Tracy is joined by New York Times culture writer and podcast host of Still Processing, Jenna Wortham. Jenna discusses how her dad’s illness propelled her to have more awareness for her own health and self-care.
Going Through It Season 2 Episode 6 Jenna Wortham
Tracy Clayton: This is Going Through It, a show about women who found themselves in situations where they said, “Oh hell no.” And they made a decision to make a change, and turn something around. I am your host, Tracy Clayton.
Jenna Wortham: So a few years ago, I got a phone call from my sister, and she basically confirmed what we've been suspecting for a few months -- that our dad was really sick.
Tracy: So that's the voice of Jenna Wortham. Jenna is a culture writer for the New York Times Magazine and also the co-host of a podcast called Still Processing. Jenna had tried for a really long time to get her parents to stop smoking, right? And it worked with her mom, but not so much with her dad.
Jenna: We didn't expect it to be as serious as it was. Which was, he had a very advanced stage of lung cancer.
Tracy: And it wasn't just the smoking. Jenna had seen a whole lot of unhealthy habits that her dad was participating in and had tried really, really hard to get him to quit.
Jenna: You know, you see all Black people do things, like, they're drinking the water from the collards, and you’re like, “I understand kind of why you're doing this, but also that was cooked with like a piece of fatback. And so should you be drinking that, ol’ man?”
Tracy: Now, Jenna may not have been drinking fatback juice, but she was doing all the typical Brooklynite young behaviors, rippin’ and runnin’ the streets, in and out of bars with their friends. All of that.
Jenna: It was not uncommon to be out drinking all night and wake up next to a plate of half-eaten- uh, chicken fingers. Like I'm not gonna front, and then be like, “Where'd those come from?”
Tracy: But now, Jenna had to look out for her dad's health, and it was that moment where she was like, “Oh snap. I should be looking out for my own health as well.”
Jenna: I didn't understand how much my parents’ early childhoods and lives influenced how they took care of themselves, and as a result, how I took care of myself, or didn't take care of myself. And so, I really started to draw that connection.
Tracy: Jenna's dad unfortunately passed away from cancer. But, even with everything goin’ on, Jenna did not miss the lesson that there was in the whole experience.
Jenna: You know, and people are not well, you really have to have stability, really have to have routines. And in building one for my dad, that was when I started to build one for myself.
Tracy: Not only did she build a health care routine for herself, she also built this community of 700,000 followers on Twitter, and they get together, and they talk holistic wellness, and crystals, and chakras, and balance, and Venus moons rising in the second house of Gaultier. And, you know, all of, all of the woo-woo stuff. So let us all gather our crystals, light some incense, hop into a tub of a lot of bubbles, and get into it. This is Going Through It.
Tracy: How are you?
Jenna: I'm so good.
Tracy: I did want to say before we even, like, get into it, into it, thank you so much for sharing this story with us. And I know that these are not easy conversations to have necessarily, but they are very healing.
Jenna: Oh, my pleasure.
Tracy: Um, so let's get right to it!
Jenna: I'm all yours. Anything you want.
Tracy: Ooo! [sings] Turn off the lights. [Laughs]
Jenna: [crosstalk] [sings] Off the lights. Doo doo. And light a candle. Mmm mmm
Tracy: [sings] Bom bom -- da na na na [Laughs].
Tracy: How did you go from avoiding dealing with your dad's death to finally facing it?
Jenna: About a year after my dad passed, I was having a really hard time, and I don't know if you believe in other realms. I don't know if you believe in ghosts, Tracy.
Tracy: I do.
Jenna: You do. Okay. Well, I was having a lot of visitations from my father, and they were really scary to me. It was really scary. And it didn't feel malevolent, I just, I didn't really know how to process that. And so I started going on grief message boards. I was reading a lot about how people deal with grief. And, you know, our culture, too, doesn't really make space for the long tail of mourning, like there's this -- there's the ceremony. And it -- however it looks, you know, depending on where you are in the world, and then you're just supposed to be over it. You go back to work and that's that, and there's no -- there's not really a lot of room, I mean, people obviously know that you're grieving, but they kind of forget about it or don't know how to talk about it. In my experience, it wasn't that people didn't know I was mourning; they just didn't want to talk to me about it. And I was young, I was still in my mid 20s, and so, you know, my friends had no context for it. And, you know, it's just like, let's go get drinks, like, let's not, like, sit and process deep emotions. So a lot of my coping was heavy drinking, being out a lot, being very avoidant of my feelings. But one of the things I- I read on one of these message boards was how helpful it was to be in group- like group therapy, group grief counseling, essentially. And I went and it was so healing. It was so healing because I was in talk therapy at the time, but I found that when it's just you in one-on-one with a practitioner, you're just talking to them, and for me, it was really, really helpful to hear other people share and other people talk about how they felt, and other people had a lot more distance from their loved one’s passing. And so I think it put into context for me my suffering and that it was still very new, even though it's been like a little bit over a year. And that was really helpful to help me start normalizing what I was feeling and feeling safe enough to feel it.
Tracy: So when you came back, did you already have, like, this new action plan for like how to revolutionize your health and your, your relationship to wellness? Were you already like, well on the way to wellness?
Jenna: Hell, no. I think I was still using going out -- I was still, like, avoiding being alone with myself. So I was filling all my free time with engagements, you know, just doing stuff all the time. And now, however many years later, you know, I- I really do know that stillness and solitude are huge core components of my health and wellness approach.
Jenna: So for years I thought it was, you know, about what I was buying, or what I was consuming, or what I was doing. And now I really understand that the two things I need the most are good sleep and quiet time.
Tracy: Two of the things that are impossible to find in media and in New York City. [Laughs].
Jenna: [Laughs] Yes. And in just like our oversaturated tech-addled world.
Tracy: Yeah. In addition to the stillness, and the solitude and disconnecting, and shutting down, like, did you have to be like, you know, I'm going to cook X amount of days this week. Or I'm going to eat less of this food and more of that food. And like, if so, like, where did you start?
Jenna: One of the biggest early shifts that I started making was I started to change my friend groups.
Jenna: Because I realized it was helpful to have friends who also went to yoga, right.
Jenna: Because I started to encounter this problem that when I wanted to change my life and I wanted to start being healthy, or at least figure out what that meant for me.
Jenna: Some people in my life, it made them feel a type of way.
Jenna: You know, like people -- it's kind of like when you-- the best way I can describe it is it's kind of like if you are at an event or at a party or a restaurant and you're not drinking alcohol. Imagine, just imagine or remember how people respond, like, “You're not drink-- you're only having water?”
Jenna: Because people take it as a judgment on their own behavior. People really internalize and really project onto themselves and onto you. And I'm, I'm never here for that. I do understand the reaction, but I don't understand the impulse that kind of pushes people to try to guilt other people about their choices.
Tracy: Yeah, yeah.
Jenna: I don't get that. And so, you know, I really started to gravitate towards friends who wouldn't make comments on what I was or wasn't eating, or what I was and wasn't drinking, or if I was going to exercise, you know.
Tracy: [crosstalk] That's big.
Jenna: And to understand that -- Mhm. Like, I'm not exercising because you have any issues, I'm exercising because it makes my brain calm down.
Jenna: There are only so many coins that I have to spend, and most of them have to go into my own slot machine. Like, I can not spend coins--
Tracy: [crosstalk] Oooh. I like that metaphor.
Jenna: Like on everybody else's stuff. Yeah. So I keep trying to pause around the word healthy because it doesn't just mean, like, “I don't eat meat anymore.” I eat lots of meat. It's like I just, I'm trying to really pay attention to what helps me feel like the best.
Tracy: Yeah. The best version of you.
Jenna: It wasn't just like, I get a pedicure twice a month. And that's self care.
Jenna: It was like, the people my life support me and I feel like, I receive unconditional love from them. You know what I mean?
Jenna: It was like, it was like these bigger and bigger things that I had to start to shift.
Tracy: How do you personally, like, pick out, like, what to try in this landscape of everything. Just how do you know? Like, “Okay, this might be a thing. This is not a thing.” Where, where does one start in, in the holistic world of holistic healing? [Laughs] I think is my question.
Jenna: [crosstalk] That's a beautiful question.
Tracy: Thank you.
Jenna: Well, let me ask you something. I mean, what, what feels best for you? Like, how do you know when you're taking care of yourself?
Tracy: Whoa. Shit. I didn't know I was gonna be in the hot seat today. [Laughs] I think I know when I'm taking care of myself, when my brain -- when like the static and the noise is just like, it's rarely always gone.
Tracy: But just like quieter. You know what I mean?
Tracy: Like, my thoughts are not racing, or if my thoughts are kind of racing is like I can deal with it.
Jenna: [crosstalk] Yeah, yeah.
Tracy: You know, like I understand why my thoughts are doing this. So I guess it's just like a moment of just, like, calmness, like I feel calm inside out physically because I am not at all a calm person, like 95 percent of my day, is spent going, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
Jenna: Yeah. What are the actions in your life that contribute to that feeling of calm?
Tracy: Um, definitely rest. I feel like I'm just now starting to realize like -- because like you always hear the stats.You know, like Black people are a hundred thousand percent more likely to die of everything.
Jenna: Of everything!
Tracy: [crosstalk] Physical --.
Jenna: [crosstalk] Of everything.
Tracy: Like, anything, anything.
Jenna: The life expectancies in different cities like in Baltimore, I mean.
Tracy: Oh my gosh.
Jenna: It's just, is wild.
Jenna: It's so upsetting.
Tracy: And like now like I guess the trauma du jour, unfortunately, has been like police brutality and like the actual physical murder--
Jenna: Mhm, yeah.
Tracy: And abuse of Black bodies. And you wrote this amazing article entitled "Black Health Matters" about this trauma that we experience because it's a very specialized racialized thing that only certain people in this country, on this planet, experience.
Jenna: And understand.
Tracy: And understand. And it's like, okay, well, the medical system, quote unquote at large, isn't, like, particularly interested in, like, what watching Trayvon Martin murdered is going to do to somebody like physically, or anything like that. But like how, how do we manage these traumas as Black people, as we're just, like, trying to figure out how to, number one, stay alive--
Tracy: In a place where we're being shot at? But also like in a place where, like, our bodies are being assaulted by the way like this society is just like structured in racism? Like how do we take care of that trauma and ourselves at the same time? You know?
Jenna: I know. I think about this all the time. I was, um, even just thinking about how the news cycle and the economy of the news means that even if you're trying to take care of yourself, but you happen to see the cover of a newspaper or a TVs on. Let's say you're at the beach and you walk into a corner store or whatever, you know, and you see like, oh, another Black person's been killed on the news. Like, it's just inescapable, is what I'm trying to say.
Jenna: And, you know, just the endless barrage is so alarming. And like, I've had to turn off notifications on my phone from all news organizations. It's like I want to know what's going on in the world, but -- and there's always a little bit of excitement when an alert comes in ‘cause you're like, “Ooh!” But inevitably it's like, “Oh, that's depressing.”
Tracy: [crosstalk] Yeah. Yes.
Jenna: I didn't need that news, you know? And so I think it is sort of trying to have those boundaries, which, of course, like being able to put those boundaries in place is a type of privilege too. There is just so -- it's such a big, complicated, thorny issue. And it's funny ‘cause I'll watch on Twitter when people try to be like, “This is how you set boundaries,” or like, “Hey, white people, here's how to be an ally.” And I'm like, this is literally reaching like zero point zero zero percentage of the population.
Tracy: [crosstalk] Mhmm. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
Jenna: And I don't even know if the people who read this and think it's for them still do this in their lives. So the performance, too, of progress and the performance, too, of, I don't even know, trying to cope, you know, I think a lot about on Instagram, how people are always sharing posts that are like, “Drink water, take a breath, do this, do that.” I love seeing them, but I don't do the thing. [Laughs] I see them and I reshare them, but I didn't do the thing, you know.
Jenna: And so, I’m like, okay. So I need to really check myself, you know.
Jenna: So I don't know the answer, that question. I'm trying to really live my life in a way that feels intrinsically mindful of the health of the people in my immediate orbit, because that's kind of all I feel like I can control right now. So if there's something really wild happening on the news, then, you know, I'll text Kimberly Drew, my best friend, or I text Wesley and check in. How are you doing?
Jenna: And that's kind of all I can do.
Tracy: Do you think that that was your biggest takeaway from the time that you spent with your dad? Like the, the whole like depriving yourself and you know, and like health and wellness should not, like, feel bad, or be like this like punishment, was that your biggest takeaway?
Jenna: One of the biggest lessons I learned in caring for my dad was how much I needed to shift my own lifestyle, and how much I had to figure out what would work for me. And I did learn that th-- when I was born, Venus was directly in alignment with the sun. So like everything about my, my sign is infused with this Venusian energy, which just means I really love pleasure. I really love decadence. I love the sumptuousness of life, and I think I had to really realize that for me it might not be drinking a bottle of wine, right? It might be having this beautiful kombucha, which I took from the refrigerator here. Like, I had to sort of define it for myself, and I was substituting things like unhealthy eating, not sleeping, partying a lot and drinking for what would feel good. And I had to reorient myself around that, too. And also not like, I don't know what's best for anybody else. That was important for me to realize, too. Like I can't tell you what to do. I'm not really mad at you for drinking a margarita, not gonna mad at you for having a cigarette. It's just life is really -- it's just not that deep. It's just not that deep.
Tracy: So here's the thing about grief. Grief is not fun. It is hurtful. It's hard. And it feels like it's going to last forever. But when you survive it, you are shown strength that you never, ever thought you had. Like, grief is just like laying in, in the corner, black-eyed, bloody. And you just like, “Oh, my gosh, I just punched grief in the face. I didn't even know I was that strong.” And grief is like, “Yep, you are. You are- you’re that strong.” So over drinks in my cozy Brooklyn apartment, me and my homegirls got together to talk about what grief feels like and the things that we've learned from it. And I know what you're thinking, “It sounds like the saddest party in the world.” But it wasn't. We learned so much from each other, and we got to lean on each other, too.
Dria: Alright, well cheers everybody!
Tracy: Cheers to technology!
Tracy: Tell me something that you have learned from grief.
Nichole: I have learned that it doesn't go away, but it changes and it changes in a way that personally that I could have never imagined. You know that, like, sometimes grief, it makes you feel like you're never gonna get past this moment, like you're stuck in it forever-- and, let me reflect on where I was, like, it's amazing to me to be able to look back on sometimes, and be like, “There was a time where I thought this feeling would never, ever, ever end. And now I'm like here having a good time.” Like, “I never thought that that was possible again.” But --
Nichole: It is.
Tracy: Yeah, like, it teaches you that you can survive really painful stuff.
Trent: For me, um, grief has taught me to let people know, like, how much you care about them while they're here. My grandma, she passed away exactly two years ago in February. When she passed away, it was sad, but it was like there's nothing left unsaid that I want to tell this person. And it was probably the first time that I could look at death and look at all the things that, like, she went through, and all the things that she got to see, and like her grandkids, and like her legacy. And I was just like, she's still kind of here.
Tracy: Thank you so much for tunin’ in! Yeah! Going Through It is an original podcast created in partnership with MailChimp and Pineapple Street Studios. Executive Producers for Going Through It are Jenna Weiss-Berman, Max Linsky, and Agerenesh Ashagre. Shout out to the producers of Going Through It. Our Lead Producer is Josh Gwynn. Production by Jess Jupiter and Emmanuel Happsis with Production Support by Janelle Anderson. Our Editor is the Beyoncé of editors. Aww, I love it! And her name is Leila Day. Also, thank you to the voices of the folks you heard sound off in this episode. [sings] Let's hear those names again.
Tracy: Our original music is by Dauod Anthony, and our engineer is Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Elenor Kagan for being the alpha and the originator of this entire party. Stay in touch with me, you can find me on Twitter @BrokeyMcPoverty. Please tell your friends about the show. Make sure to rate and subscribe to Going Through It on Apple podcast, Spotify and whatever free podcasts are sold. And guess what? That's it. That's our show this week. We'll see you next time. Bye!
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
Listen as 14 talented women tell the story about pivotal moments in their lives when they had to decide whether to quit or keep going. The new season, hosted by Tracy Clayton, is coming in 2020.
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