I AM: Telling Black Women’s Stories of Coping and Thriving with Anxiety

Founders of Not Your Ordinary Films (NYOF), Jessica Chaney and Amanda Willoughby are the creators behind “I AM”, a documentary that launched in October. “I AM” centers on Black women who live with anxiety, tells stories about coping and thriving with a disorder that is often overlooked and misdiagnosed in Black women. Films that center Black women are often void of Black women working behind the camera and on the scene to ensure the voices are protected and the stories are told with honesty and dignity. These two women are changing the industry by choosing a career in film that centers Black voices through a mirroring lens.

Chaney and Willoughby met as co-workers at a Memphis Public Library and found a kinship in their shared desire to make movies. Willoughby, a graduate of the Memphis College of Art and a filmmaker, is the producer and editor for the project. She says their goal is to normalize Black people in mass media and tell the stories that are typically on the margins.

“We don’t want to make stereotypical Black content. We just want to tell everyday stories, normal stories, and these characters happen to be Black. Whatever comes along with being Black is going to show up in this story somewhere, anyway, because it’s our reality.”

Amanda Willoughby, producer and editor, Not Your Ordinary Films

“I AM” shares the dangers that lurk behind the shadows of anxiety that can render Black women strangers to their own thoughts. The force of this mental health disorder unveils the stark reality of the pressures and unfulfilled desires that silence Black women and often leave them to face the world alone.

The film was born out of personal experience for Chaney, director of the project, who suffered for years with anxiety. After participating in a director’s program at the University of South California (USC), she realized that telling her own stories could be a way to help others.

“Even from the time I was little, I’ve just genuinely enjoyed listening to people. I think people don’t understand how much others just want to be heard.”

Being understood and validated was a personal struggle for Chaney who for a very long time felt invisible. Although she has come to terms with this reality as a Black woman, some incidents still trigger these feelings.

“The other day, I was in Fresh Market, and I was in the middle of the aisle. Now, I am a fuller-figured girl, and I am in the middle of the damn aisle, and this white man was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even see you there!’ And I was like, ‘Sir, how did you not see ME and be bold enough to tell me?’”

Jessica Cheney, director, Not Your Ordinary Films

The women in the film are boldly telling their truths, unfiltered and uncensored. Like Chaney, they experienced exhaustion, frustration, depression, hurt and anger and realized they wanted more from life than these feelings that were holding them back.

Willoughby believes many aspects of Black women’s lives contribute to their anxiety, including racism, societal pressures and being expected to carry the burdens in all aspects of their lives. She says many Black women “Have the feeling that ‘if I do break, nobody is there to catch me, so I can’t be the one to break’.”

Chaney says that unlike other women, Black women are not allowed to have a full range of emotions. She wants this film to give Black women permission to feel joy.

Willoughby’s goal is for the film to resonate with Black women who want others to see their humanity.

“It comes back to people calling us intimidating, or I’ve heard aggressive, yet we’re always expected to be on top of things, and sometimes I am just winging it.”

Jackie, a participant in the documentary

They both acknowledge that Black women are often thrust into jobs and careers that can provide security for their families, sometimes forgoing their aspirations.

Chaney explains that becoming filmmakers has been a healing journey for them.

“Black women, we’re the doers and a lot of times, we don’t get the liberties to be the dreamers and the thinkers.”

She believes there is a huge pool of untapped talent among Black women who can be deterred by a lack of resources and guidance, which can lead to anxiety that shows up as irritability, anger and frustration.

Grae, a participant in the documentary

“As they grow as women and in their careers, they are unlearning behaviors embedded for generations, such as justifying wanting beautiful things, taking trips or changing careers.”

She believes that telling important stories from their perspective is a calling.

“It’s so important for us to be in this position where we are able to take ownership of these stories. This is where we feel most comfortable and where it feels like joy.”

The Co-Parenting Tightrope: Its Impact on Your Career

Navigating co-parenting as a single or newly separated/divorced parent may not initially seem like a workplace issue. Still, its ripple effects permeate every part of life—positive and negative—and can affect job performance. For some, a dysfunctional parental relationship can include constant arguing, refusing to communicate or unpredictable visitation, which can result in missed meetings, late arrivals, having to leave early, calling in at the last minute, court dates and being distracted with phone calls.

Alysha Price, founder of The Price Dynamic, a professional family coaching and engagement consulting firm, sees this behavior often with her clients, including single and co-parenting families, struggling to create a functional structure that allows each person to flourish. A product of a co-parenting single-parent household, Price found herself in a difficult co-parenting relationship and used what she learned to create a better environment for her son.

Alysha Price, found of The Price Dynamic in Minneapolis, MN

“In my process of parenting, I realized how much I was repeating things that I had grown up around, things that happened in my household. I realized how much I wanted to change some of those things and improve.”

When it comes to the effects of co-parenting on job performance, Price says many are unprepared for the toll it can take on their careers.

“You’re present, but you’re not mentally present. You’re spending a lot of work time contacting attorneys, navigating school and those types of transitions that happen.”

Price says that aligning what happens after school and who picks up or drops off the kids to their extracurricular activities can be stressful for parents trying to deal with their emotions from the relationship breakdown.

The stress can also fuel illnesses for the adults and their children, causing more missed days at work.

“You’re being somewhat of an executive assistant to your new family dynamic, and attendance is severely affected by illness. When your child is moving back and forth from one household to the next, things are affected, like their sleep and stability, which, of course, adds to their not being well.”

Marissa Johnson understands the effects of parental relationships on a family’s ecosystem. As a licensed clinical social worker, she works with adults and children to help them work through issues that impact every facet of their lives, including co-parenting, which can tremendously impact the workplace. When she found herself in a dysfunctional relationship while pregnant, she had to take stock and change course.

“I tried to keep the relationship going, and then when I was about seven months pregnant, I was just like, ‘nah, I’m not going to do this.’”

Johnson had a difficult co-parenting relationship when her daughter was born, which spurred her to start grad school so she could eventually find employment that paid enough to support a single-parent household. In the second year of grad school, she quit her job to focus on school alone and survived solely off student loans.

Marissa Johnson, licensed clinical social worker @marissa.motivates

“When we were going through the courts, I was doing my internship in grad school. We had to do a practicum, and I remember I was so emotional because we had court the day before, and I had to explain to them why I couldn’t even get through a sentence.”

The stress took a toll on her mental health.

“It impacted how I was showing up in my classes and at work. I wasn’t able to give my full self.”

Johnson says her supervisor, a Black woman, also a single mom, helped her through the situation and didn’t make her feel embarrassed when she shared her situation.

Price explains that it is important for supervisors to be empathetic, but worrying about their employees with co-parenting issues can take a toll on the company. She developed “Family Meeting Cards” to help families make better decisions that can reduce the negative impact on their careers.

“We give our clients tools that put the onus back on the employee to deal with their family dynamics, but in the same sense, teach effective communication skills and skills to discern what is appropriate to share at work.”

TaShara Caldwell knows all too well how family dynamics can impact career paths. A paraprofessional completing her internship for her master’s, she has to give 600 hours of free labor on top of her current job, which has prolonged completing the requirements.

“It’s hard to do that when you’re trying to also work and work around someone’s schedule.”

TaShara Caldwell @ateacherthoushallnottry with daughter

She and her ex-husband, a firefighter with an unpredictable schedule, often barter and negotiate who will take off work when their child has a doctor’s appointment, is sick or has a school function. Caldwell says early in their separation, communication was rocky.

“We would get in these battles of who is going to take off work, kind of whose time is more valuable than the others.”

Caldwell looked to couples counseling, even though divorce was eminent, to figure out how to navigate their new dynamic.

“His schedule is going to be his schedule and I am going to be a mom forever, so even though we are not together, we share a Google Calendar.”

She says even with the shared calendar, when she has to take off work unplanned, it impacts her job even though it is common practice for moms to leave work to take care of their children.

“Schools automatically call mom, even though they have both numbers, they just call mom.”

Sometimes Caldwell’s supervisor will ask if her ex-husband can go instead, often followed by personal questions she does not want to answer.

“It’s frustrating because you don’t want to tell everybody your business.”

According to Price, when the co-parenting relationship begins affecting job performance, employees should keep their chats with managers “brief to minimum” while communicating their needs and leave out details that are not necessary to share. She recommends talking with human resources to ensure a documented paper trail. 

When the parents cannot work together constructively, parallel parenting may be an option. This method allows each person to parent separately in all aspects of their child’s life, including doctor’s appointments, sports games and birthday parties. Text-only communication or using apps, such as Talking Parent, may stop parents from disruptive, negative communication yet allow them to keep abreast of schedules that include work trips, conferences or shift changes.

Johnson says text-only communication worked the best for her and her co-parent. Their relationship and her career improved when she took her emotions out of the situation and focused on herself.

“It’s very possible for you to have everything you want career-wise and still be a good mother. When things like this happen that set us back, like having to co-parent with people who aren’t easy to co-parent with, you start to develop these beliefs that it’s not possible or it’s too hard.  You can’t do it.”

Hair as healing: the healing power of Black hair salons

There is power in community, and I saw that growing up the daughter of a salon owner… I watched my mother nurture and heal those women in her salon, not just by making them look and feel beautiful but by talking with them, listening to them, and connecting with them. I’ve seen how much Black women’s emotions are attached to our hair and beauty.

–       Beyonce – Harper’s Bazaar interview August 10, 2021

Black hair is art, a language linked to our history and a part of our identity. Our hair affects how we see ourselves and how we are perceived in the world. Bursting with expression, it is deeply tied to those who have our permission to touch our hair. That’s why the relationship between Black women and their stylists is sacred, and the time spent in the shop should be therapeutic. Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka—head of psychology at the University of the District of Columbia, hairstylist and founder of PsychoHairapy—believes the link between routine hairstylist appointments and therapy can be a gateway to improved mental health. “Rituals are how we prepare our mind, body and spirit to receive something or do something,” she says. “The ritual of haircare…can help ready yourself for what you are about to face.”

Work is key to economic survival for most Black women who have a more difficult time than their peers coping with the unique stress associated with their jobs. “Half of my clients hate their jobs,” says Kay Simpson, owner and stylist at True Perfection Salon in Houston. “As I listen, I hear that many of them are there for the pay and not because they love it or feel supported,” she says.

“hair dying and cutting are ways Black women can express grief and loss.”

When clients are in the chair, they often share personal information with their stylists, who become pseudo-therapists, listening and giving advice after they have established trust. “Hairstylists are sort of a keeper of secrets,” says Mbilishaka. She trains hair care professionals in the art of active listening through her PsychoHairapy practice. She works with them to relax the natural instinct to give clients advice. “I recognized the hardest skill I had to learn as a therapist was how to listen. It’s really difficult.” She cautions that while in the chair, only part of the story may surface, so it’s best to be a safe place for the client to vent instead of looking for solutions.

In addition to listening to clients’ stories, hairstylists can hear what isn’t being said by evaluating the hair. “I’ve had clients whose hair is shedding, and the density has changed because of emotional stress from work and life,” says Simpson. Drastic changes to hairstyles can also be a sign that something is going on with the client. Mbilishaka says that hair dying and cutting are ways Black women can express grief and loss. Hair can also communicate if the client drinks enough water, sleeps and eats the right foods.

Stylists aren’t certified therapists, and that can be a heavy burden to place on them. For this reason, Mbilishaka focuses on practical skills in the PsychoHairapy curriculum, such as how to assess whether a client should seek professional help, including signs that they may either be of harm to themselves or others. Stylists also learn the distinctions between various mental health professionals and how clients can benefit from being connected to the right source. “Everyone gets a certified list of curated providers in their area so that if they want to refer a client to a therapist, they actually have names, locations and websites to share,” says Mbilishaka.

“Hairstylists are sort of a keeper of secrets”

Simpson agrees that it is vital for hairstylists to be able to see the signs that their clients need to seek professional help. However, she adds that mental health professionals should better understand the positive effects hair can have on their clients. “I wish doctors would prescribe for women to get their hair done as a part of therapy because it lifts their mood and can change their perspective.” According to Simpson, a new do can improve clients’ spirits. “I’ve seen women come in here feeling ‘a way’ and leave ready to go to happy hour or go back to work ready to slay.”

While many stylists focus on providing a service and helping their clients, Mbilishaka says they also need to practice self-care. “Hair care professionals actually need more detoxing, more self-care, more massages, more eating healthy, more comfortable shoes, more community and more water than other people.” She hopes to offer stylists retreats where they can receive the reciprocal opportunity to be loved, cared for and comforted to feel safe.

Dr. Afiya Mbilishaka, hair stylist and founder of PsychoHairapy
Kay Simpson, hair stylist and owner of True Perfection Salon