Skin in the game: surviving against the odds

I didn’t want too much of the Obsidian Tea content to turn into just pandemic or politics. I ain’t an expert and I don’t want to take too much focus away from the culture work. But this article, and an upcoming one on hope, are too important in general to not speak on. If you are looking for resources of what to do and what’s happening I’m going to link some better people at the end of this, but for those looking for help having the fortitude to keep going, that’s is what I’m talking about here.

A Loving Tease

I’ll set the scene. It’s freshman year of college and my best friend had just come out as gay. Him being gay didn’t bother me, but in time something did. He was annoyed, confused, and heartbroken at his treatment by some post coming out. He hated being stealthy at work and regularly vented about it. I found myself… resentful and angry at this but also confused. People are shitty and will hate you for no reason, that’s life. Why was he so fucking upset about it? It’s just the way it is. I was not as self-aware as I am now. So instead of realizing I was mad at the system and some prior experiences, I said a phrase that I deeply hate now:

“Welcome to being a minority.”

Depending on my mood it came out scathingly, teasing, or dejected but it came from a feeling I was only able to place much, much later. I seemed like the hurt and disappointment of children. He was not a child, and I couldn’t imagine making it to adulthood without feeling so hurt by what felt like child-level oppression when there was so much more going on and at stake. It was only when he had some skin in the game did he really start seeing the truth, and worse (to me) he refused to accept that as acceptable. In that drop from one of the most powerful positions in society, he expected things I no longer even dreamed of for myself. And that… festered inside of me for a long time, zapping my ability to be compassionate to his feelings deeper than caring for him in general.

As I look at my Facebook today, I have seen an ever-growing amount of hurt and fear, and a pinch of angry rises out of me at times. Knowing it’s misplaced, in honor of that friendship, I’m going to try to do something else. Be compassionate and give you tools.

With no sarcasm but the deepest regretfulness,

“Welcome… to my world”

Shit Hit The Fan

I know for many of you (Americans specifically although other countries aren’t doing much better in many ways— looking at you China), these past few years have been… eye-opening. For some, this last year as you begin to really see behind the curtain and the awareness of the way the world is, you are heartbroken. Discouraged. Depressed. Hopeless. You see the mountain of treacherous work ahead and this year it feels like things just keep stacking higher and higher.

Before you’d heard stories or knew people getting ready to climb and even some who were climbing but you still weren’t ready. That is ok. Sadly if you were younger and a minority you would have learned this lesson much younger and in steps. Your community teaching you how to balance existential horror, everyday life, and activism. The reality is, your community probably doesn’t know either. You’ve never had to and now things are bad enough that you’ve got some skin in the game and that is terrifying. But I need you to keep moving forward. Here is some thoughts on how.

Rest

“Go lay down”

Many Black families say this as a type of cure-all. Be it the flu, a broken bone, or a bad day. “Go lay down”. I used to hate this advice. What is laying down going to do about my upset stomach or sore ankle!? Lately, I’ve been thinking about it. Why is this advice so common? At first, I assumed it was because many Black families are poor and can’t afford medications and doctor’s visits when time could heal you. That’s still part of it, but it didn’t explain why if you “feel well enough to be laughing, you must be feeling better”. It’s such a longstanding troupe. Whether it is because of this or just a tool that has come up, “laying down” as an adult has taught me something. The value of rest.

We all have limits. Limits of the body and mind. Limits of how much pain one can endure. Many problems can be fixed with a little bit of time. While others are so longstanding, so big, they feel impossible to fix. Be it a sickness of the mind, body, or spirit, sometimes the answer is to lay down. Not with real distractions, not pushing through it, or cleaning/catching up on tasks, but to lay down. To give yourself time, to rest.

I Don’t Have Time

What did I say? Go, lay down if you are tired or unwell. Ideally, take as long as you need and at least as long as you have. Don’t got time? Make time. Do what you must to allow you to rest, to recover. When you are that emotionally tired, and overwhelmed, and just burned out, you need to rest. To be with yourself, to care for yourself however you can, to bring comfort into your world, to reground and come back. I can almost hear some of my friends with depression, half laughing and half brushing it off like “I do that all the time!” Do you? Or do you lie around your house feeling guilty and aimless, watching tv to fill the time, zoned out, not having showered for days, and avoiding friends? Because although very valid, it’s not the same. The “goals” are different.

When you are “laying down” you have a goal, it’s to heal whatever ails you. The bar may be low and mostly focused on rest but it’s no vacation. And that’s where the second bit comes in for the workaholics. The reason you don’t do anything but the lowest common denominator is because, realistically, laying down gets hella boring after a while. But it only works if you actually rest. By forcing/allowing yourself to do almost nothing, you take what is normally done in short bursts at one time. It’s not that you are doing nothing, but the nothing you are doing is at best boring and at worst sucks.

But if you actually do that work you’ll find a natural… break. Although Black parents be willin’ about laughter, I think it is a part of the process. When you want to do something else enough to get up and do it, or have fun you can do something else. Sometimes you end it too soon and a few hours later you realize this mistake so you have to be honest with yourself. We are trying to get you back to what my therapist says is the “window of tolerance”

The Window of Tolerance?

Yeah. To oversimplify, we have only so much ability to self-regulate. Dip too far down, you get depression and disassociation. Too high and you get panic, fear, and anxiety. It is… hard to function outside the window of tolerance. So, it’s better to be in the middle. This practice is kinda like a hard reboot to your system. It gives your body the energy to fight. Be that fighting off a cold or fighting off white supremacy. As a minority of minorities, I am VERY aware of when I am sliding out of my window of tolerance. I have to be and every moment of me living in society is me managing to stay within that window. And sometimes… Ya boy has just got to go lay down.

When I had just been pulled over recently I slept most of three weeks. Had I kept going in my state I would have not been ok. I also tried, and failed, many times to rush the process. But, there were things about my world that I needed to heal from and there wasn’t nothing for it but to wait.

Let’s talk strength

(content warning: Brief suicide mention but focus on the grief process skip to here if that is too much)

A different story. Freshman year — no I don’t have many good years y’all — at the very beginning, a friend died of suicide. It came as a huge shock right before a trip to the woods at band camp. I went and told no one. I’ve always been good at disappearing and would go back to my room during the day when everyone was busy because it was shared, and bawl my eyes out. I’d wipe my face and quietly go back for practice. Every bathroom break, and every meal, I did this and often didn’t sleep or walked at night through the camp.

I didn’t feel okay for a long time and besides talking with the friend’s best friend who came to stay with me, I didn’t mention it. I think it was almost a year later before I told my friends this had happened, if not a few years. They said I was strong. I didn’t feel strong. I felt fragile like the slightest wind could break me.

People think strength is something you experience, and… it’s not. It is something you can see, not something you can feel and once you let that go, you realize what it really is. It’s a choice. A choice to keep moving forward, anyway. To push through the motivation and into dedication. It’s resting when you are tired too. The way I got through that grief and many difficult times is by remembering what I am dedicated to.

Why Dedication

Humans are fickle, forgetful, short-sighted, and self-interested. In my life, there have been many moments of failing motivation or willpower. I was hurting and tired and wanted the difficulties to just, go away. Suffering and hopeless, I looked at the cruel unfeeling world and it all just felt too big for me, too much, too sad. The way I’ve found to hold on to myself despite that often feeling hopeless and futile is to choose it anyway. Sometimes that’s easy! Others… it’s really not. So, I zoom really far in and really far out, so it becomes abstracted and more manageable.

Say I choose to dedicate myself to therapy. When things are really overwhelming, I take the goal’s timeline to the extreme sidelong side. What do I want going to therapy to be like in X years or whatever feels extreme? Then I look at what the first step is and take it. When I don’t want to I remember my goal and take it anyway. I trick myself into taking it. Ask friends to help me take the next step. I break the steps into micro pieces because the goal is X years away and it doesn’t matter if the full step happens now or in 3 months as long as it happens and progress is still happening.

If things come up, it’s not a failure. If I need rest it’s just a break but I also know, X years is X years. The best part? X years can also move. Why? Because life is what you make it mean and most problems big enough to need this style of dedication aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, maybe not even your lifetime. But, setting a timeline keeps it from being too amorphous.

A Compass For Life

It can become a compass for life and a way to ground yourself in the world. Who do you want to be and what do you believe in? What do you want in your world and what are the steps to getting that? I believed I needed therapy even when I was sick and hated every second of it. So, I kept going. I saw that in the long term, it didn’t matter if I had to leave 3 hours early or I wouldn’t go, or had to take an expensive Uber to get there on time, or had people pull me out the house to go.

It didn’t matter if it felt hopeless and silly. Or that some sessions felt like a huge waste of time, or I simply didn’t want to be there. That some times I missed sessions or overslept, or didn’t have the breakthrough I wanted. Because each of these actions, these sessions added towards the long goal, and by the time I made it there these specifics wouldn’t matter. So, choose the aligned choice even if it sucks.

For the Grief

This is how I survived being around 200 strangers with no privacy while grieving for a week. One moment at a time. One choice at a time. Get through this half-hour. Do this anyway. Force yourself to have privacy so you can grieve, even if it means missing out. Honor her memory every day. Honor yourself every day. In time, the grief eased and I stopped feeling like I was drowning in it. I still almost 10 years later regularly reflect on my dedications to her and with that and a few others, even in the darkest times, I am reminded that every night ends if you wait for the sunrise.

Choose dedication and you’ll be your own strength.

Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash

Seeing The Unseen and What To Do

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember what it is was like to find out how deeply awful things are and have been. I have a dim memory of being told “life isn’t fair” over and over as a child. So, I’m really used to feeling a certain amount of horror about the state of the value of my life in the eyes of others. Even when pulled over the thoughts I had weren’t new but just a different angle. Therefore I’m not sure how to find out as an adult what the fear of being a minority (worse if it’s intersectional) is like. I still find it hard to empathize although I’m no longer angry. You won’t be able to unsee this, and what you do next with it matters. It is important to get a healthy balance of the world though.

What brings joy into your world? Think hella zoomed out and micro levels now. As long as it doesn’t go against your dedication values, add more of that into your life. (ie, If joy is more connection but you’ve dedicated yourself to less screen time, consider alternatives to video chat. Letters, emails, Marco Polo ect.)

Find something small to do for loved ones or strangers. Take stock of the little things and appreciate them, cherish them. Invest in your mental health. Reality is, as much as the world is a mess right now, it also is still your everyday life, with everyday experiences. And it will keep being that for a while. It is healthy to spend moments of time grieving for example and also literally experiencing the pleasantness of a warm bath.

Finding Balance

The balance will allow you to stay afloat in times of hopelessness and fear. Sadly so much of this isn’t new but I think it had to get worse (by becoming seen and obvious) before it could get better. There is a… value, I guess in Black culture. I’m not done researching it and considering it but in essence, it is hard neigh on impossible to sustain in difficult times alone. (Yes I know other cultures do this too but that doesn’t take away this from our culture.) But if we are a group that lifts and loves, and grows together, we can cover for when we all inevitably need a break. There is a willingness to hold that extra weight because you know at some point that will be you. At the same time, there is no one role in the community.

Pick actions that are near your level of knowledge base. If this past year was the time BLM started making sense, pick beginner-friendly issues to attempt to tackle and support those with more tools and experience to head up the harder parts. Make things easier to handle by playing into your talents. If cold calling gives you existential dread but you are artistic, focus on those skills to assist. It won’t be “happy” work but maybe fulfilling and/or not soul-sucking. There are so many ways to make effort to be a part of the collective shift even if it feels daunting. But without those micromovements forward we could never change the world. Change is not made by its leaders but by everyone else.

Boundaries

Be aware of how much information you can take in without spiraling and set up clear boundaries around what that looks like. What do you need to stay on balance? What do you need to be able to stand up despite all the things you might be feeling. Consider what is the minimum you can give every day and hit that mark. Find others who are emotionally in the same place you are and trade support while shifting away from those who are draining. Be kind to yourself and if you find yourself overwhelmed, again it’s alright to rest.

Bravery isn’t not having fear but being afraid and doing it anyway. This shows up in different ways. What may be scary for one isn’t for another, so don’t shame yourself or others. If you, in this moment, are doing your best… that’s enough. It is when you are willfully choosing to do less that you aren’t upholding your values. It’s as important to have these boundaries with yourself (and accountability buddies) as it is to have them with others.

Intersectionality

The closer you are or more you look at intersectional issues during this time, it becomes more overwhelming. It’s as though I have an ongoing drone in my ears, which is tiring but I’m also very used to. As layers are pulled back, you’ll start to hear that drone until it chafes like sandpaper. It may feel overwhelmingly loud. You may not be able to tolerate it for long periods. That’s understandable.

It will settle, I promise. To be around to help fix it for those of us who can’t leave the room, it’s a discomfort that will have to be learned and it’s… unpleasant. Worse, I assume at an older age. The fact is most of y’all are really just starting to be aware of how rancid everything is and that is overwhelming. The world you lived in was never real. This knowledge, tacked with a lack of accessible coping mechanisms, is drowning out all other sounds for folks. Do what you need, to be able to help us fix this, without great harm to yourself if possible. It is not an easy thing to ask, and yet it is the challenge you have been made aware of clearer and clearer with time, and it is time to push forward despite great opposition.

I didn’t know I was coming to this blog for sappy life advice

Well I didn’t know I’d be writing it, so, whatever.

One Comment

  1. Jessica
    May 31st, 2021
    Reply

    This was so helpful to me today. Miss you. <3

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