Healing is a Luxury and a Necessity: Pain, Race, and Grace

TW: Self Harm

Karen poses for a picture by Lisa Gray

ere I am, sitting on this porch, computer in hand, watching the world move around me. The neighbor beside me has a dog that watches him smoke a blunt and I am not mad that the breeze is blowing towards me. The breeze is forgiving, breaking the heat and swirling around my face. I am one house in a long row going to my left and an alley that breaks me up from the house of my smoking neighbor. I watch the mosquitoes take my blood and half-heartedly try to kill them before I decide they are not worth my time and I cannot see any more death right now. Just having finished a pint of strawberry ice cream, I am looking forward to the donuts I bought too. After twelve days not eating dessert these treats will be my reward after a hard football training. I’m glad I am not wearing jeans because my stomach is ballooning after not only the ice cream but the large burger I inhaled before that. Today is a good day. I have deemed it as such.

I open my laptop, turn on voice-to-text and start speaking. To my surprise and delight, the hand I had clutched around my throat so tightly has loosened. My words flow freely- dam broken and about time too. I write of pain and loss and self and discovery. I write for myself for the first time in what feels like forever. And it is good.

This porch welcomes me in and threatens to swallow me in peace. I wonder how it differs from my own porch. Maybe my own porch does not offer as much peace because it is mine and sees me at my worst as well as best. Regardless, here I sit, submerged but not drowning. I have traveled a ways to be here and I have traveled an even longer time to be me. I was born an ocean away to a family that will never know my name. I was born with Kenyan skies watching over and Kenyan soil beckoning me home. Then, I was adopted and my world changed; I cannot say it is better than the alternatives but it is and that’s what I know to be true. I spent my life flying over the Atlantic ocean, moving between the USA and Kenya and when I finally graduated high school in Kenya I returned to my passport country to live. Ever since leaving East Africa I have been plunged into a sea of white where I am the anomaly. And to clarify, I do not think there is anything wrong with that, but I have had to make space for myself in places that were not prepared for me. It feels like I have stepped into this world where all the rules of who and how I was were decided for me. So then every action that was out of the definition that is assigned for me breaks the mold. More times than not I get hit with the shards. So I sit on this porch trying to figure out how to bandage the wounds.

I sit and intend to write about pain but I think this is going to turn out a piece on grace and letting go.

A couple days ago my friend told me that it was possible to exist without suffering. That got me thinking. I think he was mainly referring to my chronic physical pain but I wonder what it is like to live in a world where my suffering isn’t this close to my chest. A few years ago I was put on antidepressants to help me function better but instead they lowered my inhibitions and no one caught the change. After three months of being on this medicine I ended up stabbing myself in the arm with a knife at 12AM to distract myself from my ongoing shoulder injury. I accidentally severed 90% of my radial nerve and I have been dealing with the fallout ever since. I’ve been grappling with the pain and shame and loss of function for what feels like so long that I cannot remember what it was like before this. Before me.

I see a pain psychologist now. This is new for me- the pain psychologist, not psychologists as a whole. We talk through my pain and she gets it. Like I am sure you do, at least to a certain extent.

Pain changes you.

I tell this story because I have learned pain is binding in a way that few other things are. Pain is relatable. Race isn’t always. As I move through these white spaces with people I know and love it seems it is so much easier for them to understand my knife wound and to stare at my scars and wish me well than it is for them to understand how damaging racism is and how race permeates everything. So let us talk about this wound of mine so that you may understand this plight of mine. My life depends on it.

When I tell people of my arm their reaction is usually visceral. I can almost see their insides turn and their eyes flicker to see me in a different light. The next comment I usually receive is a remark on my strength. To which I am almost never sure how to react. In my case, I think strong is a compliment given to people when you don’t know what else to say after becoming aware of a difficult situation you cannot begin to imagine living. Strong is a word given to me to try to patch the pain of a reality many wish I did not live. But if people took the time to journey with me I think that instead of “strong” they would call me “alive.” Because the opposite reaction to how I deal is not weakness, but death. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good compliment and acknowledgement of my struggle to continue, but I do not know what to do with “strong.” I only know alive.

When I first started physical therapy for my arm my therapist would tell me in every session that “now is the time character is built.” I think my physical therapist was preparing me for life. For this constant becoming when we are forced to make a million different decisions a day and our character is molded by each one. I was given this one wild existence and every day I spend it becoming who I am.

I watched the murder of Ahmaud Arbery laying in the dark in my bed at a time I should not have still been awake. I heard of Breonna Taylor while I was at work and I stayed, trying to remain presentable. I discovered the video of George Floyd’s murder and it felt like the world broke open. Perhaps we have broken open like this before and I do not remember or was not birthed yet. But this felt like when I was under the white gaze, they could finally see the wounds that resulted from racism. Shock rippled through the circles I was a part of. Let me clarify, the white circles I was a part of. Us Black people knew what could be done to our bodies without accountability held. We did not have to have evidence of the trauma to know that it was there.

I have been to five hospitals in three years for the pain in my arm. Some of this change is because I have moved locations, other times it is because they cannot do anything more for me. I show my scar running down the side of my arm, tell my story, and ask for help. Again and again. Currently I am seeing four different medical professionals to try to help me heal. I am voicing my hurt over and over and praying I am heard. Every time I am understood it feels we take two steps one way and one step the other. This healing process has not been as linear as I used to think it was. I have also grown into it and discovered that it was naive of me to assume everyone gets the chance to heal. Healing is a luxury. And a necessity, let us not forget that. But a luxury all the same.

Healing is hard work. Do not let anyone tell you differently.

I sit here on this porch, the smell of weed in my nostrils, the warmth of the sun on my feet, and think about what it has taken to recover as much as I have from this arm injury and how my friend told me that it was possible to live without suffering. I would like to figure out if that reality is possible for me in the future. I think it is because I feel periods of relief. And I reach towards that goal, reminding myself that suffering is not a badge of honor, or burden to carry willingly. I say that so that I remember to not settle for this — crying on the bedroom floor, unable to drive, unable to sleep, unable to write, unable to create. I say this so I remember but I do not have to be consumed by this or defined by this. And I say this as a prayer in a hope for the future.

I do not pray that I will never feel pain again for pain is integral to humanity and a price we pay for growth. In fact, I do not know the exact prayer I said because my reach to the divine is incoherent, heart to universe to creator. I just know I did not ask for all my pain to disappear because there is purpose in it. This is not to say the pain you are feeling right now is any sort of holy or correct or deserved or even needed. This is just to say that part of the human experience is painful and I cannot ask for it to completely disappear from my life without asking for a removal of my humanity.

While I stay submerged in these thoughts I wonder at what time pain begins to take your name. Like, at what point do you become so inextricably intertwined that you cannot see where to cut the umbilical cord that you start to think you might never make your way out of the womb and into the world. I do not think this pain is here to birth me. In fact, I do not think it birthed anyone. Nor does it do any form of mothering or parenting- in fact, I hesitate to compare pain to family in the first place. I do not know what comparison or what name or what metaphor or simile to assign to pain. It is what it is.

There is this saying that beauty is pain. They also love to say that life is beautiful. I think when you put those two sentences together you form a more true statement. Life is beautiful and painful and painful and beautiful. I should not dare to hope for anything different. I should not dare to hope to be anything other than alive. I say that knowing all of the times in which I have prayed for the air to leave my lungs and I say that for all the times I will probably still ask the question of why.

Why am I here? Why do I exist? Why can’t I stop the hurt? Why can’t I make it better? Why can’t I be enough? Why can’t I be?

I have often asked these questions when I stare at my skin, rich with melanin. I have often asked these questions when I run my fingers over my scar or sit in doctors offices that feel too familiar. I continue to ask these questions because I think it is important we ask and search even if we know we will never fully know.

When I was younger I was misunderstood more times than not. I had a speech impediment and I had to find other ways of communication. I think in many ways that is how I became a writer. Writing is what saved me. Because if you cannot communicate, you cannot connect. if you cannot connect, you die. Maybe not physically but in all other ways because life, after all, is about connection. I can speak better now but I still I’m often misunderstood. And maybe these days misunderstood is not the correct word, but disbelieved will certainly suffice. I speak on my wounds and am often dismissed unless I can come up with evidence.

What an exhausting way of moving: I have to struggle to be seen enough to figure out how to heal. This is why I say healing is a luxury. Because to speak and be believed is a reprieve not granted to all. To speak, be believed, and have your words acted upon in your favour is a luxury not all of us can afford. To speak, be believed, have your words acted up on your favour and be able to avoid retraumatization is a reality not all of us know.

I fully believe that hearing and bearing witness to another’s pain is challenging and will change you if you let it. I also know that people change slowly unless they encounter trauma or birth. And in it’s own way, birth is trauma but we haven’t the time to get into that right now. When I share my words on pain I am inquiring if people will let it change them. When I share my heart on racism I am asking how quickly can you intertwine your life with someone else’s and see their survival as integral to yours? I think that is the question I am asking of us, including myself when I encounter another life. I don’t always like the answer found when I am evaluating myself honestly.

I was adopted into a white family and save for my adopted sister and my cousin who is from India, I am alone. When I moved out of Kenya and relocated to a very white city in Oregon, I was alone. And even when I moved back with my family we were still separated by race. Say what you want about race not mattering but the fact of the matter is that my liberation will not mean their unless they deem it as such and their liberation is already here, regardless of the state of mine. Therein lies the difference between me and the white people I love dearly and makes the question of survival that much deeper when asked if they are prepared to fight for mine. And for so many, hearing my voice is their first time contemplating that their reality of whiteness is not the only lived experience here. Still, they often insist on telling me where they have been and what they think about race without considering that I have been living in their world and trying to assimilate to their culture for far longer than they have ever thought that maybe my world differs from theirs. I have had to study them and theirs in order to get by whereas they study me and mine for fun, out of interest, when they feel like it and no more. Our love runs strong but it does not run together like they think it does.

How much time do I give them to change enough to fight for my life? How much grace do I give? How much time do I spend avoiding writing about their reaction to my race and sexuality, to my people, without tightening my hand around my throat too much? I have a responsibility to be honest with myself first. What responsibility then do I have to tell this story of me struggling in circles of whiteness and yelling, seemingly into a void?

Some days I think I need to offer all the time and extend all the grace. Other times I am hurt and scared and filled with rage that cannot be quelled. I bounce between extremes and have not found a sustainable balance. I want to ask the white people I love that are not willing to leave their life of comfort to help shape a future where Black lives unequivocally matter what they are afraid of.

What are you afraid of losing? Comfort? An ideal? Family? The person you are? A life? Take it from someone who has already lost herself, the deconstruction and rebuilding is as painful as you think it is. But that should not stop you from doing so anyway.

My pain psychologist and I talk through my hurt and discuss how healing needs to be a part of my story. We discuss how healing is not linear and is what we make it. The dictionary definition of healing is to become healthy again. One of the word’s origins states that to heal is to ‘become whole.’ I wonder if then the act of healing is acceptance of your new state of fullness. By that I mean, what if healing doesn’t mean the oblivion of wounds but the living with them in symphony? What if healing means the act of taking our wounds as part of our whole and our story and pursuing the healthiest path we can with who we are and what we have endured? What if healing means grace to us? And we define who the us is.

Of course, as I stated, healing is whatever you decide to make it. It is so personal. Almost unendurable. No one else can heal for you. It is the work we are tasked with in this life. How do we live with our past? With our wounds and with ourselves? How do we shape our communities and environments so we are not always having to heal from the same exact sources of trauma? It is the work we will be doing for as long as we breathe. Because as long as we live we will grapple with pain. And as long as we feel we will witness each other. Our lives are all intersecting and intertwining and flowing and falling- apart and together.

Healing is coveted growth covered in grace. It is sacrifice. It is exposure and it is embrace. It is a luxury and a necessity.

I keep seeing bodies, Black like mine, queer like mine, women like mine, injured and killed. I keep screaming out, trying to communicate the horror of knowing I may be next. How do I heal from this? How do I survive this? How do I convince others to take action so that this is not a lived reality for so many of us?

I do not know.

I sink into the porch chair enveloped in anguish and full with fire. I wrap my arms around myself and every version of me that came before today. I hold onto my four year old self who had no idea what coming to America meant for her life. I hold onto my eleven year old self as I cross the ocean to return to a Kenyan home I do not remember. I hold my eighteen year old self as I move away from all I know into the uncertain. I trace my fingers down my arm and tell my story in my own words. I try to leave you out of it. I try to keep going without pulling you down. I try to give you space to grow and journey as you please. I don’t always do it perfectly or even the best way to go about it. But we are all muddling through as best we can. Please try to believe the best in me and I will try to do the same for you. You know who you are. You’re standing on the threshold of the doorway deciding if you will intertwine my liberation with yours. You’re opting out of the conversation that is a life-force to this work. You’re speaking love and prayers over me but then sitting on the runway still when it is time to take off and show your support. You who are unsure what to say so you call me strong for enduring this life instead of attempting to break down the barriers that are placed to stop me from thriving. You who keeps asking me to turn my insides out and share my writing and then don’t defend me when I open up. You who I love so very dearly.

I am exhausted from trying to prove myself and writing to appeal to your humanity so that way we may have another ally to slow the inevitable death that comes for us marginalized people.

In life we take what is unbearable, what we think is unbearable, and we shoulder the burden until we find a way to lighten the load. We do that or we die. There is no other way. I do not blame those for not wanting to carry this weight with me. But I lament the loss while I leave them and go travelling in search of a place of relief. Because I know that where they are heading is not where I need to go; I have to search for a place to let down the load and reduce the weight as much as I can. If I cannot do so, I will not survive. And the kicker is, none of us will outlive pain or evade death. But I want to make it to a future where my skin is not the factor that gets me killed.

So peace to you on your journey, wherever it may lead. Grace, I give to you. And to me as I navigate these spaces and these words the best I can. This pain has changed me. But so has this grace I have allowed myself in seeking healing. I know this season has been a hard one for us all and we have many more miles to go, doctors to see, and people to love. Still, for now we are here with breath in our lungs and power in our veins.

My friend comes onto the porch and sits across from me with a donut on her plate and a knife in her hand. She breaks the bread and I exhale, breathing from my diaphragm like I am meant to practice. I peek out of my pain cocoon, a hole made from all this writing today, and see the sun again. I think next time I write I should speak on Black Joy and Black love which are just as vital to living. But right now, on this porch my pain is what I have to offer. It is my gift. Maybe we all be changed by it- most of all, me.

Athlete. Artist. Writer. she/her.

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