Monday, June 19, 2017

White Environments Aren’t Better. They’re Just Whiter.

Back in 1975 when my mother was pregnant with me, she caught the bus to visit a white Catholic school in a white Catholic neighborhood. Integration had finally trickled down to the South, and my mother was ready. She was Baptist, but she had heard that this school was one of the best schools in New Orleans. My mother was 40 years old, poor and determined. She was determined to give her baby every opportunity she did not have.

My father did not want me to go to this white Catholic school in a white Catholic neighborhood. My father didn’t have much faith in integration, and he sure didn’t have faith in white folks. He had heard that there was a black Catholic school in a black Catholic neighborhood, and it was one of the best schools in New Orleans. My father was 53 years old, poor and proud. He was proud of his people and too proud to let white folks play games with his baby’s head.

The argument between my mother and father was legendary in my family. My mother told it and retold every time I made the honor roll and every time one of my many white teachers told her how exceptional I was. My father, who had not finished sixth grade (or was it ninth grade), reluctantly accepted this white school, but he warned me. “White people say one thing and mean another,” he said. “They think they’re God,” and “No matter what, don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”

I often think about that argument and how it helped determine the trajectory of my life. I attended comfortably middle-class colleges where I attained comfortably middle-class degrees, I work a comfortably middle-class job, I am married to a comfortably middle-class white man and I am painfully aware that my parents’ lives were so much harder than mine.

I remember when I was 10 years old, my mother spread white mayonnaise over white bread with the slow, sacramental precision of a priest wiping the inside of a chalice that once held the blood of Christ. We thanked God for our meal and ate mayonnaise sandwiches for dinner. We ate silently. We ate in reverence because we had nothing else. We had to eat mayonnaise sandwiches at the end of the month every month for 18 months because how else would my mother pay my father’s hospital and in-home care bills? How else would she cover the cost of hospice and a proper funeral? There was no way in hell my mother was going to ask my white principal for a scholarship to cover part of my tuition because she wasn’t gone have white folks treating her little girl like some welfare case. I remember when I was in high school, my mother cried behind the closed door of her office because she had been passed over for yet another promotion. Her boss had told her she wasn’t qualified; she had scarcely finished the tenth grade. She was, however, qualified to train all the white people who were hired in her stead. That day in her office, my mother stood by the cork board on her wall and fingered the ribbons and newspaper articles that displayed my name. With tears in her eyes, she told me for the um-teenth time how she started out washing dirty commodes in that hospital and how she had worked her way up to be a supervisor with her own office, with her own computer and her own staff.

My mother said, “The only difference between then and now is that white folks smile and call me Mrs. D where before that just called me a nigger to my face. But you gone get that piece of paper no matter what. They ain’t gone treat you like shit. They ain’t gone be able to ignore you. You gone make ’em know who you are. You gone make ’em know you somebody. You gone make ’em know where you come from. You gone make ’em know we ain’t stupid. You understand me?”
This was not a rhetorical question. It was a military command, and I answered in accordance to military protocol, “Yes, Ma’am.”

I almost always did what I was told. I almost always did what was expected until my father’s first, second, third, fourth stroke. I lost count. My A’s dropped to B’s then to C’s. My mother begged me to try harder. My many white teachers did what they had always done; they told me what a smart student I was and what a bright future I had ahead of me. My C’s dropped to D’s then to F’s. I was still doing all my homework. I was still studying every night. My brain simply stopped working. I pushed myself through those years of grief for my mother. I forced myself to do better in school because that is what she wanted.  She had been through enough. She had endured 18 grueling months of working full-time, going to parent-teacher conferences, spending time with me, doing laundry, ironing, going grocery shopping, cooking, feeding my half-paralyzed father one spoonful at a time, and washing away his feces while his emaciated body slumped over hers, and she never uttered as much as a, “Damn, life sure is hard.”     

I forced myself to get back on the honor roll and to play sports and to join clubs and to ignore the white girls who said they were blacker than me, or I wasn’t really black. I forced myself to smile and contain my rage. I forced myself to pummel those white girls with my words instead of pummeling them with my fists. I forced myself to be a charming, well-behaved daughter because my mother needed to believe I was okay. I forced myself to go to college because that is what my mother wanted. And if she could endure Jim-Crow racism and watching the love of her life waste away to nothing, I could endure taking 15-credit hours each semester at the whitest white school known to man while being depressed.

My mother was the reason I graduated from college. This comfortably middle class life in this comfortably middle-class whiter-than-white state is the life my mother wanted. If I had it all to do again, I would go back to my senior year in high school and choose to go to an HBCU then move to a city with a half-way decent sized black population instead of going to a PWI and being brainwashed into thinking that white environments were superior environments. I would go back 15 years to when I met my husband and stop my heart from beating, and if that didn’t work, I would extract my heart and stump it to a pulp because the agony of not having my loving, beautiful husband in my life is equal only to not having my loving, beautiful people in my life. I would go back to my 30’s and marry a loving, beautiful black man, and we’d live in our black city where I could buy hair products in an actual store instead of having to order them online. I would attend black festivals and go to black dinner parties and have more than one black Catholic church to choose from, and I wouldn’t feel so excruciatingly isolated in this white homogeneous environment. I would go back to when I was eight and somehow stop my father from having a stroke. I would go back to when I was 10 and somehow stop my father from dying. I would tell my mother and my many white teachers to stop treating me like I’m an academic automaton—stop telling me how smart I am, stop saying how exceptional I am. Just let me mourn my father’s death. I would go back to being a fetus and bend the universe, so my father would win that argument. I would go to that black Catholic school in that black Catholic neighborhood and live an entirely different life, a thoroughly black life.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Anything for Mama

“For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.”
     ~ Psalm 40:12

I practice Hindu meditation and yoga four to five times a week. When I tell some Christians this, a look of fear comes over their faces. They warn me that meditation and yoga are dangerous because Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. They believe meditation and yoga is a form of deity worship. I always want to tell them that Shiva, Shakti and other Hindu deities do not threaten my relationship with God any more than Yoruba or Greek deities do. What threatens my relationship with God is maternal worship. From adolescence to 36 years old, I unconsciously fashioned my mother into my very own golden calf. I even sculpted a golden altar, so I could sacrifice my hopes and dreams at her feet. My mother was my raison d’etre. She was my god, and I didn’t even know it.

By placing my mother before God, I violated the first three Commandments. I idolized my mother since I have had a memory. The man who abused me said he would kill my mother if I ever told her what he had done. He had been to prison before he met my sister—a felony charge, I don’t know what crime specifically. When I spent the weekends by my sister’s house, I watched as he took out his “special” box, rolled joints and smoked marijuana; I watched as he cut lines of coke on a mirror, rolled a twenty-dollar bill and snorted them; I watched as he punched my sister until blood flowed from her nose like water from a faucet. So, when he threatened to kill my mother if I told, I believed him. I absorbed the shock waves of trauma he imposed on me, and I did it without complaint. While he destroyed fragments of my spirit, I repeated two things in my head over and over again: the “Our Father” and “For mama. Anything for my mama.”

I may have been powerless to protect myself, but I could protect the most important person in the world. I had the rational of a child—that’s all I knew to do, but I continued these unhealthy, enmeshed patterns well into adulthood after I knew better. As an adult, the sin of placing my mother before God manifested in anger, rage, resentment and disconnection from God and my non-familial loved ones. I have pushed my husband and best friends away so many times, I have lost count. I have started to use tools to mitigate this unhealthy habit, but every day is a challenge. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Opposite of Enmeshment

I am in denial about the depth of co-dependency I feel toward my mother. Of course, I didn’t know this until I was in my late 20s when I started going to couple’s counseling with my then-boyfriend (now-husband). I suggested therapy because I have a history of childhood trauma, the effects of which manifested in unpredictable psychological ways, e.g., inexplicable nausea, panic attacks, emotional withdrawal, unwarranted relationship abandonment, etc. (I didn’t use the word depression back then because I was in denial about being depressed.)

Our counselor asked us to write about our families of origin, so we could discuss this in our next session. She assigned books for us to read—Toxic Parents for him and Boundaries for me. I thought those book referrals somewhat extreme. The very title, Toxic Parents, is so incendiary! And my boundaries were fine. But as the weeks progressed, my boyfriend and I read and discussed our books and our family cultures, and I came to believe that these books were perfect for us. My boyfriend agreed that his parents were toxic, and I told him that I learned a new word that perfectly described my relationship with my mother: enmeshed.

en-mesh (verb): to catch, as in a net; entangle

Enmeshment is a description of a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear. This often happens on an emotional level in which two people “feel” each other’s emotions, or when one person becomes emotionally escalated [when an]other family member does as well.

That was the first adult acknowledgement I had made that something was wrong with my relationship with my mother. For months after reading Boundaries, I kept thinking of Newton’s law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And I kept wondering, “What is the opposite of enmeshment?”

My mother and I hated to be apart. When I was 18, I went to an out-of-state college. I was so proud that I had been accepted and awarded a posh scholarship. All my hard work had paid off. Within a few days of starting college, I felt excruciatingly homesick. I called my mother crying every day. My mother cried too. My long-distance bill was astronomical. Two weeks into the semester my mother said, “Baby, why don’t you just come on home?” So I did. I left behind the scholarship and the college I had been dreaming about since junior year in high school.

The moment I stepped into my old room back in New Orleans, I knew I had made a mistake leaving school. I had to sit out a semester, and when I did start school again, I went to a state college with the same classmates I so desperately wanted to escape. I eventually learned that most people who go away to college are excruciatingly homesick even if they come from the unhealthiest home in the world. The homesickness passes as one develops new relationships and begins to self-identify, but because I was so enmeshed with my mother, I didn’t believe I could exist without her.

When I was 22, I left New Orleans for a study abroad in Europe. After I returned from Europe, something changed. I was no longer just my mother’s daughter. I was the world traveler.  I had finally created a granule of self that was independent from my mother and my home life.

I eventually returned to the same out-of-state college that I had left a couple of years prior. I was even awarded the same scholarship. Yes, I was homesick, but I was also flourishing. I was doing well in my classes, my instructors loved me and I had lots of friends. I volunteered at a local school, got great work-studies and was selected to be on hiring committees for new professors, all of which helped me to build a strong professional résumé. Eventually, I was selected for and completed internships in The Netherlands and Kenya.

I graduated and moved back home. My sister (yes, the abusive one) was terminally ill. My mother, understandably, was struggling with seeing her oldest child die. My mother asked me to come home, so I did. My old boss from the internship in The Netherlands had asked me to come back to Europe to help him establish a new office in Belgium. I turned him down without a second thought. My mother needed me—that was more important that a fly job in Europe, with great pay and easy access to some of the most beautiful cities in the world. Nine months after my sister died, I moved to the city where I currently live.

I spoke to my mother three to five times a week for most of my adulthood. By southern, Christian standards, this is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s expected. We talked about everything: my boyfriend, how much she missed my father, my sex life, her sex life before my father died, my work experiences, her work experiences, her childhood, my childhood, the child abuse she had experienced, the child abuse I had experienced. During any given conversation, my mother would apologize for not protecting me more then in a subsequent conversation, she would tell me to let the past be the past. Slowly, over several years, I found that I could not abide the sound of her voice. The sound of her voice felt like a noose around my neck. I stopped calling her, and I wouldn’t return her calls. That was the beginning of nine years of our off-again/on-again relationship.

After my mother died, I kept trying to convince myself that I had wasted valuable time because I didn’t speak to her for years at a time. I told myself I should feel remorseful now that she’s dead. The truth is I do not feel remorseful. I do not feel ashamed. I feel that I am precisely what my mother and father taught me to be: a survivor.

Being in an enmeshed (i.e., co-dependent) relationship is the emotional equivalent of standing still while a 13-foot boa constrictor slowly coils around your body and crushes your bones until your lungs collapse and your heart explodes. A survivor would never allow herself to be so powerless; she would not remain in such a deadly situation. Maintaining ongoing communication with my mother was a deadly situation for me. Some like to categorize elderly people as inherently harmlessness. I beg to differ. Enmeshment is a form of abuse. A person who uses enmeshment as a means of control is an abuser, regardless of his/her age.

The opposite of enmeshment is self-identification. Enmeshment requires the melding of the self into another person’s selfhood. When I allowed my selfhood to be fused to my mother’s, I could not think my own thoughts, connect well with other people or grow my own spirit; thus, my relationship with God was compromised. I actively started to self-identify when I got on a plane and flew to Europe. It was a baby step, but it was my baby step. Once I started to self-identify, I would not allow myself to stop.