How Trey Anthony Found Strength Through Vulnerability
Canadian writer, playwright and coach Trey Anthony shares the lessons passed down from her stoic grandmother, and how learning to be vulnerable helped her through a dark time.
In this excerpt from her new book, Black Girl in Love (with Herself), Canadian writer, playwright, life coach and development producer Trey Anthony reflects on being a suddenly-single mom in the pandemic economy, and the incredible strength that can come from vulnerability.
(Related: ‘I Decided to No Longer Be in Disguise’)
When I was nine years old and living in England, my mother left my brother and me with our grandmother and moved to Canada for a new job. My grandmother was now the primary caregiver of two additional children while still taking care of several of her own children who still resided in the home. Money was tight, but my grandmother always ensured that we had food in the house. She made a big deal of always cooking a big pot of rice and peas and chicken for Sunday dinner, complete with a freshly made apple pie or blackberry pie with fresh custard that we washed down with some carrot juice. To this day, I have a hard time eating alone because I find myself mourning the loss of my big family dinners.
Mealtime was very important to my grandmother, and she took great pride in always having her fridge overflowing with food and our bellies full. She would beam at the entire family as she saw us heap spoons of rice onto our already overflowing plates or argue about who was going to have the extra chicken leg. From her, I grew up knowing that food was equated with love and family.
However, one day before class, my teacher pulled me aside and expressed her concern about the growing stress being placed on my grandmother because of having “two extra mouths to feed.” With a look of pity and concern, she handed me a form to take home to my grandmother that would qualify my brother and me for free lunches. The teacher stressed that my grandmother would no longer have to give my brother and me weekly lunch money. I eagerly ran home with the form, and I thought my grandmother would be as delighted as I was that she could save more money. However, she was far from happy. My grandmother took one look at the form and ripped it up. She was raging as she expressed, “Tell your little so-called teacher to not feel sorry for me! We do not need her handouts! We have more than enough! Dis family is not a charity case!”
My nine-year-old self could not understand why my grandmother was so upset, but what I now understood is that it was unacceptable to her to take money from anyone and that she believed you shouldn’t let people feel sorry for you. People offering you help was not a good thing.
Fast forward 30 years, and I’m now in the biggest crisis of my life. I’m no longer in a high two-income household. I’m suddenly single, dealing with a tremulous breakup. I have a newborn baby, and my income seems to be rapidly decreasing by the minute because the world is now in a global pandemic. My shows, workshops, and talks are being canceled as the government informs us to stay home. I’m an emotional wreck, stressed, and feeling the walls caving in on me. Thankfully I have some savings, but I’m carefully monitoring my money, and I’m painfully aware that I’m spending and not making any additional income. This begins to stress me even more. Thank God I have the insight to take my own advice and begin seeing a therapist. But it isn’t cheap. Each session costs me $150 per hour, and as much as I know that I emotionally need this, I cannot justify spending this amount on a weekly session as I watch income I thought I could count on magically disappear. The world is in shock, the economy is at a standstill, and there is no end in sight. No one seems to know when things will return to normal. As I start to scrutinize my budget, I know that my weekly therapy sessions have to go. I compromise with myself, saying that I will cut them down to one session every three weeks. I know it’s a sacrifice that I have to make to stay afloat.
I’m on the phone with my dear friend Bea, who is doing her weekly check-in sessions with me. She knows I’m still mourning the loss of my relationship and I’m still feeling overwhelmed by motherhood. She gently inquires how I am doing. Despite my best efforts, I start crying. Bea calmly soothes me and asks how my new weekly therapy sessions are going. I tell her that they are going well, but due to my concerns about my income, I have cut them down. Without skipping a beat, Bea says, “You are going through an awful breakup. You have just moved. You are a new mother. We are in a pandemic. If a person were experiencing one of these things, it would be stressful; you are experiencing all these things simultaneously. You are going through extreme trauma. Please send me your account number, Janice [her partner], and I will pay for the extra sessions. You need them. We can’t afford to lose you—you’re too important to many people. And I know you would have done the same for me.”
All of a sudden, I’m nine years old, back in my grandmother’s kitchen. I feel her rage. I’m seeing her rip up the free lunch paper. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me, I’m not someone’s charity case! I quickly refuse. Assuring Bea that I’m fine, I don’t need help. Bea is firm. She begs me to take some time to think about it before saying no. I quickly get off the phone and then I sit with her offer. I feel shame. I cry. I think some more. This is more than generous. I’m blessed to have such amazing friends. I sit with my own shame, now alongside gratitude. What does this mean if I accept it? Taking money from her makes me feel vulnerable. Taking money for extra therapy confirms to that critical voice in my head that I’m weak. How dare I take money for something as “frivolous” as therapy. My poor granny must be rolling in her grave!
I rock my newborn son in my arms as I think it over. I look down at his innocent face. He has a blind trust and knows and understands that I will take care of him. I know he deserves to have a mother that is emotionally prepared to be a mother. He deserves a mother who prioritizes her own well-being, and that means she can assess when she needs help. In my own childhood, I carried the burden of misplaced trauma and stress, such as when the Black women in my family were overburdened, emotionally drained, and feeling unsupported, they took their frustration out on me. I know what it feels like to be viewed as one more thing to do on their overflowing to-do list.
I smile down at my son. I’m not weak. I am not a charity case. I deserve support. I deserve help. I deserve love. I need to do this for my son and myself. I pick up my phone and text Bea my account details.
Photo courtesy of Trey Anthony
Too many of us struggle with the facade we share with the public. And yet there are the realities of our lives. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. LaShawn Da Pittman during my research for this book. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and has conducted extensive research pertaining to Black women and vulnerability. Dr. Pittman shared how vulnerability showed up for many Black women when it comes to finances and how many of us do not share our financial concerns due to shame. “As Black women, we are more likely than our white counterparts to experience financial struggle, to be raising our children alone. And although we work more than other white women, we earn less than white women on average, not to mention all men. We are more likely to be family and community caregivers than other women… So, essentially we are doing more with less.”
During our interview, I could not help but think about my poor grandmother doing more with less.
Every Sunday she got up early to cook dinner, and we would leave about 8 a.m. to visit my uncle who was in prison. We would drive for nearly two hours, and my grandmother would refer to me as “her little company.” She didn’t have her driver’s license—she had failed the driving test seven times, but that didn’t stop her! So, for all my life, my gangster granny was driving dirty! I was her co-pilot, and I would tell her when it was safe for her to change lanes on the highway. We would sing along to the radio, and I would write songs and stories in my notebook and read them aloud to her, and my grandmother would add to the story plot. It was truly our bonding time.
At the jail, would sit in a big waiting room. Sometimes, my uncle came out quickly; other times, we sat there for hours until a prison officer led him and he swaggered toward us. He always seemed happy to see us. My grandmother would not make eye contact with her son. She was stoic and kissed her teeth as he sat down. She would shoot him a quick, disapproving look before reaching into her big black handbag and handing my uncle a big plastic ice cream container that now served as Tupperware, filled with rice and peas and stewed chicken and my grandmother’s famous coleslaw. My grateful uncle would gobble it down as my grandmother intensely watched. I would fill in the awkward silence by giving my uncle amusing play-by-play about what was happening at home or sharing all the family drama that my grandmother had recently told me. I honestly feel this is how I learned to literally keep an audience captive!
Thirty minutes later, the visit would abruptly end. My grandmother, with her head held high, would pop the empty container back in her handbag and silently motion for me to follow her. We would head home, driving for another two hours. During the ride home, she would barely say a word. And I would instinctively know that my role was to be silent and only tell her when to change lanes. Once we arrived home, my grandmother would warm up the pots on the stove. She would have Sunday dinner with the rest of the family, wash the dishes, and then she would sleep for a short while and head to her night shift.
Now, as a grown woman, I reflect on the emotional toll of this Sunday morning journey for my grandmother. How it must have felt for her to see her youngest son behind bars and not being allowed to touch him. I think of her sacrifice. How she expressed her love by bringing him food. How she never cried, never showed any emotions. How she never brought along another adult or family member for comfort. How she could only trust and rely on her nine-year-old granddaughter for company. How she risked driving every Sunday with no driver’s license to see her son. How, as Black women, we will find a way even when there seems to be none.
Many of us are navigating less-than-ideal circumstances and harsh realities. Yet we still want to be viewed as strong, capable women. We do not know how to be vulnerable. We do not know how to deal with the emotions that come up for us if we are vulnerable. We can watch all the Brené Brown videos on vulnerability, but we also have deep-rooted trust issues. Some of us have attempted to trust partners, friends, and loved ones and have found ourselves holding the huge pile of poop, otherwise known as the letdown bag, when we had our vulnerability thrown in our face. When I was dumped by my ex, I couldn’t help but feel duped for fully trusting someone and believing they would hold my trust sacred. I was mad at myself for walking into this relationship arms and heart wide open and believing her when she swore up and down that she would always be there for me. I battled with myself for a long time about how much I would reveal in future relationships, and I was tempted to start rebuilding the walls around my heart because I never wanted to feel hurt like that again.
During this time, my mother was quick to once again offer her unsolicited advice, “Trey, your problem is you give too much. You give too much of yourself over to others.” In other words, my mother thought I was too vulnerable and that vulnerability could only lead to tremendous hurt. And as tempting as it was to restart the narrative in my head that people couldn’t be trusted, that loving someone could only lead to hurt, or that accepting money from people could only lead to them later having something to throw in my face, I decided that my ex was only one person. Yes, she had let me down, and perhaps I had misplaced my trust. I had given too much to the wrong person. I expressed my fears about love to a close friend who simply stated, “Don’t this let experience change you; people love you because you show up fully to love. You picked wrong this time but trust that next time you will pick right.”
I knew there were people in my life who I could trust. I also knew that to find the love I wanted, I needed to show up healed, open, compassionate, and kind. Because we attract where we are. So instead of shutting down my vulnerability, I worked on becoming more vulnerable. Instead of telling people I was fine, I shared my hurt, frustration, and disappointment. I decided to write and share my biggest vulnerabilities in this book to also help other Black women know that it is okay to take off your Superwoman cape.
Image courtesy of Trey Anthony
Excerpted from Black Girl in Love (with Herself): A Guide to Self-Love, Healing, and Creating the Life You Truly Deserve by Trey Anthony. Copyright © 2021 by Trey Anthony. Published by Hay House. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.