19 September 2014

Interview with Rachel Held Evans

Last month, New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans asked to interview me about Too Heavy a Yoke. Here's an excerpt below.

Today I am thrilled to introduce you to Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a theologian and psychologist whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for healing, justice, and reconciliation in the Christian church and beyond.
I first learned about Dr. Walker-Barnes when Christena Cleveland wrote a stirring response to her first book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which examines the impact that the icon of the StrongBlackWoman has upon the health and well-being of African American women. I was so intrigued I read the book myself and was challenged, encouraged, and moved by it. The chapter on the Trinity profoundly changed the way I think about self-sacrifice and interdependence, particularly as a woman, so I knew the moment I finished the book I had to have the author on the blog. 
Read the rest of the interview here.

07 August 2014

Recent Articles on the StrongBlackWoman

Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis
This week, I guest-authored an article, "Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis," for ForHarriet.com. In the article, I narrate the true-life story of a StrongBlackWoman who arrived at the point of physical breakdown after failing to care for herself in the midst of crisis. Here's an excerpt:
Without realizing it, Veronica had been caught in the vicious stress-health cycle of the StrongBlackWoman. Rather than giving herself the space to feel and express her emotional distress, she repressed it. She distracted herself by directing her energies to taking care of the needs of other people and institutions. She crammed even more activity into an already hectic schedule. And she devoted even less time to engaging in self-care behaviors. She had already had difficulty getting an exercise routine going. When cries set in, she began skipping meals and when she did eat, she relied on fast food and sweets. She sacrificed her sleep and leisure time to keep up with all that she had going on. Together, it was a perfect recipe for breakdown. With no outlet, her emotional distress became embodied in physical form. Her existing health problems were exacerbated and she developed new ones: headaches, dizzy spells, fatigue, fainting. 
In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, I devote a chapter to describing the link between embodying the myth of the StrongBlackWoman and health problems among African American women.

Farewell, StrongBlackWoman
Be sure to check out Christena Cleveland's excellent article, "Farewell, StrongBlackWoman."  Cleveland is a social psychologist and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. In her article, Cleveland reflects upon her own embodiment of the StrongBlackWoman and her commitment to healing.  She writes:
My name is Christena and I am a StrongBlackWoman. I am beatable and human, and I am okay with that.  I give myself permission to scream when I am angry, cry when I am hurting, ask for help when I need it, and remove myself from communities that can’t or won’t care for and nurture me as a black woman. Every day is a struggle to put down the StrongBlackWoman façade and take up authenticity, true strength rooted in God and community, self-love, and mutual love. But today I choose to face that struggle and receive the help I need to overcome it.
What's your commitment to healing as a StrongBlackWoman? Or to supporting the recovery of a StrongBlackWoman? Join the movement and claim your right to a life of authenticity, love of self, and relationships based upon reciprocity. We can do more than survive. We can thrive!

13 July 2014

A Time to Grieve

It was effortless, really, the way the tears rolled down my face. In the six days since my breast cancer diagnosis, I have not really cried. I have been a StrongBlackWoman in recovery for nearly twelve years.  And even though I vowed not to play the role of the superhuman sister who hides her emotions behind a brick wall, old habits are hard to break.  I’ve had a hard time connecting to the grief that I knew was there.  I shed a few tears here and there, but never for more than a minute or two.

In part, it was because I was still in shock. But there was something else:  I don’t want to be comforted.  I don’t want anyone trying to staunch the flow of my tears once they start.  Grief tends to make other people intensely uncomfortable.  And often they try to deal with their discomfort by shutting down its source. I don’t want anyone trying to cheer me up so that they could feel better, especially not with meaningless cliches like “God won’t give you more than you can bear.”

I need to grieve, and not because I feel hopeless.  My mother is a 20-year survivor of a Stage IVB breast cancer.  Mine was caught much earlier and I have no doubts that I will fully recover.  I’m already picking out the soundtrack that I will dance to when my doctor pronounces me cancer free. But the path to being cancer free is a really arduous one. It is going to disrupt every facet of my life and at a time when life seemed to be on the upswing after several years of major losses and transitions. It will be physical and emotional hell, not only for me, but for my family as well. And for that I need to grieve.

So this Sunday morning, when the tears finally began to flow just moments after I sat in the church pew, I didn’t fight them.  I let their cleansing power work, giving release to the grief and anger that need to escape for my healing journey to begin.

Photo credit: Detail of Mary Magdalene crying in sculpture Entombment of Christ (1672). "Sépulcre Arc-en-Barrois 111008 12" by Vassil - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

18 April 2012

Anxiety and the StrongBlackWoman

I’m anxious. There, I said it. Ironically, saying it publicly is not as freeing as I’d hoped it would be. In fact, it’s somewhat anxiety-producing. Perhaps I should stop writing now, delete this line, and move on.

No, it must be said. It is part of my recovery as a StrongBlackWoman. You see, a SBW isn’t supposed to be anxious. At least, most people think she's not supposed to be. A SBW is supposed to be…well, strong. Impervious to fear, worry, and anxiety. She’s supposed to have everything - especially her emotions - under control. Her strong religious faith (a SBW is usually religious) is a prophylactic against worry. She stands on platitudes such as “God won’t give me more than I can bear” and “If God brought me to it, He’ll bring me through it.” And if she is an especially good Christian, she can quote or paraphrase off actual Biblical verses such as the one about lilies and sparrows (cf. Matthew 6:25-34). And if those don’t work, she is simply to immerse herself in more busyness and keep her feelings to herself.

That’s precisely what I’ve done for most of my life - kept my fears and anxiety to myself. About ten years ago, I realized that I probably have a strong biological predisposition to anxiety. A lot of people in my family have a lot of fears: dogs, scary movies, lightning, New York cabbies. Some of my relatives (who shall remain nameless) practically jump out of their skin at the least provocation. Some of us are pretty open about our fears, prompting the rest of us to label them “scary,” as in “Chile, you kno’ she ain’t goin’ to that movie. She so scary.” Others suffer silently. Since I’m a clinical psychologist, some of my relatives have come to me over the years to talk about these issues - the panic attacks, obsessions and compulsions, the prescriptions. And all the while, I’ve thought that it was strange that I didn’t have an anxiety disorder given my familial predisposition and my personal history of trauma.

Somehow, I overlooked a lot of symptoms - the nightmares and insomnia that started by my sixth birthday, my fear of the dark, my refusal to walk alone in my suburban neighborhood during the day because it seemed too deserted, my self-consciousness, and my chronic mental multi-tasking. The symptoms have appeared - and disappeared - at different stages in my life. And most of the time, they’ve been subclinical, meaning that they were not severe enough to require professional intervention. Mindfulness-based activities such as yoga and meditation, along with good nutrition and exercise, were sufficient to keep the symptoms in check.

Then came parenthood. The hypervigilance required of parents during the first few years of a child’s life is enough to trigger any subclinical anxiety problems into a full-scale clinical syndrome. Next came a one-year period of tremendous loss, trauma, and change, the cumulative effects of which created multiple cracks in the dam of strength that I’d built over the years. Finally, two months ago, I came home to discover that someone had broken into our house, just the right trauma to unleash a Katrina-like flood of anxiety over my already weakened defenses.

The typical SBW reaction would have been to act as if all were okay. If I were operating in full SBW mode, in response to queries about how I was feeling, I would have offered some heroically faithful retort like, “God is my fortress and my shield!” But I haven’t been in full SBW mode for a long time. In fact, I have been in recovery for almost ten years. Granted, there have been a few relapses, but at this point in my journey, I have no interested in being a myth. I am committed to discovering and embracing my authentic, fully human self, including my needs and vulnerabilities. So I told the truth: I’m not okay. I’ve had problems with anxiety for a long time and this just puts me over the edge. I am afraid, more afraid than I can tolerate on my own.

For the first time, rather than suppressing my fears, I owned them. Instead of trying to deny my anxiety (to myself and others), I decided to make sure that my anxious self received the care that I needed. I continued my weekly therapy sessions, made sure that I exercised and ate well, and went for a massage. But when, after a few weeks, my anxiety level remained sufficiently high enough to jeopardize my sleep and my blood pressure, I took another step: anti-anxiety medication.

As a psychologist, I tend to favor “talk” therapy over medication. And in this case, I knew that my symptoms would eventually decrease and return to their normal levels. Yet I also agreed with my therapist who, as both a licensed counselor and priest, reminded me that God does not require us to suffer needlessly. Suffering anxiety was not doing me, or anyone else, any good. In fact, with every day of elevated blood pressure increasing my risk of eventual stroke, a few months of untreated anxiety could have a much worse long-term impact.

I wish that more of my SBW sisters would recognize their problems with anxiety and seek treatment, whether it be counseling (with a properly trained and licensed therapist), medication, or both. Despite the myths about our mental and spiritual fortitude, SBW are actually quite anxious. Epidemiological research consistently demonstrates that Black women in the U.S. have a relatively high rate of anxiety disorders. Nearly 1 in 5 Black women has a diagnosable phobia, higher than any other racial-ethnic group. Black women also have significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than Black men or women of other racial/ethnic groups. It turns out that hidden behind the myth of strength is a lot of unnecessary suffering.

The first step in releasing our fears is to admit them. Huh, this is starting to feel liberating, after all.

22 February 2012

Relinquishing Selflessness: A Lenten Journey

I'm giving up selflessness for Lent. That may seem counterproductive to the Lenten focus on denying self. I should probably do something more...spiritual. Like committing to fast. Or getting up before dawn to spend an hour in prayer. Or giving up Facebook, Twitter, and television so that I can spend more time reading Scripture. Even something seemingly as mundane as giving up chocolate might be more high-minded than giving up selflessness.

Trust me, I tried to think of something else. I was really thinking about giving up social media. That’d be a tough one for me. I will try to curtail my compulsions to check Facebook. But that’s not my Lenten discipline.

Nope, my discipline is being less selfless. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines selfless as “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s owns.” The chief antonym for selflessness: unselfish. New Oxford has nothing positive to say about selfishness.

That’s problematic. It would seem that a certain level of selfishness, or self-centeredness, is necessary for the preservation of the self. By the way, New Oxford seems to approve of the idea of having a self, “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.”

But what about Scripture and Christian tradition? Scripture is a pretty strong advocate for self-denial. In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them” (Luke 9:23-24, see also Matthew 16:24-25, Mark 8:34-37). A whole host of monastic movements and practices of asceticism have been based, in part, on such teachings.

However, denial is not the final word that Scripture has to say about the self. Embedded in the Great Commandment is an often overlooked element: Christ’s assumption - in fact, his command - that we love ourselves. In response to the legal expert who asks which commandment is the most important, Jesus responds: “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31). It turns out that Jesus thinks that loving oneself is connected to loving one’s neighbor.

For Christians, then, self-love and self-denial live in an

dynamic interplay. It’s a tension, to be sure. Straying too far into self-love can lead to all manner of sin, not the least of which is idolatry. But excessive self-denial is just as problematic and can also be a form of idolatry. For some of us, self-denial comes easily precisely because we don’t have a strong sense of self to begin with. That’s often the case for women and girls, who are often taught to put others before themselves. The helping professions (including ministry) also tend to attract people who are good at putting the needs of others before themselves.

So being a woman in the helping professions (both a psychologist and minister), self-denial comes easy to me. To make matters worse, I’m the eldest child of a single mother. By the age of twelve, i was a full-fledged parentified child, taking care of my younger brother while my mother worked long hours, often on the night shift. My mother, coincidentally, was the eldest of eight children. And her father had to drop out of elementary school so that he could take care of his younger siblings while his parents worked on a sharecropper’s farm in Mississippi. That’s at least three generations of training in self-denial culminating in one package…me.

I’m always looking out for the needs of other people, whether they be family, friends, or strangers. I don’t even wait for people to express a need; I anticipate it. I’m the person who sees a problem, develops a solution, and assumes the responsibility for implementing it so as not to add a burden to anyone else. Even when I’m driving, I look out for the needs and feelings of others. If my turn approaches too quickly and I’m in the wrong lane, I’ll miss the turn rather than cause other drivers to slow down momentarily. For some reason, one of my chief driving rules is that it’s wrong to inconvenience other drivers. I have no idea where I got that from, but it’s paradigmatic of my life.

Selflessness has gotten me in trouble health-wise. About ten years ago, my body sent a not-so-subtle message: “You’re doing too much for other people and you need to take better care of yourself.” I listened, at least until I went to seminary, where the workload and content taught me that good Christians (and good students) take up their cross by pulling all-nighters, living off caffeine, and putting off health until they graduate. Moreover, they should do this without uttering a complaint, otherwise their professors might accuse them of having the wrong priorities.

There have been plenty of reinforcements for the message that I should focus less upon myself than upon others. The devotional that I use, with its heavy emphasis upon social justice, instructs me to direct my prayers toward others. Save for the Lord’s Prayer, there is no space within its daily liturgy to bring my own needs before God.

And sometimes churches add fuel to the fire. One night during a church committee meeting, I tearfully shared my struggles with balancing my teaching position, being a new parent, and serving the church. Several committee members responded by telling me that I needed to get better childcare so that I could do more for the church!

It turns out that my body’s early signals of physical distress were roadside signs warning me of the all-out roadblock up ahead. I now find myself living with a chronic illness that could possibly have been prevented if I had put more focus upon myself than upon others. Fortunately, or perhaps not, the condition can be managed if I finally learn to do what I’ve been so horrible at doing: loving myself. Hence, my Lenten discipline.

It’s not the easiest discipline to observe. There is no clear checklist or set of rules that I must follow on a daily basis. Right now, I'm beginning with something simple: praying for myself. Each morning, I pray the Psalms. After I read the Psalm through once, I pray it through, putting myself in place of the petitioner, even altering the words to reflect my situation. It makes me feel less guilty to pray for myself if I’m following a Biblical precedent.

So kudos to those of you who are practicing some form of self-denial this Lenten season. As for me, I’m practicing self-love.

07 January 2012

A StrongBlackWoman Goes to Therapy

"How did I get here again?" That was the question that I asked myself as I drove away from my therapist's office. Processing the session, I realized that I was once again in the full throes of StrongBlackWomanhood. I was trying to be all things to all people and I was suffering for it: I was having trouble sleeping, my chronic pain had intensified, and my blood pressure had gone up.

The irony is that I am writing a book about the StrongBlackWoman. You'd think that spending my days reading and writing about this phenomenon would somehow inoculate me against it. At least a little. Right? Wrong. This most recent relapse has further convinced me that being a StrongBlackWoman is so ingrained in many Black women that it is an addiction. It requires constant vigilance. And it also requires getting help.

Some time ago, I posted a 12-Step Program for StrongBlackWomen. Over the past few months, I've been working the program. Right now, I'm on step 5: "We admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our compulsions and the traumas and fears that drive them."

For a long time, I thought that I could keep my own counsel. After all, I'm a clinical psychologist and a minister. And I'm fairly psychologically healthy. I've spent a lot of time in introspection - journaling, meditation, and reflection. To be fair, I haven't been alone in the journey. My spouse and best friend have been sounding boards. And I have repeatedly brought the issues to God in prayer.

It's been a productive process. Yet I realized that I needed something else, or more accurately, someone else. I needed someone who could listen to my processing with a professionally trained ear, to help me to see the connections between my past and my compulsion to be a StrongBlackWoman. I needed someone who would listen for as long as I needed them to listen. I needed a therapist.

The director of my doctoral fellowship program, Dr. Israel "Ike" Tribble, used to say: "Everyone is of your color is not of your kind, and everyone who is of your kind is not of your color." African Americans are often very reluctant to seek help from a therapist and when we do, we usually want an African American therapist. My therapist - a white man in his late 60s - is certainly not of my color. But he is of my kind. Since he's an ordained Episcopal priest as well as a licensed counselor, I thought that he'd have both spiritual and psychological insights that could aid me in my healing. And so far, I haven't been disappointed.

My therapy sessions provide two gifts: a dedicated and uninterrupted space in which to remember and process my life experiences; and an empathetic and nonjudgmental person who listens with his whole being and provides insight just where it's needed. Each week, I unfold another part of my life story. I notice the connections between my past experiences and my current struggles. I feel affirmed, supported, and empowered to heal. And I feel the chains that bind me in the yoke of the StrongBlackWoman breaking away, one link at a time.

Every StrongBlackWoman in recovery needs multiple mechanisms of support and accountability. Some of these can be found among our family and friends. But sometimes, we need professional support as well. Admitting that we need help is difficult. But refusing to seek the help we need could be deadly.