Mental Health

AWM Spotlight: Tash Elzie

By Posted on 9min read23 views

1. Please tell us a little about yourself. Were you raised in Caribbean culture? How did you become familiar?

    1. I am a Black American, born and raised in Lynwood, California. I graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Theatre Arts with an emphasis in Technical Theatre.
    2. I didn’t know many people with Caribbean heritage. I’ve always enjoyed all kinds of music and loved to dance. I grew up listening to everything from Opera to Spanish Rock. I also did traditional West African Dance for several years, so once I heard Soca, my waistline knew immediately what to do.
    3. I am a mom, I have three kids. I don’t share them much on my public page, but they are my world. Each of them are kind, funny, and so intelligent. I am so proud to be their mom.

2. Okay—you have to tell me…. How did you come up with the IG user handle: @carnivaljedi?

Two of my absolute favorite things are Carnival and Star Wars. During my very first Caesar’s Army AMBUSH, I was there with my camera. I had it wrapped carefully in plastic to protect it from the paint, powder, and water. I put it on auto focus but had to adjust the f-stop and shutter speed by using the force. I felt like a Jedi with my camera. I know that is the nerdiest reason for my name, but I think it fits me.

3. When you’re not delivering splashes of humor on social media, what other hobbies/interests are you engaging?

    1. I hate/love to workout. I usually workout twice a day. Keeping active makes me feel great and releases so much tension from my body. I hate it while I am working out but it feels so good after.
    2. I am a photographer. I shoot events and portraits. I am the kind of person who will stop any and everywhere to take a picture.

4. Tell me how you got into becoming a stand-up comedian and your journey with the PreeZee Does It! podcast.

I consider myself a writer. I am always writing stories and sketches. I’ve told a few friends that I want to be a comedy writer. One of my closest friends from high school text me and asked me to come to a stand up comedy class that she was the TA for. I told her that I would never under any circumstance do stand up because I want to be behind the scenes as a writer. She asked me how would people hear my comedic voice unless I put myself out there to perform. She stood behind me and encouraged me to perform. It was really hard for me because I would get so anxious before and after performing. I would bring my mother to every show because she is such an extrovert and she would make sure that I was there after every show talking to people and networking rather than running away. My mother is extremely supportive and has been really instrumental in helping me feel comfortable to talk to people and book more shows and auditions. She’s actually my biggest instagram fan.

Mentioning that I wanted to be a writer also is what brought my friend Mr PreeZee back into my life. He was looking for someone with a unique perspective to be his cohost for his podcast. I’ve known him since elementary school so our chemistry is effortless.

5. Tell me your carnival love story! Take us down memory lane with your first carnival experience.

  1. My first Carnival experience was Crop Over in Barbados. It was 2017, so I am a Carnival toddler at this point. This trip was taken at the lowest point of my marriage. The year 2017 was rough for me. I was battling depression, I started working out and I lost over 50 pounds. I still felt like I wanted to be invisible. I was at a point where I could not even remember the last time I was called beautiful or felt sexy. I went to Barbados and I saw women of all shapes and sizes enjoy themselves. Women who felt and looked sexy. In the beginning, I wouldn’t dance or drink. I probably looked like I was stush. I started to meet people and talk to people and I slowly started to come out of my shell. However, I was so afraid to wear a costume. I was in the t-shirt section and I did not make it sexy. I left Barbados with so many new friends who have been my closest friends ever. They have also helped me after my divorce.

6. What is your favorite carnival memory? What happened? What made it so significant to you?

December 2019 I had a major stomach surgery to correct a birth defect. It left me with a scar from my ribs to the inside of my belly button and extra skin as skin was removed in some areas. The estimated recovery period was completed the day before I boarded the plane to Trinidad in February of 2020. I could not work out at all. On Carnival Tuesday, I was extremely nervous about wearing my two-piece costume. I felt embarrassed about my scar. I came up with the idea that I wanted to be a villain. Since I played with Rogue and their theme was Badass, I felt that it was the perfect role to play. Villains are free to have scars. I even asked the makeup artist to make me look evil. Once my whole look was done, I looked in the mirror and cried happy tears. I immediately had to be retouched, but I felt such a freedom and a release that I couldn’t help but to shed tears. This experience on the road was so empowering for me. I felt badass.

Trinidad Carnival 2020.

7. Tell us the funnies thing that has ever happened to you or at a fete.

While it wasn’t funny then, it’s been funny in hindsight. I was on Candy Coated Cruise in Trinidad enjoying the fete and taking pictures like usual when a guy who was incredibly drunk flips me upside down and starts to spin. I kept yelling “Help me!” To my friends. The guy keeps spinning and spinning and had to be stopped by security. In my minds eye, all I imagine was him pelting me off of the boat. I sat down for almost the whole night after that.

8. How has Caribbean Carnival and Soca music served as a pinnacle of your mental wellness?

This year, I realized that carnival is a huge part of my self care. Even though I like to make jokes on the internet, and a few videos of me may have gone viral, I am an introvert. Carnival gives me the freedom to embrace my curves, be fully in my body with dance, and it allows me to be around people who want to be in a good space. I don’t feel the need to go inside of myself because Carnival and Soca music is like a warm hug from an old friend. Carnival is a safe space for me

9. What are your thoughts on the stigma of mental health in the black community? What do you think we as a community can do to normalize mental health?

In the Black community, mental health is talked about more than it’s actively worked on. There’s still a level of embarrassment and shame that comes along with talking about it. Being willing to talk about my own mental health issues means that I could be stuck in the “crazy bitch” stereotype and not seen. A male being willing to talk about his own mental health issues risks being classified as weak. Another thing that creates a stigma in the Black community is the idea that once something is named, it becomes a problem. Grandmas love saying “everybody got something now” as if us learning how to name these issues are what created them. It’s important for us to understand that identifying an issue is what helps us create a plan to thrive in spite of it.

Trinidad Carnival 2019.

10. As someone that lives with ADHD, anxiety and sensory sensitivity, what can you tell others about the personal needs that are associated with these conditions?

    1. Being someone with ADHD, sensory sensitivity, and anxiety who loves carnival seems like an oxymoron. I feel like I shouldn’t be able to thrive during carnival with these issues. I’ve had a few panic attacks during carnival, but they were extreme situations. I had a panic attack was during socabrainwash in 2019 when we were supposed to cross a footbridge and it got really congested. Everyone started pushing and also making the bridge bounce. That was very overwhelming for me and I was in the center of a bunch of people that I did not know. Now, if I see a situation that could potentially make me uncomfortable in that way, I find another way. I’ve even spoken to security who have granted me alternate entrances and exits, and also allowed me into private spaces to decompress.
    2. I have a list of things that help me during carnival:
      1. I stay close to the stage. There’s less to focus on and the music is louder so it keeps my focus and attention rather than everything else around me. Also, I am not completely surrounded by people and it helps me feel more secure.
      2. I wear at least one earplug and sunglasses. It helps to narrow my focus and lessen some of the stimuli. This is especially true on Carnival Tuesday.
      3. I travel with friends who know my looks. They can tell when I am shutting down and need a break away from everything.
    3. I don’t have the cocktail party effect. Usually, when someone is talking to another person in a crowded space, the brain tells the body to focus in on that one conversation. It’s like tunnel vision. With me, I can hear every conversation in the space at the same level. My brain tells my body that everything is important so it doesn’t filter out the conversation happening in front of me. I can hear the conversation but I am constantly repeating it back to myself so I can understand and respond. Sometimes, I may be on a delay, but I am present and responding. Sometimes, I shut down and just smile and nod. I just need a little patience from friends.
    4. I struggle to do one thing at a time because I fixate on the idea and not the action. For instance, sitting down to write will make me thing about the act of writing so much that I don’t think about the creative things that I am supposed to be writing down. When I sit down to write, I will usually have a game on my phone and music playing. The repetitive action of the game and the music allows me to distract myself enough to be creative.
    5. I can get very rigid with an idea of something. Someone once told me that he has a surprise for me in the morning. I was immediately uncomfortable however, I was trying to be polite. Why was the surprise in the morning? Is it on a time limit? Do I need to wear something specific? How many people would be there? Is it a good surprise? What if its good but I still don’t like it? I should plan what to say if that were to happen. I couldn’t sleep and ended up asking him at about 4am what the surprise was because I lied about being ok with surprises.
    6. All of the things I listed may make me seem like a headache, but they are also the very things that make me perceptive, creative, and fun. I am usually self aware enough to communicate when I am having an issue and apologetic if I was not.

Follow Tash on Instagram

Check our her page, @carnivaljedi

PreeZee Does It!
Podcast

Check out Tash and Mr. PreeZee's podcast

AWM Thanks You!

Tash! It has been a lot of fun experiencing your humor and wit on social media. My first memory of you was a video that you made with one of my “don’t rush” challenges.  You are inspiring, and I hope that your story encourages others to step out of their fears to play mas.  The experience truly is something for all to enjoy, even those with conditions they might feel preclude them as well.  I hope that you get to cross paths soon!

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Carnival and Healing Trauma.

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Carnival and Healing Trauma
This image is by @ashelystraker of a black queen with a crown made of energy silently crying on the inside. Click to go to her instagram.

Warning: this content may be too heavy for some.

Because I have discovered the synergy of helping others heal as I heal by telling my story, what I am about to share is nothing that I haven’t discussed openly. I will warn you that what you are about to read may be heavy for some, but it just might be healing for you too.  And if you think its not something you are ready for, please reconsider reading for now.

Back-Story.

At the age of 10, my stable life was rocked by my father’s unexpected separation from the Army.  He had exceeded retention control point (RCP), meaning, he failed to promote to a rank by a certain time in service (to no fault of his own).  Nevertheless,  President Bush had enacted one of the heaviest reductions in the military force in our time. And just a few short months after my father had come back from dodging mortars and bullets during Operation Desert Storm, we left life at Fort Hood within a matter of just a few short months notice.

The drastic change in our lives left an immediate impact on our lives.  Shortly after moving to Wisconsin, my mother and father separated. My mother stayed in Wisconsin keeping my brother with her, and sent me and twin to New Jersey to live with our “Uncle”.

But he was no blood relative. Not even close. He and his wife were examples of successful black professionals.  She— a biostatistician for Educational Testing Services (ETS).  He— a Ph.D. in psychology and a professor at Fayetteville State University. Cloaked with the facade of their degrees and social status, my sister and I endured about ten years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.  I was taught to fear relationships with anyone outside of the family. I was taught to fear life outside of his control. At the age of 20, I literally abandoned Penn State University, dorm still full of my belongings and ran home to my Father in New York out of fear that he would find me if I went back to college.

Once I joined the Army, I struggled with intimacy and communication. I found myself in bad relationships not understanding how to place value in myself before anything. I thought that telling my story to men that I have dated would cue them how I was working on myself only to realize that I was telling men how to take advantage of me emotionally. This pattern continued all the way up until my marriage that ended in 2015.

Carnival changed my life in ways I couldn't imagine.

Trinidad Carnival 2020
Trinidad Carnival 2020 with Lost Tribe.

I never thought that Carnival would change my life, but it did from my very first jump with We Kinda Ting in 2015 at Altanta-Dekalb Carnival.  At first glance, I look at Carnival teaching me to embrace my body and the skin that I am in.  But carnival graced, and continues to reach deeper than that.  With every joyous song booming from the truck and the infectious energy radiating through the air, I continue to find carnival healing the fragmented child and woman within.  Below I share the negative thoughts/programming from my abusive past and discuss how carnival has brought healing and understanding to each.

Your body is a source of shame.

Carnival and Healing Trauma

Imagine growing up in a home where your “guardian” would give you the classic elevator stare, cat-call you and talk to you about how you are “developing nicely.” Then imagine the same day, week, month, demand your body be covered at all times when going to school.   T-shirts must cover your butt at all times and your jeans always loose and wide-legged. Because if you showed your body in any way that tempted your classmates, you were asking to be violated in ways that you are already violated on a regular basis at home.  Very difficult times ahead for me as a young adult in the military trying to make sense of my body being a source of pleasure and shame at the same time.

For years, I also struggled (and sometimes still do) with trying to figure out how to honor the skin that I am in without embarrassment. To this day, I still struggle internally when complimented. I smile and say thank you, but internally… there’s fear. Complement comes and I retreat internally with dialogue– talking myself down from defensiveness. Looking left and right wondering where an attack might come from. People notice my energy shift and I have to seek ways to recover the moment.  I don’t know if I should bask in that complement or prepare to defend myself from being violated.

Carnival is a healing experience in which I have always felt safe, even at my first jump. I can’t explain to you what it feels like to receive a compliment and you feel safe.  Carnival provides that safe space for me, and has normalized receiving kind words from others outside of the experience.  Carnival normalizes receiving a compliment with no intention to harm behind it. At carnival, compliments are saturated in nothing but pure love for the culture and the moment. I won’t be harmed (punished) because I am beautiful. I won’t be harmed because I look desirable. At carnival, I am respected, admired and adored… by men and women. Carnival… my sanctuary, the space I am free to be who I am, wear what I want and celebrate every curve, blemish, and and dimple… and feel safe.

Your body is not yours... you have no power.

Carnival and Healing Trauma
Image by @ashleystraker

Im less than 20 years removed from experiences with my abuser; my nightmares are currently triggered by traumatic experiences and addressed  with counseling and meditation. The nature of the nightmares are the same. I wake up in the middle of the night screaming or breathing heavily; heart racing. The overarching theme of my nightmares: Possession. Im not free. Im trapped. Im being violated or sometimes witnessing the violation of another young girl.

Believe it or not, my nightmares are fewer and far in between since I have started playing mas.  Carnival allows me to reclaim full ownership of my feminine power in an environment of free expression. I can get on bad as much as I want to with anyone, and in the same breath curve a wine with no consequences. Expression with full coverage costumes (or minimal coverage costumes) does not invite violence or disrespect.  I chip, dance, jump, run, and  wine down the road free of any man’s expectations or demand of my own body. My body is MINE and I am the master of it. I take on the persona of a physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually liberated woman… free of any expectation or demand.

 

Other women are your enemies. Your sister is your worse enemy”.

Other women are your enemies. Your sister is your worse enemy

Divide and conquer was a tenant of my abusive home.  Outside of school I hardly saw my sister even though we lived in the same house.  My abuser pitted us against each other and created an environment in which we had to constantly compete for my abuser’s approval and praise. During this period, I was constantly told that my sister was my enemy and she wanted the worst for me. I was taught that other women in my life were never my friends and only wished some advantage or sought personal gain. Be on guard always. Don’t trust other women. They’re just looking for opportunities to hurt you.

This is likely why after I left my abuser, most of my friends were male.  This worked well for me because in the military, women are a minority anyway.  This carried on until I got married and realized this conflicted with a healthy marriage. I had to force myself to tackle the root issue of my defensiveness with other women.

I have to say that Carnival was the very first time where I have been surrounded by so many women. I initially remember being a bit hesitant about this surrounding, but the energy was so infectious and loving that my guard fell immediately Women that really didn’t know each other saying hello and talking about how beautiful someone looked. Women helping other women get ready on the road or helping put on a backpack.  If there is any time or place where women are lifting up each other in love and light… its Carnival.

Still healing.

I am not sure what mental space I would be in if I had not been introduced to carnival.  What people see on the outside as an opportunity to have fun, I see as another personal therapy session.  As I get to experience carnival from all over the United States and the Caribbean, I continue to reflect and acknowledge the fragmented parts of myself that continues to heal.  When we speak of Carnival, its important to discuss not just the fun one might have, but to also hight the spiritual and emotional purge… the healing that comes with your carnival experience.  

I truly hope that sharing parts of my story affords you the opportunity to reflect within and think about the fragmented parts of yourself that need tender loving care through counseling, prayer or mediation. I hope this entry reaches someone that is truly seeks help and realizes they are not alone. I hope this entry also helps those who use carnival for healing understand they are not alone either.

Still healing

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Let’s Talk About Plastic Surgery.

By Posted on 7min read52 views

Where did my boobs go?

Let’s take it way back to 2013.  I was still a physician assistant (PA) student doing my clinical rounds at a medical installation in Georgia.  At the same time, I decided then would be a fantastic idea for train for my very first body-building (bikini) competition.  I had lost a lot of weight and put on some fantastic muscle mass. I remember my masseuse gloating over how well my deltoids had developed. I was pretty excited about my progress and was looking forward to hitting the stage for the very first time in about three more months. I went shopping for new bras and of course, the good ole Victoria’s secret representative came around and offered to measure my bust.  When she was done… she told me I was an A cup.

Now don’t get me wrong, my bust had always been small.  I used to be a barely B cup so when I was told I had lost that much breast mass I literally had a significant emotional event.  I remember talking to other friends about what I had experienced and they explained that was why they or other women sought out breast implants.  The ugly side of bikini competition is that although you lose an insane of fat-mass, judges somehow expected you to have nice breasts at the same time. How fucking sway? But take a look…. Have you ever seen a flat-chested bikini champion? I’ll wait.

Natalia Melo was one of my favorites back then. Look at her-- very little body fat. Do you really think that boob is all her? Nah.

At any rate, the decision to look into breast implants was not for the stage but for my own self-esteem.  I was built like a shit-brick house without the boobs to match. I wanted to enhance my curves and had the means to do so, and with much enthusiasm from the ex-spouse I gave it a go. I got the surgery sometime in April 2014, and all was well. I went under the pectoral muscle (for a natural look) via an arm-pit incision.  I went from a 34A/B to a 32DDD in a matter of hours.  I am still to this day very happy with my implants and would do nothing differently.

Breast Augmentation by Dr. Chris Pettigrew. Click this photo to head to his website.

“For someone that hardly eats, I don’t understand how you’ve gained weight”.

My ex-husband and I had problems WAY…WAY… before 2014.  Honestly, we had problems the moment I left for PA school in 2010, so how the hell I thought marrying this man was going to work was beyond me at the time.

 

At any rate, he and I ended up separating early September 2014.  Because of stress eating, lack of exercise, a new job, new life as a commissioned officer and the life of an (emotionally abused) wife, I had no concept of a healthy work-life balance.  My ex had no idea that I comforting myself with fast food before I got home. Imagine having panic attacks as you pull up to the driveway of your four-bedroom home with manicured grass. Home was hell, not a sanctuary. On the outside, people would think I had “it all” but didn’t really know “at what cost?”   

On the outside, this looks like I had it all. Not so.

The relationship between me and my ex-husband took a serious toll on me; I was constantly harassed about seeing my (male) patient’s nude, he fetishized my medical practice with female patients, hated that I outranked him, postulating over the concept of me telling him what to do at home because of my rank. He was constantly reminding me of how much money I was making as an excuse for lack of fiscal responsibility. I never heard “I’m proud of you”, “I’m happy for you”, or any type of compliment or praise. I spent days listening to him about his work life and he never wanted to hear anything about mine. I was living in a four-bedroom house physically married but spiritually ALONE. He had issues with all of my friends, so I was socially isolated. I was starving for approval that I would never receive unless it had something to do with him. I had no sense of self-worth, or confidence. I begged for but continuously lacked a king in my own kingdom…and felt lost and worthless.  He gaslighted and *narcissized the fuck out of me and I had no clue.

My childhood trauma along with the trauma in my relationship with my ex-husband left me reeling over a (very wrong) idea that I was not desired, that I was not beautiful. Beauty and intelligence are an unwelcome anomaly in men’s eyes. Men just want women to be arm-candy and nothing else.  Keep your mouth shut, just be pretty. A prop. Don’t be too smart. Don’t overshadow a man’s presence. Don’t shine bright.  Otherwise, you will be unloved, hated and undesired. You’ll be left for someone that doesn’t threaten a man’s ego. That has to be what men want, right?  But I couldn’t undo the three degrees on my wall and there was no way that I was not going to give up my hard-earned rank.  So, I came up with an idea. Plastic surgery.

One week post-op. Liposuction of thighs, hips and flank. The (almost) worst pain of my life.

In November 2014, my plastic surgeon removed about ten pounds of fat from my thighs and hips.  Let’s talk about the absolute WORST post-operative pain I have ever been in, even with Demerol on the clock.  Between the bruising and shitting bricks because of the narcotic medication, I was in pure hell for about ten days.  But I thought that things would get better between me and my ex if he saw that I had put in the effort to change SOMETHING about myself.  Something.  We did get back together, but it wasn’t because of the surgery, and we ultimately got a divorce in 2015. I remember in 2018 running into a friend of his that became my patient.  When I explained that he and I divorced he said, “I’m not sure if I should say sorry, or congratulations”.  I sat in my khaki’s and polo shirt, legs crossed with red bottoms on my feet.  I said with a smile, “Oh, it’s definitely a congratulations”.

Since then, I have had some other procedures done, mainly liposuction in those difficult areas such as the back of my arms and the knee complex.  It’s not that I wasn’t putting in any type of work, it had everything to do with full blown genetics.

 

When pain is your professor.

  1. PS won’t make your personal problems better. It won’t get your man back. It won’t make people treat you better. It won’t get anyone to honor or value you if they didn’t beforehand. Do PS for yourself and yourself only.
  2. PS will not replace lifestyle choices. ESPECIALLY if you are looking to get liposuction.  Even after I had the surgery on my problem areas I was still not totally happy. If you think that liposuction procedures will eradicate the need to work out in the gym, are going to be insanely disappointed.  You still need to consider diet and exercise. You can undo a surgeon’s work with lack of good choices. Speaking from personal experience.
  3. PS won’t give you much definition without muscle mass. Reference #3.
  4. Don’t do PS in a mental space of hating your body. If you’re investing thousands of dollars in a procedure just understand that the self-investment doesn’t stop once you swipe your credit card and go under.  Speak to a surgeon about the beauty you have that you wish to enhance, not about what you do not like about yourself.
  5. A PS will make you look great in clothes but your own work will make you look great naked. Remember that models that have had plastic surgery STILL get photoshopped so have realistic goals and expectations.

Forward thinking.

By all means, I am not against plastic surgery, but our bodies are complex yet truly miraculous machines that deserve celebration pre-and post op. This is why I love carnival because I feel so alive no matter my size on the road.  A lot of people want to be silent about plastic surgery as if it is something to be embarrassed about, and it really is not.  You can still love the body you are in and want to enhance it. You can pierce it, tattoo it, but not get PS? How sway? I think that if people were more transparent about plastic surgery we would eradicate all these incidences of botched procedures, death and lack of emotional support (because plastic surgery can be a significant emotional event). Just something to think about.

 

Find a plastic surgeon that is capable of providing you the service that you desire.  For example, Arm-pit incisions for breast implants are not very common but I kept looking for a surgeon until I found one.  The reason why is because I personally I leave bad scars and didn’t want to risk it, even under my breasts.

Don’t let a PS push an aesthetic on you that you are not comfortable with.  At the end of the day, find a PS that says no to risky/questionable requests. Carefully evaluate his portfolio.  Do your research and trust your gut. Set realistic expectations and seek out what you want. Develop a support system. Appreciate the body that you are in, and set yourself up to do your part of the work.   If you’re looking for a great resource that has feedback from real patients and engage in discussions with prospective surgeons, I highly encourage you to visit realself. 

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Honoring your Carnival Body at any Size.

By Posted on 4min read46 views

Rock out with your ass-crack out.

I remember the very first time I played mas in 2015.  My marriage was slowly dying, stress and depression had been weighing on my shoulders for several months and I weighed almost 180 pounds.  I grossly underestimated my weight gain and found myself insanely insecure with a bottom that clung on to dear life.

Since this was my first year I allowed my twin sister to be my guide. Standing next to her who was probably 30-35 pounds lighter was difficult.  In my mind, she was showing me what I was supposed to have looked like coming out on the road. I remember trying to get ready and I was a lot less agile when I was lighter, falling over myself to get my leggings and panty on. I was flooded with insecurity.  As she ushered me to the meeting point I found myself constantly using my fan to cover up my waistline and caught myself checking to see if I was revealing more than what I should in the back.

But as I began to look around, I saw women of varying sizes and shapes. Post baby bodies— stretch marks adorned in glitter. Size 16 and up wearing thongs.  I saw the smiles, and the hugs. THE CONFIDENCE. The freedom. I realized that this was the norm and I was accepted and welcome regardless of my weight. I  began to relax a little.  And as the bass from the truck permeated my spirit, and something told me to just let all that shit go. Carnival changed my life.

Hiding my fluff behind a fan. Me on the right! Atlanta-Dekalb Carnival 2015.

Endurance is important, appearance is not.

It’s very important to have a level of cardiovascular endurance so you can have a good time on the road.  Fitness will also lower your risk of heat injury.  But flat abs, leaner thighs and hips is not what Carnival is about anyway.  Our ancestors took to the streets to celebrate their freedom; I cannot imagine back then anyone wondering if their bodies were good enough to go out and celebrate their liberation and discard any burdens they carried leading up to that special day.

Atlanta-Dekalb Carnival 2018.

F*ck Social Media's definition of beauty.

I blame commercialism for clouding the spirit of carnival and its true origin and meaning. I blame society and social media for it as well.  While I completely understand the phrase that “sex sells,” who said that thick isn’t beautiful?? In the spirit of Carnival do I not deserve to be celebrated as well for everything I have endured and accomplished? It seems as if we see an abundance of lean women in costume without a stretch mark in sight on every platform. Girls that I could easily bench press gracing the stage in the costume I wonder is really right for me. To this day model-type bodies are flooded with likes and comments but our thicker brothers and sisters in mas get less love.  The photos and videos you see captures moments, but does not embody the TRUE spirit of mas. Mas is all sizes, shapes, colors… coming together in the spirit of unity, love, and liberation.

Your CURRENT body is your carnival body.

carnival shoes
Wearing the carnivalista steps in Spice. Clik the photo to shop. Use Code: AWM2022 for 10% of your order

With six years into playing mas I admit that I still struggle with body image challenges especially when it’s time to get into costume.  But when I finally get on the road, I find that all that anxiety about my physical appearance didn’t even really matter in the moment. Like seriously, why did I put myself through all that?

One thing I have also realized is that when I remember what Carnival is truly about, the photographers that have asked me to step aside and the presentation of what is beautiful on social media does not matter. I don’t need a camera or likes on social media to validate my accomplishments, or boost my spirit.  They have no bearing in my ability to celebrate my own life.

AWM exists to remind every current and future masquerader that the measurement on the scale is not what playing mas is all about.  Regardless of your weight gain or loss, the purpose of mas is to leave your stress behind, celebrate and/or mourn the wonders of life and everything you have endured.  Your weight is not your permission slip to play mas.  The simple fact that you woke up that morning with oxygen filling your lungs and blood flowing through your veins when others did not is your reason why YOU CAN. That body you have right now is a representation of everything you’re enduring and overcoming. This is why we celebrate carnival… we celebrate your spirit and those of our ancestors.  Your current body is your carnival body.

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It’s normal to NOT be okay during COVID-19.

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Calm Before The Storm.

For the past year or so, I found myself content with the idea that I had found a perfect balance between work, fitness, and leisure Playing mas was that something I had to look forward to several times a year as a means to shed rigid limits of military service and other life stressors.  Negative situations could come and go, but as long as I had something on the horizon, I knew I could get through pretty much anything. Besides, having something to look forward was a foundation of behavioral health therapy and a principle of many resiliency techniques.    Discussions about COVID-19 became more prevalent on social media.  I even made a post about how I was not even worried about the virus whatsoever. But shortly after Trinidad Carnival, the reality of COVID-19 began to rear its ugly head, but I continued to shake it off as most people did not think it would evolve into a pandemic that would ultimately end up even the most remote areas of the United States, and completely change our way of living in a matter of hours.

Dissolution of Normalcy.

I tried to stay optimistic about Jamaica, but it was postponed until October. I was still optimistic that this was a minor inconvenience and by implementing the the right measures it would be gone as quickly as it came.  But then other events began to fall like dominoes.  I began to notice a pattern: bands and promoters withdrawing from events before they were canceled. I had eight jumps scheduled along with UberSoca Cruise with plans to not only have fun and create/solidify bonds but to produce some amazing content that would propel the Caribbean Carnival Culture forward.  But As every hour passed, I watched all of my plans for 2020 completely change. I started considering jumps in other locations that were cancelled as fast as the thought even came to me. Will Miami even happen and will the new Jamaica date even come to fruition?  UberSoca Cruise ain’t looking good right now… Oh, wait… St. Kitts Carnival for New Year is starting to sound good right about now… but I felt my optimism waning.

Where is my stress relief?  I started asking myself how am I going to get by not having something to look forward to? I am currently restricted to a 35-mile radius for an unforeseen amount of time and live IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. How do you balance yourself, release and reset when you can’t go anywhere with no glimmer of hope toward normalcy, let alone time on the road?

For the first four weeks, I tried to stay afloat by practicing makeup skills, participating in “don’t rush” challenges, and spreading optimism on my platform. I thought being an essential employee would be useful as I couldn’t imagine being forced to stay at home all day.  I HAVE TO HAVE SOMETHING TO DO.  But, I honored my instinct to nurture others by acts of kindness behind the scenes. All these things kept me distracted but ultimately could not keep me going for much longer.

I remember calling a friend in Brooklyn.  His hair and beard had lengthened in the past few weeks. We talked about how much we couldn’t wait to just hug someone or have a conversation with a friend outside, or see each other face-to-face again. We took time to think about the things that were so simple but now meant so much more, and promised to cherish even the smallest cracks on the sidewalk when we could move freely again.

Compartmentalizing.

I remember a FaceTime call with my sister; tears rolling down her face as she spoke of wishing she could go back home to NYC.  One of our uncles had been hospitalized due to COVID-19.  Four people she knew had perished, and we mutually worried about our stubborn mother with COPD.  And I found myself irritable on the inside, but on the outside, listening to her and trying to find the right words to give her comfort.

When I finished the call I found myself really bothered by this experience. How could I feel like that as she was hurting? Was there something wrong with me? Has almost 18 years of service really desensitized me that much?  I thought on this for several hours to only realize that it was my own defense mechanism to keep me from feeling what she was going through.  I’m still in the clinic seeing patients at that point, and the officer in charge— I could NOT afford to let people see me in the slightest be emotionally disturbed. But It was also at that point that I realized that I TOO WAS STRUGGLING TO HOLD MYSELF TOGETHER. I was compartmentalizing everything to continue to be a service to others and not acknowledging how everything was making me feel.

Forced to Confront my Emotions.

My personal Instagram and Facebook are littered with pets, comics, memes, and inspirational quote pages. I interact with more people through AWM than I do in my personal life.  Through AWM I witnessed people on social media bringing up old conflicts probably because there was nothing else better to do.  People and their challenge videos brought to slaughter over questions about their nationality and the flag they were wearing. I was personally attacked over something as simple as a WHINE vs. WINE. A handful of disgruntled followers in my DM because they didn’t win my giveaway, gathering the nerve to question HOW I DETERMINED THE WINNER.  Meanwhile, people were dying left and right. There are people that don’t know how they are going to feed their families. People that had lost their jobs. Small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy.   The COVID-19 graph continued to rise, and I for the life of me could not understand how in the midst of something that was impacting everyone on a global scale that had people the time or energy to be ugly, let alone FIGHT with people they can’t see. Everyone was hurting, and this is how we treat each other? I began to really dislike the human race as a whole and started asking myself a lot of spiritual and philosophical questions.  Mainly… is this really humanity at its core?

While struggling to remain optimistic, I also felt started to guilty for my blessings. I found it difficult to want to talk to anybody about what I was feeling because I knew I didn’t have it as bad as many.  This was something that was impacting everyone, and I felt it selfish to try to vent to someone that possibly didn’t have the emotional space to take on my issues on top of their own, and I didn’t want what I was feeling to be dismissed because it wasn’t as severe as others.

But the death of a non-commissioned officer (NCO)  I deployed with to Iraq broke me down.  Sergeant First Class (SFC) Laird had recently retired, and with me and a lot of others— survived a 15 month deployment to Iraq in 2007 during what we called “the surge”.  We survived mortar rounds and rocket attacks for 15 months.  He was a free-spirited man in uniform, charismatic and fearless.  But SFC Laird died alone in his home due to the COVID-19.

It was that very moment of learning of his passing that I became energetically and emotionally overwhelmed. Almost 18 years of service has taught me a certain level of mental toughness and resiliency, but I knew that there’s a fragile side of myself that had to be honored. Otherwise, I would have probably ended up having a meltdown at work, and that was NOT ABOUT TO HAPPEN, especially in uniform. I first decided to filter myself from as much negativity as possible.  I was already not watching TV at all, so the next step was to unplug from social media to invite some reflection and meditation.  I deleted FB and IG and downloaded the Calm app at the recommendation of a friend.

During my social media downtime, I found myself sitting at work at times feeling like I was choking, or having difficulties swallowing.  Initially, I started to examine and self-diagnose. My thyroid didn’t feel enlarged, my labs were normal.  I found out on the same day that my uncle was released from the hospital but an Aunt had been admitted.  While speaking on my phone with my father (an essential employee),  I learned that the masks that he had weren’t adequate and started to panic. My throat began to get tighter, and that’s when I noticed a pattern and realized I was experiencing was a rare symptom of anxiety. Realizing this made tears well up in my eyes I went through a crazy emotional cycle in my office:  I got angry at myself for even experiencing this anxiety let alone being the person who was about to cry in my own damn office with Soldiers that expected me to lead them behind that closed door. I was afraid to let anyone see me get emotional and embarrassed at the thought of someone possibly seeing my eyes red and my face puffy.

When Pain is Your Professor.

The first thing I had to face and accept was how people react during uncertain times as these.  Ugliness is a natural HUMAN response. Hurt people will hurt people. Humanity is as beautiful as it is ugly and this is no different. It should not make me angry, and I should not take the ugliness to heart.

The second thing I realized that to compartmentalize chronically is spiritually toxic.  In my line of work it’s very necessary, but to figure out how to diffuse more consistently is important. I realize that I need to take more time to reflect on how adverse events make me feel.  The challenge, however, is figuring out how to do this when you can’t escape the confines of your living quarters or partake in the things that make you happy.  In the midst of all the life changes, I abandoned some of the things that were still accessible to me. My exercise equipment was collecting dust and I had completely abandoned my healthier eating habits.  I decided to go back to the things that I could do to keep me balanced.

Loss of personal power, and a sense of inadequacy in my relationships/interactions with people, is a source of my anxiety.  I’m so used to being a fixer, a nurturer, a person of action. As of late, I face a daily frustration of explaining to my patients there is nothing else that I can do over the phone but provide symptomatic care until I can see them again in the clinic. I refill medications and extend activity limitations over the phone.  I feel powerless as a healthcare provider.  My friends are losing people they love, their jobs, their financial stability. I can’t go over their houses with a bottle of wine to make them feel better or offer them a place to stay. I’ve had 2 family members in the hospital and I can’t go home. I lost an extended family member and couldn’t visit the family and attend the memorial service.  I am completely stripped of my ability to serve and be there others which is part of what makes me feel whole.  But this forces me to focus on serving myself. I need the same care that I provide for others.

I also realized that I needed to stop invalidating how this whole situation made me feel on the merit of another person’s level of suffering.  Everyone is facing some sort of struggle,  I needed to take more time to honor my own emotions to support balance.  While sitting in my office, I reminded myself that regardless of the fact that everyone is experiencing different hardships, it doesn’t mean that I should not acknowledge how my life has been impacted.  I owe it to myself to evaluate my hardships and how they make me feel.  

Opening up to Others.

I sat in my office throat tightening again after finding out my aunt was in the hospital.   Trying to hold back tears clouding my vision over emotions I was having a hard time coming to grips with.  I found myself desperate for words of advice.  Feeling very vulnerable at this point, I went into a very small GroupMe chat, and I asked how everyone was coping. I told them I was struggling and wanted to know how everyone was getting by.  Maybe there was something I was missing or not doing. And guess what happened?

Several people told me about how they weren’t okay either.  

For a good half an hour or so, at least three people shared with me what they were struggling with.  This GroupMe chat turned into a brief group therapy session where we didn’t necessarily have the solution for one another but felt relief in the fact that we were finally able to talk about how we were in fact NOT okay.  We exchanged familiarities,  words of encouragement, and condolences.  

Social media sells a fantasy, snapping small snippets of our lives that look the best, but we never truly see the dim side of life. Everyone has been trying to keep this happy face online, but deep down inside, they are struggling. 

Relief.

And so… in my office with my door closed… I took some breaths and allowed myself to FINALLY acknowledge that I am scared for the health of my family in NYC.  I’m devastated that SFC Laird died.  It hurt me to see my sister crying.  I’m angry because I feel powerless. I’m frustrated because I am feeling inadequate because I can do so little for my patients. I feel inadequate because I can’t be there for my friends and family.  I’m depressed I can’t travel. I miss my freedom. I miss playing mas and I feel weak for saying I NEED to have those things in my life to feel strong. I told myself to let go of the things I could not change about this, and focus on the things I could do. That’s where my power is!  I know these changes are not permanent. I reminded myself of all those things. And after a short while, the vice grip around my throat began to lessen and I felt a bit better and more focused.

Forward Thinking.

This whole COVID-19 reality is surreal.  We feel so alone in our experiences and yet we are not because we are all hurting in some way.  Although we can’t make what’s happening in the world feel better, there was some solace in knowing that there are a lot of us that weren’t okay… and it was totally okay to not be.

COVID-19 is definitely stressing our mental health and resiliency, but there is so much fear in discussing it. Societal norms and expectations are toxic, especially during times such as these.  Having said that, I really want people to understand that there are a lot more people hurting than you think and it is perfectly alright to feel vulnerable even as everyone’s hardship varies. It’s okay to admit you’re not okay and even talk amongst people you know about how they’re coping or holding up.  It is also perfectly okay to seek counseling to help you process what you’re feeling in a healthy way and arm you with tools necessary to cope.

Resources.

Below is a list of useful apps and resources currently available that I have used, am currently using, or comes highly recommended from a network of professionals. This list is not all encompassing and places emphasis on low-cost.

I hope that sharing my experience to you all encourages to you to acknowledge that you are not alone, and to seek the self-care that you need.

National Services

National Suicide Lifeline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 1-800-273-8255. ONLINE CHAT AVAILABLE.

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/

1−800−799−7233 ONLINE CHAT AVAILABLE.

We answer the call to support and shift power back to those affected by relationship abuse.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Provides nation-wide database on access to low-cost behavioral health services along with essential guidance on how to obtain therapy and medication on a tight budget  https://adaa.org/finding-help/treatment/low-cost-treatment

Military Crisis Line: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/military-crisis-line

800-273-8255, Press 1.  Online Chat is available.

The Military Crisis Line, text messaging service, and online chat provide free VA support for all Service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve, and all Veterans, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. This confidential, immediate help is available 24/7 at no cost to active-duty, Guard and reserve members, their families, and friends.

US Department of Health and Human Resources https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/.

Federally Qualified Health Centers are federally funded health care providers that offer mental health and other treatment services to underserved areas on a sliding fee scale, including free services for those on Medicaid or unable to pay anything. The link provides a directory on the Health Resources and Services Administration’s site — just check with an individual center to see if they provide mental health services.

Apps (Iphone and/or Andriod)

Shine  Subscription 11.99/month: Learn a new self-care strategy every day, get support from a diverse community, and explore an audio library of over 500+ original meditations, bedtime stories, and ambient music to help you shift your mindset or mood.

Mindfulness Subscription 9.99/month: Start your journey to a more relaxed and healthier state of mind with The Mindfulness App. Whether you are just starting out or experienced in meditation, The Mindfulness App will help you to become more present in your daily life.

Calm (AWM FAVORITE)  Subscription 14.99/month or 59.00/year.  Free trial. Calm is the #1 app for Sleep, Meditation and Relaxation. Join the millions experiencing better sleep, lower stress, and less anxiety with our guided meditations, Sleep Stories, breathing programs, stretching exercises, and relaxing music. Calm is recommended by top psychologists, therapists, and mental health experts.

#selfcare (AWM FAVORITE) #SelfCare is a free, simple, and beautiful AI companion for joy and self-connection. We’re not a game nor an app. We’re more like a friend in your phone. With us, there’s no score, no winning, no failure. No ads, no difficulty, no notifications. There’s just us and our feelings 

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