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The Fear of Owning My Joy

Playwrights’ Corner

Donja R. Love with a pink flower crown in his hair.
Donja R. Love. Photo Credit to Brandon Nick.
Last year, couldn’t nobody tell me I wasn’t Beyoncé. I was living a perpetual state of winning. I turned 30. I stepped into a space of peace that I’ve never known. I got a few playwriting fellowships and awards that came with some financial security. I was able to pay for my mom to have the birthday she always wanted. I got engaged. And I conquered the shame I’ve been dealing with for eight years, and publicly disclosed my status of being HIV+—and had one of my favorite playwrights write about it. I thought there was no topping 2016.

Then, 2017 happened. This year I’ve experienced life-changing highs. I married the man of my dreams. I’ve been asked to go overseas with my writing. I got accepted into Juilliard’s playwriting program. I landed an off-Broadway debut at a theater that holds such a rich history, with a play that highlights a legacy that means so much to me. And I’m finally being recognized as a playwright. In one word, this year has been lit.

I was filled with so much fire that, at moments—a lot of moments actually—all I could do was cry. I started to wear my own self out from how much I’d cry. But that was the best way for me to give thanks. Tears were my way of praising God for what felt like a baptism of blessings. Especially in May. That was the month when a lot of these blessings took place. One week I found out I was accepted into Juilliard and a week later I found out one of my plays would premiere off-Broadway.

With existing on the intersection of Black, Queer, and HIV+, I was use to life folding into itself so, at best, all I got were creases of joy. Simply put, I was used to feeling like a pre-No More Drama Mary J. Blige song.

But with all the positive things happening, I found myself getting used to joy. I frolicked in that state of being for weeks, floating between smiles and tears of joy. Then, at the end of May something shifted in me. Something inside me said, “Everything is going right, so something is bound to go wrong.”

And ever since that seed was planted, I’ve been dealing with crushing fear.

It started off as harmless superstition—not stepping on a crack in the ground or splitting a pole. Then it gradually became mini panic attacks. Many times I had to stop everything and concentrate on my breathing.

I’ve always been prone to think about the ‘what-ifs,’ but recently those thoughts have become overwhelming, debilitating even. What started out as sheer joy quickly morphed itself into an all-consuming dread.

It’s the kind of fear that makes it hard to breath. The kind of fear that keeps me up at night, that makes me sleep often so I can get out my head. It’s the kind of fear that wakes me up in the middle of the night and pray over my husband and for my loved ones so ‘nothing bad’ will happen to them. The kind of fear that eats away at my mental health by amplifying my OCD: when I have to clean every dish as soon as it gets in the sink, do everything the same every time, when I have to tear perfectly perforated pieces of toilet tissues and paper towels, when I have to do everything in even numbers, like putting on deodorant. It’s the kind of fear that tells me, “Words are powerful, so if you speak this to anyone it all will come true.” The kind of fear that makes it hard to even write this.

I’ve even dragged other people into my fear. Once when I was flying from Seattle back to New York, before my 3am flight, I had my best friend look for a lighter so I could sage the stone in my ring because someone touched it the night before and I remembered someone telling me that people’s energy can latch onto stones. I didn’t want someone else’s energy to harm my flight. My fear was so bad that right before getting on the plane, I called my husband repeatedly, needing to hear his voice, because that was the determining factor for me and everyone else on the plane to have a safe flight.

For months I was a prisoner of my fear that was inspired by my joy. But I didn’t think I had the right to go through what I was going through, because after all, so many wonderful things were happening to me, so why was I so afraid? I didn’t have the language to articulate what I was going through and didn’t think anyone else was going through this. That was until I came across a video. It was of Dr. Brené Brown on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.

Dr. Brown has a book titled Daring Greatly where she documents the years she’s spent interviewing hundreds of people who’ve become engulfed by shame and people who, like me, were too scared to own their joy.

In the Super Soul Sunday interview, she told Oprah something that karate chopped me right in my throat. She said, "When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding...I'm not gonna soften into this moment of joy because I'm scared it's gonna be taken away."

THAT…Exactly that is what I was going through.

Whenever I’d soften into a moment of joy, I’d think about something happening to cause me to not be able to go to Juilliard anymore, to have my off-Broadway debut taken away; or, worse, to lose someone I love.

Coming across that interview, and being reminded of that book were helpful… for a few days. Because fear quickly snuck up and placed a strong hold on me again.

As I write this I’m still learning how to own my joy. What I’ve gathered so far is therapy, my God, therapy is clutch. Talking honestly about my journey helps lift me out my fear; and I’ve noticed this fear has thrown me into my loved ones. I talk to them more, see them more, love them more. It’s also made me love me more because I don’t know what the next moment has in store.

Quiet as it’s kept, sometimes life is set up in a way where it seems like sadness is all we’ll permanently ever own. I’m learning that’s not me, not on my time. To Fear I say, “No, no, boo. I’m getting the keys to that house of joy that I own.”

Amen and Ashé.