I used to think my backstory was boring. I used to think it could only result in relentless mocking because my upbringing was pretty idyllic. I lived very happily as a child. I’ve never been poor, homeless, or hungry. I don’t remember ever not getting something I asked for. As a matter of fact, I remember getting lots and lots and lots of things I didn’t ask for. The contentment I experienced was not just about material things; material things actually had almost nothing to do with my happiness. I had a lot of fun, was surrounded by music, laughter, and an abundance of love straight through adolescence. I was a member of a solid clan and I didn’t have any conscious, notable experience with pain, stress, negativity, fear, and doubt. So, I remember distinctly the day I sensed that my charmed life wouldn’t…couldn’t…last. It was crystal clear. There was a sign.
It came while I was in a course, as an undergraduate student at Howard University. I was sitting in one of my favorite English composition classes and the professor asked us (the students) to write about a tragedy they’d overcome. I was stumped. Up until that time, I hadn’t had to overcome anything. My parents were married and in love. I had two caring, doting older sisters. I had a bunch of warm, hilarious, close-knit cousins, aunties, and uncles. My godparents and godbrothers were exactly the same as blood relatives. All of my grandparents were not only alive, they were healthy, and very active. Even most of my great aunts and uncles had busy, full lives. No one in my circle had died (yet). And, I was a popular kid. I was an honors student, a lettered athlete, dating a track star, and on the board of student council. I grew up in a nice suburb, got a car when I turned sixteen, and was sent to the best private and public schools my family could afford or find, respectively. No worries. No fuss.
So, I didn’t know what to write. I raised my hand and explained this to my professor. I said, “Professor, I don’t have anything to say. Nothing really bad has ever happened to me.” I remember so clearly how she looked at me. I felt stilled by her eyes. Her affect was very serious and then melted into what looked like pity. She replied, “Ok, Jeanine…well…just wait.”
Her words sent shivers up my spine. Her solemn look didn’t help at all. I had no concrete idea of what she was talking about. I could only hear the ominous tone and instinctively knew I didn’t want any part of what it suggested. I couldn’t see or imagine what tragedy looked like. I couldn’t fathom what it felt like to experience trauma and have to overcome it. I realize now…now that I know exactly what it looks and feels like…that she was doing me a favor. She gave me a warning to hold on to. I remembered that moment with my professor years later when I entered my ten years of terror. I’ll share some general details of the ten years quickly, right here, in a list. I’m writing them up like this not to shock or stir you. I’m doing it to share my story in a flash, leading with the facts, so I can move to what I really want to offer: how I made it through my hell.
The terror started in 2003. My father had had two heart attacks, was managing diabetes, and developed what I think was a degenerative type of osteoporosis. It made it extremely difficult for him to lift his head. So, he needed oxygen 24 hours a day. He grew increasingly obese and had deeper bouts with depression. Watching him deteriorate was very painful for me. He was a strong man and I could see how scared and angry he was. When I looked at him I felt helpless, fearful, and angry, all the time. My mother tried everything to save him. It didn’t work.
Later that year I lost my first grandparent. My father’s mother passed away after a long illness. She was very beautiful and very mean. She was the only one of my grandparents I didn’t know well even though she and my grandfather were married, by the time she died, for well over 60 years. Although I cared about her, for my father’s sake, I didn’t love her. Nonetheless, I cried like a baby when she departed. At the time, I didn’t understand why.
In 2004, I began ministering to my father. I started writing letters to him, even though we saw each other every weekend. I wanted to encourage him. I wrote to comfort and be closer to him. I suspected that he was going to die and I needed to talk about private, important things as a matter of urgency. The practice of writing, with that idea in my head, felt ominous. I did it anyway because I knew I needed to communicate things I could not speak aloud. I knew he got the letters; I just don’t remember him ever mentioning them to me, except when he looked at me every weekend. I could see the letters in his eyes. There were things in them neither one of us wanted to say aloud. I think we knew if we did, the sound of the words might make time go faster. Neither of us wanted that. We knew we didn’t have any to waste.
Later that year I lost my aunt (my father’s only sister) and two great uncles to heart failure. The people who helped raise me and were etched into the tapestry of my community started to die.
In 2005 I started dating a narcissistic man. I’m not talking about a vain individual. I’m talking about a certifiable narc. I didn’t know what hit me. I was particularly susceptible to the emotional and psychological terror I experienced in that relationship because of my predispositions to co-dependency. My susceptibility was greatly heightened also because my family, my safety net, was crumbling around me and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Early in 2007 my eldest sister was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. Her diagnosis took her totally off guard and hit our nucleus like a Mac truck. I felt terrified by the news (in addition to my father’s failing health). Joy was so young…only in her late 30s. She was like a second mother to me. I loved and admired her so deeply that it’s difficult to express with words. She endured multiple surgeries and injuries…too many to name. A sense of helplessness rose up again and again whenever I looked at her. I felt only barely able to be fully present for her struggle. Looking at her wince in pain and waste away broke my heart. I was not strong enough to bear witness regularly and keep my life going at the same time. So, I only came home to see her a few times a month instead of several times a week. Just like my father, my mother did everything she could to save Joy too, and, again, it didn’t work.
Later that year, my father succumbed to his illnesses. He had his third and final heart attack. He died on the living room floor of our pretty, little suburban home. It was late in July. I felt dizzy with grief and completely out of control. I retreated into myself and my work and waited. I somehow knew that more terror was coming. I was right.
In 2008 my godfather died of a massive heart attack. He and my godmother were my parents’ best friends my whole life. He was like a second father to me. His smile and laughter lit up each birthday, holiday, and weekend barbecue. It was August, a little over a year after my father’s death.
2009 was filled with more of Joy’s surgeries, pacing, and grief for the previous year’s losses. And there was the watching, worrying, and waiting.
In 2010 my sister died. Our Joy. Died. It was October. I felt completely lost in a fog of grief. I wrote a tribute to her and delivered it at her home going service. Years later, I would write about how her death changed me. I thought I might die with her.
Later that year, my god brother died suddenly. He was barely 40. It was December. I could not speak. I worried so much about my mother and surviving sister. They dealt with the brunt of physical and emotional caregiving and business management (which, as you may know, is incredibly difficult work). Their experience with our losses was compounded by those roles. The wave of death we experienced was very hard. I was a mess, almost completely jumbled inside. I felt overcome by fear, anger, and sadness.
In 2010 I ended that intense long-term relationship in which I felt disconnected and small and in 2011 I started seriously dating another narcissistic man. I learned about emotional trauma and psychological abuse intimately, personally, and profoundly from these relationships.
During this time I maintained incredibly high standards for work as a tenure-line professor at a research I university. I was also running the successful educational consulting firm I founded. I had employees who depended on me. These obligations did not allow time for me to process my terror: the losses, and the way my body and soul was processing everything that was happening within and around me. There was no time. The deaths kept coming and my career kept growing. I was so confused by the events of these years though, I’m not sure more of anything would have made a difference.
I had no idea what to do about terror in life and love. I lost words, clarity, focus, and energy. I didn’t consistently know how to talk to friends, or family about what I was experiencing in my head and my heart. I shut down a lot. I tried really hard not to complain. I didn’t want to be misunderstood. With all my internal/external misunderstandings, I also lost faith that it was possible for me to not be misunderstood. I didn’t want pity or any risk of being avoided as someone who was regularly in the trenches. I didn’t want to be scoffed, or dismissed, or risk being judged as “the one who couldn’t handle her life.” I didn’t want to bear anyone’s shock in the face of my perceived incompetence.
So, I was suffocating inside myself with acute bouts of intense anxiety and chronic, crippling depression. Every time the phone rang, I jumped, imagining it was another “hurry, get home now!” call. I felt nearly perpetually panicked. Without the necessary emotional, social, and psychological support I needed to give and receive in partnership, along with my inability to nurse and nurture myself, I grew progressively worse…inching closer to a nervous breakdown. I started to have nightmares that my life would be filled with more darkness, dying, leaving, withering, breaking, and departing. My body got sick. My head ached almost constantly. I had panic attacks. I could barely sleep. Sometimes, I had trouble breathing during the day. My separation anxiety shot through the roof. I felt as if I had no home. Both in life and in love, I was drowning, rising, drowning, and barely rising again. While in this haze, I sought as much help as possible to keep my head above water. Through trial and error I found a great therapist and a hardcore coach. They helped me until I could help myself. It took a long time to understand my patterns, see my path, and learn my purpose. It took a long time for me to learn intimately about terror in life and in love. It took every part of my terrifying ten years.
And, miraculously, I kept publishing, teaching, winning awards, and making money while these waves of terror ebbed and flowed, clouding my judgment, and suffocating my days and nights. I couldn’t tell if I was on autopilot or if I was relying on my research and teaching to help me through my wilderness. I didn’t know if my work was giving me a sense of control…helping me remember what it felt like to do something right, feel secure and confident, and experience success in the midst of my very dark and scary internal and external clouds.
I know now that it was grace and I am grateful for a thousand reasons. The biggest reason is: I wasn’t yet out of the fire.
In 2012 I ended my last romantic relationship and closed the door on dating to focus on getting well. (I’m 2 and a half years clean; read Open Letter From a Recovering Main Chick to learn more.) I also let go of a few very dear, intimate friendships I could no longer serve well and that did not serve me well. I was making changes and being changed. As a result, additional waves of anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, stress, sadness, and deep anger washed over me.
And the terror wasn’t over yet.
In 2013 my quiet, strong, sweet, loveable 14-year-old nephew Russell attempted suicide. After losing his mother, failing in school, watching his sister move away to college, fighting depression, disillusionment, and abject fear of the future, he walked upstairs to his parents’ bedroom one cold day in November…just before Thanksgiving. He took a gun from a closet, pointed it at his body, and pulled the trigger. A neighbor heard the shot, ran over, and called an ambulance in time to save him. His suicide attempt brought me again to the edge of a pit.
Thank God, he survived.
Still, there was more. In 2014 both of my grandfathers died. The first departed in February, the second in December. These great pillars of my family transitioned and I felt another ripping in the fabric of what held my life together.
I struggled with the process of writing this list because I did not want to sound like a whiner. The truth is, my ten years of terror is not at all unlike decades that many people endure, and some with a great deal more tragedy. The point is not to quantify and compare. The point is to clarify and commend. The point is to state clearly that I’ve been terrified and I bet you’ve been terrified too.
See? Now I have a lot of things to write about. I’m still looking for my Howard professor to share my gratitude for the hint of preparation, and prescription of writing as therapeutic.
I now know what despair is. I know what it’s like to nearly pass out from grief. I know what it feels like to experience a wailing inside myself that was so loud and so shrill, I thought my head might explode. I know what it feels like to be rendered mute. I know what it’s like to become avoidant, even absent in consciousness, because of compounded terror, coming from multiple directions at once.
All this made me want to study terror – emotional trauma and psychological abuse (which manifest in the soul) and somatic stress (which manifests in the flesh/body). I wanted to understand terror better. So, I researched it, lived it, wrote about it, and practiced methods for healing, a lot. I even wrote a book about it (see my abstract for The Revelations of Asher: Toward Supreme Love in Self).
Also, in my acclaimed TEDx talk, I give an overview of how terrors show up in daily life, producing figurative deaths over and over and over again, before our literal death. Check it out as soon as you can. It offers a solid introduction to the concept I’m sharing now.
In the end, I made it through my hell by learning some beautiful truths:
- Responsibility. I have an interior life that I need to know well and manage consistently with benevolence and wisdom because the ways I know and manage my interior life have a direct impact on the ways I live and evolve my exterior life.
- Opportunity. Any reactionary, toxic lover identity can be acknowledged and evolved into one that is braver, bigger, better, and more brilliant than I could have ever imagined. For more on this, see my post on Supreme Love.
- Abundance. There is no shortage of anything. There is especially no shortage of love. I can love again. I can have peace beyond all understanding. I can trust myself. I can give my truth and receive The Truth. I can be an infinitely better lover.
Now, thank God. I Am.
All of these truths are true for you too.
It is possible for you to overcome your terrors, just like I did. When you learn your lover identity, you can heal your soul. When you become a Supreme Lover, you can heal the world. I can show you how. Be in touch.
I can help you through your hell.
(Check out http://www.TheSupremeLoveSummit.com for more information.)
Jeanine Staples is Associate Professor of Literacy and Language & African American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her book, The Revelations of Asher: Toward Supreme Love in Self, is an endarkened, feminist, new literacies event (Peter Lang, spring 2016). In it, she explores Black women’s terror in love. She produces research-based courses and methodologies that enable marginalized girls and women to realize internal revelations that fuel external revolutions.
Dr. Staples’ next book details the evolution of her acclaimed undergraduate course, The Philadelphia Urban Seminar. In it, she explores Supreme Love in schools. She shows how she generates curriculum and methodologies that incite anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist pedagogical stances among teachers interested in urban education and equity for all people in schools and society.