#MeFirst: The First Step Towards A World of Radical Love and Freedom
I want to die often.
The first time I admitted that, I was locked away in a psychiatric ward for six weeks. Escorted out of my therapist’s office with two police officers because I refused to comply.
So — aside from my partner — mainly I keep my feelings to myself.
Sometimes when it’s really bad, I can’t even talk to my partner. I reach out to a well-meaning stranger on the suicide hotline. Most times my son and my partner are my anchors. I’m not ready to leave a young, black boy alone in a world that doesn’t value his life. Or leave my partner in life behind without living out our dreams.
I sometimes fantasize about the moment that I know I’m leaving this world. Each time, my chest caves under the weight of this realization. I’m choking on panic but I don’t feel pain. Just regret that I haven’t prepared my son to survive in a world that doesn’t want him to. And for all the times I chose to push my partner away instead of just enjoying each other.
I want to die because I’m scared.
I’m scared that one day my son won’t make it home from school alive. Some days I sob after I lock the door behind him. Faces flash across my mind. Trayvon Martin’s parents’ eyes wide with grief. Sandra Bland’s carefree smile, oblivious to how a traffic stop would change her life. My mothers’ wailing, if I ever had to tell her that her first grandchild was murdered.
I’m scared that I’ll die alone. That I’ll lose my partner and never get to experience growing old together.
That I will forever look through my contact list when I feel myself drowning and choose to call a stranger on a hotline instead. I wonder if I’ll be another black woman laying dead in my apartment for 3 years before anyone even notices.
I’m scared that I’ll fail at my divine assignment. That I’ll never write the words, tell the stories or create the experiences that I came here to share. That I’ll shrivel under the weight of the thinly veiled judgments of the students in my class who tally up all my mistakes and deem me intellectually inferior to them.
For some people, fear keeps them sharp and alert. When it’s as constant as the hum of your refrigerator though, it’s like a shot of Novocaine from the dentist. Fear numbs me out and makes me messy and reactive. I yell at my son when he gets home seventeen minutes late as if he’s the one shooting innocent black people. I compromise my needs in my relationship without even noticing until I’ve erupted at my partner with rage. I overextend myself to students who don’t respect me and appropriate black culture while calling me out for appropriating theirs.
This summer, all the yelling, compromising and overextending started to take its toll.
I spent more time worrying about my son than I did having fun with him. I was too exhausted to work through conflicts in my relationship so it started to wither and fray. I unconsciously agreed to an 80-hour work week and sacrificed my sleep and workouts to get things done. Of course this meant that I wasn’t always proud of my work. I sometimes sent emails with typos and I even fell asleep in a staff meeting once. (And yes, I was drooling, snoring and doing the bobblehead neck snap.)
This summer I wanted to die because I was angry. Mad that all my efforts to be a good mother, partner, lover, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, facilitator and radical entrepreneur were failing. I felt invisible and unappreciated.
No one knew that I was waking up 90 minutes earlier than I wanted to, just so I could get work done and spend quality time with them. All they knew is that when I was around them, I was distracted, irritable and tired.
My student didn’t care that I spent hours preparing for my sessions with her. All she knew is that I said a word that offended her and she expected me to know better.
I was angry at myself for trying so hard to meet other people’s expectations. It’s not my fault per se. That message was coded in the blood passed down to me so I could survive this world. After all, black women have historically been expected to deny our needs and desires in order to serve everyone else. That’s what made us valuable. That’s what made us worthy.
A phone call from my friend in August woke me up. Breast cancer. Stage 3. She was scared but hopeful. Another friend, also a black woman, who has been a radical artist for over twenty years, was fighting for her life. She had a condition the doctors didn’t even have a name for.
These calls brought back painful memories.
Last year, I lost someone who was like a mother to me. She’s the first person to say to me: “Ije, are you gay? If you are, it’s okay. I love you and want you to be happy.” They said it was cancer that killed her but really I know it was the disease of intergenerational trauma, white supremacy, and patriarchy.
I am so angry she’s gone. And when my family comes to my housewarming this Sunday, she won’t be with here with us sipping on a cold Corona.
I want to punch doors, throw glasses against the wall and scream until my voice gets hoarse. I’m so mad that all these black women are dying every year and everyone is acting like we’re not in the middle of a genocide.
We’re dying from the heartache of raising our children without partners and communities who have our backs.
From the loneliness and isolation of not wanting to burden other people with our problems.
From believing the lie that we don’t deserve to rest until everyone around us is happy and every fire we see is put out.
And it’s not just black women suffering. Radical folks — especially black, brown, queer and disabled folks — are too. We all have a habit of judging our struggles as character flaws when really they’re just symptoms of living in a world that doesn’t value us. We push, contort and tolerate until our bodies can’t take it anymore.
This summer I had to face my own denial about how I am killing myself and participating in this mass genocide of oppression. When I deny my need for rest and movement or act like I don’t deserve your respect when you’re “calling me out” because you’re another person of color, I’m participating in my own invisibilization.
When I was locked up in the psych ward, I heard a million different theories about why I was so depressed. My diet was missing important vitamins. I didn’t know Jesus yet. It was dammed up creative energy because of the books I wasn’t writing. The reasons were all personal and all my doing. And while there was some truth to them, looking back I wish someone had told me that given my trauma history and the injustice of the cultural and political practices that shaped me, my depression was an understandable and wise response.
The one thing that did bring me hope during that period was a janky, HTML website with a picture of the Milky Way galaxy and flashing stars in the background. There was a piece on there about depression as a form of spiritual rebirth. I welcomed that truth like parched land welcomes rain. It reminded me why I was in so much pain: I was dying. So I could be reborn.
During my treatment, I was learning about all the patterns embedded in my system that didn’t serve me. And killing them off by rewiring new habits that matched my vision for the life and world I wanted. Habits that centered around putting my needs, desires, purpose and commitments first.
Since then, I’ve learned several other radical, wholistic and indigenous healing strategies that help me practice putting myself first on a daily basis.
I was in the shower when I first realized that these words were an answer to my most urgent prayers. Prayers about what to leave my son and all our children to help them survive the world we’re leaving behind. Prayers I could have told all the black women I ever loved who died. Prayers that might have saved their lives. Prayers about how to birth my visions into the world without killing myself.
What does Me First mean to me?
Me First (v). \ˈmē ˈfərst. 1. The act of prioritizing your needs, desires and commitments. 2. Acting on your vision and commitments to create a new possibility instead of only critiquing what’s not working. 3. Prioritizing your healing and growth.
Me First in my relationship means prioritizing my self-work so I can be more present and resourced to move through the inevitable conflicts that will come up.
Me First while parenting means healing my childhood and family wounds so I don’t let my fears prevent me from loving and accepting the child I was given.
Me First while doing my radical work means working through my internalized beliefs of inferiority so I can make space for my wild and radical solutions to come forward.
Me First is how we let the oppressive parts of ourselves die so new habits can sprout. It’s the new code I want to pass down my bloodline to heal years of injustice, abuse and trauma.
Me First is how we can build more resilient and sustainable radical communities that can practice living their values instead of just ranting around them. In order to create a world that isn’t made from the raw materials of oppression and abuse, we need to practice Me first. Me First is about owning how we participate in our own oppression and prioritizing the self-work that will help us unravel that.
I realize now, that when I’m feeling suicidal, the waves of pain I feel are messages from parts of me that are ready to die because they’re no longer serving my best interests.
I don’t really want to die.
I just want to be free.
The first step towards that freedom is practicing putting myself first each and every moment that I can.
In #MeFirst, I am free.
We’ll be sharing stories from our Turtle Tank community featuring radical creators, entrepreneurs and leaders who have learned the power of putting themselves first and aligning with their purpose and desire as a means to creating a world of Radical Love and Freedom.
With Love and Freedom,
Ije Ude (Co-Founder / Chief Transformation Officer @ Turtle Tank)