[This is the second part of two articles reporting on the Black Women’s Wellness Day and Fair at the Alliant Energy Center Sept. 21. For part one, please go to www.themadisontimes.com]
The afternoon at the annual Black Women’s Wellness Day featured workshop sessions, one of which meant it was time to talk about sex, sexual health, and healing for women across the life span. Speakers included Beverly Hutcherson, Erin Bailey, Karen Johnson, and Lilada Gee, and Adrian Jones with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin served as moderator.
Beverly Hutcherson, Outreach Specialist, began by reiterating the day’s theme, “Embrace Your Life!” and emphasized the need to embrace your reproductive health, as well. She clarified that reproductive health “doesn’t just mean sex and babies;” it encompasses considerably more, she said, proceeding to help dispel a common myth.
The first thing she set out to discuss was language, to help ensure that the next time women in the audience go to their doctor, they use the correct terminology. Pointing to her abdomen, she stated, “It’s an abdomen, not a stomach,” which is important, because if you say you’re having abdominal pain, they’ll ask, “Upper, middle, or lower?”—and will proceed accordingly as far as diagnostics.
“You’re going to tell everyone you know, never again to say that your stomach is hurting,” Hutcherson said, “if it’s really your abdomen.”
She advised all of the women in the room to be sure to use the correct language when talking with their doctor about a problem with a body part, and to encourage others they know to do the same.
Hutcherson said if you’re not sure what’s what, learn your body parts by getting a book or printing off information from a reliable Internet site. “If you can’t communicate effectively with your health care provider, how would they know what’s going on with you?” she inquired.
An often-overlooked organ when it comes to sexual and reproductive health is the brain. “The brain is a very important part of your reproductive system, because that is where all of your hormones are produced,” she said. Hormones and hormonal balance is paramount, as they impact development, mood, brain function, and heart health. In fact, the most important hormone in a woman’s body, she explained, is estrogen, as it controls many functions, even the coagulation of blood, which can affect blood flow and circulation.
Time to rethink your birth control?
She said to re-evaluate your birth control method(s) every five years during your reproductive years, and report any side effects or problems. “After (age) 30, re-evaluate the dose and length of time you’re using a certain medication,” said Hutcherson.
Fibroids are a big health issue for Black women, Hutcherson said, warning, “How would you know you have a growth in your uterus if you’re always on the birth control pill?” She contends that women tend to take birth control pills like they are Tic Tacs (candy), without giving it much thought, which is not always a good thing.
“No two women are alike,” she emphasized. “Get your health care information from a trained professional in that area, not your friends.”
Hutcherson also cautioned folks in the room to be mindful of the following fact: “A lot of birth control won’t work if you weigh more than 160 pounds.” She is quick to point out, however, “I’m not saying don’t take birth control (pills); I’m saying, take the right one for you…”
Following Hutcherson’s presentation, Erin Bailey with UW Carbone Cancer Center/Cancer Health Disparities Initiative talked about how lifetime risks for cancer are largely affected by what you put in your body — food, drinks, and tobacco products.
Bailey also brought up breast cancer and how self-examination is paramount to helping find cancer when it’s still at an early stage. “You’re literally embracing your life by taking your breast in your own hands” and checking for lumps, she declared.
African American women tend to have denser breast tissue, therefore, clinical breast exams in the office by a trained health care professional and mammograms are essential.
Four out of 10 Black women will get cervical cancer in their lifetime, she reported, and those that get it have a nearly 50 percent chance of dying from it. Once a woman has symptoms of cervical cancer, the cancer could already be at an advanced stage.
Bailey implored those at the workshop to get their screenings (self breast exam, clinical exam, mammogram after age 40), as well as regular PAP tests which look at cervical cells and pelvic exams, which look at the physical reproductive system.
Insurance pays for mammograms at age 40, Bailey stated, so insist on getting one at age 40 even if your doctor says not until 50.
If there’s been breast cancer in your family, ask for a mammogram 10 years before the age that person (sister, aunt, mother, male family member) was when they were diagnosed with breast cancer, she said.
Know that you have the power to change your health and your life, Bailey asserts. “Start today with small healthy choices to change not only your life, but the lives of those around you,” she said.
Healing from sexual abuse
Lilada Gee, workshop presenter, shared what it’s like to live with the shame and pain of sexual abuse. “Where can I take my shame? People have been asking this question since Biblical times,” she said.
And with shame comes anger. “Let’s stop talking about (the fact) that there are angry Black women and angry Black little girls, and let’s ask them why,” Gee implored. She went on to say how trauma is a known factor in the development of health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
It’s a matter of, she explained, “I’m going to try to sex myself better, drink myself better, eat myself better…”
Gee reviewed the lineage of sexual abuse through generations in her family. Proudly, she said, her daughter has not been a victim of sexual abuse.
Many times, she indicated, it’s not a stranger that abuses a child, it’s a relative or trusted family friend. It often becomes a situation of, “don’t nobody call the police, because we don’t want to see another Black man in prison,” Gee said.
“There’s nothing like sexual abuse of a child,” she said, likening it to a bomb that’s been implanted in your soul. It’s time for us to heal, she stated, emphatically.
Highlights from Hitaji
Following an unwinding exercise, which was led by Haywood Simmons from Phitness Plus, Lisa Peyton-Caire introduced the final speaker for the event.
Hitaji Aziz is with Pacemaker Enterprise, based in Houston, Texas. Peyton-Caire said Aziz is a powerful healer, “a survivor of so many things — homelessness, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and poverty.” She has also written about healing from trauma, and is a spoken-word artist, diversity workshop leader, and radio talk show host; “a living example of healing.” In addition, Aziz “has worked with men who have traumatized women and children and one another,” Peyton-Caire explained.
“This is the time to be reborn,” Aziz began. “This is our time today…where you don’t know what you’ve been moved to do, but you do it anyhow…” It’s time to rewrite your story, she said, and change your script.
After pointing out what abolitionist Harriet Tubman was able to accomplish without a cell phone (how did they make it to Canada without texting?), she said, “We have to go to computer pads just to run away!”
Aziz deems herself “a work in progress,” and shared that she came from an alcoholic family system in which her cousin was beaten to death by a family member. She detailed that she grew up in Philadelphia, at a time and in a place where “most women were beaten. It was a normal part of our existence.” Her mother was the first woman in her family, she explained, that graduated from high school.
“Most of the women in my family were alcoholic or food addicted,” Aziz told the nearly 300 folks in attendance. “Alcoholism, eating disorders, and we had people addicted to violence.”
Through all of that, she said, “No one said I had health issues. Didn’t I look sad? Didn’t I look stressed out? Didn’t I look overweight?”
Aziz talked about homelessness and the disparity of poverty. “People would look at me and say, ‘You’re pretty articulate for a Black person.’ Slow motion dying articulate,” she said.
Aziz described a time when she was hospitalized in a ward for mental health issues. “I’m doing the suicide dance, and you’re saying, ‘You’d be okay if you’d just straighten your hair.’”
Next, she asked people to raise their hand if they have been affected by the prison system…by homelessness…by the loss of a loved one by an illness that could have been prevented; if you have experienced domestic violence; if you have experienced sexual abuse. Many of the women in the room raised their hands in response to her questions; quite a few more than once.
Sugar became her crack cocaine
Aziz, who said that she knew 10 pedophiles, indicated that she realized she was “addicted to drama, and drama, and trauma.” Her weight, which she said got to 300 pounds at one point, “was a symbol of my internalized oppression.”
Sugar, she lamented, became her crack cocaine, and she recently developed problems with gluten. “It has taken me a year to figure out I didn’t need a walker,” she said, reporting how she was falling and some days, couldn’t even get out of bed.
Then there was the cupcake episode that she said happened when she was at the 300-pound point, and all of a sudden, the years of being ignored and hurt kind of came crashing down. The manager at the store where she was waiting (and waiting) for a cupcake, she said, became her father.
“Every time I got sexually abuse,” Aziz said regarding her childhood, “they gave me cookies.” The cookies, the cupcakes —“it saved my life.”
“Every other woman in my life was numbing with food,” she said. “The cupcakes, the boyfriends, the sex…”
After Aziz talked about her first sexual perpetrator and how she duplicated him in her choices of men and subsequent relationships, she turned her focus to her daughter and son. She proudly announced the dates that her daughter as well as her son received their college bachelor’s degree.
A stroke of blessing
Aziz, who is a two-time stroke survivor, had her first stroke while she was in the middle of pursuing her master’s degree program. She revealed how she proceeded to ignore the first one, thinking that some of the symptoms she was having and her tiredness were due to stress.
She commented, “Stress was normal for me…I didn’t have time (to deal with being sick).”
As the result of the second stroke and its impact, she said, it took her six to seven months before she could put her own bra on. Though she is still recovering, she considers the incident “a stroke of blessing.”
Aziz told those in the audience, “God gives you the warning. You know that you could-or should-have made a better choice.” Every time you’re going through a challenge with your body, she contends, “You’re being called to check it out on a deeper level.”
Taking care of business
According to Aziz, her mother and grandmother basically said that it’s always going to be like this. She then adamantly stated that “this (message) is critical to Black women. Get you some business!”
“They got their business—your sons, your daughters, your momma,” she said. “Stop worrying about somebody else’s business when you’re falling apart. Get you some business—your business,” she advised.
Aziz described how she would be “trying to save somebody, and then I’d go home and eat on them.”
She went on to say, “Let go and let God [in], so you’re not in the way of the miracle.” Aziz acknowledges that she herself has struggled with trying to control people and things. “I do not want to suffer the collateral damage of trying to fix someone else’s life.”
Aziz stressed the importance, power, and role of truth in a person’s life. “Tell yourself the truth. Get out of denial,” she advised. “It was as bad as not knowing where the sandwich (I just ate) went. Who took my food? You know why this new man is the same as the old man. You know why you got pregnant. (Don’t talk about) ‘It caught me off guard.’”
Additionally, Aziz talked about white allies, pointing out that, “We wouldn’t be here today without white allies.” She reminded those at the event that in the course of history, many white allies also got lynched.
She encouraged the women who’ve experienced pain and trauma to “get open to the therapeutic process, even if it’s a 12-step program.” Each person was asked to write down a pain or hurt they have been hanging on to, and to come forward and place their card on a chair as a symbol of discarding this burden from their lives.
“Let go of that person, place, thing that you have no control over. Let go of the violence, PST [post traumatic stress], poverty, isolation, loneliness, shame, grief over the death you never grieved…”