“I had to try. If I ended in defeat, at least I would be trying. Trying to overcome was black people’s honorable tradition.”
— Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman
Dear under-qualified counselors who lack cultural competency,
Less than a week ago my aunt looked at me and cried because her son is dead but I am alive and could be in her arms for two and half days. Her older sister’s beautiful youngest child stayed in and out of airports and airplanes for eighteen hours to see her for two and a half days.
My schedule allowed me to break away from my life for two and half days.
Do you know how depressing airports are? Airports and hospitals are my least favorite places, and I’ve spent a great deal of my teenage and early adult years in both. I’ve been in a hospital bed crying my lungs out because they were useless and I couldn’t breathe and I desperately wanted to be held by someone who understood the physical and emotional pain of dealing with the fact that I ended up in the hospital to treat my pneumonia when I should have been treated for the emotionally damaging event that occurred weeks earlier. I got a new inhaler and my lungs worked just a bit better, so I went back to work the next week and started the new semester, which ended up being my worst. That was over two years ago. I kept it moving because life cannot interrupted for more than couple of days. No more than two and a half days.
I know it’s more than anxiety, the look on your face tells me you know too. But I don’t think cis heteropatriarchy or white supremacist capitalist society as answers will suffice.
College has done two things to my mental health: exacerbated every feeling to the point that all I wanted to do was not exist (what that means depends on the day) and kept me so busy in a routine drowned in reading assignments and papers that I forget that I was and still am crumbling underneath texts of dead old white men.
Have you carried the weight of dozens of family members on your back? Your recently deceased grandmother you suspect lived 83 years without learning to write anything but the name she chose for herself. Your deaf and under-educated mother who sends you drafts of her Facebook statuses because she needs you to check her grammar. Your little niece who wants to be a doctor and a singer and believes she can do both and more because she has been told she can make it. She can make it because you did, or at least, you’re trying. You know why my mother is under-educated? She is a very bright woman and has a lot of potential, but she is both black and deaf and was raised in the fifties. I don’t think I need to explain further. She was not given the chance to shine.
Being the first in your family to do anything is very special. Even if it isn’t special to your family, it’s special to you and no matter how difficult it gets, giving up doesn’t feel like an act of self-care, it feels like betrayal. How dare you fall to pieces in a room full of outsiders who already believe we can’t make it? How dare you not shine? It doesn’t matter if their standards were created to destroy and not empower you, didn’t we teach you to create new standards? You are to exceed all expectations, and you shine. It doesn’t matter what it takes: you shine. Because you’ve worked twice as hard to get half as much, you need to shine. You miss funerals, you miss weddings, and you miss celebrations of births. You miss the phone calls and texts. You shine.
Most of this pressure is in your head. You know that. You try to be rational because you are one of the most rational people everyone knows. People tell you to take care of yourself, everyone supports any decision you make. But what if you make the wrong decision? The one where everything finally stops and your only task is to make sure you don’t go to bed and wake up with a heavy heart. You make the conscious decision to stay farther away from the CTA platforms and street corners, because no matter how much self-care is needed, it feels like an act of betrayal, so why not do the ultimate act of betrayal and hopefully feel at peace.
I know it sounds silly to need a three week break to not go to class because being around more than five people stresses me out. I guess I don’t have a real plan. I know it sounds silly that all I want to do are the things I rarely have time or energy to do. I want to FaceTime my baby niece and tell her what an intelligent little black girl she is. I want to call my teenage niece and talk to her about her crushes and tell her which types of boys to avoid. I want to speak a language with my hands and tell my parents that it is okay they were never able to win $50,000 off lotto tickets and pay for my college education. I want to write for my sanity not a grade. I want to remember to eat three meals and to go grocery shopping to have the ingredients to actually make those meals. I want eat those meals at my kitchen table while reading Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and maybe dead old white men because it’ll be my decision.
I have created many plans for my life. Eight-year-old me learned to have five-, seven-, and ten-year plans because it helps to not think about the present and makes it easier to keep moving when you want nothing more than to cry in a bathtub. I know about having plans to make plans. This is the one time when I do not want a plan.
You know, the most important lesson I learned in the last four years: my college degree will not save me. So, yes, I do need a break. I know it’s not your fault you don’t understand. I don’t mean to be rude; just trust me, this is more than a short break.
Edited to add: This piece was read in June 2016 for No Stakes Theater Project’s Hummingbird Series. I introduced it with:
I wrote this piece a year and half ago when I was failing my last semester of college. I decided to read this out loud for the first time tonight in honor of people who constantly worry they will not make it through. This is also dedicated to Nayla Kidd, the black girl teenager who dropped out of Columbia University after feeling immense pressure. She started a new life in Brooklyn, and as much as I felt for her mother who thought she was missing, I felt for her and greatly understood why she did what she did.