Since I was a teenager, I've been conditioned to be independent and ambitious. Against some family members and friends' advice, I applied to a more selective university and was accepted. Upon graduation, I relocated to urban Northern Virginia instead of returning to rural hometown Virginia. And when it came to building a finance career, I was focused on promotions and paychecks. But being a go-getter came with a whole other set of responsibilities that I had to fulfill that weren't even my own.
Much like a scene from an episode of Being Mary Jane, “Purging and Cleansing", when Kara pretty much tells MJ that she can't be the head of everyone's household. If you follow the show, you know MJ not only takes care of her own home, but she also maintains order in her parents' home, including supplementing her family's financial downfalls and acting as the family spokesperson to deliver the news everyone else needs to say but no one wants to deliver.
Last season, her brother Patrick, who is a recovering drug addict, takes a prescription drug to get him through the day. So MJ stages an intervention at her parents' home on their behalf, but ends up being the one taking her niece, Patrick's daughter D'Asia, to and from school.
Kara tells MJ that she's taken on her parents' fight in addition to starting a new chapter in her career, not to mention still dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, her best friend Lisa's death, and her extortionist CeCe's never-ending demands.
“And then everybody's gonna turn around and wonder why you drowned," Kara says.
Or sometimes they don't.
When I lived long-distance, I, too, filled financial gaps by making periodic deposits in accounts, but I also received family's mail to interpret the fine print on documents, completed forms and made calls on their behalf to resolve issues, and found myself in the middle of disputes. At times I grew resentful. I asked myself why nearly every phone call ended with a problem. And I often wondered why none of the other adults could make decisions, until of course they messed something up, and I had to be the one to research it and fix it. But things were at least manageable from a distance. It wasn't until I returned to my home to launch a writing career that I became overwhelmed.
There were family members in my house, one with the most cute, bubbly, inquisitive child, and since I freelance from home, I inadvertently fell into the “live-in nanny" trap. I turned into the person to get the child dressed and on the bus and the person to get her off. And eventually the default person to babysit period because the assumption was I had no real job, which to most is defined as one inside a brick and mortar establishment with a time clock. In the meantime, I was grinding to get more published bylines and my own deposits. I was up beyond midnight and up again by 7 a.m. for bus duty. With everything I already had going on, I was barely staying afloat.
One weekend, I helped a cousin make last minute preparations for her wedding. I recall having a dull ache behind my right ear during the rehearsal dinner, and for the next two days I kept biting the inside right of my lip. Throughout the reception, I enjoyed my freedom for the first time in weeks, but I noticed the puzzled looks and unusual concern for my well-being.
“Are you okay?" most asked.
“Yes! If one mo' person asks me that question…!" I retorted.
The next morning, the mother of the new bride cooked a huge brunch. I remember taking my first plate outside and glancing at my image in a car window while laughing. It looked “funny" but I thought, Aren't all reflections distorted? My second plate was an awesome loaded omelet to order. This time I sat in the family room trying to relish the combination of spinach, fresh tomatoes, and pungent onions, but when I tried to lick my lips, my tongue couldn't reach the right side of my mouth!
I rushed to the bathroom to look in the mirror. I looked normal.
Then I realized my mouth only moved on the left. In fact, not only did my mouth not stretch to the right, I couldn't blink my right eye independent of my left one!
My cousin and I quietly exited the house of 50 guests – thinking I was having a stroke – and rushed to the emergency room where the doctor ultimately diagnosed me with Bell's Palsy, a temporary paralysis or weakness on one side of the face.
“I don't know what type of stress you're under," she says, “but I suggest you eliminate it."
She prescribed an antibiotic in case it was caused by some sort of infection and a 10-day steroid regimen. I later learned the pain behind my ear was the first symptom.
I returned home with the intent of resting for a few weeks.
“Can you get her off the bus?" my relative asked a day or two later.
I looked at her, incredulously. Did she not see my damn face? I'm not healed! “Are you going somewhere or something?"
“No," she responded.
It was that moment I realized I had to change my environment if I wanted to get better.
It took a pirate patch and three more weeks before I could blink my eye, and a few more months for my vision to not blur when staring at the computer and for me to drink without drooling or have a normal smile again.
It was a scary moment, but the experience taught me the meaning of self-care and that it's more than hair appointments and spa treatments. I also learned that although I may feel guilty, I can't give away all of me even if I think I have a little bit to spare.
The idea of a strong Black woman is a proven fact; the one of I-can-do-everything-because-I-am-Superwoman is a dangerous myth.
As I continued to watch the conversation between Kara and MJ play out, I caught myself nodding in agreement. “You need to be a little selfish right now," she says. “You need to see who else is capable of showing up."
But more importantly, I need to stop saving folks who don't care if I sink or swim. It's really okay for me to just say, “No."