Filmmaker Ashley Mills//Courtesy of Ashley Mills

On her 25th birthday, filmmaker Ashley Mills reflects on the mental exhaustion of always putting others before yourself.

In boxing, there is a fundamental move called, “protecting your house.” I recently learned this. Essentially, whatever position you find yourself in while fighting or sparring, you always bring your hands back to home base. Your cross hand protects your left side, and your jab hand protects your right – at least for those with right-hand jabs like me.

Albeit a seemingly simple idea, I’ve been heavily reflecting on this phrase as I approach my 25th orbit around the sun. What does it mean for one to “protect their house,” whether it be physically, mentally or spiritually? Growing up in this caustic, troublesome American society, we are taught the two-faced ideology of putting self first while also being so concerned with the wellbeing of others. I’ve always skewed heavier towards the latter, being other-oriented in most things I do. You lost a loved one? I’ll fight to be the first shoulder you cry on. You find yourself in a financial crunch? I’ll find my last dollars to give. You’re having a bad day? I’m bringing you chicken.

However, the necessities of adulthood quickly disrupted this idea that I had to be everything for everyone else. I realized I couldn’t expend as much energy towards helping others because I needed others to help me. I had to depend on others for housing, for financial backing, for emotional support. I’ve spent so many of these years simply learning to ask for help, be honest, and really stand in my truth. Yet I do not think the trouble rests in how others respond to this “need” mentality, but how it requires us to reframe our reference of self.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might be familiar with the regularly scheduled reads doled out by my therapist. Sometime last year, I was in her office venting about my documentary or career or one of the many things I catastrophize about on the daily. Through my mutterings, we eventually touched on this idea of balancing the intentions of your other-oriented self while also radically caring for yourself. She asked my opinion of a certain Black, could-be-described-as Hotepian, film director who has released problematic work in the last few years. I gave my list of issues and critiques. She responded with a question. “Of every criticism you just shared, has any of it changed who this person is? As a friend? As a coworker? As a parent?” I paused, gently receiving the clap back, and replied with a simple, “no.”

In that moment, I realized a truth: despite what others do or say in reference to me, they wield very little power in changing who I am. I can be beaten, bruised and banned by the world but if I know my truth, I cannot be moved.

But I knew there had to be another reason for my anxiety and constant stress. Why is my mind always on others, and so lacking when it came to myself? What I realized even more in this moment was my gut-wrenching fear of being deemed disposable in a world that disposes of others so quickly. This fear was pulsating so deeply in my life, my work and my interactions. It felt like taking part in some sick and twisted game that had no true out.

I carried this baggage for 24 years. I can’t enter my 25th year fronting like I’ve worked this toxicity completely out of my system. But, I’ve spent the last 21 days on The Daniel Fast, which bans meat, fish, dairy, additive sugar, coffee and alcohol from your diet. I’ve never eaten so many root vegetables in my life. Most people do the fast for health reasons, but it’s a spiritual journey for me. And, damn – I’ve learned more about the anger and bitterness I’ve been holding inside than I’ve ever cared to know. With an ass-hat president attacking marginalized citizens every day, an ass-hat mayor looking to build a $95-million cop academy in Chicago and the sheer toxic patriarchy within the film industry, it’s hard not to always be on the defense. As James Baldwin so eloquently put it, “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

What I didn’t realize before is that I typically internalize that rage and attack parts of myself. I’d be mad about my work. I’d be mad about not spending enough time working on my work. Or, I’d be mad about how I did or did not approach my work. These attacks loop in my head day-by-day. This year, though, I’m ridding this toxicity from my spirit.

No two houses are the same. “Protecting my house,” taught me this. My work cannot be at its best if the vessel is not healthy. So, happy birthday, sis. You’ve existed in this faulted world for a quarter of a century.

Run inward. Deeply cultivate all parts of yourself. Return the power of discovery back unto God’s green Earth.

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