippantly as I have in the past two months. I wish I would’ve started a counter for how many times I’ve seen or heard, They’re so stupid! You know who they are? I’ll tell you what I think, similar to Grannie, it’s anyone who isn’t doing what the accuser thinks someone else should be doing.

First, it was Spring Breakers in Florida and Mardi Gras partiers in New Orleans. A bunch of teenagers and college students were called stupid for doing what some teenagers and college students do: be self-centered and party. What would you have done during a pandemic if you were 18, 19, or 21? Maybe you were more responsible than these young people; maybe you would’ve taken yourself right home and self-quarantined.

img_3580The phrase then filtered to people’s parents who were 60 years or older. For some reason, my friends and family couldn’t understand why their parents wouldn’t listen to them and just stay home. There was even this clever meme circulating about caging said “stupid” parents. I reminded a friend that I’m sure his mama was thinking the same thing about him in the early 90s. She probably wished she could’ve caged him so that he wouldn’t harm society or himself.

Next, it trickled down to anyone who wouldn’t stay home, even though CDC guidelines stated people could “walk, hike, or cycle.” I think it prompted the #StayTheFuckHome mantra. Listen, cuss words are a part of my vocabulary, but I’d venture to say that no one wants to be the target of a global cuss out; however, that’s what we’re doing now.

Eventually, they’re stupid included people who didn’t wear masks, even though the CDC and the surgeon general said it was recommended. I noticed two things when I went to the grocery store: when I didn’t yet have a mask to wear, mask wearers peered over their material as if I was a crazy person; when I wore my mask, then non-mask wearers looked at me like I was a crazy person, leading me to a conclusion. No matter what, people have a judgment when you don’t do what they think you should do.

I don’t even want to get into the church Easter goers. The masses hadn’t developed a word suitable enough to describe just how stupid they thought these parishioners were. So, I’ll return to Florida.

img_3675At the time I’m writing this, Jacksonville Beach has re-opened access, with restrictions: there is no sitting and you can only venture out during specific hours. Just like that, an old photo of Palm Beach, 285 miles away in South Florida, along with a Jacksonville headline was posted. And a new crop of judgments has re-surfaced. Yep. You guessed it. They’re stupid. This time “they” includes Jax Beach residents, the mayor, and anyone who chooses to walk on the beach, even though the photo depicted a false image.

Just to be clear, I’ve been following the CDC guidelines and the rules of my state. I wear masks. I wash my hands and use hand sanitizer. If you follow me on Instagram, then you know how much I love the beach; however, I won’t be walking alongside the Atlantic ocean anytime soon.

And you know what else I won’t be doing? I won’t be calling others stupid if they make a different choice.

~kg

4/17/20

Mental Health Matters: Developing a Sense of Identity

My cousin and his wife adopted a baby last year. As soon as they brought her home from the hospital, he had a list of all the things she’d be and do. She would like cooking; he’d ensure she would because he props her up in the kitchen as he prepares meals; he’s a retired military chef. She would like fishing; he’d already taken her out on her first boat excursion. I feigned a smile as he described how fractions of her life and her identity were being shaped by his likes and dislikes.

pianoI suppose raising children in this way is natural. My mother was a skilled pianist. On Saturday mornings, she drove my six-year-old self to the north side, where I took Suzuki piano lessons. A brown piano sat in the corner of the dining room, where I remember practicing and learning one song, Cuckoo. It wasn’t until I advanced to reading sheet music that she looked over at me and asked one question.

“You don’t want to do this anymore?”

My answer was, “No,” so I was allowed to stop.

There was little else I remembered doing at that age. I devoured books, and eventually I wrote. By the time I was ten, I’d written and created a book about a boy, who had to assume responsibility of his home due to his father’s death. It was called On the Farm and was nominated for an award sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks. But were these enjoyable to me, or were these just hobbies my mother had introduced to me? After all, she did have a bachelors in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also had boxes of unpublished essays stashed away in our basement.

It seemed imperative that I learn who I was independent of others. Psychologists agree; they suggest adoptees learn what they like/dislike apart from their adoptive families.

img_0522While writing is something my mother and I shared, it really is something I like to do. I was reminded of this six years ago. I’d written a piece about going natural, and on a whim, submitted it to For Harriet. My ego was overwhelmed with the thousand or so responses that essay garnered but writing for public consumption as a way to discuss a new thought was also something I felt I’d been missing. Connecting with others is necessary for my being. The following year, I began this blog and have loved every minute of not only writing, but also engaging with others about our daily lives. And if I use the what could you do for hours rule, then writing would definitely be it.

So, yes to writing. But what about other things I’d picked up throughout life?

Dwight and I have been married twenty-four years. When you’ve been with someone that long, it’s also important to discover what you like separate from your spouse. Superhero movies is that thing for me. Once I realized that Marvel was creating a seemingly endless timeline of films, I had to bow out. A few years ago, I expressed to him that I would only be watching one per year…with him…at the movies. I’m not sure how he feels about this, but such a small decision made a huge difference for me. I’d rather write, blog, or read a book than watch the same trope play itself out under water, in a fictional African land, or in a parallel universe.

I’ve also recognized that I like to entertain company in creative ways. For example, I’ve created something called a Christmas tree decorating party. I thought it’d be cool for each person in our family to have their own five-foot tree, and subsequently, invite a few people over to eat, drink, and decorate them. I’ve also thrown a Christmas brunch with all women. Sons weren’t even welcome. My youngest daughter and I made breakfast food and served about fourteen women.

transient_memphisSome of you may have also noticed I like photographing homeless and transient people. Many have asked me why? Others have judged it as rude. I think this hobby is the best example of stepping into one’s identity. I have my reasons. Sometimes I explain myself; other times, I don’t, because what I’ve found on this journey toward understanding self is it doesn’t matter what others think. It doesn’t matter if I can articulate why I enjoy something, and it doesn’t matter if it’s aligned with what my family or society values.

All that matters is that I know what I like and how I feel when I engage in it. This has been my greatest lesson of all about developing a sense of identity and of being myself. As a result, my sense of self no longer relies on the approval of anyone else.

Mental Health Matters: Psyche of An Adoptee (II)

I once read an adoptee’s article I’d found on social media. In it she asked, “Can you imagine being the only person in the world you know who you’re related to?” (Pine, 2015). This woman’s question summarized the moment my adoption was revealed. I felt alone, as if I was the only one of me around. Where did I belong?

Scholars call this a sense of belonging, which is also a common adoptee issue*.

peas_podBelonging begins with family. I looked nothing like anyone around me, which is a physical way of belonging. In addition, my family homed in on parts of my physical difference, such as my butt. My parents used to say I had a “bubble butt.” When E.U.’s Da’ Butt came out, my father would replace one of the names with mine, “Kathy got a big ole butt!” When my elementary class was featured in the Chicago Suntimes, family proclaimed they knew it was me because of the way my butt protruded in the picture. Comments about my derriere continued well into Christmas 2013 when my great aunt mentioned something about my oldest daughter and I sharing this feature. I was 40 years old.

There was nothing my family could do about my posterior, but my mother and grandmother did their best to correct other perceived flaws. My mother noticed I didn’t move my arms when I walked, so she showed me how “normal” people rhythmically did this. To this day, I sometimes remind myself to move my arms so as not to look robotic. That was just the beginning of the list. The two ensured I turned my feet in so that I wouldn’t walk slew footed; straightened my back so that I didn’t walk like a duck; and raised my voice so that I spoke from my diaphragm. My insecurities grew with each lesson, especially because I didn’t see these “flaws” in anyone else.

eggsThere were also familial detachments. My mother retold times of her great-grandmother laying ties on the railroad as an example of where she drew her strength. It’s a great narrative, but there was little connection, because I knew she wasn’t my great-great grandmother.

My paternal grandmother lived about three blocks from us, and eventually, right upstairs, but the distance between us was great. I called her, “Grandma Emma,” like her other grandchildren, but it was obvious she was closer to my father’s sister and her children, who lived 800 miles away. I recognized the warmness in the way she embraced them when they visited and the attention she provided. Maybe this had little to do with being adopted; maybe it did. Either way, I didn’t feel a part of her.

square pegI carried this general lack of belonging into my marital family. How could I feel at ease in an additional family, when I couldn’t even find comfort with the one in which I was raised?

I sensed the awkwardness of my own interactions.

My father-in-law would sit at the kitchen table and talk to me about how he fixed a refrigerator that morning. I’d stare past his words, not knowing what to say or how to relate.

“Seems like she’s not interested in what I’m saying,” he once told his son.

I wasn’t. But more importantly, I just didn’t know how to be around someone else’s family.

His mother once told me she was glad she didn’t have girls.

“They seem difficult,” she admitted.

I internalized her comments and assumed as her daughter-in-law I must also be too difficult for her. We rarely spoke more than five sentences between us. Not understanding her quiet, unassuming personality, I deemed their nuclear family as another group I probably wouldn’t fit into.

Like other parts of me, this pattern of behavior remained and affected many adult relationships. I developed detached connections since I figured I wouldn’t fit in anyway. It’s a stressful existence for sure. But one that I eventually learned to let go of.

Eventually, I’ll explain how. Until then, let me know if you can relate to anything here. I’ve since learned that you don’t have to be an adoptee to feel as if you don’t fit in.

*Disclaimer: I only speak for myself. I’m sure all adoptees have different experiences and perspectives.

Mental Health Matters: Psyche of an Adoptee (I)

I never heard of the word “adoptee” until a few years ago. This is for two reasons. One, that’s when I began researching specific mental health topics, and two, most conversations about adoption are centered on the benevolence of adoptive parents. For the most part, adoptees are left out of this discussion. Like mental health, I’m on a mission to also de-marginalize adoptee’s voices*, which sometimes go hand-in-hand.

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As I’ve explained before, after I discovered I was adopted, my parents never mentioned it again. It was just a blip in that day. After my mother died, my grandmother would frequently mention my adoption. Sometimes she’d reminisce about them searching for my receiving blanket and then remembering that they didn’t receive me in a traditional way. Other times, she’d marvel at how much she and other family members thought I looked like my mother, even though I did not.

In retrospect, I believe my grandmother’s comments and others’ interactions were unconscious ways to ensure I was perceived as a part of and not different than them. However, after reading several bits of information on adoption, I’ve learned that adoptees, no matter how loving and accepting their adoptive families were, have similar issues.

Identity is one. It is common for adoptees to not know who they are, literally and figuratively. According to Erikson (1968), identity begins in childhood and develops over adolescence, right around the time I’d found out about my adoption. For me, identity formation included accepting I wasn’t biologically a part of a family, being told this was my “family,” and being asked to accept someone else’s definition of who I was and where I belonged.

I never verbally expressed my identity confusion, but I definitely showed it.

I switched identities with everyone and everywhere. I used to wait and observe those around me to understand not only how to speak, but also how to act, how to be. And if it was behavior with which I was unfamiliar, then I simply remained quiet for fear of not fitting in. This continued through adulthood. For years, I showed very little of myself around my husband’s immediate family. He and his golden-brown mother, father, and brother seemed to be paper-doll perfect, and I wasn’t quite sure where I was supposed to fit into their picture.

This behavior continued in other ways. At our wedding reception, the DJ played a popular Detroit house music song. I’d been living there for a year and had grown used to their brand of house. I began dancing and Tima, my friend from high school scrunched up her face and said, “Kathy, what is this shit?”

Dwight said something about this being my song. He was right. But I remember almost freezing in place because two worlds had collided; two of my identities faced one another. Do I say, yeah girl. This is my song? Or, do I stop dancing and return to my Chicago House music roots? I think I stopped dancing.

These examples may seem slight, but when you don’t know who you are or what you like, or how to be yourself in every situation, small things can turn into frenetic anxiety-induced happenings. And, they can add up.

IMG_2990At the beginning of our relationship, Dwight introduced me to comic books and cartoons about superheroes. I began watching Batman just because he did. I stopped wearing red lipstick because he re-told a story about his father’s experiences overseas with women and red lipstick. I thought he didn’t like it. I grew my hair past my neck and to my shoulders because he’d once admitted his preference for long hair. He and his family watched movies a lot; subsequently, he and I could be found at the movies almost every weekend.

I did very little that I liked to do, not because my husband forced me to do things he liked, but simply because I hadn’t explored who I was or what was enjoyable to me.

These are just a few instances of how a lack of clear identity affected me throughout the years. Trust me. I could write a novel of examples woven well into the 2000s.

Instead, I’ll end here. But I invite you to comment. Can you relate to this issue? Are you a person who lived with identity issues even though you’re not adopted?

Source

*Disclaimer: I only speak for myself. I’m sure all adoptees have different experiences and perspectives.

Monday Notes: Reflecting on a Recent Publication “What It Actually Means To Be Pro-Choice”

choice-2692466_1280I had first written a piece about having an abortion over twenty years ago, then fifteen years ago. Each revision a nuanced version of the previous one, reflecting how my thoughts had grown throughout the years. One idea remained, and that is the procedure itself didn’t bother me. What vexed me was keeping it a secret from specific friends and family. I don’t mean to say that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but there have been many times when I wanted to insert it in a relevant conversation, like, “so when I had an abortion…” to support a point.

Here’s what I mean. Thanksgiving 2019, I was with my cousins. One of them works for his state’s health department. He was recalling how difficult it is to tell parents that their children have an STD or worse, HIV, mainly because (according to him) suburban housewives don’t want to admit their children are having sex, even after he tells them about their child’s sexually transmitted disease. One story led to another and we ended up on the topic of abortion and how that same woman demographic is pro-life. And that’s where I wanted to say, “so when I had an abortion,” but I didn’t.

It’s so taboo and it doesn’t go well with turkey and dressing. But, it’s because of this taboo status and made-up social rules that I believe many of us choose to remain quiet, instead of opening up authentic dialogue that could offer another perspective on issues that impact us all.

I imagine some people won’t relate to what I’m about to say, and I’ve made peace with this part because everyone can’t connect to everything, but for me, it is very important that I can be my whole self with people, no matter what. Being myself includes being able to open up about nearly everything. But, like many other things in my life, I’ve not only kept having an abortion a secret, but also my unashamed feelings about it. Both secrets were tucked away on a digital drive, until February.

female-454868_1280That’s when this personal essay was published. It was finally time. It was the opportune moment for my thoughts and writing to align with the era. Twenty years ago, wasn’t the right time. Sure, people were discussing abortion; they have been since it was legalized, but there wasn’t a full-on assault on the practice. Even with the novel coronavirus taking up much of our attention, abortion clinics are closing, and doctors are being fined and jailed. The actual abortion practice is shifting.

Had my article been published twenty years ago, it would’ve just been another story. Currently, the narrative is integral for women’s rights and for reproductive rights.

So, *here it is. Of course, I’d love for you to read it, no matter your political beliefs or whether you agree with my stance or not. My point is not to achieve consensus on the topic, but rather to start a conversation that begins with, “so when I had an abortion,” in order to humanize this event.

Because guess what? We’re never going to progress if we continue to keep experiences locked up in a proverbial closet.

*The referenced piece was first published on PULP, a sex/uality and reproductive rights publication celebrating this human coil.

Monday Notes: Putting People In Boxes 📦

274c37f1-2160-49fd-830b-7fbc98aa85e0Last weekend, my family and I celebrated my goddaughter’s birthday. Our hotel had board games and a pool table in the lobby. Thanks to Dwight, we had an impromptu game night that lasted to midnight.

As is common for the 21st century, I took some photos and posted them to social media. A few people were surprised that I posed with a cue. And I was surprised they were surprised. Sometimes I’m able to let comments like these roll off my back; but this time, I was bothered, not only by their surprised reactions, but also by their accusations that I couldn’t possibly know how to shoot pool.

***

My great uncle, Uncle Webber taught me how to play when I was around 12 or 13 years old. He and Aunty Belle had just bought a home in Maywood, a Chicago west suburb. They had one of those garages that dips under the house. When you exited the car, you opened the door into the basement.

In their basement was a pool table, and that’s where I learned to play. Uncle Webber taught me. He taught me how to hold the cue. He showed me how to chalk the cue, and he helped me understand the rules of the game. Because I visited Aunty Belle and Uncle Webber often, I frequently practiced basic rules, like hitting the ball on a specific side to execute a shot.

I’m not saying I walked around the west side with a cue in my back pocket, hustling people, but I learned enough to know how to play. Just like riding a bike, those lessons stayed with me. When Dwight suggested we play the other day, I reviewed them and proceeded as I remembered.

But you can’t say all this on social media. There isn’t enough room, and it’s social media inappropriate, I suppose. Instead, I posted a few one-liners and lol’d my way through.

This has happened before. People are shocked that I do something other than teach or write. Playing pool is just one example. People are amazed that I cook food, which seems absurd, considering how much I like to eat and that I have a family, who throughout the years, has required meals.

I get that we can’t know every single facet of everyone’s identity or life. But that’s exactly why I think we shouldn’t assume that the 2-3 parts people show us is all they have to offer. Most people are multidimensional. While I teach for a living and write to promote thought, I also cook, play Spades, volunteer, read tarot cards, workout regularly, dance, and practice yoga.

Let’s stop putting friends and family in boxes and actually try to get to know one another. It could be as easy as starting a conversation that begins with, “I didn’t know you did blah blah blah,” which could lead to a cool story and a deeper understanding of an individual.

***

A few hours after I wrote this, I saw this video on FB that shows exactly what I’m saying:

Mental Health Matters: Acceptance (Part I)

Around 2005, I found my biological mother’s side of the family, and with that came a narrative about my family’s mental health. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services sent me a thick packet of information sealed in a manila envelope.

My mother had been diagnosed as having acute schizophrenia, undifferentiated type. According to the report she would oftentimes “walk around with an empty stroller” and could be found “lying on the couch, laughing hysterically.” Although she was an avid swimmer, in 1978, she drowned in Lake Michigan.

These images are not only vivid, but also profound. I immediately related to my mother’s psychosis. Finally, I understood part of myself.

I’d felt slightly off growing up. For example, in elementary school, it was difficult for me to walk in front of a class or across the cafeteria. Oftentimes, I thought everyone stared and talked about me. I had little reason to believe these imaginings, but in my mind they were true. However, I learned to cope. I’d pretend I was a horse with blinders on. I’d walk directly to my destination, ignoring anything in my peripheral vision, internally praising myself when I made it back to my seat without ridicule.

I never told anyone.

Learning about my biological mother introduced me to one of her sisters, Aunt Catherine. She outlined the remainder of our family’s mental health history. She suffered from depression. Her father, my grandfather had, too. Her mother, my grandmother had a nervous breakdown. Her two brothers were in prison; one murdered someone.

When I shared my relief that I’d finally found solace in understanding my off-centeredness, she rebuked it.

“Don’t try to be like us,” she said, “you’re not like us. You don’t have to be like us. Depression feels like you’re in a deep hole that you can’t get out of. You want to get out, but you can’t.”

I’d never experienced depression. In fact, my set point is joyful. So, I dismissed my newfound knowledge. Plus, who wants to identify as “crazy” anyway? I focused on other family similarities, like the tremors she, my daughters and I shared; all of our hands shake uncontrollably.

Still I knew something about me wasn’t normal.

When I was younger, I cried frequently for all reasons. One time I remember swelling up with tears because my paternal cousins had visited from North Carolina. They planned to drive to Bolingbrook, a Chicago suburb to visit another cousin. I thought I wasn’t invited, so I cried, until they consoled me and assured me I’d be right there with them. I was ten.

When my parents told me my father had diabetes, I cried because I thought he was going to die. My mother came to my room and asked me to stop. “Crying for hours is excessive for a diabetes diagnosis,” she said. I was twelve.

It was the 70s and 80s, so I was deemed sensitive. Anxiety wasn’t a household term, and therapy in black homes was unheard of. Instead, I received the proverbial, “Whatchu crying for now?” question, especially from my grandmother, who seemed to want me to be tougher, something I never fully achieved.

I researched schizophrenia and clinical depression. Aunt Catherine was right. I was neither of those; but, dots were connected. However, I dismissed them because they didn’t form complete pictures. They weren’t direct links. I ignored the idea that mental health is genetic; however, like brown eyes and curly hair, traces of mental health can linger in one’s DNA. Curl patterns may be a little looser and eyes a little darker, but characteristics are there.

So, while it’s no easy feat, I’ve taken some time to accept this trait. Subsequently, because I believe the only person I can change is myself, I’ll be publicly exploring it in more detail this year on this blog as a way to de-stigmatize mental health issues and to bring truth to light. What better way to do both than to begin with me?

Oh, and those tremors? They’re more than just biological markers; They are a physical manifestation of social anxiety disorder.