Meet an Ex-Superwoman: Why I Had to Divorce My Demons

Yep, I’ve decided to get a divorce! No, not from a significant other, husband, friend or job. It’s a more important divorce. This divorce is not amicable or mutually decided upon. It is due to irreconcilable differences. Those differences are many, but they all boil down to one issue: I will no longer be a Superwoman!

Sure, I’ve been quite committed to this relationship for over 40 years, 43 to be exact. I’ve ensured that the expectations thrust upon her – from within and without – were not only met, but exceeded. But I’ve done so at a great cost to my health and well-being.

You see, the Superwoman had no problem taking too much, doing too much, and being all things to everyone in spite of the cost. She had no problem diminishing (and sometimes extinguishing) her light so as not to disturb those that were too insecure to stand in the shadow of its shine. Her time was rarely hers to do with as she pleased. Her time was filled up with leaping tall buildings in a single bound, even on a broken leg. She is - she was – a Superwoman. But she was a fictional character created by history, confirmed by her experiences, and perpetuated by the internalization of numerous oppressions.

What led to the divorce, you ask? Here’s my recollection…

“I’m committing you.” I thought I heard what the psychiatrist said, but after several nights of insomnia, a lasting bout of overwhelming depression and an episode of PTSD that left me hallucinating at various times of the night, I wasn’t completely sure I’d heard him clearly. “I know this is not what you want to hear, but this is what you need. Your depression is in need of intensive therapy; therefore, I’m committing you.”

Yes, he said what I heard. All I could think of at the time was that this psychiatrist was just misdiagnosing the severity of my situation. I’d been here before, maybe not in the hospital, but I’d dealt with this situation before. I pulled upon the strength I’d been taught since childhood; what I MUST do in order to make it as a Black woman. I’d been taught that above all else, Black women had to be strong and not look to others to do what they could do for themselves – which seemed like virtually everything.

This I could do for myself, right?

My mom was strong in that she held down the job that took care of our health insurance while simultaneously being the majority breadwinner in our family. How can I not handle a little depression? Most of the women I knew growing up took care of children (whether there was a father in the home or not), worked, helped others in their family and community, and did so in the face of whatever health/financial/spiritual/emotional challenge that came their way. And there was always something going on. Therefore, I had to deal with my issues and “keep it moving.”

During the last couple of years of graduate school I began dealing with mild symptoms of PTSD and progressively raging insomnia. During my undergraduate years, I dealt with depression and anxiety manifesting in various health issues, especially my worsening asthma that once landed me on life support.

This was not new. In my mind, I would just get a prescription and some sleep and keep moving. If I’d gotten through all of that, I had to be strong, right? Even after finishing a PhD in three years and obtaining my first tenure-track job prior to finishing – even dealing with all of these issues, I could still keep it together, right?

Every Black woman I knew in college was doing the same thing, and they had boyfriends/husbands/children, etc. I was blessed, wasn’t I? I’d established myself as a strong, independent, more than competent, trustworthy individual that always overachieved by demonstrating I could “bring it” whenever necessary. I’d earned a fellowship and assistantship to pay for school. I worked full-time while finishing my other two degrees. I was blessed?

I was an upwardly mobile African-American woman achieving the American dream and demonstrating that I could be a credit to my race. I didn’t have children out-of-wedlock (or in wedlock for that matter). I wasn’t “shacking up” with anyone (which would have definitely landed me in the dog house with my Baptist-pastor father) and I was even a preacher that was active in ministry. Sure, I’d seen great models of support in the lives of many of my white female counterparts in school. But, these folks came from a legacy of entitlement by virtue of their ethnicity. Their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had either been college graduates, business owners, landowners, or had attained middle to upper-middle class status at least third to fourth generations ago. I would be the only person in my family achieving a Ph.D.

I also came from a heritage of strong Black women. We always worked and took care of everybody. We always made it happen without complaining. We walked through life with a steely determination to do our best, because we couldn’t expect that help was available. All we had to do was depend on God anyway, right?

So, this psychiatrist could not have understood my position, especially because he was a white male with no experience being an African-American female in a career that historically neither supported nor affirmed a performance that did not reflect a superhuman display. Did this shrink not know that I had to be in class the coming Monday? Did he not know I had two writing projects to finish, a search committee to organize, students to assist with academic and life problems, emails to respond to, bills to pay, an unkempt apartment to clean, and on, and on, and on? How would this affect my standing in my department? How would this effect acquiring tenure?

I certainly could not be perceived as not being able to handle the position I worked so hard to attain, even before receiving my PhD? There was no way I could be committed to a psychiatric hospital in order to deal with my ongoing depression and PTSD. He didn’t understand that, once again, I needed to just suck it up, take my medicine, pray, and keep it moving. I had to keep up my positive reputation and being in a psychiatric hospital – especially since Black women are never crazy, just angry – would not work for me. So I responded, “Is that a suggestion?” He emphatically stated, “No. This is an involuntary commitment. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but Dr. Chandler, I think this is the best thing for you so that you can get your life on track. You deserve to do so.”

Deserve?! This guy didn’t understand what my history taught me that I deserved. What my experiences taught me was that I deserved to be what Zora Neale Hurston so eloquently titled, “the mule of world.” Was I not a superwoman that could handle anything because the combination of my history, examples and experiences told me I could do so?

There I was. When confronted with my humanity in such a way that I could not deny it, I was actually freed to relinquish the superhuman strength that resided in my mind and not my body. I was a human with a human challenge that when faced with acceptance, no judgment and care could be overcome. This was my on ramp to balance, shamelessness, self-care, and self-love. What looked like a situation in which I was forced to be, with no way out, was actually my way in to freedom and wholeness. I just had to take it in spite of the consequences that could potentially come my way. I deserved it.

There you have it! The confession of an Ex-Superwoman. The divorce was hard; however, it had been coming a long time. Now that I am living post-divorce, I must say I’m having the time of my life! Is everything perfect? Hell-to-the-NO! Is this the perfect life for me–YES! In the coming months, I’ll be detailing what life is like now that I’m no long a Superwoman.

I hope in the few moments you’ll take to read my posts, you might find a few answers, a few nuggets to provoke your thoughts, and some good ‘ol challenges to what has become status quo in your life. If need be, I hope you’ll be brave enough to get a divorce from your superhuman self as well.

Here’s your challenge: Go back into your personal phone booth. Take off that cape. Pull off your mask. Unzip and step out of the superhero suit. Now, look at your reflection in the glass. WOW! WHAT A WONDERFUL SIGHT!

Dr. Kimberly J. Chandler is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana. She received her doctoral degree from Wayne State University and her research interests are in gender and communication. Specifically, she looks at the performance of gender and African American masculinities as well as Black women and identity negotiation.

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