1. You must let the pain visit.
2. You must allow it teach you
3. You must not allow it overstay.
(Three routes to healing)
- Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Questions for Ada
Photo source: http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/video/young-black-woman-on-wooden-boat-dock-she-looks-stock-video-footage/472903806
You are precious. They will never say this enough to you, Black girl. I say it neither to erase what’s been hard nor to ignore the reasons you don't believe you are but to give you something other than grief to wake up to. I forgot too, years ago as a child and again as an adult. We have taught each other that our silence is more important than our truths. This is a manifestation of inherited silences, of a hand clamping itself on the mouths of Africa’s estranged children centuries ago and in the current unfolding. Don’t scream. Don’t move. Don’t say anything. This persists so much so that even affirming each other is hard. So for good measure, I’ll say it again. You are precious.
Silence is so fragile. Anything can end it, even the slightest muscle twitch. It is no wonder why it is the primary sign of trauma – a torturous storm of suffering, one that is sometimes too much to bear, quelled by fear. In my life work, this fear has been my greatest opponent. Afraid of disrupting the peace the silence maintains for others, I held in the secrets and stories for years.
Irritable. Anxious. Depressed. Sad Black girl. Angry Black woman. They name us with epithets that name the symptoms but never the problem. We are kept ignorant about how our stereotypes, though they are one dimensional, can reveal the shame forced on us. When talking to Black girls, both chronologically young Black girls and our inner Black girls for us adults, I feel it is important to name trauma and define it. Definitions give us context and space to understand our experience. Trauma, specifically psychological trauma but emotional, physical and spiritual trauma are also real, is defined as a type of damage to our mental state as a result of a severely distressing event, such as a natural disaster, accident, sexual assault. It is characterized by being so overwhelmed by distress that it makes it difficult to cope. What constitutes as trauma is subjective. In simpler and also important words, what one perceives and reacts to as trauma is named by the one experiencing the event and its effects. What happened to you is valid because it happened to you.
Trauma shows up in a lot of different ways. Different organizations that address mental health have come up with symptoms a person exhibits when they have been traumatized. Often called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is comprised of symptoms that persist well beyond the incident. They include but are not limited to flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, difficulty sleeping, quick to irritation and anger, self-blame, shame, guilt, and feelings of detachment. Diagnosis with a mental health professional is helpful for some folks. I share this mostly so that we can understand how our experiences are normal reactions to events perceived as awful.
I cannot tell you that the memories will disappear. They will come when you least expect them, and although this is the last thing any of us wants, is normal for what happened to you. You are not crazy. We are not crazy. As Black girls, we never got to be children long enough to trust that what we feel is more honest than any thoughts that try to convince us that what we feel is real. Feelings deferred and denied beg to be felt. They can be so overwhelming that, with the refusal to acknowledge the validity of emotional and mental disturbances, we are vulnerable to post traumatic symptoms. What I can tell you is that there is a way to free yourself from the clutches of madness that a wounded spirit so often finds themselves in.
The way out is in. We must take an interest in our pain in order to know how to help ourselves. This is by no means easy, for much like purging and vomiting, it's never the same coming up as it did on the way down. First, we must admit that something happened. Still to this day, I remember when I disclosed my sexual traumas. Saying it out loud, writing it all down, and getting the truth out of my head made it real. It is a brave decision to trust someone with your secret; by no means would I suggest doing it if you aren't ready for it. I do suggest at the very least, admitting it to yourself.
Like anything that is complex, there are various ways to go about healing and living with this process of liberation. Take your time with finding your way and bring some tools with you to assist in the excavation of pain. I found it useful to approach my pain and trauma in a holistic manner, figuring out what I needed on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level. From here, I went about trying out and choosing my tools. Physically, exercise and movement has been vital. Aside from the amazing general wellness benefits, I found that my trauma made me lose trust in my body and its capabilities. For me, dancing has been one way I have reconnected with my body. Some of my struggles have been experienced in my pelvic area; hip gyration has helped release that trauma immensely. Working with a massage therapist opened me up to understanding what it means to be in my body and receive safe and loving touch. I recommend the use of massage, be it professional or from a trusted loved one, for re-establishing what it feels like to be touched without the threat of harm. Reiki, acupuncture, healthy eating habits and regular exercise are extremely valuable in staying healthy while undertaking your holistic healing.
Trust in one's ability to discern who is safe and who is dangerous is eroded by trauma. I want to acknowledge that in the recommendations I make. This issue of trust is one that takes time and patience. Mental health tools are essential in healing distrust and other psychological manifestations of coping with trauma. I have found that therapists were essential in my mental recovery and wellness; I also suggest professional mental help with the fact that addressing mental health comes with a stigma and some folks have had unpleasant experiences with Western psychologists. In the absence of or lack of desire to interact with therapy, peer support can be just as valuable. Additionally, writing and other expressions of art offer a way to process the trauma on your own. I will encourage you to seek support, for this road can be lonely and sometime speaking to other trauma survivors, hearing others tell their story and looking for someone who understands is worth the apprehension. I have found great support in support groups for survivors of trauma and also encourage that as one of many tools to find help.
Emotional health goes hand in hand with mental health. Letting yourself feel all your emotions no matter what can help develop emotional intelligence – the ability to be aware of, control and express emotions. Even the awful feelings can offer us some insight into ourselves. Spiritually, I do speak of God as a companion on the journey. I reject the notion that one must only pray on it to make the legitimate feelings a person has go away. In suggesting speaking to the Creator, Spirit or God, I am acknowledging that that is a source of strength for many and has also been used to mask or minimize true distress. Black folks are a deeply spiritual people. In some of the nations that we descend from, they had an understanding of their position in the universe as well as what mental and emotional disturbances meant. To employ spirituality into our healing journeys, it can mean reframing our understanding of God and fortifying our ability to be in tune with our own spirit and intuition.
Furthermore, on the topic of spirituality, I have found a lot of empowerment in traditional African spiritual practices. #BlackGirlMagic begins to manifest in us when we believe we are magical. When we hear magic, images of witches and evil come to mind. But when we realize we have the ability to make manifest what was originally just a feeling or idea into reality, magic occurs. Healing to me is magical, in that I imagined myself at peace and slowly made it happen. I encourage you to explore the idea of being magical and healing as you search for your own peace.
Healing is not a weekend retreat. It is full of ups and downs. As long as I’ve been on my journey, there have been many moment of wanting to quit. I had to always remind myself that I deserve to be joyful. It’s hard to claim that, especially because Black girls have to fight to be carefree. The road to healing is hard but well worth the struggle. As we carry stories that date back to the enslavement of our ancestors in our bodies and in our families, communities and world, we can begin to understand that we are not responsible for the trauma but if we decide, we are responsible to it.