Mental Health Matters: Feeling My Feels

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When I first received a packet of information from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services outlining the events that led to my adoption, I called my then best friend to read her the contents. At first, her sniffles were low, but eventually they began to drown out my words.

“Why are you crying?” I asked.

“It’s just…so sad,” she began.

“Don’t cry,” I insisted. “Don’t cry for me.”

By this time, I was 32 years old and had mastered muffling and numbing my own sorrows. I wasn’t going to sob about my own life, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow anyone else to mourn for me.

I suppressed the pain of discovering I was an abandoned five-month-old baby with the other emotional trauma I’d endured. The only thing about stuffing emotions into an abyss is that they’re never really gone. Pain. Sadness. Anger. Whatever emotion you’ve attempted to ignore stays with you. I learned this nine years later when I was 41.

moon_womanI’d decided to do a relationship meditation hosted by Oprah and Deepak. I thought the meditation would help me have a better relationship with my husband, father, cousins, and in-laws. What was surprising is the meditation really focused on the relationship I had with myself. This was achieved through chanting mantras and answering journal prompts. One of the questions asked this: What, if anything, are you afraid of finding out about yourself? Or something like that.

At first, I didn’t want to write the truth. But, after realizing I’d be the only one reading it, I decided to be as honest as possible. I scribbled these words: There must be something wrong with me for me not to have any parents.

And then, I cried.

I cried for the five-month-old version of myself, who must’ve been terrified being left in an apartment for days. I wept for a baby who was separated from her mother. In that moment, I realized I didn’t need permission to empathize for myself. So, I also cried for being adopted and not told to feel anything about the finding years ago. I grieved losing my adoptive mother. My final tears were for my adoptive father, who, no matter how much he uttered, “I love you,” had shown otherwise.

That day was pivotal. I’d waited my entire life for someone to green-light my emotions when really, I held the power all along.

moonAfterwards, I stopped stifling tears and emotions. I began using honest communication in most situations. I refused to follow family and society’s made-up rules of engagement. From that day forward, I knew it was better for me to share emotions than it was to harbor resentment and damage myself further. This ranged from answering simple questions, like “How do you like working here?” to harder ones, like, “Why haven’t you invited me to your parties?” with truth. With many people, I ceased hiding my emotions, and subsequently, protecting theirs. I don’t mean to say that I trample on others’ feelings; that would be insensitive, but rather, I don’t hold back for fear of what others will think. I don’t owe anyone a lie or a watered-down answer because they’re ill-equipped to deal with how I feel or because they’re not used to hearing a different opinion.

Since that day, I’ve also learned how to move through emotions and determine why I’m experiencing a specific response. I have a phrase: I feel (fill-in-the-blank emotion) because of (fill-in-the-blank reason). It might look like this: I feel resentful because my family doesn’t consider how I feel around holidays. Sometimes I share these sentiments; other times, I don’t. The important part is to know how I feel and move through it.

Sometimes tears arise because I’m triggered by past life events, like the time I was watching TV and a woman and her mother were shopping for wedding dresses. I remembered how I shopped for dresses by myself and it made me sad. Being able to acknowledge that emotion and then pause for a second has been more supportive for me than pretending feelings don’t exist.

Finally, because I’m now more inclined to feel my feels and process emotions, I’m less likely to use unhealthy coping strategies. I no longer rely on people, relationships, or sex as a means to improve my mood or self-esteem. As a result, my relationships have improved because I’m interacting from an authentic space, not from a place of suppressed hurt and anger.

For me, an ability to feel has been liberating.

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Mental Health Matters: Suppression

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My mother died on Monday, September 4, 1989. It was Labor Day. That’s why I can remember it. My father returned from Northwestern Memorial Hospital that morning. When he walked in the backdoor, I knew life had changed. His red eyes and sunken shoulders spoke first. It was one of two times I’d seen him cry.

“She’s gone,” he said.

Then, he hugged me. Both of our faces were wet when he released me.

When we arrived at the hospital, my father handed me several quarters and instructed me to use the payphone outside of the intensive care unit to call family and friends.

The first person I dialed was my grandmother.

“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I could feel it. We’ll be right there.”

She and my grandfather’s Michigan home wasn’t far; they arrived in two hours. Her voice disrupted the solace.

“She just couldn’t take it no more. Her little body just couldn’t take it no more,” she said.

My grandfather swallowed his grief and let out a small choke. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, turned to face the hallway, and blew his nose.

Others’ pain makes me cry, and my mother had just died. My eyes welled up.

“Don’t cry,” my grandmother instructed, “you had your mama for a long time. Sixteen years is a loooong time.”

img_6673Years’ prior, my mother had told me not to feel sorry for my own adopted self. Throughout my childhood, I’d been told not to cry over trivial matters. On Labor Day 1989, the lesson my family desired was finally solidified: there is nothing worth crying over, not even the death of one’s mother.

That Monday I swallowed my pain.

The next day I attended the first day of my junior year with hundreds of other Whitney Young students. When my friends asked me how my summer was, I continued swallowing my pain and casually replied, “My mother died yesterday.”

They thought it was odd. “I’d be home if my mother died,” one replied.

“It’s okay. Life goes on, right?” I practiced my calm demeanor.

A few days later, when friends and family congregated to pay my mother respect, I continued swallowing my pain. I used sarcasm to cover resentment. I stood in the vestibule and made my friends laugh about a man’s shoes or a lady’s church hat. Why should anyone feel sorrow for me, when I wasn’t allowed to feel an emotion for myself?

img_2576I swallowed the pain the whole 1989-1990 school year. I’d learned that angst is best covered with achievements and a smile. I knew how to achieve and my natural smile shone from ear to ear, no matter how I felt about my circumstances. Apparently I fooled everyone, because not one adult asked me about my emotional state that year, not even my father’s new girlfriend, not even a teacher at the best high school in the nation.

This is how I learned to push emotions down. This is how I learned to pretend to be okay when I wasn’t.

Mental Health Matters: Developing a Sense of Identity

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My cousin and his wife adopted a baby last year. As soon as they brought her home from the hospital, he had a list of all the things she’d be and do. She would like cooking; he’d ensure she would because he props her up in the kitchen as he prepares meals; he’s a retired military chef. She would like fishing; he’d already taken her out on her first boat excursion. I feigned a smile as he described how fractions of her life and her identity were being shaped by his likes and dislikes.

pianoI suppose raising children in this way is natural. My mother was a skilled pianist. On Saturday mornings, she drove my six-year-old self to the north side, where I took Suzuki piano lessons. A brown piano sat in the corner of the dining room, where I remember practicing and learning one song, Cuckoo. It wasn’t until I advanced to reading sheet music that she looked over at me and asked one question.

“You don’t want to do this anymore?”

My answer was, “No,” so I was allowed to stop.

There was little else I remembered doing at that age. I devoured books, and eventually I wrote. By the time I was ten, I’d written and created a book about a boy, who had to assume responsibility of his home due to his father’s death. It was called On the Farm and was nominated for an award sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks. But were these enjoyable to me, or were these just hobbies my mother had introduced to me? After all, she did have a bachelors in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also had boxes of unpublished essays stashed away in our basement.

It seemed imperative that I learn who I was independent of others. Psychologists agree; they suggest adoptees learn what they like/dislike apart from their adoptive families.

img_0522While writing is something my mother and I shared, it really is something I like to do. I was reminded of this six years ago. I’d written a piece about going natural, and on a whim, submitted it to For Harriet. My ego was overwhelmed with the thousand or so responses that essay garnered but writing for public consumption as a way to discuss a new thought was also something I felt I’d been missing. Connecting with others is necessary for my being. The following year, I began this blog and have loved every minute of not only writing, but also engaging with others about our daily lives. And if I use the what could you do for hours rule, then writing would definitely be it.

So, yes to writing. But what about other things I’d picked up throughout life?

Dwight and I have been married twenty-four years. When you’ve been with someone that long, it’s also important to discover what you like separate from your spouse. Superhero movies is that thing for me. Once I realized that Marvel was creating a seemingly endless timeline of films, I had to bow out. A few years ago, I expressed to him that I would only be watching one per year…with him…at the movies. I’m not sure how he feels about this, but such a small decision made a huge difference for me. I’d rather write, blog, or read a book than watch the same trope play itself out under water, in a fictional African land, or in a parallel universe.

I’ve also recognized that I like to entertain company in creative ways. For example, I’ve created something called a Christmas tree decorating party. I thought it’d be cool for each person in our family to have their own five-foot tree, and subsequently, invite a few people over to eat, drink, and decorate them. I’ve also thrown a Christmas brunch with all women. Sons weren’t even welcome. My youngest daughter and I made breakfast food and served about fourteen women.

transient_memphisSome of you may have also noticed I like photographing homeless and transient people. Many have asked me why? Others have judged it as rude. I think this hobby is the best example of stepping into one’s identity. I have my reasons. Sometimes I explain myself; other times, I don’t, because what I’ve found on this journey toward understanding self is it doesn’t matter what others think. It doesn’t matter if I can articulate why I enjoy something, and it doesn’t matter if it’s aligned with what my family or society values.

All that matters is that I know what I like and how I feel when I engage in it. This has been my greatest lesson of all about developing a sense of identity and of being myself. As a result, my sense of self no longer relies on the approval of anyone else.