Radical, Militant, Uncompromising Self-Care: A Black Woman’s Manifesto

Part 1 of 6

This is my tribute to Erica Garner and every black woman who has succumbed to the health risks of being a black female person in the United States of America.

In May of 2011, I went to my water aerobics class early one morning after the spring semester had ended. While taking a shower, I felt a horrible pain in my chest, lost my balance, and fell into the wall. I sat there on the floor of the shower until I could gather myself together, got out of the shower, and called my partner to come help me. We had to go to the hospital.

I was convinced I had had some kind of cardiac event.

I had pushed myself extra hard that morning in the pool. I was glad to be free for the summer and wanted to get all the stress of being a black faculty member at WVU out of my body. Deep water running feels like flying and running and freedom all rolled into one.

The hospital was a new experience for me. I had never had a medical emergency. Having a cardiac emergency is a major event apparently. All sorts of people sprung into action when we described what happened. I came to learn that every second counts in the face of a cardiac event.

In the moments I was alone, I thought about what got me here. I had gained 100 pounds over the last 3 years. I was always angry and ready to fight or anxious and ready to cry. The people I worked with were small and petty and anti-intellectual and racist and sexist. I embodied everything they weren’t or hated. My romantic relationship had been exhausting from day 1. At almost 12 years, it had damaged almost all of my longstanding friendships, isolated me, and made me question my worth.

When the doctors determined I had suffered an anxiety attack, I was told that I needed to change my life or I could actually end up there with a heart attack. It took another year, but I eventually ended my relationship, quit my job, and determined I would never put myself in the position again.

On October 7, 2017, I was preparing dinner for guests. I sat down in our breakfast room across the table from my wife to take a break from cooking. For a moment, everything went blank then I felt my head jerking back into place. I had been fighting a headache all day, but I wasn’t sure why. I hadn’t had headaches since I was in West Virginia. Trinette was alarmed, but I assured her I was fine.

As we finished dinner, I alerted my guests that I needed to get my blood pressure checked and was sorry to have to cut our evening short. Trinette went out and bought a BP monitor. My first reading was 146/93. The next morning it was 165/95. Everyone said I should go to the hospital. I was the only person to use the word “stroke”, but I was clearly not taking it as seriously as everyone else.

On October 9, 2017, I went to Restaurant Iris for a dinner with Tunde Wey. The discussion for the evening was to be about race. I sat quietly for the early part of the discussion and then someone introduced the word “complicit” into the conversation. I could not hold my peace and offered my thoughts–emphatic and impassioned–on white women’s complicity with white supremacy and how it manifests in Memphis.

When I returned home, my BP was 127/84. Almost back to normal.

I had managed to lose much of the weight I had gained in WV by the beginning of 2016, but by the end of 2017, I had gained a good portion of it back. For the last few months of 2017, I spent almost every day in pain. I dreaded leaving the house. Of the 24 hours in a day, about 9 at the most belonged to me. I was giving everything to my job–which I relish and think is some of the most important work I may do–and leaving nothing for myself or my wife. I was crying at work. I was raging at home about this city and its injustices.

Medical science has given us allostatic load to explain what it means to experience more stress than would otherwise be expected in American society. It has determined that the most stressed people in the U.S. are black women in poverty. The second most stressed group are black women not in poverty. Increased levels of allostatic load increase major health risks.

We are also increasingly talking about ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) these days. The more ACEs there are from our childhood, the worse our life outcomes–not just our health outcomes. The original study was based on the lives of mostly middle class white people. It determined that increased ACE scores made middle class white people sick.

ACEs are what happen to us in childhood. Allostatic load is what happens all our lives. Being black and female in the U.S. is deadly.

By the end of 2017, I needed a break and had wisely negotiated 5 weeks of leave a year. So I declared to myself that I would take a month off.

That declaration to myself was a sign to the universe that I was ready to for a change. It delivered unto me Jackie O, who had recently become a wellness coach. Working with her once a week for the month leading up to my leave prepared me to use my time effectively. She helped me to determine what absolutely needed to be done for me to take leave without panicking. She helped me to determine what to do with myself while I was one leave.

One session, about 2 weeks before my leave started, I told Jackie I had no idea what to do with my time. How would I keep from working? I work. That’s what I do. She walked me through an activity where I created 2 lists: Adriane Being and Adriane Doing. Although there were a couple of household related things on the “Doing” list that had to be done over break, that list was generally off limits. The Adriane Being list was where I would live over the next month.

I spent the next week fretting about how to schedule the “Being” list. By the time I returned to Jackie, I was a bit stressed about how to schedule “being” but not turn it into work. Jackie then presented me to with 2 of the most important lessons I learned in the transition from 2017 to 2018.

  1. The “Being” list is not a to-do list but a menu. I was not to schedule “being” during my leave unless it required an appointment like manicures or massages. The list was a set of choices not tasks.
  2. Aside from appointment for facials, massages, manicures, and pedicures, I did not need a calendar. I could put it away. I was to approach each day like a feather. I would take the day where the wind carried me. This became “feathering” among friends.

Those 2 lessons meant the word “should” was eliminated from my vocabulary for a month. It meant that although I had a menu of options for “being” I could ignore it and create a new one–as long as it wasn’t the “doing”.

Freedom.

Jackie did, however, give me homework. I decided to do it on New Year’s Day. She had me reflect on my self-care practices, come up with a new set, and consider how I would implement them.

When I wrote down my current practices, I noted that I had no intellectual or spiritual self-care practices. I wept. My identity is steeped in intellectualism. I could not believe what I had done to myself by neglecting my need for intellectual activity. I wasn’t surprised by the absence of spiritual practice. I have struggled for years to understand what spirituality actually is separate from religion as religion had become intolerable for me.

By the end of the activity, I had a fully fleshed out self-care plan for the year including reserving 11-12 hours of every 24 for myself and using every single day of leave available to me each year to step away from work and be.

I have a wellness agenda for my life and a self-care plan for 2018 that includes specific practices for physical, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and social self-care.

When I learned that Erica Garner had been put into a medically induced coma following a heart attack at 27 years of age, I wept for her. I wept for all black women in America. We are sick and dying. We have been sick and dying for centuries on this continent. We are not to blame for our condition. All the same, only we can be responsible for our resistance to the perpetual assault.

Even amidst considerable struggle, I have experienced much favor in my life. I was in a position to negotiate leave. I work for a white man who is decent and kind and seeks justice in this world. I know I speak from a position of great privilege. And yet, I have come close to heart attack and stroke. By being born a black girl child in the United States of America, I am risking sickness and death.

Only I can shift the odds in my favor.