It’s been a long while since I last posted here. In fact, it’s been far too long…nearly a year ago around the time of my promoting the 2nd Annual Black Women’s Wellness Day last May 22nd. Well, the 3rd Annual Black Women’s Wellness Day is approaching quickly on Saturday, May 21st and promises to be quite the affair. I hope you’ll join us!
As I hammer out what I trust will be a life-changing set of experiences for women, I realize that the agenda I’m planning is primarily for me. I have my fair share of healing to do within and without, and though far from rock bottom, I am also far from my ideal state of optimal health and wellness. Thankfully, it’s never too late to START NOW!
As a working mother of five, the nucleus of a family of seven, and presently living with the emotional, physical, and logistical complexities of a commuter marriage, I cannot express passionately enough how exhausted–and lonely–I can get at the end of a long week of drop-offs, commuting to work, meetings, presentations, deadlines, homework, projects, dinner prep, housecleaning, bill-paying…and the like. And this is my short list! There’s little time in between for good rest, relaxation, exercise, pampering, or even a few moments of centering silence. I wish I could say to you, like so many of the bubbly bloggers who speak to women, that I have managed to find perfect balance, but that would be far from the truth. Fact is, I have struggled immensely at times to maintain balance between my family life, personal needs, and my professional pursuits.
Admitting my struggles with balance is tough and potentially risky, especially as the Founder of Black Women’s Wellness Day. But truth is truth, and thankfully, I recognize that I need change right now. I know better than anyone what the outcome will be if I don’t. I know that these life-sustaining elements that I’m largely missing in my daily routine are critical to my remaining sane and healthy, so I’ve taken the position TODAY that they are NON-NEGOTIABLE! My daily routine, despite my many obligations and accountabilities MUST CHANGE NOW so that I am taking care of me as a first priority rather than a last priority. I’ve also come to accept that this new, unwavering focus on ‘wellness first’ will require radical change in the way that I move and work and the kind of work I commit myself to for the second chapter of my life, and I am willing to put in the time and effort to create this new reality for the sake of my health and my longevity.
Black Women and the Culture of Self-Reliance…and Self-Neglect
All women tend to self-neglect, especially mothers, and it has been my observation that Black women are especially prone to putting the needs of others before ourselves even when it hurts or leaves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually spent. What begins as a cultural rearing and socialization toward self-reliance–a pronounced value and strength of Black women–quickly erodes to a pattern of self-neglect when one is under duress. A few recent encounters in my office with nearly a dozen mothers seeking help for their college-bound sons and daughters paints the picture.
Too Stressed to Be Blessed
One mother of an emotionally challenged 12th grader cried on a Monday morning and expressed a desire to ‘just give up’. She didn’t know what else to do or how to keep pushing forward in raising her special needs child alone. A naturalized U.S. citizen originally from West Africa, her husband left the U.S. nearly five years ago after more than 20 years to return to their home country. He lost his stable federal job to downsizing and succumbed to the pressure of unemployment and financial strain. She stayed behind knowing that the medical care and support services their child required could not be accessed easily or affordably in their home country. The years have been hard on her; working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet and to pay the mortgage, caring for her daughter who requires constant attention when home from school, navigating the mental health system alone attempting to get her child all that she can to ensure the highest quality of life possible, no extra money to buy a new pair of shoes, to go to the salon, or to splurge on something, anything just for herself. Though she attends church and has a few family members close by, she feels alone, isolated, overwhelmed, deeply depressed, and exhausted. The evening before coming to my office, she had been up all night in the emergency room with a sick family member after having worked the evening before, and following one of her daughter’s psychotic episodes. She came straight to my office from the hospital, determined to follow through with the appointment, though dead tired–all for the sake of her daughter. She should have been home in bed. I comforted her the best I could, commended her for all she was managing on her own, insisted that she rest, seek help from family, friends, and church, and to get her blood pressure checked immediately. She hasn’t been to the doctor in years. I shared a few personal experiences to assure her she was not alone, and referred her to other services to address her need for support. She hugged me tight before leaving, wiped her tears, and left after asking if she could call me some time just to talk if she needed to. I said yes.
Two days later, a widowed mother of three came in for help for her academically talented daughter. On the surface this woman seemed a bit hardened, impatient, matter-of-fact…some would even interpret her way of interacting as rude, short, curt, and impatient. She didn’t have any time to waste, and she wanted us to know it! One of my staff asked me to take her on to my small caseload, as she had been ‘difficult’ to work with before. I welcomed her into my office, complimented her on her hair and dress to break the tension and was purposefully accommodating to her in an effort to get her to just relax. Within 30 minutes, she opened up to me that just 5 months ago she had suffered a stroke at work, had undergone months of rehabilitative therapy, and was back at work. She has a life-threatening heart condition and an implanted defibrillator in her chest for the rest of her life to shock her heart back to life in the event of cardiac arrest. She is 44 years young–attractive, statuesque, put-together by outward appearance–but running on a defibrillator, and caring for her three children and a mentally challenged adult sibling. Like me, her mother died a few years ago–of cancer. She’s still quietly grieving. She lost a young daughter some years back…she didn’t say how. Her husband was killed over a decade ago in an altercation. She has endured great loss, and though seemingly managing to hold it all together on the outside, she is stressed beyond her limits but still taking care of everyone. This woman with the tough veneer wept in my chair and bore her deepest secrets to me, a stranger, because she needed someone to listen, to care, and to help her bear the load if only for a moment.
I could go on and tell you about the college educated mother of three, working THREE jobs and making over $100,000 a year working 7 days a week, determined to offer her children the best that she can, compensating for her mentally disturbed husband who was in recent years diagnosed with a serious mental health disorder. His behavior has turned increasingly violent and unpredictable over the past year despite treatment. He has not worked in over 10 years, so she is the family’s sole supporter. She is contemplating a divorce though deeply saddened and unprepared for it. She fears for her safety and that of the children. This well-spoken and well put-together woman was the vision of class and style, yet underneath that veneer was a woman on the brink of a break-down. I asked her when she found the time to sleep. She said she doesn’t really sleep. She naps and keeps it moving. She too cried in my chair, sitting next to her beautiful, talented daughter, trying to fight the tears back, thanking me for words of encouragement and for taking the time to be of help to her family in the small way that I could. She stood at the end of our appointment, put on her expensive coat and shoulder bag, wiped her face, straightened her back, and walked out behind her daughter like the strong pillar we Black women are taught to be from girlhood.
I know her secret very well. You probably do too.
There are many more stories like these that I could share with you, but I know you get the picture. These were wake-up calls and reinforcers for me of the work I must do personally and in support of other women, as well as opportunities to be a source of inspiration and comfort, even in my own imperfection, to these women whose stories and struggles are not as uncommon as I’d wish them to be. These women, like so many of us at some time in our life, are among the walking wounded. The circumstances are not the same in every case, but the outcome often is–our physical health, sanity, spiritual fortitude, and overall well-being are tested and tried to unspeakable limits by the pressures and unexpected complexities of life. We often walk these journeys alone with little to no support, too proud or afraid to ask for help, conditioned to shoulder the responsibility and the pressure without complaint–wearing the mask of invincibility while silently bearing a weight too heavy. We feel ultimately and singularly responsible for staying the course, being the one others can lean and depend on, the one to make the way for our children, our family members, everyone…except ourselves. We give, we serve, we sacrifice, we are reliable, and accountable, but in so being, we forget to the essential fact that we must tend to our own well-being first if we are to survive, thrive, and be available for those who rely and depend on us.
All of these women I highlighted are women of faith. I know this because they spoke of their faith and of God’s grace as the primary factor sustaining them through their circumstances. You know a Black woman is going to give her God the glory! These women definitely know a thing or two about prayer. But they each need far more than prayer alone. These three very different and unique Black women, one born in the U.S., and the others naturalized citizens from the Caribbean and Africa, need a break, to decompress, to lie down and take a revitalizing nap, to be fed a nourishing meal of life-sustaining foods. They need real helping hands, tangible solutions to their challenges, and more importantly, like so many of us, they need a shift in consciousness and behavior that says “put me first”. They need to break the cycle of self-neglect.
Breaking the Cycle of Self-Neglect: Do I Want to Live or Do I Want to Die?
I could craft a number of comforting words and lists of steps to take to break the cycle of self-neglect, but truthfully, it’s time to get serious and face facts. Breaking the cycle of self-neglect among Black women is a matter of life and death.
Statistics confirm that in every major category of illness, we are disproportionately impacted. Though Black women comprise roughly 7% of the U.S. population, we are overrepresented among those affected by heart disease, hypertenstion, diabetes, cancer, stroke, obesity, and reproductive disorders. Heart disease and related cardiovascular disorders remain the #1 killer of Black women, followed by stroke and diabetes. Though White women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, Black women are more likely, once diagnosed (and IF diagnosed at all) to die from the disease, while young Black women appear to be more susceptible to the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. I could go on.
But as I have said repeatedly, this doesn’t have to be our story. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, we have COMPLETE CONTROL over whether or not we succumb to disease and illness. And even when confronted by genetic predispositions or rare disorders, prevention and a lifestyle characterized by optimal self-care, healthy eating, exercise, and mental and psychological balance can do wonders to extend our lives and the quality of our daily experience. We have the power!
Thankfully, there are more and more examples of Black women siezing control of their health and wellness every day. Black women are writing new stories, taking conscious action, adopting new behaviors, and committing with the same zeal we so freely offer our children, our spouses, our lovers, our extended families, our friends, and our employers–to make our health a priority. We all need to jump on this bandwagon!
So how do we do this? I’ve got a few thoughts that just crystallized while writing this!
Lisa’s Five Essential ACTIONS to Breaking the Cycle of Self-Neglect and Creating the Vibrant Life We Want & Deserve: Choose, Align, Sustain, Build, LIVE!
To recap, the starting point in breaking the cycle of self-neglect after acknowledging our behavior is to ask the sobering question, “do I want to live or do I want to die”. And if I want to live (and I’m sure you do), what quality of life do I want to experience in that time? Do I want to live sick, tired, exhausted, depressed, over-extended and disease-ridden, OR do I want to live a long, fruitful, fulfilling disease-free existence characterized by joy, balance, and satisfaction? Yes, Black women, we too are worthy of being SATISFIED!
So essentially, the FIRST STEP is to CHOOSE LIFE!
After choosing life, we must then move forward to ALIGN, or bring into congruence, each and every thought, action, and behavior to this fundamental commitment to putting our health and wellness first in the interest of ourselves. Then and only then can we be of any value or help to those we love and who love us back. Without alignment, we are the embodiment of internal chaos, and chaos rarely breeds anything other than more chaos and disorder–not to mention panic, anxiety, and fear. Sound familiar? So ladies, LET’S GET ALIGNED! Align your eating, thinking, speaking, feeling, sleeping and ways of moving to the principle of wellness and to reflect that which brings forward goodness, health, vitality, energy, joy, and happiness.
Once we have made the conscious choice to live an abundant life, and while doing the work to align our thoughts and actions to this commitment, we must then SUSTAIN our focus and diligence each and every day to this commitment. To sustain means to support, hold up, keep in existence or to maintain. What greater gift can we give ourselves but to sustain our bodies, our minds, our beauty, our gifts, and our promise to offer ourselves those things that honor the life we’ve been given?
This brings to mind a compelling quote I read recently by Sepia Green Founder Shontina Vernon:
Until a woman masters how to sustain herself, she is ill-equipped to sustain the community to which she belongs.
Indeed, women, as the caregivers, caretakers, nurturers, and the nuclei of our families and community—and not to mention the essential bearers of the feminine essence that inspires life and holds up half the sky–MUST be sustained, healthy and whole if anyone else is to be healthy and whole around us. We hold the key to everyone’s survival! How powerful is that?! Let’s take this power seriously!
As we continuously align and sustain, we must then work to constantly BUILD on this foundation, to make it stronger, to keep learning, seeking, and applying new ways of improving our lives and building our capacity for all things wonderful. This could include moving from inactivity to activity, from walking to jogging, from step class to Zuumba! From eating meat every day to eating it only a few times a week to allow our bodies to recover from the digestive strain and to counter the potential of high cholesterol–or considering a life without meat; from frying to baking, broiling, and grilling; from going it alone to making new friends of like-mind to join you in your self-improvement journey. It could include moving from buying organic veggies to growing our own organic veggies in our backyard or a community garden; moving from boiling our veggies to steaming them and occasionally eating them raw to gain their full nutritional value; from drinking soda and processed juice to freshly made juices blended up in our own kitchens; from reacting in anger or fear to a situation or circumstance to reacting in calm and ease, trusting that we have the answers, and asking for help if needed. These are very basic examples, but you get the picture! There’s always room for improvement and growth. How exciting is that!?
Finally, after choosing, and in the process of aligning, sustaining, and building, we must simply LIVE. When recently asked her secret to longevity upon celebrating her 119th birthday, Ohio native Rebecca Lanier simply replied, “Just keep living”. She is in good health, takes no medication (just a few vitamins) can still walk, dress herself, make her bed, has outlived her children, and has her mental faculties in tact. Clearly she knows something many of us haven’t learned yet, and maybe I’ll get in touch with her to ask! But to expand on this wise and beautifully simplistic advice, I would add…don’t just live, but…
Live with Love…
Live with Passion…
Live with Purpose…
Live with Intention….
Live with Expectation…
Live with Beauty….
Live with Creativity…
Live with Joy…
But by all means…LIVE!
Notice that each of these five elements–CHOOSE, ALIGN, SUSTAIN, BUILD, LIVE–are actions. Breaking the cycle of self-neglect and getting and staying well, healthy and fit–mind, body & spirit–requires ACTION! This is not a passive process, and it won’t take care of itself. There will never be a perfect time to get started, and it is not anybody else’s responsibility to get you motivated and jump-started, though it’s nice when you have this support. Our lives are our own to protect, nurture, and preserve, so let’s take full responsibility for them. Don’t waste too much time planning when you’ll start or what your specific plan will be. Just get started TODAY, and build from there. If I can do it, trust me, you can too.
So repeat after me ladies…
Today and from this day forward I will CHOOSE, ALIGN, SUSTAIN, BUILD, AND LIVE my life fully and abundantly in the pursuit of wellness! I will permanently break the cycle of self-neglect and replace it with the diligent practice of self-care and commitment to my own well-being FIRST–because I’m worth it, and because the health of all around me depends on it.
Let’s do this! I’m signed up. How about you!?