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Talk Back: Tough Love

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When I was growing up, my mom would remind me that the most empowering thing you can ever say to someone is “No.” And it was a rather ironic thing because for years, I witnessed her pull together miracles to help bail out another unemployed brother or distant cousin facing an eviction for the fourth time that year.

It was cyclical.

Right around tax time, we’d get a phone call about a roof needing to be fixed or a baby cousin that didn’t have shoes that fit for the upcoming school year.  The predictable speech of, “You know I had to loan ‘so-and-so’ some money for their water bill…” would come around mid April, as though the family could sense the moment her tax return would hit her account.   And although tragedy struck nearly annually for these same family members, I would sit and wonder in amazement how she managed to save everyone, every time, every year and not once question when they were going to make the attempt to save themselves.

When it comes to family, especially in the Black community, we are often told two things: 1. We can’t choose our family and 2. We must stick by our family through thick and thin.  For most of my young adult life I, too, adopted this theory that I must remain loyal to those I happen to share a few chromosomes with, simply because they were family—as though our common bloodlines trumped their everyday actions.

I remember constantly forgiving my father for his transgressions.  I would remind myself that he was a provider for the family, that we never went a day without anything, that I wasn’t physically harmed in any way and that he was above all, my dad.  How could I not forgive him? I would tell myself that despite his ability to belittle and degrade me given any opportune moment, call me a bitch and a whore when the spirit moved him and paraded my darkest memories to strangers as jokes so they too can add to the fodder of my pain.

It wasn’t until I cried my heaviest tears—until I found myself sick and numb on the bathroom floor wondering where I’d gone wrong to deserve his disrespect, that I decided I was done.  He was the root cause of so many of my insecurities, my inability to celebrate my accomplishments or just be comfortable with myself. And it wasn’t until I found myself crouched over a toilet rim sick with embarrassment and shame that I knew it was time to let go.

I was 34.

I will never say the journey to letting go of family is ever easy, but at some point, you have to decide when you’ve had enough. You have to allow yourself to be selfish, to be cheap, and to be emotionally guarded against those that are draining you of your greatness. Most importantly, you’re going to have to learn how to be okay with putting your own needs first, and the lack of support that you might encounter when doing so.

There will be a thousand opinions out there on what you should do versus what’s right to do, but no one should be allowed to guilt you into doing what is right for yourself.  When it comes to family, your love is not measured by the amount of times you’ve been able to help someone out of a bind. It should not be defined by the size of your bank account.  Love is reciprocal, beautiful and most importantly, earned, and sometimes, people earn your right to love them from afar.

In this world, you don’t owe anyone s***.  You are not someone’s Plan B. Let them go. Let them struggle a bit. Because tough love is still love; it’s just the kind that teaches someone how to figure out how to live life un-subsidized.