Chronically Colored

I have chronic illnesses. I have bipolar II, fibromyalgia, gastroparesis, and now something wonky is happening with my bladder (sorry if that is TMI). When you have chronic illnesses, you have to be chronically on it – taking care of yourself is not an option, it’s a necessity. Especially when you have other folks depending on you. But especially because you have you depending on you. You were put on the earth to do great things, and you can’t do them if you are always sick.

Sometimes I forget this. I don’t do things that are “bad,” like smoking cigarettes, or doing illicit drugs, but I do things that are “bad” for me, in my personal situation. I might have too much wine. I might not get the 9 (yes 9) hours of sleep that my body demands. I might drive my car to campus instead of riding my bike, removing the little bit of cardiovascular exercise I need to ward off the depression. I might “forget” to eat. I might be on the internet for hours instead of getting my work done. I might overcommit. I might say no and feel guilty. I might not go to church. Things that help me heal, I might not do.

Having chronic illnesses means being constantly on the watch. I have to watch myself, watch my moods, watch my habits, watch my bodily functions, watch my behaviors. Whenever I think things are okay, that I can back off, turn away, something happens and… BAM! I’m sick, on my ass, clawing my way back to the light. I have to be forever vigilant if I am to stay well.

It’s kind of like being a parent of color.

As a parent of color, we are constantly on the watch. I’m constantly listening to my children’s language, making sure no words of self-doubt or self-hate have crawled into their mind space. I’m constantly monitoring their daily interactions, wanting to be sure that the adults around them are affirming of their existence. I’m constantly aware of the children they play with, noting if issues of skin color come up, noting who they naturally veer toward, noting who they avoid and who avoids them. I can’t listen to the radio in the car, or watch BET, cause my own people are conspiring against them. I’m constantly thinking these days about the kindergarten that will happen next year, how my boy might be the only black child in his classroom, and subsequently, his sister left behind to be the only black child left in her preschool classroom.

Being “colored” is like a chronic condition. Just when you think it’s safe to be “normal,” to be a normal mom who sends her kid to school with no worries other than will she finally let go of my leg this morning….BAM!

Be vigilant.

The F Word

I like to think of fall as a season for renewal and this year I am focused on making it fabulous.

The word I’m referring to is FIRST. That’s the position I’m putting myself in and I encourage you to do the same. CocoaMamas readers are some of the more self-actualized folks I know. I’m proud of the way we share, inspire and support each other. As a CocoaMama, it is easy to find something to do. Between work, school, being a wife/partner, daughter, sister, boss, employee, and 100 other things there is always opportunity for engagement. I’ve decided that I need to do more for me.

 The change of seasons is inspiring to me this year. The transformation of the leaves is beautiful and the chill in the air means a change in fashion too. I like to think of fall as a season for renewal and this year I am focused on making it fabulous. Since I skipped the summer shape up I’ve decided to get fit for fall. I don’t make time to go to the gym but I am able to squeeze in some plies when I go to the bathroom. Since I’m drinking more water, I make frequent trips. TMI? Perhaps. I’m learning (finally!) that little things add up to big improvements over time.

I’m also taking a closer look at my diet, working hard to eat less processed food and be mindful that 40 may be the new 20…but physically it’s still 40, and things have changed. That one little hair that popped up on my chin in my 30s? Now it is GRAY and has company! Glowing skin? No problem – as long as I follow the multi-product system my drier 42 year old skin requires. I had a blood pressure scare last month and I want to do my part to make sure there are no repeats. I make sure that my kids drink organic milk and always have fruit available, but I eat on the run, drink sodas and don’t sleep enough. I’m sure that the stress of knowing what to do and not doing it doesn’t help my blood pressure. As I’ve gotten older I also feel a certain anxiety about what I haven’t done, often failing to acknowledge my accomplishments. This of course produces more stress, which leads to ice cream and potato chips, high blood pressure and sleeplessness. Enough of that! I have a plan…

My Focused on First plan includes:

  • Going to the doctor (internal medicine and GYN) and dentist
  • Buying fabulous glasses, giving my eyes a rest from contacts
  • Listening to live music
  • Saving money, getting fiscally fit
  • Updating my fall wardrobe so I can look as fabulous as I feel
  • Sleeping more

What does your me first plan look like?

First focused links:

Woman First – great song by Kindred the Family Soul

Need beauty info? Check out AfroBella

DASH diet ebook

DASH diet overview

*I have to give a shout out to one of  my Twitter BFFs, the lovely & talented @aaw1976 for her feedback and encouragement (turn off the TV!).

WebMD Can Kill You

As anyone with an Internet connection who’s ever wondered about that weird bump on their back, that unfamiliar sensation in their chest or that rumbling in their tummy knows, the one thing you don’t want to do before going to see your doctor is look up your symptoms on WebMD. 

WebMD and similar medical information sites are the opposite of the doctor’s creed: “first do no harm.”  When you type symptoms into these sites, they invariably find the most lethal, life-shortening diseases imaginable.

Thanks to WebMD and its progeny, a few years ago, I thought the benign mass my doctor found during a routine examination would turn out to be an extremely rare and incurable form of bone cancer.  Earlier this year, WebMD had me convinced I was suffering from esophageal cancer.  In the back of my mind, I had already started thinking about contingency plans for the kids’ parenting, whether or not my life insurance was paid up, etc. 

It turned out I had a small stomach ulcer that was completely cured with a few weeks of medication and sensible eating.  That episode also cured me of self-diagnosis via WebMD.

Apparently, I should have passed the lesson down to my daughter.

On the first day of school last week, my 13 year-old daughter rushed me at the door as soon as I got home.  “Mommy, I got a fever at school!”

I felt her forehead.  She felt mildly warm, but nothing alarming. “Umm-hmm. Did you take anything?”

“No.”

“Take some Advil.” 

She scowled at me, clearly annoyed that I wasn’t fawning over her.

There was no school for the rest of the week because of Rosh Hashanah.  I knew whatever was causing this mild temperature spike would be over in time for school on Monday.  She, of course, was not so convinced.

The next day, she again announced that she had a fever.  Not enough of a fever to cause her to cancel plans with her best friend, nor enough to choose to stay home instead of seeing Wicked with me.  It was just enough of a fever for her to demand peppermint tea from Starbucks before the show and to try to get me to run down and buy her concessions during the show’s intermission. 

I agreed to the peppermint tea, but refused the snacks.  WebMD didn’t say Twizzlers can help reduce a fever or soothe a sore throat. 

“You don’t care that I’m sick!” was the not-unexpected response.

The next day, she announced, “Mom, I have strep throat.”

“Really? And this is based on….”

“I looked up my symptoms, and I have all the symptoms of strep.”

I felt her forehead.  Not even slightly warm this time.  “You don’t have strep.”

“Why not?”

“For one, you don’t have a fever anymore.  This isn’t strep.”

“Mom, I’m really sick!  You have to take me the doctor!”

I wanted to laugh, but didn’t.  WebMD strikes again, I thought.

Being the unsung dramatic actress that she is, my daughter did not let the strep thing go until I finally agreed to take her to her pediatrician.

The nurse checked her temperature (normal), ears (uncongested) and throat (slightly reddish but otherwise unremarkable), and then asked, “So what’s been going on with you?” 

My daughter began reciting the list of symptoms of strep throat from WebMD.

 “Okay, honey, but is that what’s going on with you?”

“Yes!”

The nurse took a throat culture.  We waited the required five minutes for the results.

“Good news!  It’s not strep.  There’s a nasty throat virus going around, but it typically clears up in about 3-5 days, which is about where you are now.  So you should be able to go to school on Monday.”

I shook my head.  It cost me $55 for the doctor’s office to confirm the “nothing’s wrong with you” diagnosis that I had made in my living room.  My daughter felt vindicated by the mention of “throat virus.”  I thought of my mother, who would have blown sulfur powder down her throat and made her drink two tablespoons of cod liver oil.

I gave my daughter the “don’t self-diagnose using WebMD” speech afterwards, but I don’t hold out much hope.  After all, she’s a kid with an Internet connection and access to a site that helps reinforce her belief that she’s much smarter than Mom.  I just hope she doesn’t self-diagnose herself into hospice care before she makes it out of 8th grade.

A Weighty Issue

I took my kids to the pediatrician for their back-to-school checkups recently.  Health-wise, both kids checked out just fine.

But as is the case every year, my kids’ doctor pulled me to the side to mention my daughter’s weight.

“She’s gained 12 pounds,” her pediatrician mentioned in a whisper.  She showed me the height/weight charts for her age, showing her weight hovering slightly above the top line for her age group.  Oh, she said in passing, she also grew an inch.

I did my best not to Kanye shrug.  “Did she mention to you that she’s doing yoga?”  I asked.

“Yes,” the doctor said, then gave me the name of a nutritionist.  She also ordered some blood work to check my daughter’s blood sugar/insulin and cholesterol levels, among other things.

Everything came back normal, as it always does.

My daughter is a muscular girl.  She always has been.  She is as strong as an ox.  I outweigh her by a good thirty pounds, and she picks me up like it’s nothing.

She doesn’t play any sports now, but was heavily into gymnastics for about four years.  She has tried every sport from soccer to softball.  She swims, ice skates and bikes.  Last year, at 12, she did adult aerial acrobatics classes.  This year, she is taking adult yoga classes with me.

And did I mention she’s a size 6?  Hardly a size worn by the clinically obese.

Yet, ever since she was a baby, doctors have plotted her weight on a graph and told me, in hushed tones, that her weight was in the upper percentiles for children her age. 

Her plots on the height/weight graphs have remained remarkably consistent since birth.  She’s of average height and above-average weight, according to the “official” weight charts. 

For some reason I can’t fathom, her doctors have equated “above average” with “abnormal” and “weight problem.”  This infuriates me.  Humans come in a range of shapes and sizes, heights and weights.  The fact that my daughter’s weight has plotted consistently on the height/weight graphs since birth strongly indicates that this is just how she’s built, period. 

I always feel like there’s some implicit indictment of my parenting involved in these discussions.  Every year, the doctor grills me about what the kids eat.  “Do they drink soda and processed juice?  Do they drink milk?  Do they eat vegetables?  Do they eat fried foods or fast food?  Do they eat sweets and candy?”

My answers always seem to surprise her.  The kids get soda only when we go out to eat at restaurants.  The only juice I buy is orange juice, which they drink mixed with seltzer.  My daughter drinks fat-free milk, and my son prefers rice milk.  They love vegetables, especially spinach.  Fried foods are rare, and they mostly can’t stand fast food.  You’d have to force-feed them McDonald’s, which they’d promptly regurgitate.

The doctor always looks at me like she doesn’t quite trust these answers, even when the kids give consistent responses.  For many years, I was also overweight.  In these questions, I saw the assumption that here we were, this fat black family, greasing it up on Popeye’s and ribs and fries with nary a veggie in sight. 

Except the kids weren’t, and still aren’t, fat.   The reality that we have a healthy diet, that we generally don’t eat “soul food,” and that my kids are quite physically active, doesn’t jibe with the chronic-obesity-in-the-black-community stereotype.

This year, it annoyed me a bit that my daughter’s doctor hasn’t seemed to notice my own fairly dramatic weight loss.  Hey, I wanted to shout, I’ve dropped close to 70 pounds in the last two years.  Can you stop looking at us as a bunch of fat black folks now?

Apparently not.

Before we left the doctor’s office, I told my daughter, as I do every year, not to worry about the doctor’s comments about her weight and to just keep doing what she’s been doing.  

I said to her, “I know how and what you eat.  You have a very healthy diet.  You eat very little junk food, and only as an occasional treat.  You work out.  Whatever your weight, you haven’t gone up in size at all in the last two years.  Don’t worry about what they’re saying.”

I am trying to raise a teen black girl with a healthy body image.  If my daughter were in fact in danger of having a real weight problem, I would be on the case.  I struggled with my own weight for most of my life, and I feel like I have finally figured out how to maintain control.  If I were concerned about her weight, I would be working with her to count her calories, to honestly assess her food intake, and to balance it against her activity level.  She would be drinking more water and getting more daily exercise.

She’s already doing all of that.  My own weight loss efforts have provided her with good examples of how to lose weight and keep it off the right way.  Her body type is what it is.   The last thing she needs is to become insecure and anorexic because she’s not tall and thin.  She will never be tall and thin.  And that’s OK.

As long as she remains within her own range of normal, I’m not worried about her weight.  In my opinion, as long as that remains the case, her doctors shouldn’t be worried, either.

A Change is Gonna Come

The single most contentious thing in my relationship with my mother is that she has always predicted gloom and doom about just about everything. There is not a doomsday scenario, accident and downside that my mother has not already envisioned in some form and expressed her opinion about quite vocally and repeatedly. And I have always resented her for what I perceived to be nonstop negativity.

And so imagine my shock when I observed last week that I have turned into a walking, talking warning label on all things random—from Red 40 food dye to fluoridated water to pesticide-laden fruit to partially hydrogenated oils.

For some reason it came to a head for us last weekend. A well-meaning friend offered my 4-year-old a treat and my boy looked him in the eye and asked: “Does it have high fructose corn syrup in it? If it does, I can’t eat it because I will die.” (For the record I never said he would die.)

And later that night, my 6-year-old asked her father during bath time if the water he was bathing her in had fluoride in it and whether that fluoride was going to get absorbed into her body through her skin. “Because you know, dad,” she told him earnestly, “our skin is our body’s biggest organ.”

It is all my fault, of course, every last bit of it. I have been obsessed with healthy living and a good diet since my health crisis several years ago. But after watching my small children parroting my worries about degenerated foods, environmental toxins and contaminated water supplies, I am appalled at myself. How unfair to fill their lives with bogeymen to be feared, lurking at every meal, in every lunch box, cupboard and grocery store.

It is one thing to educate the kids and help them make better choices. It’s yet another to raise them full of angst and paranoia about unseen, unknown evils.

I’m afraid I have not used wisdom or good judgment, though in my defense I had good intentions. (And lest we forget: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.)

Clearly some kind of change is in order. There is a balance to be struck here. Somewhere, somehow, someone is doing it well. But for me, it’s all somewhat hazy.

Drowning in Fear

Today was our first day of swimming lessons. While Ahmir, my 4 year old, was like a fish out of water – scared, timid, shaky – at least he resembled a fish. I was amazed at what the instructor got my notoriously skittish little one to do – let go of the side (while holding him, of course), straighten out his arms like an airplane, kick, put his chin and eventually his mouth in the water. My daughter Amina, on the other hand, at almost 3, actually cried and wouldn’t get into the big pool. She did eventually walk in the baby pool, with much prodding by me, but she did not live up to what I expected for my $24 half-hour lesson.

But we are going to stick with it, as ridiculously expensive the lessons are, because I want my children to know how to swim. Black children drown at a rate of almost 3 times that of white children, and mostly that is because they don’t know how to swim. I can understand, because embarrissingly enough, I also don’t know how to swim. Many black adults, epecially those that I know were raised in the Northeast region of the country, don’t know how to swim. And while the reasons run the gamut from lack of access to pools (the public pools in Philly during the summer were so jam packed there was no room to swim!), to the expense of lessons, one of the most troubling reasons is a fear of water.

Again, I can understand. I’m terrified of water. Really, I’m terrified of drowning. But isn’t that ironic – I’m scared to drown, so I don’t learn to swim?

Fear is drowning us adults and our children, and honestly robbing them of a sport and a exercise that does not need to be held back from them. Granted, the lessons are hella expensive, and my checkbook is hurting right now, but I know that I am giving my children a skill that lasts a lifetime. Furthermore, water is one of the most precious things we have on this earth, and one of the most beautiful. When I hear of people diving off cliffs in St. Lucia into pristine waters, or exploring underwater caves, I want my children to be able to experience this wonderful natural resource and engage with it, not be in fear of it.

And you are probably asking – well, what about you, LaToya? Are you going to get over your fear and learn to swim? As soon as a recreation class in beginning swimming fits into my schedule, I’m there. I don’t want my life ruled by fear of anything.

P.S. And while we’re talking summer health, don’t forget the sunscreen. Brown folks do get skin cancer.

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Is your vagina angry?

Last week I had the extreme pleasure of seeing a student performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Approximately 40, brave undergraduate women participated. Far more of them were white, but there was also a handful of black women, including one of my advisees. She played the role of “The Angry Vagina.” It was a fantastic performance, she was convincingly angry, her vernacular was appropriately explicit, she checked hypothetical partners (and gynecologists) for all hypothetical atrocities. I couldn’t help feeling like she had been chosen for this role because she was black (we discussed this and she agreed), even though it also seemed like the role was inauthentically black (we both agreed as well). It didn’t seem like what any black woman I knew would say.

While I applaud Eve Ensler for her progressive theatrical piece, and I have willingly seen now a professional and student production (and left the latter happily with my “Team Rihanna” and vagina buttons), I wonder what black woman would say about sex, body image, rape and sexual assault, etc., if given the platform. I’m thinking about Tricia Rose’s phenomenal book, Longing To Tell. I am also fearing that black women are not really ready to talk openly about the issues raised in that book, that they feel protected by silence and anonymity. I see this explicitly in my current book project.

One of the interesting things about Vagina Monologues is that there is only one very recently written piece about childbirth. It was quite curiously an afterthought. I am certainly liberal enough to think that a woman’s body is not entirely reserved for  bearing kids, however would black women have omitted this altogether from our stories about our vaginas?

My vagina is feeling a little spent! 🙂 Three kids later, multiple partners in, one rape, and countless dreaded gynecological visits, I’m feeling like at the very least I should be other-bodily-part centered. Like, I would love to be more focused on my stomach, thighs, or my arms. Last night in a spirited conversation about weight loss with two other black women, one of my homegirls told me, “you know sex is supposed to help you shed calories!”  I said something like, “I’m married and I don’t have sex,” which thankfully is not true, but I wanted to say something like, “who cares about the vagina, and all activity therein, I want Serena Williams’ abs and arms not her . . . . vagina.” Damn, I don’t even have a working, blog-friendly, authentic vocabulary for it!?!

I do not think my vagina is so much angry as it is exhausted.

Tanji is a wife and mother of three. She has two boys and one girl. She lives in Philadelphia, her favorite chocolate city. She is an educator and her first “baby” is now a Howard University graduate and a Cocoa Mama.

It’s Dark In Here

I thought I had reached the light at the end of the tunnel.  After eight long months of waking every three hours (and sometimes every one hour or every 45 minutes), my daughter began sleeping ten to eleven hours.  Straight.  Every night.  As the barrage of sleepless nights came to an end, I emerged from my bunker and stopped moving through the world like a zombie.   My husband and I were reacquainted over dinners; I started exercising again; I even watched a little TV!  Most importantly, I started sleeping too.  But things fall apart: after three weeks of nighttime peace, my daughter stopped sleeping so soundly.  Eleven hours became eight, and getting her to sleep became the new challenge.

Having been to the promised land, this backslide is hard to accept.  Rationally, I know this problem is inconsequential, but rational thought does nothing to temper the havoc that sustained sleep deprivation can wreak in your life.  Sleep deprivation, however, is only part of the problem.  The larger problem is my reaction to the deprivation.  For eight months, I was somebody I didn’t like: sarcastic, short-tempered, exceedingly inflexible, quick to assign blame.  I would write that I was somebody I didn’t recognize, but the truth is that I did recognize the person I had become; sleep deprivation just amplified those negative aspects of my personality that I manage to keep under wraps with nine hours of sleep a night.  The advent of a sleeping baby allowed me to neatly wrap those character flaws back up, much to the relief of my husband.  As I now watch her newly established sleeping patterns slip away, I also watch my personality flaws reemerge.  Tensions are again rising in my home, in my relationships, and in my heart.

Parents can pass on character failures to their children, and I worry about what I am teaching her about handling stress.  If I don’t want her to lash out when chaos fills her life, I have to learn to keep my head when chaos comes to mine.  But this lesson is hard, and rational thought again fails me.  I know what it is I need to learn, but I’m not sure how to learn it.  How, in the middle of my frustration and exhaustion, can I find a light in the tunnel, and not merely at the end?

Losing the Baby Weight

Ok, the title is deceiving, but maybe readers can relate to my current journey: weightloss.

I’m not losing baby weight. In fact, I lost about 45 lbs from the time I conceived until about a week after I delivered.

I’m just losing weight in general and have been for the last 7 years.  I thought about this post today while speaking with one of my subordinates at work. She is young, 23, no children, lives alone, and doesn’t have much of a social life. She is also a plus-sized Latina who, though beautiful in looks and personality, is on a dangerous path, in my opinion.

Back in college, I wish I knew what I know now. Believe it or not, I knew NOTHING about how one gains or loses weight. I just loved to eat and wasn’t interested in anything sports- or exercise- related because no one ever pushed me towards it and because I never had to do it. I was about her age when I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes and had to learn an entire new way of living. So, I see her, and I have reached out to her to give her some encouragement and motivation to lose the weight NOW. I see myself in her and maybe I feel like I’m going back in time. I told her it will melt off and her skin elasticity is priceless. She’s never thought about losing weight because, like me, no one talked about healthy eating/living in her life. There are a lot of cultural issues involved with this, with Black and Latina women more likely to be overweight. But that’s not the point of this post.

Since my diagnosis, I have been up and down on this journey. I started off losing about 100 lbs in about a year, only to gain 75 back over 2 years, then I lost 45 with the baby, and in the last 3 years, I’ve gained 20 back. That 20 is net because I dropped low low and went high high.  I’m an emotional eater, so going through the dissolution of my marriage, I found comfort in my love of food.

However, today is a new day.

I’m no longer carrying the emotional baggage. I no longer have the “I have no money for a gym” or “I have no time to go workout” excuse. I’m no longer seeking comfort foods to fill the voids in my life. I have the time, I have the energy, I have the focus, and I’m putting my plan into action. For real this time.

I’m feeling better already. I’m sleeping better, I have more energy, and I feel like I’m finally buckling down and doing something for myself after years of sacrificing and giving up my time and energy to serve and please others.

So maybe it isn’t the baby weight that I needed to lose. Maybe it was the weight of a bad marriage, the weight of low-esteem, the weight of financial burdens, the weight of being a new mom, and the weight of being unfocused and out-of-sorts that I have had to shed to finally be able to achieve a long-term goal of mine.

I’m finally, as the young folks say, “Doing me”

🙂