Because of my work, I see myself reflected when I read the many headlines describing Black women’s suffering. Such headlines usually highlight the maternal mortality rates and the mental health disparities that exist for us; of which several Black women, myself included, know too well. From choosing to give them the long-deserved attention in my research, to community organising, I have always centered Black women in my work. It wasn’t something that I was asked to adopt – rather, it happened naturally when I noticed that we weren’t being prioritised enough.
The socio-politics of the pandemic, including the avoidable deaths of Black women such as Belly Mujinga, exploited these avoided truths and made most of us face up to this harsh reality.
Recently, I have found myself reflecting. I’ve been trying to pinpoint how and when I decided that advocating for universal healthcare – especially for Black women – was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It’s not always been the easiest thing to do, as I am continuously forced to explain my identity and its importance in my work, rather than expressing the problems we face and finding solutions to them. It’s always been a distraction, but my work was too important to give up. I just kept going, as if on autopilot.
Then, I hit a wall. I was starting to lose sight of why this is so important to me. The struggles I had faced throughout the last 18 months, including working on the frontline as a mental health professional, manifested into feelings of disconnection and apathy. For a long time, I had such an emotional investment and internalisation of this cause that I stopped placing myself amongst those I was advocating for.
I stopped acknowledging how I had been impacted by the same inequalities. I was tightly bound to who I believed I was at my lowest point and how I thought I “should” be, that I was stuck in a place that narrowed my options and my responsiveness. Without realising it, I responded to it in a way that was reductive and completely dangerous. I had decentred myself.
“The socio-politics of the pandemic, including the avoidable deaths of Black women such as Belly Mujinga, exploited these avoided truths and made most of us face up to this harsh reality.”
In doing so, it made me completely restless. I wanted to help people, but I was forgetting what that looked like. I found myself asking the same question repeatedly; had I been looking after the most important asset to this cause, my own health? It’s key that I also looked after my own health for obvious reasons, namely being at my best physically and mentally. However, bringing awareness and accountability to how I treated myself with so much self-recrimination made me realise that the space I had previously held for compassion for others was now being consumed with my own self-absorption.
When the pandemic hit, I held onto that feeling of defeat and failure, for being unable to completely give myself to my work as a health professional, and helping others that looked like me. I had to admit to myself that the mental toll the work I was doing took meant I could no longer continue in this role, which forced me to quit.
“The struggles I had faced throughout the last 18 months, including working on the frontline as a mental health professional, manifested into feelings of disconnection and apathy.”
Although I had recently left therapy and had all the tools I needed to feel better emotionally and mentally, I was not consistent in using them to feel better holistically. I have managed my chronic depression, anxiety and insomnia for years, along with all their challenges, but these conditions had never truly stood at the core of my advocacy work.
Even though I was increasingly becoming unwell, I realised the irony in that I was becoming as ill as those I had vowed to help.
This realisation came not at my breaking point but through The Kaido Challenge. It made finding a balance slightly easier –the app was riddled with small manageable challenges, including incorporating more fruit to your diet, increasing step count and tracking sleeping habits.
It may not be ‘cool’, but it slowly dawned on me that I was beginning to reckon with my own health struggles, amidst trying to advocate for better health for others I surprised myself when I found myself sticking to the challenges.
The impacts were powerful, but left me with mixed feelings. The main benefits were that I made subtle internal and external shifts that stayed with me. I was sleeping better, and the thought of exercise didn’t fill me with dread. This is not to say that overnight all my health issues were fixed, but within me, something had changed. It was my reckoning. It gave me a space to process the ‘loose ends’ that I had physically and mentally held in my body because those little challenges helped me treat my wellbeing and body with a new sense of purpose.
“As a young Black woman, I don’t have the luxury of contextualising how the intersections of my responsibilities, my class, and my gender continue to impact my health, only to brutally experience it.”
I won’t pretend that completing this health challenge gave me all the answers. Whilst it helped me gain an awareness on how I could make small changes to improve my health and well-being, it also helped me consolidate how I thought about health, approached my work as a health professional, and most importantly how to prioritise myself as a Black woman.
As a young Black woman, the nature of my role in the workplace and society means I don’t have the luxury of contextualising how the intersections of my responsibilities, my class, and my gender continue to impact my health, only to brutally experience it. This is something that continues to be normalised and resold to us as ‘self-care’ in its different forms; which has made me realise that it makes me feel uncomfortable to treat my health as an outcome rather than as a process.
Now, my new aim is to reimagine health, where I could exist without being penalised and my lived experience wouldn’t be the root cause of persisting health inequalities. To challenge these inequalities, I needed to challenge myself; to finally learn how to centre myself and treat my wellbeing with the same care, attention and love I give my advocacy work.
Beauty Dhlamini is a Global Health scholar with a particular focus on health inequalities. In her commitment to achieving universal healthcare coverage for all, Beauty is known for her advocacy work for marginalised communities sitting on several advisory and community boards, working with community and grassroot organisations and co-hosting the renowned podcast, Mind the Health Gap.
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