We are always in relationship. Those relationships are navigated differently based on the meaning that we attach to them. Whether the relationship is with a parent, a friend, a boss, a coworker or even someone we may not be very fond of, they all still qualify as relationships. So, it would make sense that we are all in relationships with ourselves. We are in relationship with every aspect of ourselves — the positive and not so positive. We are also in relationship with our woundedness.
Most of us have experienced an emotional injury to some extent, ranging from very minor to very severe. That injury, or woundedness, may have been inflicted by grief, abandonment or some other kind of traumatic event that negatively impacted our self-esteem/self-worth/self-image. Thus, our relationship with ourselves grows and evolves accordingly, reflecting whatever woundedness we’ve internalized.
Healing occurs when we begin to change the meaning that we attach to our woundedness, thereby accepting — yet changing — our relationship with our woundedness. Healing is a wholeness. As a matter of fact, healing means (literally) “wholeness.” For people of color and other populations marginalized by income, gender and gender expression, immigrant status, physical ability, sexual orientation, education, etc., mental-health conditions — particularly those that occur as a result of trauma — are sometimes complex and difficult to recognize due to societal stressors and their rippling effect that may impact multiple generations.
Social Justice-Informed Mental Health (SJM) Literacy deliberately addresses this issue. Conceived in 2017 by Yolo Akili, founder and executive director of the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), SJM Literacy seeks to “frame mental-health education in the socio-historical context of inequality that aids in the skills building, healing, and liberation of communities.” This concept also falls in alignment with the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics to “promote social justice while honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts.”
Start At The Beginning
My own healing journey has required me to sort through some of the harsh realities that many in my family lived and informed their means of survival (i.e. thought patterns, behavior, etc.). I spent much of my childhood in Selma, Alabama, where I grew up an only child. Both of my parents were highly educated and well-connected in the community. We were an upper-middle class Black family. My dad taught Sunday school, served as the church treasurer and was an active member of his fraternity and other community organizations. He passed away unexpectedly when I was 25 years old. Like many fathers and daughters, we were extremely close, both quiet and introverted. From him, I also developed a love of science, yard work and ‘The Young and the Restless.’ My mother was – and still is – an extrovert. She, too, was an active member of her sorority, Leadership Selma, as well as several other community organizations and enjoyed being active. She was also on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 on the day that is known as Bloody Sunday. Being the third-oldest (and second girl) of 10 children, she enjoyed (and still does) being in charge. Both of my parents grew up in Alabama during segregation and in an era where questioning authority could be deadly. Their parents, likely out of survival, raised them to “do it because that’s just the way it is and because I said so,” and to a slightly lesser degree, they raised me the same way.
It seemed everybody in Selma knew my family, which often made it difficult for me to “cut up” without word of my actions making it back home before I did. Despite so many people knowing my family, most didn’t know that we had a secret — I was adopted. Though I did not consider the knowledge of me being adopted a big deal, I was an inquisitive child and as I got older and more observant, I had questions.
“We don’t talk about that. That’s nobody’s business,” my mother would respond in a calm, soft voice. While I tried to be obedient, I could not help but wonder why I could not talk about something that had to do with me. Little did I know that the presence of secrets would be the running undercurrent of my life and impact me in ways that I would not recognize until much later, when I started doing my own healing work.
I’ve known seemingly my entire life that I was adopted as an infant. My parents told me at such an early age that I don’t ever remember not knowing. Though I was an only child, most of my parents’ siblings had children, giving me plenty of company. I give thanks for my first cousins, particularly the older ones, who taught me many life lessons (both positive and negative), nurtured me at times, got me out of trouble and, every now and then, into trouble. I’ll never forget playing with my cousins in one of the back rooms at my grandmother’s house. Somehow, we “stumbled” upon a box hidden in the back of a closet filled with old photo albums. One of the albums was filled with newspaper clippings about my grandfather. I never met my mother’s father. He died before I was born. My mother told me that while she was a college sophomore, he went missing and was found dead in a creek almost a month later. When I asked what happened, in that same calm, soft voice she responded, “We don’t talk about that.”
Whether or not they told the whole story, the news clippings my cousins and I found told more of the story than my mother was willing to tell. Apparently, my grandfather was accused of raping a white woman before killing her and her father. He disappeared shortly after their bodies were found. After reading the articles, I realized that I never ever heard my grandmother, mother, or my aunts and uncles talk about the death of my grandfather, or the circumstances surrounding his death. Strangely enough, one of my mother’s younger brothers would also go missing for two weeks and be found dead at the bottom of a well almost 20 years to the date that my grandfather was found.
A few years after finding the news clippings, I was making my parents’ bed. When I lifted the mattress, a news clipping fell to the floor. The story was about my uncle who was found in the well. When I lifted the mattress to put it back, I noticed several other news clippings. My mother had a secret and I found where she had been hiding it. Most of the news clippings were copies of the ones about her father that I found in my grandmother’s closet. But there was one that I had not seen previously. This one described how my grandfather was found nearly a month after he went missing, barely recognizable, face-down in the creek, and tied to a log with his hands bound behind his back. Worse than that, the police eventually brought someone into custody who confessed to the rape and murders that my grandfather had been accused.
It would take a couple of years before I gained the courage to tell my mother that I had discovered her secret. Despite this information finding me, I knew that when my mother said, “We don’t talk about that,” she meant I should not bring it up, and especially not to other people. It was during this time that she disclosed that regardless of the condition in which my grandfather was found, the insurance company refused to pay his policy to my grandmother because his death was ruled a suicide. It didn’t matter that there were six younger children still at home or that my mother and her siblings were forced to watch the white insurance representative call my great-grandmother, “Auntie,” while entering their home without permission.
My mother and I had a challenging relationship. To some extent, we still do, but it’s better. I was a sensitive child and felt things very deeply. My mother was not an emotional nurturer and often times handled my emotions harshly and over-critically, making it difficult for me to confide in her – or anyone for that matter. But, I had a secret.
When I was eight years old, I was visiting family and an adult family member took advantage of me and raped me. I have memories from age five of that person molesting me. I knew that what I was experiencing did not feel right, but I was embarrassed, introverted and, at that age, did not have the verbiage to articulate what I was experiencing. On this particular day when I was eight, though, I did have the words and felt I had nothing to lose. I immediately shared my secret with other adult family members present. My words were met with hostility, disbelief and indignation. I was threatened and assured my father would be told of my “lies.” This threat actually flooded me with relief because I knew my father would not tolerate anyone hurting me. He was my protector. Interestingly, neither my father nor my mother said anything to me about the incident. When I saw them, they acted as if everything was OK. The adults, who just 24 hours earlier were filled with rage at my accusations, were calm, friendly and seemed content to pretend nothing ever happened. I was eightyears old, very confused and felt overwhelmed by a plethora of feelings.
Over the next six years, I was violated repeatedly by the same person, and no one protected me — no one ever came to save me. Why didn’t my dad come save me? When I finally got the courage to tell my mother what was happening to me, I realized from her response that the family members never told her or my father my secret. Me and my secret became their secret.
The Healing Journey
Starting my own healing journey, I had to recognize and accept that my mother, unbeknownst to her, had been living her life through the lens of trauma perpetuated by the oppressive norms of rural Alabama. In a lot of ways, she was emotionally detached. No one, including her parents, taught her that healing was possible or even that she had permission to heal. Healing was not her reality, nor her parents’; survival was. Being the oldest child in the household, she was given responsibility for her younger siblings when she was barely an adolescent herself. She never had time to develop nurturing skills. But what she did develop was independence and the ability to obtain resources and utilize them optimally – skills she passed to me. Though not a nurturer, she purposely placed people in my life who could, would, have, and continue to provide me this essential element of care. I think my mother recognized that nurturing was something that I needed. Perhaps she realized it was something she needed and received little of.
When one embarks on a healing journey after a traumatic event, common questions include, “Why did this happen to me?” “What is my purpose here?” “Why was I put on this Earth?” I began to develop more clarity around these questions after a conversation with my biological mother. Some time after my father passed, with my mother’s assistance, I found her. Like my dad, her father passed unexpectedly. Five months later, I was conceived. She was 15 years old. For months, she had a secret, until she could not hide me anymore. She was coerced into giving me up and though she did not identify with being depressed, she acknowledged that she “cried every day” until we connected. For years, she lived with feelings of shame and anger. Her choice to keep me was taken from her. Not only that, it seems that I was not the only secret my biological mother harbored. She had another secret. She too experienced being taken advantage of and I was conceived non-consensually. My biological mother’s choice around my very existence had been snatched from her.
I have learned that my emotional healing journey has not been just for me, but for both my adoptive and birth families, as well as for the secrets that have been the source of their survival and their emotional pain. SJM Literacy promotes empowerment by ensuring that emotional healing is possible. Additionally, the framework encourages affirming and honoring oneself as well as the meaning that one places on their trauma and connective relationships.
We must embrace and tell our stories, for it is through storytelling that we begin to acknowledge, accept and act boldly enough to change the narrative. We must heal the woundedness connecting us to those relationships so that those with whom we are in relationship can heal. When we seek to heal ourselves, we must also be committed to healing the woundedness of our family, perpetuated by inherited survivalist thought and behavior patterns, so that we heal the collective trauma of our communities, as well as our ancestors. SJM Literacy teaches us that investing in our mental health, rather than buying into the stigma of mental illness, is liberating. Healing is a deliberate act. It is not only a reality, it is our birthright!