“But I’m not crazy, I’m just a little unwell // I know right now you can’t tell // But stay awhile and maybe then you’ll see // A different side of me… “ – Unwell, Matchbox Twenty
I was born a man! OK, that’s not the truth. Even when I try to be serious I resort to using my defense mechanism (humor) to deflect from the matter at hand. Humor makes me feel comfortable and safe – which is exactly what I want (and NEED) to feel right now as I sit here with the spotlight on me. Perhaps this spotlight moment will give someone else the courage, strength, and/or insight that they need. Here it goes, my truth moment: That “something” that I’ve tried to hide for years – I have been suffering from depression for the majority of my adult life.
I’m not talking about “the blues” that usually go away after a few hours, I’m talking about the kind of depression that lasts for days. The kind of depression that makes you want to stay in bed and sleep the pain away. The kind of depression that makes you spontaneously cry incessant tears (in the privacy of your own home or in public) and you can’t figure out why. The kind of depression that makes you afraid to be vulnerable with people because you’re fearful that they’ll judge you. The kind of depression that makes you calmly and strategically devise a plan to end your life.
Something Ain’t Right (in the Buttermilk)…
I knew my feelings were deeper than just “the blues” for quite some time, but didn’t do anything about it. I prayed to God for His help and simply let time go by as I waited for my dismal feelings to subside. However, these deeply sad feelings came to a head when I was in my early twenties. I was miserable in paradise – literally in paradise on my first trip abroad to Punta Cana, DR with my sister, our cousin, and her roommate. There I was surrounded by turquoise waters, palm trees, friends & family, and beautiful views – and I was despondent. I was in a funk that I couldn’t shake and I didn’t understand why. I was too mortified to speak to my travel mates about because, shame so I reached out to my mom and an older friend (via phone) for advice on coping and anxiously awaited my my return home.
What Does It Feel Like?
How does depression feel? Hmmm, this is usually a daunting task to describe to your friends and loved ones. So daunting, that I seldom do it. However, I am writing this post in an effort to be completely transparent so I will this feeling to the best of my abilities.
Describing how you feel is hard because you render yourself completely vulnerable and open to judgement from people that simply do not get it – trying to understand unwarranted deep dark feelings that leave you helpless is unfathomable to them. While I cannot speak for everyone, I will describe how depression feels for me, perhaps you’ll be able to relate.
When I’m in a depressed state I’m exceedingly reflective. The mirrors that I look into are deceptive fun house mirrors that reflect things that simply are not there. However, in my depressed state they are and they are obvious to everyone around me. My perceptions are distorted and my biggest insecurities are exacerbated. “Why did I do this with my life? or “Why didn’t I do that with my life?” are questions that I often ask. I tend to focus on ALL of my failures in life instead of my many accomplishments and achievements. In addition, the lethargy is extreme – I don’t have a desire to go out and do anything – even my once loved go to hobbies or recreational activities.
In this dark place I often do my best to isolate myself because it’s easier. I don’t have to worry about explaining why I’m so quiet or glum to my friends, loved ones and colleagues. On the flip side, if I attempt to socialize while in a depressed state, I find that people often ask me “what’s wrong”, but in reality are seldom ready for the real response – “I’m depressed. I can’t stop crying. I’m afraid of my own thoughts. I’m suicidal…” I mask my feelings and try my best to appear happy, but it usually comes across as disingenuous. and I stick out like a sore thumb. I notice the uneasy glares from those around me as they look into my face for a cue on how to help them figure out what’s going on in my head. Whether they glare because I don’t laugh as loudly as everyone else or because I’m not as talkative as those around me it doesn’t matter. All I know is that it makes me feel like an outcast in that very moment.
“Put a smile on your face” or “smile” are two phrases that make me cringe the most. Why would anyone smile when they’re sorrowful? Why would anyone smile when they feel as if the weight of the world is on their shoulders and they’re buckling from the burden trying to carry it? I’ve often felt that when someone tells me to smile it is said so that THEY can feel more comfortable – after all they don’t understand mental illness and the correlating facial expressions. In fact, I’m convinced that MY melancholy behavior is too much for THEM to bear.
When “faking it” becomes too tough and I’m no longer able to smile on cue, I stop trying. I stop contributing to conversations and try my best to blend in with the background inadvertently appearing uninterested with a visible sadness in my eyes (or so I’ve been told). On the inside I’m begging, pleading, and screaming to be understood, but no one hears me. I feel lonely and afraid. Friends and loved ones take notice of my sadness, but have no idea what to say or do to make things better so ignoring becomes the easiest solution. The invitations to go out become less and less frequent and I’ve even noticed certain “friends” pulling away because after all – no one wants to be around the “sad, ungrateful girl”, right?
What people don’t understand is that individuals with depression don’t choose sadness, SADNESS CHOOSES THEM. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, it barges into your room, apartment, house, hostel, hotel room, or villa and disrupts your day. Depression is an attention whore with one goal – to steal your joy and leave you in despair. “Pay attention to me! Nothing else matters, but ME! I am the only thing that you will focus on now and I don’t care how much I hurt you, drain you, or distort your outlook on life. I will command ALL of your attention and you can’t do anything about it.”
Aside from the exhaustion of depression, there’s another “whore” that I have to deal with – her friend, hypersensitivity. I become hypersensitive to EVERYTHING; the glares, feeling misunderstood, and being ignored. The glares feel like daggers to my soul, being misunderstood is a tangible pain that hurts to the core, and being ignored is the absolute worse – it feels like having a door after door slammed in your face when you’re seeking refuge from torrential downpours without an umbrella to shield you. Once I’ve spiraled into this dark abyss the only thing I can think about doing is planning an escape.
The Great Escape
The pain, my God – the pain is indescribable and unbearable. You cry, cry, and then you cry some more; the tears are gut-wrenching and blinding. Often times death feels like the only logical escape so, you devise a plan to lead you to a quick, painless ending to your agonized life. Overdosing on pills (sleeping pills, heavy narcotics, and/or pain meds), hanging, jumping from a high building or bridge, gunshot to the head, slitting your wrists – they’re all on the other side of your tears as you composedly think about which alternative you wish to take to end the pain.
You’re tormented. You feverishly pray to God help, but feel like He’s forsaken you – after all it was Him that said that he wouldn’t give you more than you could bear. Yet, there you are living a life that feels unbearable. Your anger for Him intensifies and you blame him, perhaps even curse at him for not having mercy on you and saving you from yourself. Having a glum outlook on life and being ignored by friends /loved ones makes the decision to commit suicide seem logical.
I remember when I thought I was ready to end it all. Several months ago I sat Indian-style in my hallway and (tightly) tied multi-colored cotton scarf around my neck and placed the other end of the scarf around one of my closet doorknobs. It would have to do because I didn’t have the means to suspend myself from my ceiling. I leaned forward so I could feel the pressure – I needed to know that it would asphyxiate me and end my pain once and for all. It was extremely tight, but I continued to lean forward because I was ready… or so I thought. I glimpsed at the letter that I’d written earlier that day and leaned forward while closing my eyes. A few seconds later I opened my eyes. I couldn’t do it because I was was too scared to go through with it. Who would find me? How long would it take for my decaying body to be discovered? Would I be missed? Would I be blamed for being selfish? Countless thoughts invaded my mind – it was too much and I felt overwhelmed. I now felt like an even bigger failure because I couldn’t even end my life properly. I freed myself from the self-made noose, got up, walked down the hall (blinded by my tears) and climbed into my bed to cry myself to sleep – not waking until some twelve hours later.
How Can You Help?
You don’t tell someone with a physical illness to “snap out of it”, “cheer up”, or “smile” – yet these things are said over and over again to those with mental illness. Stop telling individuals with mental illness to “snap out of it” because quite frankly, we can’t. Mental illness is far more complex than ANY physical illness because it deals with the most intricate organ of the human body – the brain. Despite many years of research, the intricacies of this organ are a mystery and still baffle the minds of scientists today.
Despite how powerful God and your faith in Him are you cannot “pray depression away”. Instead of suggesting that a depressed loved one go to church for a cure, point them in the direction of a professional for help. Sometimes we need more than “the word”. Don’t ignore a depressed loved one and leave them to their own devices in isolation because nothing good will become of it. Instead, embrace them, hug them, smile at them, and tell them that you love them. Hold their hand. Reassure them. Tell them that you’re there to listen when they’re ready to talk and sit there in silence. Knowing that we’re not alone makes a world of a difference for someone suffering from depression.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
I found the light at the end of my dark tunnel in September of 2013. I had been struggling with feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts for several days and sought help with a high sense of urgency. On this particular day, I took my lunch break (outside of the office) and proceeded to go down the list of mental health professionals that I’d received from my company’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program – an employee benefits program offered by many employers to provide therapy services as needed). I specifically requested a Black woman because I knew that she would understand me; my struggles with what W.E.B DuBois described as double consciousness, my fears, and my general upbringing as a Black woman. I phoned therapist after therapist with hopes of scheduling an appointment after work, but I was repeatedly told that their offices didn’t have evening hours. Things started to look bleak, but I didn’t give up. I kept calling until I arrived on the absolute last name on the list of more than ten therapists and prayed before I phoned her. She answered and informed me that she not only had evening hours, but would be able to see me that night because she could sense the desperation in my voice.
I made my way to the East Village and entered her office with much trepidation. I sat on her plush eggshell three-cushioned sofa and the levy broke. My tears flowed haphazardly from my eyes and she gave me tissues while simultaneously telling me that I was in a safe space. I gained my composure and told her that I needed her to help me figure out whether or not I was crazy. I will never forget her response – it helped me decide that she was the one for me. “I don’t know if you’re crazy, but I’m going to help you figure it out.” She exuded a genuine calmness and soothing energy that I was immediately drawn to.
I needed help getting through a plethora of issues from learning how to be vulnerable with men, getting over mistreatment as a young girl (at the helm of my mentally disturbed brother – for years I was subjected to emotional, verbal, and physical abuse from him and kept it to myself for fear that he would kill me), to coping with a mom that also suffers from mental illness – and being fearful that I would have the same experiences that she had with her illness. After several months of talk therapy (learning how to reframe and restructure my thoughts) I noticed a change in my spirit. I was recovering! I hadn’t had suicidal thoughts in months and I actually felt optimistic about life again.
Do I still have my bouts with depression? Of course I do! However, my stints with it don’t last as long and are nowhere near as devastating as they used to be. I no longer see my therapist on a regular basis (because she closed her private practice years ago), but do seek out therapy sessions with other licensed professionals when need be. Additionally, I now speak openly and candidly to loved ones finding comfort in their encouragement and support. I no longer feel like I have to carry the burden alone and I no longer have to “fake it”. I now have the luxury of being me, authentically – without the fear of being misunderstood or ignored.
Will I ever stop therapy, probably not. It’s been life-changing for me and it actually feels good to talk about things instead of bottling them up and allowing them to corrode my mind. Finding this light at the end of the tunnel has been a long time coming and I embrace it.
Talk About It!
Start the conversation, it’s high time that mental illness in the African-American community be normalized! It should no longer be seen as a badge of shame and dishonor. You are NOT alone; there are so many broken, emotionally damaged individuals living amongst us trying to get through life the best way they know how. If you are suffering from depression or know someone that is, I implore you to take a chance and share your story and/or encourage your loved one to do the same. Start with company’s EAP for assistance or talk candidly to your friends and loved ones so you’re not suffering alone. There is light at the end of the tunnel and you deserve to bask in that light with me.
*Previously published in May of 2015, revised in November 2017