I remember the first time I truly realized that something wasn’t right. I always had some issues before of feeling alone and obsessing over the little things. Then, as I got older, I noticed that they weren’t necessarily normal feelings, but also that not many people displayed “normal” behavior.
The first time I asked my family to see a therapist, I was 17. One of my best friends was on anti-depressants at 15, and I couldn’t understand. She had her family, money, and anything she could’ve wanted. And I thought, “What does she have to be depressed about?” Funny enough, the irony boomeranged on me 10 years later.
Occasionally, I would have uncontrollable outbursts throughout my childhood, crying spells where I was truly unhappy, paranoia that I would never succeed in life. I never thought that I was good enough. I was compulsive about order and cleanliness. I would hoard myself in my room and read and write to escape the physical hell that my mind mentally constructed. I’d cry myself to sleep. I thought that there were things wrong with me. And, coming from a very Christian family with rough upbringings, I was even more upset that my family thought that my depression was a mockery of their own shortcomings from their youth. And as bad as I felt about their feelings, I still could not hide the angst, burning pressure inside of me that I did not want to exist. And I knew that the only way that people would truly understand my pain was if I just faded from earth. Then, they’d know that I wasn’t making it up, or then I’d know that they actually cared.
A series of things happened throughout my childhood and into my adulthood that contributed to my psychological development: parents divorcing; moving to another city; adjusting into an all-white neighborhood that was lower income (and yes, that makes a difference); being the only kid in a class and being singled out during Black History Month; moving to another city; being the only fair-skin black kid in class at a predominately urban, black school; being the teacher’s pet in said-class; family disagreements; a new school; battles with self-image; never being black enough still; bullies; more subtle bullying; family bullying (yeah, it exists there as well); more family divorces; relationship bullying; pressure into being someone I didn’t want to be; and failure (or so I thought) when I tried to become the person I wanted.
While in high school, I always placed pressure on myself. I had to do better, had to be better, and I thought that my family wouldn’t accept any less. And then, I developed chest pains. Each bout of chest pains resulted in my parents taking off early from work and assisting me to the doctor, where the only question they’d ask was what I ate for the day.
“Maybe it’s heart-burn.”
“It’s not heart-burn,” I’d say. “I know the difference between chest pains and heart-burn.”
But they wouldn’t listen and it would continue. Sometimes, the doctor would throw around that it could be stress, and that’s where the topic would die.
“You’re just having chest pains because of stress.”
Solution? There was none.
The chest pains continued throughout high school, into college, and into my adulthood, where they began to accompany endless migraines that would push on for hours and even into the next day. Cold sweats would take place, light-headedness would make me woozy. Then, there were the infamous spells of vertigo. That’s when I knew something was wrong. From the time I was 17? It took eight years for me to get the professional help I knew I needed.
The first time I experienced a major cocktail of anxiety, depression, chest pains, vertigo, cold sweats, and dizziness, I was at work and had to leave early to go to the emergency room. I had no idea what to expect. But later, that trip followed with regular meetings with a psychiatrist and therapist. It was odd, at first, explaining the internal pain, something that you cannot detail enough to someone who cannot sympathize. But it was even more frustrating and heartbreaking to get to the point of how your body ends up there. My story started with my childhood. And things that I thought bothered me weren’t even the real issues. Instead, it was all of the little things over the years that I was forced to give a blind eye and say it was OK when really my heart was screaming to let go.
But as my journey continued, I found out that mental illness is not necessarily something induced throughout your life. It’s also hereditary. So, I did my genetic homework.
Especially as black women, so many things in life are placed on our daily plates of what we’re supposed to handle. Take our childhoods and add our professions and being stigmatized as black women, our relationships and being stigmatized as black women, and just walking around in public and being stigmatized as black women, that’s enough to handle within itself. But add our genetic makeup and any illnesses that run within our family and add our post-traumatic slave syndrome and the fears and hesitations we have just as black people and women, there are so many factors in our lives that play with our internal chemical balances.
As a woman entering my 30s, I’ve become much more open about my psychological progression because I know that it is something that is not my fault. I know that it is not something that I could have prevented. But I do know that it’s something that I can manage. More so, I hope that more blacks can be open to speaking about it if one by one we describe our personal experiences, no matter how embarrassing it may be for some to hear. Even people who are close to me may not want to hear it, but it’s my truth. Even men who I date and may use it as an excuse to call a black woman “crazy;” well, he’s a good excuse to be a called a “waste of fucking time.”
First of all, no one is perfect. Like our bodies aren’t perfect and always in complete health, our minds aren’t perfect either. And I could never follow a church or a so-called Christian who thought that I wasn’t giving my life to God if I was experiencing some mental ailments. And I tried in the beginning. In the beginning, I cried so hard because I sincerely thought my life was over. I sincerely wanted to take it and end the mental pain that I felt. I remember the night so clearly when I was 18 that I thought the devil wanted me and that no one understood. I went to church the next day looking for help, looking throughout the congregation to see if they saw my pain. And I didn’t know who to talk to because mental health seemed to have been such a taboo topic in the black community.
Thankfully, that is starting to change. But it still isn’t where it should be. With more people who express their journeys and personal stories, we can all collectively seek the help we need. Even if it’s nothing serious. Every single person should have someone with an unbiased opinion to talk to, to give them sound advice, to hear whether or not they are actually mentally healthy. It is not a weakness to have a therapist. The weakness is within the person who thinks the subject matter is irrelevant. More than likely they’re hiding something, and they don’t want to address it.
I’ve mentioned it before in other blog posts that many of my decisions were based on poor self-esteem or that I wanted to be the person who someone else wanted me to be, or I just didn’t have enough faith in myself to carry my goals and dreams to fruition. I knew that I was meant to be someone greater, but I still felt like a peon in a world of giants. I felt powerless, even of my own future.
My first memory of “acting out of character” was when I was about 8 years old. I had an outburst and screamed because some kids came in my room to play, and things — cleanly-wise — got out of order. Over the years, I had more outbursts where I couldn’t control words that I said, couldn’t remember some things that I said, I had blackouts from anxiety, panic attacks and hyperventilation, semi periods of manic depression, and I still have to have things in a specific order, but I know how to handle who I’ve always been without inflicting some sort of pain. And there were also ways that I would cope with my internal struggle. I’d shop for clothes to feel more important, shop for books to feel smarter and give myself more goals, shop for makeup and beauty products to feel more attractive. I’d clean and rearrange my apartment, over and over; I had to mentally cleanse my mind. And then I realized that I could’t fill an everlasting void with a physical supply. I had to find an emotional stimulation to bridge that gap.
Occasionally, I still have panic attacks, and I’ve come to spot an oncoming chest pain like I’m looking for a sale at Sephora. But it does concern me about others who are unable or unwilling to spot the signs.
The holiday season is known for a rise in suicides and depression, as people are especially feeling lonesome. The people who you think are so strong, we are not as armored as you think. Typically, we’re the ones who are shielding the most or in denial. It’s not a weakness; it’s not an embarrassment. Self-care is more than a spa day, but it’s also having an open conversation to air things out that you never knew were an issue. It’s finding temporary supplements when your body experiences an imbalance until you find a longterm, natural solution. Addressing those concerns is the first way to get over the battle to the point where eventually they become nothing. And eventually, you experience a sense of yourself that you never knew existed, and you find what your “normal” really is.