I have a story to tell. But it hasn’t always been easy to share. I’ve never quite felt comfortable enough to see the discomfort, the fidgeting, fleeting “let me out” look that inevitably crosses Black folks’ face whenever the subject of mental health comes up. Don’t get me wrong, we love to laugh at “crazy” people and pay nice money to hear comedians poke fun at the pain (often their own) mental health carries with it.
See if we venture into an intimate or serious conversation about a personal experience with mental health, you’d swear you just opened up about a secret sexual fetish. Then folks start avoiding you, or treating you with kid gloves. I know it because I’m guilty of this behavior myself.
So… yeah. I’ve been hesitant about letting folks in on my story. But today I am so very grateful for The Siwe Project for providing a safe and empowering platform to project, exchange, and ultimately gather some virtual hugs and resources. Kicking off National Minority Mental Health Month, No Shame Day with all its outcomes is imperative to healing and whole ness of our entire community.
Not many people know that I suffered from post-partum depression. That was 12 years ago before there was so much “supportive” articles and testimonials. Still from what was out, almost none of it was reflective of my experience as a young African-American woman in the ghetto. That’s just real. Post-partum depression was seemingly reserved for white, middle to upper-class, stay-at-home, new mommies. Culturally, and reinforced in mainstream media, I got the message that I was not privileged enough to claim this as my mental health status.
But there I was, 23 years old, a mother to a 16 month old son and a newborn baby girl. I’d completed under grad while 6 months pregnant with my oldest. The plan was to nurture and dedicate my life to him for two years then head back to grad school. Well, obviously my plan didn’t mean a thing to the Universe. I had other lessons to learn outside of classrooms and lecture halls.
Without taking you the long way, let’s just say dealing with shame of being an unwed Black mother (hubby and I hadn’t taken our 5 year college romance to the matrimony stage yet); on public assistance; notwithstanding having a useless degree and grad school pushed out of my immediate sight left me feeling defeated. Add to that all my friends were finishing college; pursuing Masters or ambitious careers; partying and doing what young,vibrant, attractive twenty-somethings do. Me, I was changing diapers and rocking out to Elmo’s World. I found myself clinging to my sanity, feeling guilt and self-loathing for selfishly wanting my old life back. I had two very beautiful babies and their awesome father. Why was I feeling so down and deflated?
I didn’t even recognize that I was sinking deeper into a depression that only allowed me to nurse, change diapers, bathe, read bedtime books and do well-baby check ups. I neglected myself, did not style my hair, only hopped up to shower right before their father was scheduled to come home, then cooked. Except through very brief and reserved phone conversations, I removed myself from socializing with my friends and family. No one seemed to notice.
My one saving grace was my granny. Funny I didn’t realize it at the time, but she knew. She’d call me everyday to check in. Her sage wisdom let me know she’d been there before…with seven children I’m sure she had.
Not to mention, around this time it seemed as if more women’s magazines began dealing with depression in Black women. I recognized my symptoms and the fighter in me jumped back into the ring. I began writing feverishly; poetry and short stories, life mapping, and planning out my career steps. Soon I was teaching, subbing at first and then a full-fledged classroom instructor. My first students, the 6th grad class at Oakdale Christian Academy and the kitchen staff gave me life, “fattening me up” for my wedding gown, praying with/for me…just watching and counseling.
Magically music also helped me recover: Brandy, Faith Evans, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Billie Holiday, Anita Baker, Nina Simone, Angie Stone… No exaggeration that their music saved my life.
Later on, maybe a year or so ago, my father said something to me that prompted me to embrace the fact that, outside of post-partum, other factors make me susceptible to other forms of depression. He told me to take note and reflect on the behaviors of other family members, both paternal and maternal. Sure enough, I see “crazy” people. Now, ease up and don’t take offense I only use the term “crazy” because that is the one word our community seems to use to categorize anyone who displays ANY mental illness, no matter how big or small the issue. We lump all of our loved ones in the crazy pile, or come up with zany conclusions like, ” you know somebody slipped her/him a Mickey,” or “you know how those (fill in the zodiac sign) get.” What about the famous, “everybody’s got one in the family.”
The point of the matter is that living in this society, especially for girls like me who face an exhausting, often debilitating amount of tragedy and hopelessness, depression is a very real occurrence. So many, like me, go undiagnosed and self-treat. The danger in that is our self-treatment or self-medicating leads to alcohol and drug use or other destructive behavior including violence and the extreme, suicide.
So here I stand proudly sharing my story in support of The SIWE project, proclaiming No Shame.
Let’s also remember our literary genius, BeBe Moore Campbell, who authored 72 Hour Hold after learning her daughter, Maia Campbell battles a vicious form of mental illness.
Do you know anyone who has dealt with depression or other forms of mental illness?