I’ve been writing about my mental health since I was a little girl, I needed a way to make peace with it. My first depressive episode happened a few years before hitting puberty, but I had no idea what to make of it so I never spoke about it with anyone. There were times when I felt I literally couldn't speak, that I couldn't open my mouth to talk or sing or yell- it was as if my jaw was nailed shut. I would write the most during those times. I would record, in my third-grade vocabulary, my excessive worrying, fatigue, and irritability in colorful spiral notebooks covered in Spice Girls stickers. To grow up in this society -which is run by racists, sexists, capitalists, and scammers- as a black female can be a lonely experience. To grow up as a black female living with a mental illness is nothing short of isolating, but I intuitively found a companion in writing, a confidant I could trust.
I've attempted to write something substantial a few times, something more than the usual journal entries on my mental health but never see it through- the thought of completion is terrifying. I can’t be sure I’ll recognize the person who emerges from the other side once all my thoughts are laid out in a well-crafted essay. There are times when the writing takes over my body. Words pour out of my mouth and before I know it I have pages filled with my handwriting; during the possession, I am undressed and a layer of skin is shed to make room for a new version of myself. I've got to be sure I'm ready for the change.
There have been so many essays, none of them good enough for me. My latest attempt at writing a cohesive and in-depth essay turned into ten pages of me rambling. Poetically, of course. I jumped from one subject to another in each paragraph. I read every paragraph written at least nine times in a row, in a subconscious search for perfection, I meticulously combed through every sentence. I needed my intentions to be clear so I obsessed over the words and phrases used. To write this, whatever it is, is to escape. To run from myself, to forget memories I don't care to relive, to feel lighter. While editing and writing I continuously think to myself, this is it, writing this is gonna free me. It’s gonna solve all of my problems, I’m gonna come out of this as the person I’ve been dreaming of.
When I started writing this version of a rambling essay, I wanted to discuss how my childhood depression aligned with the prison industrial complex. Then it turned into my childhood depression and the alarming rates of mental health disorders among black children. Then it evolved into a discussion about my childhood depression and black feminist therapy. I lightly mentioned how they affected me, but deflecting my personal issues onto these elements alone won't free me. I believed for a very long time that airing the details of my mental health and family history would do the trick. I'm sure it's therapeutic to finally expose the one thing you've hid your entire life, but it's not enough.
Years and years ago -when I was around eleven or twelve- I decided I needed to write an essay in order to cure myself of depression. I'm sure a lot of us have heard how people find their passion and suddenly all their other worries are washed away. As if this passion, this hobby or skill, is the medicine and the band-aid to all of their problems. I convinced myself that writing would do that for me, it would liberate me from feeling numb and anxious. I believed that I could find peace through pen and paper. In some ways, it is definitely true. Writing in my journal became a survival mechanism; it's become my lifeline, my water, and my sunlight. A harmless way out when all other forms of escape are life-threatening. It's the only way I know how to release what I'm tired of carrying.
The constant reminder and anticipation of the ways marginalization effects us personally will eat away at anyone, no matter how strong they appear to be. For black children, it's a monster with a presence they can't fully understand- they're not yet capable of dissecting the ways institutional, structural and interpersonal racism affects them and their family but they're living through it.
But I don't feel cured. Some of the essays I've started have filled entire journals, some are just a sentence long, other times a word. There have been poems, too. None of them have cured me. So I start over, I go through a cycle of writing, editing and re-writing constantly. I'm usually about ten paragraphs in before I realize I hate it. Whenever I start over, I'm positive the new one will work because it always feels better than the last. I get lost in the critical thoughts that have me asking if I can do more. If I can do better. If I can dig deeper in order to write something I'm remotely proud of.
This has been a trend since I was young. I've thrown away entire journals because I thought my writing was trash, a few times I chose to burn the essays I was disappointed with. At one point, I tore pages from my journal and stuffed them under a floorboard in my room. Those pages held the first draft of an essay I was happy with but I felt the need to hide them there. I don't remember what I wrote but the words must have scared me. I didn't move the pages from under the floorboards when they were sealed up. Everything I had to say at the time of writing it is permanently buried in my childhood bedroom.
Eight. I was eight-years-old the first time I felt overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. I kept it to myself out of guilt and embarrassment, I was lucky enough to find a coping strategy in keeping a diary. My first one was filled with words and drawings done with pink and sky blue crayons. Children living with a major mental or mood disorder isn't as rare as it sounds; it's dangerous for adults to discredit the experiences of children simply because they're young. Children 'having it easy’ is an idea that is commonly mistaken as truth because it's been repeated for so many generations. Childhood and 'ease' aren’t mutually exclusive, neither is mental illness and adulthood. Awareness of how common mood disorders are in the adult population is almost everywhere now and I'm grateful. I don't feel the need to participate in the stigmatization of mental illness by completely ignoring its presence in my life.
I hope the same movement happens for children, for black children especially. It’s not uncommon to find a black child with poor mental health and self-image; at any moments notice they are exposed to negative cultural and racial stereotypes, microaggressions and structural and political barriers that remind them they are part of a marginalized group. The constant reminder and anticipation of the ways marginalization effects us personally will eat away at anyone, no matter how strong they appear to be. For black children, it's a monster with a presence they can't fully understand- they're not yet capable of dissecting the ways institutional, structural and interpersonal racism affects them and their family but they're living through it. Experiencing it every day. The "wokest," most socially aware and educated parent can't protect their kids from it all, so much focus is put on getting them ready versus examining the emotional and mental toll everyday racism takes on their children.
I don't blame those who raised me for missing the queues that something was wrong. Especially not my mother and grandmother. They did the best they could as black women dealing with issues of their own while simultaneously preparing me to navigate the world of white male supremacy safely. I come from a bloodline of women who are powerful, mentally and spiritually. My grandmother taught me how to be fiery and soft at the same time. My aunts showed me what support from one sister to another looked like, blood-related or otherwise. My mother has always appeared invincible, she taught me how to protect myself.
The four of them are sources of inspiration when I have none and the reason for my feminism and womanism. Black feminist therapy is important to me, it addresses the ways oppression based on race and gender play a part in the status of our mental health. Maintaining mental wellness for marginalized women requires that therapeutic procedures align with their cultures, validates their experiences of discrimination, and empowers them to define their own identities, place in society and become active in social movements if they choose to do so. My mother didn't realize it then, and maybe still hasn't, that some of our conversations could be described as unofficial black feminist therapy sessions. She wasn't aware of my mental state but she certainly helped me find some peace. I've heard the women in my family casually talk about anxiety, their anger, and their discomfort. They gloss over the very real psychological obstacles they have experienced and then continue to be everything for everyone else. The concept of the "strong black woman" does not truly exist in real life yet black women and girls have been trained to live up to this title. Basically, we're taught to invalidate all that we experience- happiness, pain, anger, fear, etc., we are simply strong and black and created to endure anything thrown at us. We know this isn't true, but access to professional help and resources isn't always trustworthy or welcoming. Too many professionals available to help are far removed from the black female experience and our cultures.
I wonder if my mother couldn't tell something was wrong because she saw my behavior as being normal. When people would make comments about how shy and withdrawn I could be or how much of a crybaby I was or how I never slept through the night, she would say "I used to be like that, too!" I have to wonder how similar we were, did she struggle with depression as a child, too? She's still invincible despite everything...my inspiration when I have none.
I’m not angry at my father anymore, I can’t be. If I were to stay mad at him, I’d have to give up on me. I can’t carry that amount of anger and love myself at the same time.
My memory isn't the best but I remember dancing when I was three and him cheering me on. By dance, I mean jumping from one spot to the next, over and over again. He cheered for as long as I my routine went on. I have a memory of him tossing me up into the air. I was so scared I'd hit the ceiling but I felt like I was flying so I didn't want him to stop. I remember a bbq at my grandmother's house, there were no clouds in sight and the sun would not let up. My dad sat outside to watch us kids as we played in the front of the house, he gave out a lot of piggy-back rides, and spun us around until dizzy and didn't tell the other adults about all the quarter juices we drank. There are others, but these are memories I like the most.
I won't go into memories of collect phones calls, letters and family day visits at the prison. I've only just recovered from my father leaving, both his involuntary and voluntary departures. Prison sentences break up families even if an inmate has the opportunity to eventually go back home. I don't have it in me to talk about the violence and modern day slavery that is the prison system, but I can say I'm still paying for my fathers time. All these years later and I still pay.
(I think) I am done rambling. It's not the essay and I'm sure I'll create plenty of new versions of whatever this is. Writing. Journaling. Can be cathartic, but it's a temporary fix for a lifelong mental illness. I romanticized the idea of writing the one, the perfect essay that would get rid of my depression, the fact that I could never find an ending for this mystical, healing essay was a metaphor and a wake-up call. There isn't an essay, a drug, man or elixir that can offer a quick fix, none of these things can magically erase anything I've been through or any of my problems...I suppose I'll continue my meds, therapy, journaling and all my other tricks to maintain. I get to design what freedom looks like on me, I'll take the curation of freedom one day at a time. Being free mentally, emotionally and spiritually is constant work, like continuously writing an essay you subconsciously never intend to finish.
I feel different, but not new. I came out through the other side and am still able to recognize myself. I need to thank the younger version of me, though, she was exactly who I needed at the time.
I have shed the heavy, silky layer of skin that could no longer protect me. I had to crawl out of the cocoon that cloaked me every day and every night. When I was able to pull myself out of incubation, I still felt ugly. I was bruised during the fight to renewal. To heal, I drank nectar from fruit and flowers and bathed myself in the sap of the silver bell tree.