Productivity is my trauma response, and it is a well-exercised muscle. It’s both a blanket and a burden in my time of need.
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My daughter was born at 2:12 a.m. on Friday, June 11, 2021. By 10 a.m., I had a request on Slack from a colleague to have a quick meeting.
It read, “Do you have time to meet at 1 p.m.?” From the hospital bed, I texted back, “Sure.” When we met via video conference, and my colleague realized where I was, he said, “We can do this later. You just had a baby.”
“I’m fine,” I reassured him. “We can meet if you want. I have my laptop to attend the workshop later, too.”
“You really don’t have to do that,” he insisted.
I shrugged, “I’ll be there.”
Sure enough, at 3 p.m. I pulled out my laptop from the hospital bag I packed, connected to Wi-Fi, and logged on to Zoom wearing a medical gown and disposable maternity underwear. I took notes off camera and on mute while shifting uncomfortably in one of the hospital chairs to accommodate my fresh stitches and the ice packs cooling my still bleeding nether regions.
During the workshop, I asked two questions to the presenters, which forced me to come on camera. I quickly explained my appearance. “I had a baby this morning,” I said before continuing with my questions.
Responses to my admission ranged from “Wow” to “Congratulations.” High praise for my “dedication” and “commitment.” In my head, however, I pondered, Why am I like this?
The question was not an honest inquiry. I know why I’m like this. I know why I’m dedicated and committed when I don’t have to be. When I’m urged not to be.
It’s because productivity fuels me in a way little else does.
I am relentlessly ambitious as a writer and creative entrepreneur. My need to succeed is like a chugging locomotive always in motion toward its next destination. I grind like that ever-moving train, wheels crunching steel, in hopes of one day reaching that glow up. A stop that is elusive, ever-moving with the times. A goalpost that can never be reached.
But this is only part of the answer to my internal question. Why am I like this? The other reason is that productivity is my trauma response.
Trauma, as explained by the
Symptoms trauma survivors may exhibit include:
Coping techniques can range from avoiding and detaching from things and people we love to food, drug, and alcohol misuse.
The CDC and the National Institute of Mental Health recommend maintaining your usual routine as a positive way to cope.
For me and others like me, this is the problem.
“One of the ways that Black women have coped with not only our trauma but just our emotional suffering, in general, is by avoiding it,” says Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago and the author of the book “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women.”
Burnett-Zeigler explains that because so many people have experienced trauma and don’t label those experiences as such, they also don’t know that they’re engaging in a trauma response.
Those responses, from physical harm to numbing through food, drugs, sex, shopping, and more — or even hyper-productivity, also known as toxic-productivity, are all considered unhealthy coping mechanisms.
“Being busy, having a packed calendar that can be busy with work that can be busy with social activities, just always being on the go… that busyness serves as a distraction from what [emotions] can potentially come up,” says Burnett-Zeigler.
Busyness is my personal brand of coping.
One I developed as a child experiencing my parents’ divorce. This coping mechanism has crystallized into my adulthood. I rely on it whenever I feel unstable and unsure. As a teen, my home was unstable because of the time it took my parents to untangle their 26-year union. Then, I threw myself into my school work, into my extracurricular activities, into whatever I was doing to not have to think about what was happening at home.
Whenever that feeling of instability appears in my life as an adult, work is my default. Overworking drowns the noise of my mind and the feelings of my heart by giving both something else to focus on.
If I arrived to work in teary shambles during my career as a news producer, I would wipe my face in the parking lot then go into the office to get on with my day. Now that I work from home, writing full time, a blank page is my saving grace. A soothing salve for my troubled soul.
When I don’t want to deal with what’s causing my underlying feelings of instability, I work. When I don’t want to be sad, I cope through work. When I don’t want to cry, I write. What you’re reading is part of my coping mechanism, one I’m slowly trying to unlearn.
Many moms have pregnancy anxiety or postpartum anxiety. Me too, but not about my baby girl.
Throughout the course of my pregnancy, I worried and was anxious about how a second child would impact my life, my work, my progress on the grind train. Would my goal to glow be undercut by my desire to have my daughter? Friends asked if I would take off for maternity leave. I did. It left me more anxious. More worried. More concerned about my lack of production in the name of procuring a coin.
Four weeks after my daughter’s birth, I emailed editors, contacts, and colleagues to let them know I was ready to work. Wanted to work. Needed to work. When in truth, I never truly stopped working. I’ve been writing, conducting interviews, going to meetings, and more with my daughter in my lap, latched to my breast, or occasionally napping. All the time asking, Why am I like this? When I know the answer.
Working is what I flex in response to trauma, and it’s a well-exercised muscle. It bends and stretches with me to fulfill new capacities. It’s never tight, taut, or tense. It doesn’t catch a cramp or ever need time to recover. It is always ready, always waiting for whenever I am in need of catharsis.
Is it healthy? Absolutely not. But it’s going to take more than my acknowledgment to undo 22 years of my particular brand of coping.
There isn’t a way to not need a response to stress, to trauma. However, we can all have a better response to our traumas and their triggers.
In 2021, we’ve seen several high-profile Black female athletes be both applauded and maligned for prioritizing their mental health. Sha’Carri Richardson, Naomi Osaka, and Simone Biles have been transparent about their challenges, what’s triggered them, and why they proactively pumped the brakes on their momentum in the name of wellness.
“They’re a model for what so many other Black women go through [who] are beautiful, intelligent, highly successful but have deep, deep suffering that other people just aren’t paying attention to,” says Burnett-Zeigler.
In owning up to their humanity, these athletes, these women, have unsubscribed from America’s capitalist culture that urges us all to live and die on the grind.
Making room for reflection and recovery is the foundational concept of the social media community The Nap Ministry.
The Nap Ministry, founded by Tricia Hersey in 2016, urges people, Black women especially, to rest. Hersey, known as The Nap Bishop, preaches liberation through rest, one post and caption at a time.
Posts such as “Ease is Your Birthright” speaks to what Burnett-Zeigler says we should all do to break patterns and make better, healthier choices.
“A lot of trauma, unfortunately, is common among Black women, and secrecy perpetuates that cycle of trauma. It’s critical for us to heal, and in terms of us breaking that intergenerational cycle that we lift that secrecy, that we create conversations, and approach those uncomfortable experiences.”
Instead of getting lost in the busyness of maintaining your typical routine, the American Psychological Association suggests other coping mechanisms. They include:
However, leveraging these tools is not as easy as listing bullet points.
“Culturally, we have not been taught how to identify and address our emotional suffering,” says Burnett-Zeigler. “And there is kind of this cultural standard, whereby we don’t talk about not only trauma but depression and anxiety, and in turn, we don’t really know how to deal with those feelings.”
In not knowing how to deal with those feelings, Burnett-Zeigler adds that people turn to whatever is available to help them cope.
Therapy is one cornerstone to turn to cope and get a fresh perspective on dealing with trauma and our responses to trauma.
Simone Biles has been open about working with a psychologist, and so has actress and mental health activist Taraji P. Hensen. Hensen shared with Healthline Media at a virtual town hall that the safety and intimacy of therapy are as rewarding as in any other relationship.
Smoking, drinking, eating, praying, going to church are the tools the womenfolk in my life have reached for to help them through tumultuous emotional times. Divorce or relationships dissolving, death, cancer diagnoses, workplace hostility — all of these are trauma, and all require a response.
That response typically isn’t rest. It’s not to slow down. I’m trying to learn how to cope differently. Healthfully. If for no one else, for my daughter.
Burnett-Zeigler said a key part of trauma healing is approaching uncomfortable feelings and scary environments and holding space for those feelings.
“Recognize what thoughts are coming up, recognize the behaviors that they’re triggering, and really work through that,” she says.
My first step of recognition was admitting out loud to someone a few weeks after my daughter was born that productivity has been my way to cope with trauma since I was 13.
I hope my next step will be to learn how to be OK with resting because I’m tired.
“Rest is a beautiful interruption in a world that has no pause button.”
– The Nap Ministry
Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award-winning producer, an award-winning author, and producer and host of the Black & Published podcast. Her latest novel, “Beyond Bourbon Street,” was awarded Best Fiction by the Black Caucus of African-American Librarians in the 2021 Self-Published eBook Literary Awards. It also received the 2020 Outstanding Book Award from the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” received the 2018 NABJ Outstanding Literary Work Award and the Florida Authors and Publisher’s Association President’s Award for Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. Nikesha is a Chicago native. She attended Florida State University and graduated with a BS in communication: mass media studies and honors English creative writing. Nikesha writes full time and has bylines in The Washington Post, ESSENCE, and VOX. Nikesha lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with her family.