If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that the need to extend our understanding of self-care and self-preservation are imperative. Since the pandemic began, honest discussions have been taking place and resources are increasingly being shared to incorporate wellness in ways that are actually helpful and realistic. It has been shocking to come to terms with the realities of how we are spending our time, the unrealistic workload expectations that weigh heavily on our shoulders, and to realize where we are lacking in caring for ourselves in loving, healthy ways.  

In the midst of this time, Black women are at the forefront of pushing our community to pay ardent attention to the call for resting, pausing, and taking inventory of how our society discourages us from doing so. There’s nothing new about Black women leading the way in creating spaces for our well-being that extends beyond the physical, especially when we understand the unique obstacles imposed onto us that shorten our very lives and disrupt our quality of life.

Dr. Brittany Conners is an occupational therapist that I’ve had the privilege to befriend in the last year. Occupational therapy is a form of therapy that bolsters rehabilitation so that clients can perform the activities necessary for daily life and their unique interests. We connected through a presentation I gave on disability rights and a friendship grew out of our passions for uplifting and centering Blackness in the work we do.

In one of our conversations, Conners shared plans to host her first virtual PAUSE retreat, and I loved the concept and signed up. Stated succinctly on her website, “PAUSE gives you skills to retreat within using silence.” It was the best money I’ve put toward my self-care and wellness journey, and it set the course for me to dig my heels into prioritizing these two needs in the new year.  

After attending the retreat, I talked with Conners to learn more about the experience of being a Black woman in occupational therapy; how her work sits at the intersection of rest, wellness, and mental health; and what advice she has for Black women and femmes navigating life in the pandemic. This interview has been edited and condensed.  

Vilissa Thompson: As one of just a few Black women working in occupational therapy, what has been your experience in the field?

Dr. Brittany Conners: The way I think, talk, and walk brings such a different experience to my clients and settings. Seeing a client breathe a sigh of relief when I strut into the room is an image I never take for granted. I keep my bounce, I relax my tongue, and therapy teleports us to the cookout, catching up like we’re long lost cousins. There’s something about seeing someone who looks like you [and] being served by someone who gets you.

Black women make up about 4% of the profession. So, seeing Black students and practitioners inside or considering the field swells my heart. My professional duty is loving on Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks because being Black in the field can be very isolating. I’ve spoken to many Black students who weren’t invited to contribute on group projects or have their intelligence questioned throughout an entire academic career. Listening to students cry after being ridiculed by classmates, missing marks for professionalism due to rocking natural hair, and more breaks my heart. Students are suffering and enduring trauma to crawl to the other side. I love what I do as an OT [occupational therapist], yet as a profession, we must do better now. After watching the outpouring of protests after Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more last summer, I stepped back from a field that was overwhelmingly silent. What I do know is that I will continue to challenge the profession because I love it.

Thompson: You’ve had your business, Optimistic Theory, for two years now.  How did you get started on your own? What made you want to set your own path in your profession?

Conners: I was looking out my window on a flight to South Africa in May 2018 to present at my first international conference when I felt an impression on my heart to take a leap. High in the sky, I made up my mind that I would start my own business. I had no idea how to do it or even what it would entail; I just knew I had to take a chance on myself.

The motivation prior to this moment was constantly seeing the gaps in care. I primarily worked in community-based, mental health settings. At all times, a lack in funding, hope, and innovation was present. I didn’t like that. Simple tweaks that could lead to major changes were enacted slowly or presented as if a cataclysmic realization was required for success to transpire. I didn’t like that either.

I was tired of waiting for the good to prevail while the evil never took a day off. Looking out into the field, I could pinpoint parts of practices or people that I admired but never fully saw myself. When I began to learn more about business skills and practices, entrepreneurship appeared to be a way to bring awareness to what OTs do as well as help us work where we want to in the community.

Thompson: How did the idea for PAUSE retreats come to you?  

Conners: PAUSE was created in response to an urgent personal need to retreat within when my world became extremely noisy. I developed the retreat on the side of my bed in my favorite notebook after months of taking care of my father who survived multiple strokes in July 2019. Although I implemented self-care for myself and siblings, the stroke recovery process is long and exhausting. The great part about being an entrepreneur was that I quickly decided to stop taking clients. The hard part was missing income, which meant I didn’t have the money or time for a long getaway to a place like Bali. I needed to be within range of my father’s house in north St. Louis County if he or my siblings needed assistance. So, I Googled ways to create calm in my space and silent retreats came highly recommended. I read an article about how to do a silent retreat at home and spent eight hours in silence. After months of talking with numerous doctors and serving as a liaison between my family as a healthcare professional, I was glad to be in silence with no expectations to say, do, or be anything. The hours of silence recharged me and gave me life back. From then on, my passion blossomed into sharing the peace I experienced with others.

At the beginning of 2020, I was scheduled to host my first retreat. When COVID hit, everything changed and I could no longer host the event I envisioned. My heart didn’t want to give up, though. In July 2020, my thought was to just try sessions on Instagram with whoever would come. It was nerve-wracking! I thought about connection, safety, and how to make it feel like we were together even though we were far apart. PAUSE, along with the PAUSE community, was the best thing to happen to me during the entire pandemic. I looked forward to every Saturday and the response has shown me that others look forward to being more present as well.

Thompson: Why do we need PAUSE retreats, and need to pause in general?

Conners: Through online conversations with today’s modern and busy adults throughout the pandemic, I’ve learned the average adult is unaware of the effects of leading busy, uber-connected lives. Many adults described crashing, becoming burned out or exhausted before giving themselves permission to take a break. Others mentioned the influence of social media exacerbated grind culture, which reflects working all the time. Examples and expectations like this lead to imposter syndrome, longing for purpose in life, or individuals feeling disconnected. By blending work, home, and school, new problems arise and contribute to the constant cycle of tiredness in adults around the world. After actively listening for a solution, I now know there is a clear desire to safely rest in community with others for connection and refuge in a noisy world without feeling guilty or judged.

The concept of PAUSE is to give people the power to stop and recharge. My chosen mediums are virtual and in-person silent retreats. Silent retreats encourage attendees to slow down and regain focus on what’s truly important. In a nonstop world with a nonstop brain, we need to pause. Our decisions, trajectories, and emotional intelligence are challenged when we neglect the signs our bodies, our beings attempt to give us as danger approaches. We need to pause because we need to hear our inner selves.

Thompson: What are the benefits to pausing and silence?  

Conners: Benefits including decreased insomnia, better sleep, increased emotional intelligence, increased self-awareness, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. Anxiety can be relieved, blood pressure lowered, and your responses empowered. Your digital diet and awareness of personal tech usage improves as well. Once you practice for five minutes each day, you’ll crave more time to yourself. Silence may begin to be your choice over your favorite songs. You can feel the benefits of silence in as little as two minutes. After two hours, you can regenerate brain cells. My personal favorite is the ability to create a new sense of time. In quieting our individual spaces, we are combating noise pollution, which has harmful effects on our lives, wildlife, and the environment.

Thompson: How has pausing benefited you personally, and how do you bring that insight into your sessions?

Conners: I am much more confident. I can access my thoughts with greater clarity, and the aha moments rack up when I pause. During a PAUSE, I share vulnerably about what happens when I take time for me. The biggest benefit is the realization that my life is being lived right now. I don’t feel like time is slipping away or moving hellishly fast. I’ve healed my relationship with time after feeling like my college studies took so much of what I felt was my free time away. Through storytelling, sharing, and examples, I convey the extent to which I believe in honoring the pause. Then, I facilitate discussion and offerings from the group as a whole. An incredible feeling is watching a group of people that just met open up the most sensitive and valuable info of their lives to support someone else.

Thompson: What are the major takeaways you hope participants retain from your retreats?

Conners: It’s okay to take a break. You do not have to work until you deserve a break. Your worth is not tied to your work.

Thompson: What words would you give Black women and femmes as we navigate the uncertain times of a pandemic and a country at critical mass about the importance of pausing? How can we amplify prioritizing self-care for self-preservation?

Conners: Black women and femmes, continue to do your work and create space for regular pauses. I know it feels like nothing moves without our power and energy. Yet, we must recharge, unplug, and take a moment to just be with no expectations, roles to fulfill, or tasks to complete. Whatever you aspire to do will get done. Step away. Show yourself how it’s done. When we pause, we give others permission to do the same. Also, if you skip or neglect activities connected to wellness, you make room for illness. Resist the tempting path of the unavoidable crash or flashing lights. I heard a beautiful saying about spaces between music notes. Essentially, without the space between music notes, there would be no music. Just noise. There’s enough of that in our daily lives. We can amplify prioritizing self-care for self-preservation by deeming pauses non-negotiable. Schedule, block, protect, and use your pauses wisely. Visualize how you’ll look enjoying a few moments of silence. Your pauses may look dramatically different from the next Black woman or femme. That is okay. Take a nap. Rest. Eat lunch! Eat alone or slow down enough to taste your food. Don’t skip sustaining meals and an opportunity to let your mind wander. Your best ideas, whether they be for you or a business, will come to you when you pause. You want that breakthrough? Take a break.

Vilissa Thompson

Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a contributing writer covering gender justice at Prism. A macro social worker from South Carolina, she is an expert in discussing the issues that matter to her as a Black disabled...