So many of us lose ourselves in mental illness because we know how to fight but not how to heal.
In March 2016, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression. It stopped me cold. I was a confident and accomplished black millennial working in the nation’s fourth largest school system. Suddenly, I found myself in darkness. I was shocked, initially. Yet, when I looked at my life thus far, I realized that I’d always had a wound and that I'd learned to ignore it; to compensate for the injury. The diagnosis represented the fact that the wound had finally taken its toll.
It started when I was a child.
My mom and I would sit on the couch in the living room waiting for my father to get home from his late job. Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and Prince serenaded us from her stereo system. Even as a little boy, it was always the sad songs that I felt the most. I’d dance when Stevie Wonder’s joyful “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” came on, but it was his song “In the Sun,” where he lamented about being weary from the load and longing for a place in the sun, that held me captive. I’d clap to Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” and bounce to Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” but it was “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman that marked me. Even as a child, a deep pain lived in me.
I was a nerdy, skinny, non-athletic kid with big glasses and big ears who loved to read and play classical piano. I was taunted constantly in school for being a geek. Even my being was insulted. There is an ingrained colorism in some black Americans, and my deep brown skin and African features weren’t yet popular — this was before everyone was “woke.” On a personal level, my family had a number of issues, which I won’t share because they're not my story to tell. However, as a result, before I was old enough or strong enough for it, I was carrying the pain and the load of my family’s issues. And I was weary from it. By high school, things were even worse. If you combined Carlton Banks, Huey Freeman and Jaden Smith, you got me as a teenager. My eccentricity made me unpopular. I had very few friends, I skipped classes constantly, and I spent most of my time in the piano practice room or hooking up with random people just to feel loved.
I also started feeling sick constantly.
My heart would race, I was lightheaded and weak, constantly nauseous, and even fainted at times. Doctors ran tests and found nothing. Yet, my life was being impacted by the illness. I dropped out senior year and got my GED. Then I dropped out of life. I had scholarships to the best music conservatories in the country that were willing to accept me, even with a GED, but the constant physical illness and deep sadness robbed me of motivation. For two years, I didn’t leave the house. My family shopped for me and my life was lived on internet message boards and chat rooms, punctuated by sad indie films and sadder songs. My parents thought I was having a “nervous breakdown.” I overheard them one night, discussing my mental health and steps they needed to take in case things got worse. I remember lying in bed one day, looking out the window and telling God that I was ready to die. Death never came, and eventually I got tired of waiting for it.
Slowly, I rebuilt.
I pushed myself. Maybe I wasn’t fatally ill. I walked to the end of the block, then to the store down the block. I got on the train and the bus. I started going to the barber and wearing nice clothes again. People noticed I was “back,” and one of my mentor friends got me a job at a non-profit. For the next few years, I worked with wonderful like-minded people in the pursuit of providing great educational programming to elementary children. Off the strength of my experience, I got a job with the nation’s fourth largest school system, where I created social-emotional learning and restorative practices programs for students at a troubled community school. I knew how to teach kids to survive their pain because I had survived mine. The pastor at my church convinced me to enter the ministry, and I did it because I thought I could use the opportunity to help people.
Yet, it began to unravel.
Like a prophet, I could see the future, and there was always this uncertain fog ahead. The administration of the school I worked at began stacking duties on me that had nothing to do with the job I was hired for and giving me low pay. So I quit. I found myself surrounded by money-hungry con-artist preachers and hypocrites in the ministry, so I left before getting ordained. I was constantly unhappy. In addition, I started feeling sick again: Nauseous, lightheaded and weak. I was rushed to the hospital when I fainted at a supermarket. They took blood, did tests, and found nothing, so I ignored it. I kept pushing until one day, while driving on the highway, I found myself unable to breathe, sweating profusely, frightened beyond words and wanting to scream while driving on the inner lane of a four-lane interstate expressway. I wanted to jump out of the car while it was moving and hide. Even the streetlights scared me. Somehow, I made it home. I hid under the covers on my bed. I thought I was losing my mind.
My doctor suggested a diagnosis of anxiety: A mental disorder that is marked by an illogical and obsessive fear that triggers physical panic attacks. It typically develops as a result of extreme stress, and often runs in tandem with depression. I went to a psychiatrist, who agreed and prescribed me medication. I didn’t take it, though.
I was scared of the side effects. I was scared it would change me. Not only that, but mental health treatment is often seen as taboo in the black community. We fight. We survive. Being raised in a Christian family, I was taught that if it got too hard, you go to church. You sing, pray and dance in the Holy Ghost until you have the power to live again. I didn’t need medicine! I just had to keep on keeping on and beat it on my own. So the medication stayed on my shelf and nothing changed.
I quit life again. I figured I needed a break.
I stopped leaving the house to avoid the panic attacks. I had food delivered or sent my friends out for groceries and necessities. I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t left the house in two months. It was remarkably like that time almost a decade ago when I didn’t leave the house for two years. I thought I was dying from a mystery ailment then, but now I knew I had a mental illness. Yet, that made it worse. You see, dying was something I could handle, something I was familiar with. The idea of mental illness was an alien concept. We don’t talk about mental illnesses in the black community until it’s too late. We all know people who “went crazy” in our family, or that “strange” aunt or cousin who we’re told to make allowances for, but they get brushed away into the institution or family-member’s home that they occupy.
Eventually, I got tired of existing in stasis.
I knew I wasn’t suicidal and that I wanted to live. However, something had to be done to get out of fearful limbo. I accepted my mental illness. I accepted the blessing of the diagnosis. I finally knew what to call the fog I lived in. For years, I thought the sadness was because I was an artist, as so many of the great artists before me were sad too. I thought the physical symptoms were from a serious illness. I had to accept that the constant sadness wasn’t because I was an artist. It was depression. The physical symptoms weren’t because I was dying. It was Anxiety. There are many forms of mental illness, and some of them are subtle. We still live normally, but adjust to deal with them, contorting ourselves until we finally break down.
I broke, and now I’m repairing.
I’m seeing the psychiatrist and the psychologist and following their instructions. I’ve told my family and friends, who are helping me, calling me and checking on me.
And I’m writing this, in the hopes that someone else will see it. Maybe you’ll read it and recognize your own story. We black children grow up believing that we always have to fight and survive, and that’s true. Yet, we also need to accept our wounds and our weaknesses and heal instead of ignoring the pain until it crushes our mind and soul.
It’s ok to be broken, to accept your brokenness and to seek help.