I Stopped Being a 'Strong Black Woman' and Didn't Expect What Happened Next
“Stop being the strong Black woman,” they said.
I fought them for as long as I could. I would agree with them externally while still piling all of my family, friends, and any other random person’s problems I could find onto my back. I’d fix it and make it better, not because I want to, but because that’s my job. Not to mention, it went beyond that. I also had to keep my life together and my life was my responsibility and no one else’s. I could ask for help, but I’m “grown.” It’s up to me to figure it out all by myself.
Then the sleep disturbances happened. I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep at night until I knew what I was writing for work not just the next day, but the next week. Then since I couldn’t sleep, I’d start working on other projects keeping my brain active and awake. I’d wash my apartment down, or walk the dog at 4 a.m. When I did sleep, I’d be woken up by intense nightmares that made me afraid to close my eyes again. I was averaging two hours of sleep a night for almost a month.
I still felt fine. I could still keep going, so I did.
After the sleep disturbances, I became hypersensitive – breaking down after every small inconvenience or change in routine in my personal and professional life. Molehills sprouted into mountains and I couldn’t figure out why it kept happening. Yet and still, it persisted in causing disruptions to my internal and external world alike.
However, I still felt fine. I could still keep going, so I did.
Next it was my eating patterns. Three square meals became two, and two became one, and one became a couple spoonfuls of something or other and an iced coffee (or three) to wash it down. It’s not that I wasn’t hungry, or that my eating disorders or body dysmorphia were acting up. I simply just didn’t have the time to eat. There were other more important timely things to do. I could survive off of the bare minimum if I kept my energy levels low. Then if I did that, the melatonin would hit even harder so I could potentially even sleep better. Risk management became my game as I ate just enough to keep myself running, but not enough to actually be OK. Headaches, dizziness, and faintness would take over my day, but it wasn’t anything an Advil and caffeine couldn’t fix.
Days faded into weeks, and weeks faded into months where no matter how closely I clutched everything, keeping it together with duct tape and twine, everything kept crumbling. Or if it wasn’t, it felt like it was, and then the things that were actually safe and stable in my life didn’t feel like it. Somehow I went from surviving the heat in the kitchen to roasting in the flames with no perceived end in sight.
I wasn’t fine anymore. I couldn’t pretend, and so I stopped.
I’m not strong. I’ve said it once, but now I couldn’t even pretend to be anything else. So instead of pretending, I just stopped, and for some reason I thought life would suddenly collapse, and it didn’t.
Instead it happened gradually and very slowly.
I started realizing how much of my current life no longer worked for me – how I was miserable in so many areas and I was forcing myself to continue on in these situations because I had to be “strong” and “tough it out.” I actually became visibly more emotional – less able to keep it together than before which I didn’t think was possible, and yet. Instead of sleeping too little, I started sleeping too much. People started looking at me sideways, wondering how capable I was to do what I do best. Now I sit here crying in a coffee shop because the emotional Pandora’s box of feelings not only cracked, but it completely burst open with no regard for my dignity (as I said I’m crying in a coffee shop, like who does that?).
I feel no closer to being “better,” only more fatigued by life and by my own damn self, however possible that is. I don’t know what I expected when I stopped being a “strong Black woman,” but complete and utter emotional chaos and dysregulation definitely weren’t on my bingo card.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” is what everyone says, but is it? Hell, we say it nonstop even on this site, but in reality for a lot of people it isn’t. For me, it isn’t OK for me to be seen as not OK because that’s when the superhuman superwoman facade cracks and they realize I’m just human and that’s not something I’m allowed to be. Humanity is a privilege afforded to those with fairer skin and straighter hair, not dark women like me whose skin glows in the sun and hair grows toward the sky.
The worst case scenario happened when I stopped being a “strong Black woman,” and I don’t really feel better for it. I feel more afraid of what’s to come, more pressure to get my shit together or at least pretend it is, and this ever present reminder that as much as I need this emotional release – as much as I need to say “enough is enough,” in a feeble attempt to advocate for myself, I’m already on borrowed time as is and I don’t know when the sand will run out of the proverbial hourglass I find myself trapped in. That, and I will still get calls to support others and show up. I still fear if I stop doing that they’ll hate me. I still feel the weight of the world crushing me even if I’m not trying to pick it up. It never stops, and I don’t know if I have enough optimism in my system to believe it will.
Now I’d hope we set up more systems to support historically exploited communities of women that have been forced into positions like the one I am now. I’d love to see a grace period where someone is able to say “It’s OK to lay your head down. We’ll keep things afloat. You’re secure in the meantime. We promise.” This is why Black women don’t feel they can stop being strong, because regardless of whether they are or aren’t, the expectations don’t stop and our humanity still isn’t seen. Until that happens, I fear this curse will never really be completely broken.
Getty image by Prostock-Studio