I’m a student. I am currently in the middle of my studies.
I study religion. I study Christianity specifically. I read a lot about trauma both in and outside of class. There’s so much that my classes do not and will not cover.
I feel heavy and lost.
I feel like my voice does not matter.
I feel like my voice is lost in an ocean and no one is watching to see if the bubbles are coming up.
I don’t know the impact of my voice.
I don’t know if this studying will pay off.
I am told my voice is a gift, but their lives do not reflect that the gift is received.
I have a sexuality.
I am desexualized often.
I want things.
I am hypersexualized often.
My wants are not considered.
I’ve fought hard for myself.
I’m a mess. In therapy for more than 7 years.
I am told I am a saint.
I am told I am a problem.
I am told I am intimidating, “too” good, by people who haven’t lifted a finger to move their own hearts.
I am not a place for cheap compliments.
I am not a place for flattery.
I don’t know how to survive the world as it is.
I don’t know how to survive this emotional landscape.
I don’t know how to survive without my friends. The ones who recognize and respect my autonomy. The ones who know how brave I am, but do not leave me alone in my courage.
I want more spaces where I can feel everything and it is not a problem.
I am not a place to be fixed.
I am not a place to look at so that you don’t look at you.
I am tired of self-reflecting in a world that doesn’t self-reflect.
I am tired of hearing “be yourself” in a world that doesn’t value authenticity.
What does it look like to follow your own path, especially when so much feels broken? Feelings aren’t facts, yes, but actually a lot IS broken, and fractured. It is very difficult for me to see myself having a future. I am a black, newly out as non-binary (oh, hey there!) human trying to pursue a career as ministry chaplain in a religious institution where people like me aren’t the norm. I’m an underrepresented, marginalized person in an institution that often implies and demonstrates that the lives of people like me are unintelligible but tolerable at best, and less human at worst.
There’s always gonna be that person who tells me “you’re the future of the Church” or “well, make your own path”, “start your own space”…. as if that solves the question. It’s well-intentioned and meant to be supportive and kind. But, it’s another form of bypassing. An avoidance of the process. Making your own path is still uncertain and it is still hard and scary. It doesn’t solve the problem of the reality that I am underrepresented and I am struggling to imagine a future for myself.
So again, I will ask: what does a future look like for me?
It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself ever since I moved here. I finished up my final exams last night, meaning a large expanse of free time has opened up before me. This is wonderful in a lot of ways, because now, I have time to do much of what feels aligned with my spirit. It is like a wide open valley where there is no end in sight. But, one that I could still get distracted and lost in. How do I spend this free time when, again, I don’t know what my future could be?
A flood of anxiety hit me as soon as I took off my headphones and shut the door post-finals. It’s the kind of anxiety where you have this vague sense that Something Bad Is Going to Happen. Where is the sense of doom coming from? Is it from the uncertainty of my financial situation? Do I have enough time to figure out what I need to? Will I have enough time to prepare for the next semester? It is the kind of anxiety I often find myself trying to avoid by scrolling endlessly through Instagram. Which, honestly, doesn’t help given that a website that shows everyone’s highlights can often be fuel for lighting the fire of comparison, envy and self-doubt.
In fact, I am writing this after noticing how I react internally when others seem to be succeeding in ways which I am unable to do right now. Someone else finishes their semester with straight As. All is well for them and they know it. It sends me into a panic. I struggle to hold their success with my failures.
Or, the other day, at the annex of the divinity school, I found myself being introduced by married women recounting how many hours they spent on a plane to their honeymoon, Minutes later, a married man popped out of nowhere and announce “my baby was born!” I abruptly told them it was nice to meet them and came up with the excuse that I had to go study, in hopes that the conversation wouldn’t have to turn to the subject of my own life and how I don’t really know what’s going on right now.
I’m not sure how much it is my personality type (#justINFJthings) or my anxiety… or how much I have the right to feel this way, but life seems to be moving for a lot of people in ways that it doesn’t seem to be doing for me. My experience arriving to Atlanta and starting seminary has felt tumultuous, from beginning to finish. I have failed so much: under-borrowing so much for school that I put myself in a financial crisis, getting my heartbroken twice by the same person, ending the semester with multiple Cs, and my car finally throwing in the towel. And yeah, you can count all of the good things that have happened in between: the new friends that I have made, the fact that I have even been able to make it to seminary, even when I didn’t think I would, and the reality that my old friends continue to show up for me despite the distance, in the small ways that they can. But overall, it’s been really hard.
So what of a future? A future of stability and purpose and warmth feels impossible to imagine right now.
The other day, I told a friend that I love Advent. That I’m a hoe for Advent. That I wish Advent was all of the time. Advent is a season where you don’t have to tell yourself that someone has it worse. You don’t have to usher gratitude out of nowhere. You don’t have to have your shit together. Actually, it seems like one of the few times of the year where you don’t have to have your shit together, and it becomes okay to not be okay. And on the third week, you get to have joy to mix it up a bit. Advent is not all doom and gloom and sadness and uncertainty. Advent makes space for both. And that is why I love it so much. I’m not sure what I will do when Advent is gone.
Will my failures be too burdensome for company to hear once Advent is over? How will my community respond to my life right now when I still don’t have the job or the car? When I still don’t have the relationship where I don’t have to play small? When I’m still estranged from a family who isn’t really interested in getting to know me? When I am expected to have to find some silver lining?
How do you make art, a path, a life when everything is broken? (Like, literally all your equipment is broken, so you have to go to the library to write this all on a computer that’s intact?) But that is the creative act, isn’t it? To make something out of what you already have, to make something out of nothing. Somewhere, I picked up this idea that creativity is for the rich, for those who can afford it. Those who can afford to buy paint, hire consultants, pay for spiritual directors, pay to make their life all beautiful and to make sense. Maybe I got it from Instagram, again. Or art school where there’s a heckin’ ton of money and privilege. Maybe a combination of both, where you don’t really see the messy process, all of the failures and heartbreak. You only “hear” about all of the sweat and tears… but we are still deceived, only to look at the happy ending.
If I ever become a chaplain, and if I am ever in a Warm-and-Loving-Home-Relationship-Where-I-Don’t-Have-to-Play-Small (TM), I hope never to do the disservice of erasing the process or acting as if I was entitled to this. Not everyone is trustworthy enough to see my process, especially the painful parts. My path includes a lot of hardship: a lot of fractured relationships and fear. Bad intentions assumed of me. Mistakes that have set me back. A childhood that set me up to fail relationally.
But so many of us have been able to make something out of what is in front of us. And, who I am to look at what I have and say I cannot make anything when my Creator made a universe out of nothing?
Why? Because a ton of shit happened to me during 2016. I was testing the waters of “organizing” for the first time. I attempted to work with religious communities that expressed a desire to do anti-racist work. I also struggled to find support in school from my peers and my teachers.
I experienced a lot of pain within these and many other moments in 2016. I was gaslighted by people who claimed to care about the black freedom struggle. I attended tension filled demonstrations and have been in the presence of violence. I’ve had my creative and intellectual work unfairly judged by parties who couldn’t see my work rightly. 2016 was also the year that my university’s Peace Studies department used police presence to intimidate me into compliance when I rose concerns about racism and sexism in the program’s curriculum.
2016 left me burned and wasted.
You could even say that 2016 broke my spirit. In retrospect, 2017 went a whole lot better for me, even though the first year of Trump’s presidency brought with it so much maliciousness.
I don’t know if I have yet to fully recover from what 2016 did to my mind, my body, my spirit, but most days, I expect myself to be better by now. It’s been over a whole year, after all.
I tell myself that I shouldn’t be afraid of picking up my camera, taking new clients, doing new gigs… That my fear should be gone by now. I should be better. I shouldn’t still be carrying around a fear of running into ministers and activists who hurt me deeply. I shouldn’t be carrying around the fear of running into members of other organizations and coalitions that didn’t do their part to respect me and see my rightly. But, I do.
I don’t always know what to do about these fears. I try to power through them, but it doesn’t seem like enough on the days that I can’t.
As I work a few hours during the week, I get to enjoy roaming the isles of the library in solitude. I use this opportunity to catch up on podcasts that I’ve been wanting to listen to and I also get a chance to discover and listen to new ones as I quietly shelve books (and occasionally shed a few laughs here and there).
One of the more meaningful podcasts that I’ve been able to listen to this year has been AFFIRM, a podcast from the website Redefine Enough. Between listening to AFFIRM and taking a break from Twitter, I feel like I’ve been receiving the breath of air that I need… and will reluctantly say that I deserve.
I say reluctant, because I often forget a lot of what I say that I believe. Or, I forget to take seriously certain truths about mental health and caring for myself. I don’t always believe that the things that I whole-heartedly want for other people, I deserve as well. And so, it’s been so helpful for me to listen to the podcast and to listen to the host describe and name things that I forget or experiences I don’t always have words for.
One of the topics in the podcast that I found to be very affirming was the topic of “secondary trauma”. Essentially, secondary trauma isn’t trauma that you personally experienced, it’s trauma that you may have witnessed or trauma that you hear about. Trauma therapists and other healers often experience secondary trauma from listening to people’s stories and witnessing their pain.
I’m a person that typically listens with enthusiasm… but I’ve noticed my capacity to listen growing less and less. I have noticed within my body the desire to retreat into my own personal space. My capacity to hold others has shrunk. I often fear that this has meant that I have grown to be less big-hearted, less caring. I think to myself that I must be selfish now (which is the worst thing to be if you’ve grown up being told your worth is defined by how well or how much you care for others). However, the podcast reminded me that secondary trauma is still trauma. It makes sense for me to be tired after listening to others share their own pain. It makes sense for me to not always have the capacity to listen to others if I myself am in a dark place.
The podcast also affirmed a lot of my own experiences and struggles with mental health and anxiety. Within the last year, I’ve struggled to leave my house and have felt the kind of tiredness that lingers and overstays her welcome.
I believe now that my body has been shutting down… it’s been telling me that I need help, that I need to find healing and care. I couldn’t see the messages that my body was giving me: the lack of energy, the inability to leave home, the lack of excitement that I found sitting on my chest when I woke up in the mornings… I couldn’t understand the messages my body was giving me because I couldn’t find affirmation from myself or from many others that I was carrying a lot and that a lot was hurting me. In my mind, I downplayed everything. But, between Twitter drama, racism, sexism, biphobia, spiritual abuse, family trauma, rejection, life-changes, loss, flashbacks — all of it was affecting me. And most of it still affects me.
There were days when flashbacks made it difficult for me to leave the house. I would feel the emotions of the flashbacks hit my body right before placing my hand on the door. I’d find myself winded from the pain of those memories and needing to recover from the flashback. Then I would be late for something. And then, I couldn’t tell anyone about why I was late, because we don’t talk about mental health in our society well. Not in activist spaces, not in church… many spaces still hold stigmas, discomfort or general cluelessness around mental health.
Listening to women of color affirm each other’s mental and emotional health is doing something to me. I don’t know if I can call it “healing” necessarily but it’s encouraging me enough to get out of bed and to feel like I can do something about my anxiety and depression. The women on the podcast are reminding me that I deserve rest and care. They are reminding me that my trauma and pain matter, that the world’s bigotry, interpersonal messiness and systematic injustices affect me because I am human. They are reminding me that my trauma and pain won’t just just go away overnight. Trauma doesn’t just magically disappear. Healing and care has to happen.
Thankfully, I am in a place where I am seeking therapeutic support. I’m also trying to take advantage of this slower time of my life by making sure that I fight for my care time. I want to enjoy this life. I want to be happy. I want to have meaningful relationships, and I want to be filled with purpose and love when I do my work.
I think I deserve that.
A few of my favorite personal affirmations:
Rest is as important as work. Rest makes magic that work can’t do.
What I went through is real. I am not weak for feeling pain from my past, no matter how far back. I matter, my pain matters, and I deserve to have my pain attended to and healed. I deserve to be cared for and loved.
I deserve to be celebrated and respected in my work.
I have enough faith for today. I am spiritual/religious/Christian enough even if others can’t see it because of their religious boxes. I don’t have to do more to prove it.
I deserve to be celebrated, loved and respected in a religious community.
I have a lot to offer and to give, even when I don’t always feel like it.
I deserve to protect myself. I don’t owe anyone my gifts or my vulnerability.
The promise of life abundant is for me, too.
Please check out AFFIRM podcast if you get a chance, especially if you are a woman of color. Also, AFFIRM should not take the place of real therapeutic help. I grew up being afraid of therapy and being taught that it was bad and meant something was “wrong” with me. If you are intimidated or scared of therapy, I’m always willing to talk to you. AFFIRM is great about addressing fears about mental health and reaching out to a therapist.