Our Mental Health is on the Reservation

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As I was waking up, my Facebook newsfeed showed a CNN story that shook me to my core: Anthony Bourdain was dead at 61 from suicide.

I was emotionally sunken. I am huge Anthony Bourdain fan. I was introduced to Bourdain by Jonathan and his mom when they told me about Kitchen Confidential. When Bourdain started appearing on Top Chef, I fell in love. His gritty honesty with his way with words was amazing. What I also find amazing about him was that he was a former drug addict that turned his struggles around.

This was over ten years ago. As a thirty-six-year-old Black woman turning thirty-seven in September, with a little more experience under my belt, no matter who you are, when you are struggling with mental illness, many of us are in the fight of our lives. I should know. I struggled with severe depression since I was a teenager and anxiety later.

Combing through online news about Kate Spade, and, now Anthony Bourdain, brings up my challenges with mental illness. It is not a trigger for me to fall into a depression; yet, what it does is to make me reflect on how much our mental health is vital to our growth as developing adults. That’s right. Developing adults. Despite what science may say that your brain fully develops at whatever age, I believe that our emotional state connected with our mental state is still developing. For many of us, we have deep traumas that we have to deal with that started with our childhoods. I haven’t delved deep into Kate Spade’s or Anthony Bourdain’s life, but what I do know is that there are experiences that happen to us in younger years that shape how we live our lives going forward. It can be very difficult to live your life when you have a difficult time dealing with your trauma and not getting help with your mental illness at the same time.

I grew up a poor Black girl from Cochran, Georgia in a welfare family. When you are a kid, you don’t understand structural racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. You do not understand how it affects you because no one identifies it and explains it to you. Of course, if you grow up in a certain era and in a certain part of the country, the accessibility of knowledge can be limited. All I knew was that I was racially discriminated against by White people. All I knew was that I was catcalled by men. All I knew was other Black kids didn’t like me because they thought that I was behaving as I was White. Yet, I did not have language to describe what I was experiencing. It was until I attended college that I began learning the type of lingual discourse to use to describe my experiences. Yes, I had a lot of epiphanies while receiving a college education.

We Black folks called it lived experiences. You live your experiences. You do not theorize them because when you examine history, Black folks did not have the opportunities during the 18th and part of the 19th century to have access to education. Remember, Black slaves in the United States could not read and write; if they were caught doing it before the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, they were beaten and/or killed. We, Black folks, have a legacy of making nothing out of something…and continue to fight to be absolutely free over our own selves. We want self-power to control our own destinies without fearing harm.

What I am saying is that when bad experiences happen to you as a child, you have no language to vocalize them even if you are telling your secrets in your journal/diary. As Black children who have been abused in many ways (sexually, physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.), we are taught in our own communities to remain silent—“forever hold your peace.” That’s right. You snitch, and you are out. Isn’t it enough that White folks keep us down? You snitch on one of your own, you are just exposing and ruining the race. If you are a Black girl/woman who snitches, you aren’t worthy of anyone’s love anymore especially when you snitch on a Black male who has caused you harm.

What I am saying is that in my world growing up, the Black code was to uphold the race. Upholding the race means never talking about or getting help for any issues that you may have. So, you are Black and you are being oppressed for that. You are female, and you are being oppressed for that. You are poor, and you are being oppressed for that. Then, you have mental illness in your family, and you can’t get help for that because A) it is taboo to say you have a mental illness or possibly saying that something is wrong with your mentally and B) there are not many resources in your small country town that can aid you in helping to diagnosis you and receive treatment for you mental illness.

So, on top of you being Black, female, poor, living in a small town, having limited resources, having mental illness, you also have to worry about being an adolescent, a teenager, and a young adult. As you navigate throughout adulthood as a Black woman, the experiences you have always trail behind you. You can try to put your traumas in a closet, but like your mental illness, it is all tied together and will manifest itself and reveal itself in a time in your life where it catches you completely off guard.

Pretty much, I thought, when I began college after graduating in May 2000, I was free from my trauma. I enjoyed my college experience, especially my first two years at MGC. It was the best time ever. I was FREE, I thought. Yet, looking back on it, I felt free. What was coming years later…I would not have even guess.

Depression and anxiety do not go away; it especially does not go away when it hasn’t been identified and treated. The first time it was identified to me was by my aunts. I knew that I had it, but like many Black folks, you deal with it internally because you have been taught to fry bigger fish. I mean if you are a Black woman…whew wee, you are worried about being Black and woman. But later, I learned that it is all tied together when it comes to identity and how structural –isms play into getting the help you need and how others look at you.

So, I kept pushing on and riding the tide, but the tide grew bigger without me really paying attention until the tide threw me off.

When I entered my relationship, that was the breaking point. The happiest time in my life became one of the most challenging times in my life. I told my partner that something was wrong. At first, he did not believe me. He just said that I was going through a rough patch. Yet, I kept telling him that something was wrong. I knew it. I needed to seek help.

Yes, I did. At the time, I was in graduate school, and I was able to seek counseling services. I had seen a family therapist when I was a kid; she had visited my family and me; it really helped. This time, I was fortunate. I saw two therapists that really helped me with my concerns. I was very fortunate that they were good therapists.

I was diagnosis that I suffered from depression and anxiety. When big life changes come, I handle my business, but I suffer internally for it. You have no idea had relieved I felt. I got confirmation that I wasn’t a freak, but I suffered from mental illnesses that runs in my family. There is hope. You can receive help.

Since then, I know how to take care of myself when big life changes come. When racism and sexism rear its ugly head and/or life changes come, I go seek therapy now. It is nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make me a freak. What it does is empowers me. It makes me realize that all of us who are talented, bright, glowing, effervescent stars…we have to continually seeking help even if we are in recovery or are recovered. There are times in our life where big moments happen to us, and many times, we are able to deal with them. Yet, sometimes, there are moments in our lives where we aren’t able to handle well, and we have to seek help for it.

No, it doesn’t excuse what other people have done to me. I’ve had, in the past, folks do some awful mess to me; for several months, I have suffered racism and sexism at the hands of people who were supposed to help me grow. That wasn’t my fault that they inflicted that type of pain on me. Now, I have to deal with what they done to me to make sure that I continue on a positive course in my life.

We keep saying…our mental health system is broken. Yes, we do not have even a good mental health system. We still have stigmas, and we still have people taking their lives. I know what darkness feels like. You are surrounded by it until you feel comfortable enough to take your life so you can end it. Yes, you hurt the people you left behind so much, but you are not thinking when you plan on doing it. I mean you are not really thinking about it, I believe. What I imagine is that when a person commits suicide, they are in such much pain…that they think that their loved ones are better off without them.

Although my one of my best childhood friends did not commit suicide, several years ago, he was murdered, and it left all the people that are left behind devastated. We are still recovering from it. Some of us doing better than others. I cannot imagine how family and friends deal with someone who has taken their lives because the question pops up for them…what could I have done more?

All I can say is that we have to make our mental health system better. We have to continue to keep fighting; we have to make an effort and ask about one another. I know it is hard for some of us with hermit type behavior. But we need to check on each other. We need to support each other. We need to learn about mental illness. It is a part of people’s lives. What the true stigma is…when we leave folks suffering in silence and do not provide enough resources from them to receive help, we are letting them down. A huge part of being a good neighbor, a good citizen is that we empathize with each other and take action in helping each other.

Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain changed the world…and so many other folks; they had success, and they took their lives. What about those of us who don’t have that, we are on the verge of taking our lives? I worry especially about my Black and Brown siblings in the world who feel so hopeless and despaired…having to deal with stereotypes about their identities like I did. I worry about Black and Brown folks who are successful like Spade and Bourdain, and they have the added on pressure of their race, gender, sexuality, etc. So much pressure in the mix of one having to deal with their mental illness can lead to fatal results as taking one’s life.

Don’t get it twisted when I say that I am very fortunate when I have received good mental health care over the years when I have sought it. Fortunate equals grace. There is a higher power that looks after me and makes sure that I am taken care of. Yet, my gut has also told me when I need help. In order for people to receive help, we have to destigmatize how we see mental illness.

Much love,
Sophia

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