“I’m with you! I’m with you!” encouraged my dad as I struggled with the last curl of my set. This was the first time I had ever worked out with my father. At 33 years old, this was the first time he said those words to me. Even as a grown woman, my father’s presence was needed more and more each day; but it was not always known in my life. As heavy as those weights were that night, the heaviness of not having him around as a little girl was something that muscle memory never quite proved to overcome. Growing up in rural Arkansas, there were many weights to bear. Little did I know, my burdens would be a generational trend that I would carry with me...until I didn’t. Having my adult self go back and remove the same figurative shackles and chains from my younger self that my ancestors bore saved my life. More importantly, it has given my little girl the permission to fully live hers.
I grew up in a single parent household, but I was fortunate to have a great-grandmother and a great-great grandmother who lived across the street from us. There were struggles, but that ignited a passion for working hard, staying focused, making good grades, and always staying humble. These lessons were galvanized by my grandmothers’ love and experiences. They had seen and worked on plantations, so their love language was one that was truly selfless. I gave them their flowers daily while they were here - literally, I would pick the flowers they so carefully planted and would bring them a few buttercups or tulips of my choosing. Even if I was a complete nuisance to their yard, they nurtured my heart. My younger years would instill timeless values and I am the woman I am now because of them. Unfortunately, their love was accompanied by a much harder yet silent lesson: one of lack.
This was not to say we didn’t have food on the table or a decent home to live in - we were very blessed in that regard, but there were voids due to environmental and socioeconomic situations that never quite resolved themselves. How does one, being raised in a country where you helped your mother pick cotton, climb over the mountain and ensure your descendants are financially and educationally sound? In many ways, you can’t. You can only pray your seeds of struggle and pain grow into trees that flower and produce the fruits of a better tomorrow for your children. They did their best, but as we’ve seen generational trauma (issues carried over time in family lineages) doesn’t just go away in a day. Because very little was certain for them, I was unable to dream outside of what I could see. Perhaps their lessons, which were extremely limiting, could have been curbed by a critically missing piece: my father.
While my parents were no longer an item when I debuted, it didn't mean he was abdicated of his responsibilities. Some people choose to fill these voids with self-destructing vices, but I overcompensated with academics and leadership activities. It sounds super nerdy, but that's my truth. I wanted to ensure that whatever I didn't have growing up, I could provide for my family as an adult. This worked in my favor for a while. I excelled in school, I had amazing scholarships and fellowships, and the experiences were priceless. But I didn't know that wasn't enough. I didn't know what self-care was, nor that the trauma I had experienced for not having my dad around warranted healing. Healing I subconsciously neglected for years. Healing that the little girl in me still so desperately needed.
Mental health wasn't discussed in my family, and quite frankly, I didn't know it was a thing until well into my adult years. I was raised in a family that, like many others from my town, were taught to pray, come up with a resolution and keep it moving.
This. Was. Not. OK.
I can only speak from my experiences, but my once broken heart from not having an active father in my life turned into a black hole. I continued to pour everything in there to fill that space, but nothing worked. By this time, I was a grown woman. But the little girl in me needed saving, not by accolades and not by another person, but by me. Digging holes in my younger years often revealed some of the most unique findings; but I didn’t see that being the case with me. I neglected to acknowledge my beauty through trauma and instead of exploring my holes and appreciating the beautiful treasure within, I filled them with superficial matter that could never compare to me.
I wouldn't discover my worth for another eight years, a month after I turned 33 and on the very day, my little one turned 5. In the years in between, I busied myself until I met my then husband. My black hole was filled and I threw myself into my marriage - still ignoring the hurt that I unknowingly neglected to address. I didn't have a union to model mine after, but I knew how to be a good person, and how to love. I thought I had a fairytale romance until it didn’t.
Three years later, I was grieving my grandmother's loss, the end of my marriage, and a diagnosis I never saw coming. I was broken. I was empty. Not only was my void unoccupied, it expanded and sucked the life out of me. I had fallen in the same holes that ironically held my truest treasure. As I laid in a hospital bed, still ignoring my personal trove and not knowing if I could ever be "normal" again, none of the lessons I learned decades ago mattered to me. The only thing giving me strength during that time was my little girl and God. I was angry at my situation, but I didn't lose my faith.
As bad as things seemed, this series of events forced me to stop everything and look at myself. When I was able to get out of my hospital bed, I made myself take a long, hard look in the mirror. It was at that moment that I saw that little girl, covered in dirt, wearing her day’s adventure but also carrying a load she should have never been handed in the first place. Because of finally realizing I couldn't continue to pile things on her, on that day, I promised to save her.
It took me a while, but I sought therapy, and I talked through everything. My childhood pain, the tragic loss of a dear friend as well as my grandmother, my failed marriage, the reality (or so I thought) of feeling like I failed my little girl and now my health were all topics of discussion. It was a heavy first day, but it was the beginning of what I will always think of as the best part of my life.
Nothing became perfect overnight and I had so much work to do. But I took the step, and I stayed committed to myself. Not only was I able to help that broken little girl in me but by removing the burdens of my past, I was able to relieve all the pain she went through. For the first time, I knew I was enough. For the first time, I truly fell in love with all of me. I saw I was the best treasure I could have ever found.
Years later, I never let a day go by without making sure my little one knows this very same lesson. Unfortunately, she digs up worms and beetles. But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion...
Have you ever gone through a situation that had lifelong consequences and sought out help? If yes, how did it change you?
Shambrekiá Wise is an author, entrepreneur, public health professional, Gates Millennium Scholar, mother, and lover of travel. She and her 7-year old daughter Sandy have created the “Sightseeing with Sandy” project, a Children’s Book series that provides young kids the opportunity to travel the world without parents experiencing the financial burden or the COVID-19 health risk that comes with it.