Handling Hurdles and Heartbreak
May 22, 2023
Constance (pseudonym) is a young African American woman in her thirties, unabashedly outgoing and confident. She speaks with a broad grin and has worked to build a positive life for herself, despite dealing with family conflict and instability from an early age.
Constance grew up in Oakland, California, with her grandmother as her primary caregiver. Sometimes, Constance's aunts and uncles would live in the house too. Constance explains that this family dynamic was common during her childhood, particularly in urban communities. Due to the crack epidemic, many children were separated from parents who had substance abuse problems and were instead raised by grandparents or other relatives.
Constance's own mother struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues and drifted in and out of Constance's life. As Constance's grandmother aged and grew tired, she would encourage Constance's mother to perform basic duties such as walking Constance to school or helping with field trips. However, as Constance states, her mother "was just on the sideline" and could not even be trusted to attend parent-teacher conferences. Constance has never met her father and does not know how to reach him. Strangely enough, men have tried to claim Constance as their daughter throughout her life, but Constance has always been skeptical of these claims. She believes these men wanted to gain her mother's favor.
Constance had a good relationship with her older brother. They were close in age and often attended the same school. Constance felt that she learned a lot from him as she could watch him struggle through adolescent issues like hormones, dating, and maintaining good grades. On the other hand, Constance was not as close to her younger brother, whom she calls the "spoiled brat" of the family. He got everything he wanted — even renting a pony for an afternoon.
As the middle child and the only daughter, Constance felt like she "fell through the cracks". She would sometimes compete with her brothers for attention by acting out in small ways. However, Constance more or less accepted her position in the sibling hierarchy. She reflects that if she had truly needed more attention, she would have taken more drastic measures, like running away from home. Eventually she understood and accepted that she simply would not receive as much care or attention as the males in her family. Constance felt that her family held males in high regard, whereas girls seemed more like problematic "accessories" who required discipline. Constance also realizes, looking back, that her brothers had different experiences growing up than she did. Constance was advised not to have children too soon and to dress modestly. Her two brothers, on the other hand, only had to worry about making new friends. There was a double standard in place and the boys were never subjected to the same demands as Constance was.
Despite her challenging family landscape, Constance accepts and laughs at her situation. "I might end up on Jerry Springer one day," she jokes, adding that someone somewhere owes a lot of back child support. Constance also notes that she did enjoy some aspects of growing up. She points to many positive memories that defined her generation, like watching Nickelodeon and playing with GigaPets, butterfly toys, Slinkies, and Super Nintendo. She loved collecting Sports Illustrated magazines and reading the classic Goosebumps children's novels. Without regular access to computers and the internet, Constance and her friends were more motivated to spend time outside and to be athletic. Constance laughs and says she has "scars on [her] knees to show for it."
Struggling in School
Constance saw a speech therapist at an early age, and as she grew older, Constance's grandmother felt Constance was falling behind academically. Her grandmother decided that Constance should attend special education classes starting in fifth grade. Constance never questioned her grandmother about this decision and was also afraid to communicate how she felt about the arrangement, as that might appear disrespectful. Nevertheless, Constance hated being in special education. She felt like she was treated like a "dumb kid" by her teachers, and was literally and figuratively placed "way, way in the back, in the corner" of the classroom. Sometimes, Constance was given one simple assignment to complete and then left alone for the rest of the day. She wanted to be academically challenged, but her teachers often gave her busy work.
At the same time, classrooms in Constance's Oakland elementary and middle schools started to overflow with students. So many kids were crammed into the classrooms, Constance explains, that the teachers could not offer students individualized attention. Some, like Constance, were "left behind." Additionally, her middle school struggled financially, limiting the quality of education that it offered. Constance remembers learning from outdated textbooks and not feeling adequately prepared for state tests. Constance's teachers paid for pencils and other classroom supplies out of their own paychecks. The school leaders would frequently encourage parents to donate to fund school programs.
Constance's grandmother died when Constance was fourteen, and she and her two brothers were sent to live with a distant relative whom Constance calls her "second guardian." Constance immediately disliked her new home. The new guardian was verbally abusive and hostile towards Constance. She viewed Constance as "competition" and made comments about Constance dressing provocatively. The same double standards that Constance endured at her grandmother's house resurfaced in this new household. For example, when Constance tried to get online to access job opportunities, Constance's relative would accuse her of using the computer "just to find boys." The relative accused Constance of "being mysteriously promiscuous" and frequently did not allow Constance to leave the house. Constance feels that the imposed isolation – occurring during her teenage years – destroyed her social life. Constance compares her life staying with the relative to the 2009 film Precious, about a black teenage girl struggling with an abusive mother.
Later, Constance discovered that her guardian had mental issues and her own complicated past. Years before, the relative had a substance abuse problem and worked as a prostitute, and as a result, she lost her daughter to child protective services. Looking back, Constance believes that her relative projected her past trauma, insecurities, and shame onto her. Constance believes that her guardian's past explains a great deal of the "unhinged" and abusive behavior, although it does not justify the harmful actions.
Around the same time that Constance went to live with the relative, she started her freshman year at the local high school in Oakland. She hated the school, which was plagued with violence. Outsiders would come to the school and cause chaos. Constance remembers a student was shot in front of her high school. Constance recalls, "Every other day, a kid was getting jumped." There was never enough security or police to keep the grounds safe — "it was like a war zone." Constance attached herself to a group of five friends so that if she was ever in danger, she had a "squad" around her for protection. The atmosphere was not one that encouraged positive learning and development. While the school was once well-known as a top-performing California high school, it had rapidly deteriorated by the early 2000s. In addition to the problems with violence, her high school also suffered from student overcrowding, overworked faculty, and an outdated educational curriculum – like her elementary school.
After Constance graduated high school, she left her relative's home and lived with different family members, starting with her older brother. She initially tried to convince her younger brother to leave with her, but he had grown attached to the new family and refused to leave. When Constance turned eighteen, she quickly found her first job working at Mervyn's for $9 an hour. Although it was not a lot of money, Constance was happy. She finally felt independent. She had found freedom and "was in control of [her] destiny by having that little job." Constance worked through her first year out of high school.
Constance also decided to try a nursing program. It was during this time that she was diagnosed with a learning disability. She was treated with more maturity, respect, and discretion in college than in her high school special education classes. Constance was never made to feel embarrassed or different. She received class accommodations and was assigned special counselors. Constance appreciated that her counselors were genuinely interested in ensuring her success. Constance became educated on different learning styles, coming to understand that some people are "auditory learners" and some others are "visual learners." Constance realized she was not an auditory learner and struggled academically when instructors taught predominantly through speech. Classes that relied solely on lectures were challenging. In Constance's human development psychology course, for example, the professor stated at the beginning of the semester, "I really don't go by the book. So we're just gonna freestyle." Immediately Constance knew she would be unsuccessful in the class.
Constance struggled to balance her job with school. It was a "constant battle" since her retail supervisors did not respect Constance's academic schedule. Constance persisted with the nursing program for some time before the financial aid department mishandled her paperwork, causing her to receive less financial aid one semester. Constance grew frustrated with the college and the administration, and transferred to a different junior college, where she developed a flair for art and even won prizes for her drawings.
In 2009, during the recession, Constance was laid off from her retail job. She felt deflated as many companies had ceased hiring and the job market was "sink or swim." Faced with financial challenges, Constance and her brothers decided to sell their family house, which their grandmother left to them when she died. Constance received some inheritance money from the sale, but it was not enough to live on. She moved in with her brother again for about three more years, jumping from job to job. Eventually, her brother convinced her to go into private security. He told her that security guards would always have a job. Sure enough, even during the pandemic, California declared security guards "essential workers," allowing Constance to continue to work.
While she was working for a security company, she caught the attention of her supervisor. He would flirt with Constance, but at first, she was disinterested. She was not physically attracted to him — in fact, she describes him as a "creepy Bill Cosby" type. He was thirty years her senior and felt "like an old uncle." Her older brother warned her about forming romantic relationships in the workplace. In retrospect, Constance agrees: "If the relationship fails, then things get ugly."
She was dissatisfied with the company's poor business practices, especially the bad checks given to the employees. Constance stayed, though, because the business was black-owned and she hoped things would improve. When the company informed Constance that her hours would be reduced, they told her that she could either work part time or be laid off. Constance jumped at the chance to be laid off and collect unemployment until she landed a new position. That decision proved to be difficult financially as around that time, her brother asked her to move out of his house so he could proceed with marrying his girlfriend. Even though Constance worked two jobs, she still could not afford rent and ended up homeless, staying with family and at one point, a shelter.
Not long after, Constance ran into her former supervisor on the bus. When Constance and her old supervisor reconnected, she saw him in a different light. Although she had turned down his advances in the past, she agreed to go on a date with him. The relationship progressed quickly. Six months later, he encouraged her to live with him and "share living costs." Constance added, "he was married at that time." He had started divorce proceedings but was still legally married. Young and naive, Constance thought to herself, "Why not take a chance?" She was drawn to his wisdom and life experiences. He offered the stability she lacked growing up. Looking back, Constance remembers that he was "a good salesman," "talked a good game," and "sold [her] a dream."
Constance lived with her boyfriend for two years, and in the second year, she felt that her relationship with him was "crumbling." Towards the end of the second year, she discovered that her boyfriend was cheating on her with someone younger. Constance was incredibly distraught, but bitterly notes, "I shouldn't have been surprised… You get them how you lose them."
Shortly after Constance uncovered the cheating, she saw a sign on her college campus inviting students to meet with a therapist. Constance followed the sign and journeyed to the therapists' little cubicle in a building at the back of the college. She was instructed to complete a survey and then assigned a mental health counselor. There was a small therapy room with a couch and dimmed lights. Constance felt very comfortable. She was able to discuss her relationship issues and received helpful feedback. After hearing her out, Constance's therapist told her she deserved to be loved. She gently explained that Constance did not need to remain in a relationship that was draining or detrimental to her mental health. This boosted Constance's self-esteem and validated her own feelings about the relationship. In that one therapy session, Constance gained the confidence to end the relationship with her boyfriend.
Constance confronted her boyfriend at his workplace and made enough of a scene that he mistakenly thought he had been fired. When she got home the next day, he violently attacked her and put her in the hospital. Initially, she wanted to get the police involved; however, she ultimately chose not to file a report after her brother learned of the attack and punched him in the face and knocked him out. She found out there were other women that he cheated on her with and reflects, "So it's like a trend, like he jumped from partner to partner being broken and he breaks the whole relationship."
Four or five years later, Constance started dating someone else. This relationship only lasted six months before it quickly turned sour. As Constance puts it, "olds habits die hard." Constance's second boyfriend was a truck driver, and even though someone once told her, "don't deal with truckers... they are always on the road," and are "not really faithful," Constance took a risk and moved in with him anyways. "Sometimes biases are wrong," Constance states, "but this bias is spot on." While they were living together, she noticed that he began acting oddly and changing his routine. For instance, he would leave at night claiming he was going to the gym. Constance sensed that something was amiss – perhaps especially attuned to the signs given her previous relationship. When she attempted to discuss their relationship, he would grow tense, irritated, and evasive.
It was in this context that Constance was eager to see a therapist to discuss her relationship woes, especially after learning that her health insurance covered mental health services. Her first session with the provider was a whirlwind. The therapist asked a few questions about Constance's life and what she was going through, and took a few notes. Then she said, "You know what, Constance? You need to do better. Quit dating these horrible men and be assertive." While Constance was receptive to the therapist's advice, she was taken aback by how rushed the session was. It was like being pushed through a "conveyor belt."
Constance did, however, begin to plot her exit from the relationship. She strategized that she needed a new car. She convinced her boyfriend to take her to a dealership and to support her through the purchasing process. Suddenly, while they were looking at cars, he claimed he needed to leave for work. He abandoned Constance at the dealership, despite knowing that Constance would be stranded. She called her brother for a ride. He agreed to pick her up but added, "I told you about these relationships." He dropped Constance off near her boyfriend's workplace, just in time to witness her boyfriend flirting with another girl and asking for her phone number. Constance stormed up to him and he froze. She demanded his house keys so that she could begin moving out her things. Tired of her boyfriend's lying, cheating, and "mental games," she decided to enact her revenge. She took one of his car keys and hid them under a flower pot. She then packed her things and left.
When Constance's boyfriend found out the car key was missing, he called the police. He submitted a false report claiming that Constance had come to his workplace with a knife. He threatened Constance, telling her that he had contacted law enforcement and that she would be facing charges and would lose her job as a security guard. She was not too worried, however, because she knew that his workplace had surveillance cameras that would reveal his lies, if they had been investigated closer. She figured that at worst, she might have to pay four or five hundred dollars to replace the key, although she believed it might even cost less than that. However, Constance was aghast that her boyfriend was "capable of throwing [her] in jail for a false accusation" over something as small as a missing car key.
Towards a Better Life
Constance continues to work as a security guard in hotels and in high-end retail stores. She enjoys her work, and also remains close with older brother and his family (he is married with two kids). Constance has never fully repaired her relationship with her younger brother. She sees him on social media, but they do not stay in regular contact. She was able to persuade her younger brother to visit her by offering him one of her extra inhalers (they both have asthma). When he arrived, she pulled him into a heart-to-heart conversation and told him, "it's very sad that you don't stay in contact with me."
Looking to the future, Constance hopes to resume higher education. She is still interested in pursuing a nursing degree to help others. She is also thinking of establishing a vending machine operation as a side business, since they can be rather lucrative. In terms of romantic relationships, she is currently single, but hopes to meet someone who is family-oriented and a hard worker. As Constance says, "the world is a cold place to be in," and she wants a partner who is loving and supportive of her and her dreams.
Constance's recommendations to others with mental health issues are candid and direct. She advises:
- "When life gives you lemons, you make margaritas."
- "You can't let the hardships consume you and eat you alive."
- "When you experience a mental health episode, you have to seek help right away"
Constance explains that in the black community, having mental health issues is often seen as taboo. These struggles are concealed or rarely discussed. According to Constance, however, mental health problems need to be confronted head on.