2017: a mental health story

"The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break the silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken."  - Audre Lorde

end the silence.

This year was not easy.  I don't have a list of impressive accomplishments to share.  Unless you count getting out of bed each day, putting one foot in front of the other, pressing on when I felt hopeless, and finding a new therapist.  Looking back, I see nothing but God keeping me afloat because at times I wanted to drown to escape myself. Nights when every place I went in my mind greeted me with defeat.  Days when anxiety twisted my perception, making my path a dangerous tightrope that only I could see.  I didn’t want to be a heavy presence so I isolated myself.  I thought my silence would afford me some peace, but in time, my silence took my peace as payment. Not only was I depressed, I was ashamed of being depressed. This year, I spent a lot of time in conflict with myself, wishing I wasn't this way, embarrassed by what I was going through and feeling it was too much to reveal. 

In hindsight, 2017 was about facing demons.  On social media, I often get grouped with love & light writers, who I respect and admire, but I realize now that grouping makes me feel half-seen, half-expressed, because I know what I am hiding, the huge part of me that I silence. I keep my nightmares to myself.  I don’t talk about how dark it gets.  How I can’t escape the trouble pulsing through my thoughts.  2017 looked me in the eye and said it's up to me to not let my writing or any translation of it freeze me in one place, in one mood.  It's up to me to own my story and tell it like it is.  Nuances matter, and when it comes to writing, they are the details that make our stories and the way we tell them distinctive.  Many of us have similar messages, but different paths, backgrounds and perspectives.  Often our nuances trigger shame and embarrassment, which is why we play them down.  When we do, we conceal the originality we yearn for and we miss the chance to rescue ourselves.  2017 had a clear message for me:  End the silence.  Break the cycle.  Tell the story.  

break the cycle.

I learned the name of my mother's mental illness circa 1996 when I was in college.  I was both relieved and horrified to have a name for it.  Schizophrenia.  Prior to that, I grew up watching her descend into madness, untreated and undiagnosed.  When she was growing up, having a mental illness was something to be ashamed of, a weakness, a punishment from God perhaps. In the Black community, the idea of openly seeking psychological help was outlandish.  She was born in 1946, the same year President Harry Truman signed the National Mental Health Act, calling for the establishment of a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).  The Act came into being when soldiers and their families asked the government for help in dealing with trauma and distress from the war.  When these soldiers were evaluated, “they displayed a high incidence of earlier mental health illness, completely aside from the problems that might have arisen from combat and wartime situations of high pressure.”  In other words, the trauma of World War II revealed many cases of pre-existing mental illness in the soldiers.  The government saw these cases as representative of the general population, revealing a pressing need for focused intervention. (National Institutes of Health)

While the Act made the mental health of the American people a federal mandate, my mother lived in an environment where mental health was not discussed or understood. They didn’t have access to resources, they didn’t know the symptoms and they didn’t know the effects and impacts of mental health conditions. They certainly weren't eager to create a negative perception of the family by making their private problems known.  Black people pushed psychological issues into the closet, only to be discussed with God if at all.  Historically, when we were slaves, we had to hide any signs of weakness, to avoid being sold away from our families. My mother, coming of age in Pittsburgh in the 50’s and 60’s was healthy and lovely and fine, except perhaps for some strange fears, mood swings and a streak of paranoia.  Her family didn't know these things would ultimately intensify and close in on her, preventing her from living a normal life.  Like any physical disease, mental illnesses benefit from early intervention and treatment.  As the years passed by, my mother's mental stability deteriorated in a perfect storm of avoidance, shame and silence. 

tell the story.

There's a crack in the universe. 

That is how it felt when I was a little girl and my mother started accusing me of things that dirtied my mind and broke my heart.  I discovered that some part of her was haunted, felt attacked by everything, including me.  That is when life took a sharp turn.  Suddenly I had to prove my innocence daily and question my guilt constantly because I was never sure what was real.  

I decided that I was haunted too.  My young mind filled with distorted thoughts and complicated feelings that I didn’t know how to carry.  I discovered something bottomless inside that was drawn to despair.  I obsessed over death and tragedy.  Suffering became an addiction.  I only felt satisfied when high on the world’s pain.  Good times always found me with a layer of sadness beneath the surface.  Braced, anxious for loss to strike, waiting for it, willing it.  I feared losing her.  I feared becoming her. 

I know she didn’t choose the voices pounding in her head, condemning her constantly and calling out threats.  She didn’t traumatize me with her hallucinations and night terrors because she was choosing to hurt me.  The monsters showed up everywhere for her, even in me.  It's not her fault that I started seeing monsters in myself. Her accusations sliced through the closeness we once had leaving a burning sensation where trust used to be.  Even though I knew she was sick, when she said I was bad, I believed her and that’s when hopelessness came for me. I've been fighting it's hold on me ever since. 

A couple months ago, I crawled out of the bed where I was hiding from my life and I sent an email to a couple of my closest friends.  I told them I didn't want to die but I romanticized not waking up.  I confessed the fears I'd been afraid to put into words.  The relief was temporary but immediate.  The next day I continued to write, not about love & light, but about the dark & heavy, forcing myself to go through the labyrinth instead of around.  I bought a bunch of memoirs about mental health and growing up with a parent who suffers from mental illness.  I found comfort in finding shared experiences and ideas for coping.  I practiced answering honestly when people asked me how I was doing. 

I don't have the energy to hide it anymore, to keep this part of me separate, just to make people comfortable with me.  When I think of the fear and isolation my mother must have experienced, it hits me how blessed I am that I can easily educate myself and seek care and make choices.  I have resources. I know the symptoms and the effects and impacts of mental health conditions.  I have a support system.  I have writing and a platform I can use to end the silence that sealed my mother's fate.  I can break the cycle of shame and denial.  I can tell this story and be a voice for black women who are suffering and self-hating, convinced that their mental health issues are just character flaws that need to be fixed.  

It won't be easy.  But I will write this story.  And I will save someone.  And I will save myself.

have you silenced your story?

My flagship online writing workshop — Words That Move — starts soon. There will be an emphasis on details: writing to express the nuances of the current you, not the aspirational you, but here, now, this moment, this pain, this joy, this inconvenient reality, this regular, extraordinary life, rich with unique blessings and challenges. To capture the pretty and unpretty, the celebration and the shame.  Words That Move is about strengthening your ability to know and be yourself, in writing and in life.

If you want to join us, the workshop is a four week long experience for writers of all levels.   Click here to find out more.