“Although I didn’t touch on it earlier there is something else that came with me to Jozi. It impacted me tremendously and I think it’s time I shed some light on what that “something was…”
I ended my last post with the words above and I promised that my next post (this one) would be my most vulnerable and honest to date. *Breaths deeply*. Well…. *wipes sweaty palms*… Here it goes…
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 today. Here it goes, my truth moment: That “something” that I bought with me to Jozi was something that I’ve tried to hide for years – I have been suffering from depression for well over ten years.
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) but 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 simply let time go by and waited for those 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 – but was extremely depressed. I was in a funk that I couldn’t shake and I didn’t understand why and was unable to talk to my travel mates about because I was embarrassed. Instead, 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. 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 I personally feel – perhaps you can relate…
When I’m in a depressed state I am usually very reflective. However, the mirrors that I look into are fun house mirrors; they reflect what I feel deep inside. 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 (writing, reading, listening to music) or recreational activities (exercising and socializing).
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…” Instead of sharing how I really feel I try my best to “fake” my happiness, but it’s comes across as disingenuous and I stick out like a sore thumb. I notice the uneasy looks from those around me as they look at my face for a cue to help them figure out what’s going on in my head. Maybe these stares are because I don’t laugh as loudly as everyone else or maybe because I’m not as talkative as those around me – who knows.
“Put a smile on your face” or “smile” are two phrases that make me cringe the most. Why would anyone smile when they’re the opposite of happy? Why would anyone smile when they feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders and they can no longer 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 corresponding sad facial expressions that goes with it. 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 resort to being very quiet and inadvertently appear uninterested. The sadness is visible in my eyes (or so I’ve been told). On the inside I’m begging 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 because they have no idea what to say or do to make things better ignoring becomes the easiest solution. The invitations to go out become less and less frequent and I’ve noticed some friends pull away from me because no one wants to be around the “sad, ungrateful girl”. My quietness and sadness is perceived as an “attitude” or “draining” – who wants to be bothered with that?
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 stares, the ignoring, the being misunderstood. The stares feel like daggers, being misunderstood is a tangible pain that hurts to the core, and being ignored is the absolute worse – it feels like having a door slammed in your face when you’re locked outside in the middle of a torrential downpour. 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 end it all – a quick, painless death is most desirable after all – you don’t want to feel anymore pain. 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 think about which option you wish to take to end the pain.
You’re tormented. You feverishly pray to God help, but often feel like He has forsaken you – after all it was Him that said that he wouldn’t give you more than you could bear. However, in these dark times you feel like you CANNOT bear it and are mad at Him for not removing the burden of depression from your life. The combination of having a glum outlook on life and being ignored by friends and loved ones makes the decision to commit suicide all the more realistic and easier.
I remember when I thought I was ready to end it all. Several months ago I put a multi-colored cotton neck scarf around my neck and tied it to one of my closet doorknobs. I tightened it as I sat Indian style in the hallway of my brownstone apartment. 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 wrote a letter and leaned forward then closed my eyes, then I opened them several seconds later. I couldn’t do it because I was was too scared to go through with it. Instead, I walked down the hall, blinded by my tears, and climbed into my bed to cry myself to sleep – I didn’t wake up until the next day, some 12 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 professional for help. Sometimes we need more than “the word”. Don’t ignore a depressed loved and leave them in isolation (to their own devices) because nothing good becomes 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 extreme melancholy and suicidal thoughts for several days. 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 received from my company’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program – an employee benefits program offered by many employers). I specifically requested a Black woman because I knew that she would understand me. Therapist after therapist told me that they didn’t have evening hours and things started to look bleak. Would I be able to find someone to help me? Before arriving on the absolute last name on the list of more than ten therapists, I prayed. When the therapist answered she told me that she not only had evening hours, but that she would see me that night because she could sense the urgency and desperation in my voice.
I made my way to the East Village and entered her office. Upon entrance the levy broke and my tears flowed haphazardly from my eyes. The therapist gave me tissues while simultaneously telling me that I was in a safe space. I sat on her couch and told her that I needed her to help me figure out if I was crazy. I will never forget her response – it was the response that made me decide 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, to getting over mistreatment as a young girl, to coping with a mom that also suffers from mental illness (and being fearful that I would have the same experience that she had with her illness). After several months of therapy that included rational talk and restructuring my thought process (I didn’t need pills, because talk therapy is what my depression responds to) I’ve been on a steady road to recovery. Do I still have my bouts with depression? Of course I do, but they’re don’t last as long and aren’t devastating as they used to be. Taking a chance and talking to loved ones has also been extremely helpful for me. I no longer feel like I have to carry the burden alone. I no longer have to “fake it” – I can just be me and talk about my feelings without the fear of being misunderstood or ignored.
Will I ever stop therapy, probably not. Therapy has been life-changing for me. It’s good to talk about things instead of bottling them up and letting them corrode my mind. While I have been able to go weeks without it, I find myself needing it now and again and I am not ashamed to admit that. 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 no longer be a badge of shame and dishonor. You are NOT alone, there are so many out there suffering – especially in our community. As you talk about it you will discover this and that alone will give you solace in your depressed state. If you suffer from depression, start with your company’s EAP for assistance or talk candidly to your friends and loved ones so you’re not suffering in silence. There is light at the end of the tunnel and you deserve to bask in that light with me.
Until Next Time Friends!