For My Girls Waiting to Exhale

            The definite and ever-present pressure for perfection consumed me from childhood. Every note in my piano performances was rehearsed nearly to a fault, my no-nonsense mother piercingly clapping out beats in the back corner of the room. Achievement was congratulated but expected— and little fanfare was made about accomplishing the expected. As one of the few Black families in our Atlanta suburb, any misstep was seen as a blemish on our family’s credibility, and we navigated the community carefully. When I was accepted at a competitive university, as all of my family members had been, I had reached my final goal. I had always been intensely concentrated on my academic and extracurricular performance, but in college, I was determined to branch out and develop my identity.

            Sharply contrasting with my ambitious attitude in grade school, I entered my freshman year with the focus of an excited puppy. I needed to make friends with every person I met, go to every party or event, and insert myself in as many spaces as possible. As my grades slipped, I could almost hear my relatives asking why my B+ wasn’t an A+, and I just prayed they wouldn’t ask about my microeconomics class when I called. Though my first semester was a happy one, I could feel my mental health deteriorating. I was determined to not go to the university mental health services, because I’d always been “strong” enough not to need them. Even when I was tired of smiling, I plastered on a quirky grin to face the world.

            My grip loosened by my second semester. I had been sexually assaulted by someone I trusted, and my reports to the university were fruitless. Frightened of new people and the dark, I isolated myself, consumed by my depression and trauma. Elders questioned my judgment, challenging my decision to let an acquaintance into my personal space. My close friends drifted away, unsure of how to approach me. At this point, I was taken to the university mental health clinic to receive the support I desperately needed. The time period is a general dark blur, but my eventual emergence from my fog had me claiming I had been “cured.”  I no longer suffered from depression or PTSD, and I could tackle the world in a completely healthy and regular way.

            I tried to prove to myself that I had transcended. I invested myself heavily in organizations, particularly ones that prioritized Black women and those that addressed the importance of mental health and self-care. I stressed the importance of sisterhood and mutual support, all while strategically avoiding myself. I sat on panels talking about my experiences with violence and depression, explaining to the audience that I was “completely recovered, don’t worry.” My main love, the Cornell Every1 Campaign, allowed me to have more intimate conversations on campus, spreading the principles of affirmative consent and bystander intervention. All the while, I neglected myself, preferring to focus on anything else besides the dark haze.

            In my experience, we Black women are frequently forced to hide our torments. As the backbones of our community, we are expected to hold everything together. We are taught to rarely complain, and if we do, we better make sure it’s worth it. We pick our battles; we suppress; we continue to grind. What makes this cultural trend so devastating is the fact that Black women are statistically more prone to sexual assault. As estimated by The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Black women are sexually assaulted at higher rates than the larger female population, even within university settings. Even worse, according to the US HHS Office of Minority Health, Black adults are more than twenty-percent more likely to experience serious psychological distress than the white adult population.

Although I am now more open about the challenges I faced during my Cornell career, I still feel pressure to stay silent and to minimize my pain. My recovery, however, depends on my ability to address my past and work towards fully embracing my future.

            As I reflect on my most recent semester, I am grateful to Cornell for giving me the opportunity to find self-love again. My college experience has been challenging, enchanting, and at times unbearable, but my personal transformation has been invaluable. I won’t say that I’m “completely healed” like I would have as a sophomore or junior. While I still often reach for an unattainable superwoman ideal, the recognition of my humanity and fallibility continues to balance and heal me. My road to recovery will be long and arduous, but I know I will continue to rise from the fog. For all my girls waiting to exhale, I’m standing alongside you.

 

Kristen Green

Cornell University 2017