“Bag lady you gon hurt yo back/Draggin’ all them bags like that.”—Erykah Badu
Often, people tend to primarily associate heartbreak with romantic relationships. But the reality is that many of us experience that type of pain well before we even think about dating. Romantic relationships just happen to provide a space for such deep-rooted pain to surface.
I remember the first time I experienced heartbreak. No… it wasn't 7-year-old Romel who kicked me in the stomach in second grade after I told him I liked him. It wasn’t the hugely popular J.P., who I found out was cheating on me in high school either. At the time, those instances yielded a great deal of emotional pain, but they didn’t compare to what I was about to experience for years to come.
As for my first true heartbreak, it came from my dad.
I can confidently say that my dad has been there for me for my entire life. For the most part, he’s been hugely supportive of my hopes, dreams and ambitions, and taught me how to survive in the world via book and street smarts. But how he let me down? I’m not even sure he is aware of it.
I became hip to my father’s heavy drinking around 4 or 5. Not because he was mean or abusive. I just remember smelling the alcohol on his breath, wondering why he fell asleep all of a sudden and why he sometimes had trouble walking normally like the rest of us, and lying to my peers about why my dad slurred when he spoke. Yes, he’d wake me up for school, prepare my meals, iron my clothes and make sure that I was on my way. Yes, I’d always be with him during the summer months, hanging out with his crew on the Low End. The problem was that he’d have to have a drink before he did any of that.
Honestly, it seemed like my dad was always drinking and that’s because, well, he was.
It wasn’t until I was 22 that I realized that the affects of my dad’s battle with alcoholism went well beyond our relationship. I had just met a wonderful man who wasn’t like anyone who I’ve ever dated.
He was kind, generous and authentic. He had a quiet, steady intensity about him, especially to be so young. He appeared to do all of the right things. No, he did all of the right things—not because he was running game, but because he genuinely cared. And he scared the hell out of me. I was experiencing a wave of anxiety attacks that wouldn’t subside no matter what I did. So I opted to go to therapy.
At the time, I legitimately did not know the cause of the attacks. I was graduating from college and had no job lined up, so I assumed that was the reason if anything, despite not feeling pressure. What seemed like sudden random bouts of anxiety turned out to be a long overdue response to years of emotional trauma.
Unlike many children, I never viewed my parents as superheroes. I never placed unreasonable expectations on them to be perfect. Until that point, I thought I’d accepted the fact that dad drank before he did anything else. The fact that sometimes, he’d forget to pick me up from work late at night as a teen because he forgot/fell asleep. But it wasn’t until my conversation with a doctor that I’d really understand just how much I’d taken on his emotional baggage.
I expected the doctor to inquire about family life, and he did. We talked about my household, parents, and the type of experiences I had growing up. He gathered as much information as possible, and offered to write me a prescription for anti-anxiety medication to alleviate the symptoms. I declined any medication and chose the more holistic practice of meditation to get me through.
After we talked about my childhood, he asked me about dating. We talked about every relationship that changed my life and why we broke up. For the most part, my reasons were legitimate. Either I caught someone cheating or the passion just was no longer there. But in other instances, deep-rooted feelings of insecurity and a fear of abandonment was to blame.
After about four sessions with Dr. Fallah, I arrived at the conclusion that somehow I’d allowed my relationship with my dad to dictate how I see and interact with romantic partners. Somewhere along the line, I internalized the fact that my father always had to have a drink before doing anything for me, and it made me question the loyalty of others as a result. It didn’t matter that he fulfilled his fatherly duties most of the time. It all came back to the fact that he had to drink first. The drink came before me.
The conclusion surprised me because women who normally experience that kind of trauma have rocky relationships with their dads, if any relationship at all. At least I thought that was the case. In my mind, I didn’t see any of what I experienced due to my father’s alcoholism as “rocky.” It just simply was what it was.
Owning up to my own baggage gave me the power to actually change the direction of my future. It gave me the power to realize that I was holding on to feelings, thoughts and experiences that were never meant for me. My dad’s issues are just that: his issues.
In relationships, we tend to make excuses for not letting go of past hurt, pain and abuse. We justify our emotional walls and guarded skepticism by convincing ourselves that we’re the victim, and that whoever the next person is that we date just has to deal with it. No, I didn’t ask to grow up with an alcoholic father. But do I think of myself as a victim? No.
There’s something incredibly beautiful about owning your own mess. We are all works in progress and we will never arrive at perfection. Pretending to be “perfect” does more harm than good. I’m not saying one should lay it all out there when interacting with someone new. But knowing what’s wrong with you, for you, is one of the most beneficial things you can ever do for yourself. So own your baggage so you can one day pack it up for good!
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Shantell E. Jamison is a Chicago-based writer, radio personality, and cultural critic. She’s also JET magazine’s Digital Content Editor. She’s been featured on WBEZ 91.5FM, The Monique Caradine Show, Vocalo 91.1FM, KDKA Newsradio 1020AM, WBGX 1570AM, WYCA 102.3FM, Chicago Now, The Grio, The Black Youth Project, The Gate Newspaper and Launching Chicago with Lenny McAllister. Her debut book, Drive Yourself in the Right Direction: Simple Quotes on How to Achieve Your Best Self, is available now at Amazon.com.