On July 31, 2010 in Atlanta at the National Book Club Conference, famed poet, Ntozake Shange spoke with conference participants about her ongoing battle with mental health, specifically manic depression. She spoke candidly and openly about her early realization between the ages of 10 and 13 that something was wrong and about her ongoing treatment for mood disorders and depression over the past 45 years. You can watch the videotaped discussion here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbh1TZ27rqI.
To hear this brilliant woman, whose work defined the power and strength of black women with her 1975 Tony nominated, and Obie Award-winning play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" speak about psychiatrists and mood stabilizers and antidepressants sort of threw me for a loop for a minute. Just for a minute. And then I thought of just how powerful it was. How powerful it is to have this woman whom so many admire, whose award-winning, genre-changing play is about to be released into movie theaters across the nation, speak so openly, plainly and matter-of-factly about her own struggles with depression, suicide and mental illness was extraordinary. And it was necessary.
It was necessary because it is time for us to talk about it. It is time for us to stop hiding with shame and dismay about our own bouts with depression, suicidal ideation, manic depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and the myriad mental illnesses and disorders which women and particularly black women face on a daily basis in secret.
According to WomeneNews.org, 60% of African American women suffer from depression. The article quotes Latonya Slack, executive director of the California Black Women's Health Project, an Inglewood, Calif., community-health organization as saying, "There's a fear of putting our business in the street...of somehow revealing too much." Lorraine Cole, president of the Black Women's Health Imperative, the Washington, D.C.-based parent organization of the California Black Women's Health Project, agrees. "There's a deep-seated feeling that going to seek professional help is a sign of weakness."
It is that "what-goes-on-in-this-house-stays-in-this-house" mentality which breeds fear, immobilizes us and keeps the secrets which harm and kill us emotionally, spiritually and sometimes physically. It is time that we bravely do what women like Ntozake have done and break our silence. Our silence will not save us. Talking about it will. We need not suffer any longer.
My own bouts with depression began at a young age. I can point to any number of potential causes - abandonment issues, loss, lack of self efficacy, emotional stress, verbal abuse - you get it; the list goes on. I did not know then what I know now, that there are some genetics involved which may have predisposed me to a greater potential for psychiatric issues during my lifetime. My life and my genes were a ticking bomb. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing went off. And it did.
I was 28 the first time I was hospitalized. I had been in and out of therapy since I was 15 when my parents sent me because of my open declaration of being a lesbian. My escapades two years earlier with a Mormon Girl Scout (I was a Catholic Camp Fire Girl) at a Counselor-In-Training retreat had sent my mother into a tail spin. While my Brazilian-born and somewhat worldly dad handled it better by advising me that as a black lesbian I had three strikes against me, my very African-American, first generation born out of slavery mother was perplexed as to what to do. So, off to therapy I went until I graduated from high school.
I would return a year later when I felt I needed to resolve issues with my older sister who I felt hated me. Although she and I never talked about it, I worked out my feelings through therapy. Therapy became a useful and successful tool in helping me work through a number of family and childhood issues. And so it was that I ended up in therapy during my first marriage (to a woman) in the late eighties. Something in my life felt out of sort and I couldn't put my finger on it. I was in a stable relationship of four or five years, we were raising her young daughter from a previous marriage, I had a job which I loved, a terrific circle of friends, I was a writer/actress/poet with a number of television and stage credits to my name and we were preparing to buy a house when BOOM! The bomb went off and when it did, everything fell apart.
During a therapy session I had recounted some peculiar events from the day before when my loving partner offered to wash my hair, something I never allowed anyone to do. At her insistence, I allowed it and that is when the you-know-what hit the fan. I came unglued. I don't remember what happened exactly except at the time I thought I was a little girl and my mother was burning my head and the shampoo was burning my eyes and I was crying uncontrollably and was scared, very scared.
I had had a flashback. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was a name for it. There was a reason for why I felt jumpy and out of control sometimes. There was a reason why I yelled at my kid when I really didn't want to. There was a reason I could hear my mother's voice uncontrollably coming out of my mouth and saying mean things to her. There was a reason. And the reason meant I needed help, a lot of it. And it might take a while to undo all which had been done to me.
I listened to Ntozake Shange talking about going to the psychiatrist and them telling you you're crazy. It is the most bizarre feeling in the world. You are going because you know something is very wrong, but you don't ever expect anyone to tell you that there is something very wrong. That you are indeed, crazy. Life as I knew it ended that day. It was one of the worst I ever endured and the things which transpired afterwards were even worse. You don't know what to do. You don't know how to act. I reacted. I threw things and broke a plate glass window. We went to the emergency room. They locked me up in the psych ward.
For me my diagnosis felt like it was like a death sentence. I had things happen to me as a child which were so bad and so painful that I had carried them into adulthood and placed them on my young, beautiful child. I was now a statistic and was making her one as well. I couldn't do it. She was already in therapy at the tender age of five. How much of that was my fault? My significant other reasoned with me that we could go through this together; she would stand by me and see me through. I couldn't bear the thought of what this might do to them. She saw me as her loving but broken partner, but all I saw was the monster this mess made me into. All I saw were demons hiding in corners waiting to break into the light of day and I wondered who would they hurt next. I needed to get away. So, after a mandatory ten-day stay in the psychiatric ward, I left. I packed up from my beautiful life and left everything I knew in shambles.
For a solid month I slept and cried, and slept and wept some more. My stepmother finally came home one day and got me out of bed. She bathed me, dressed me and told me we would figure it out. She found me a job as a caregiver to an elderly reclusive woman. Taking care of someone else helped heal me. It strengthened me to have small successes like getting this woman out of her house. The more I focused on her, the smaller my own demons seemed to be.
My father and I began talking again after three years apart. I forgave him for not showing up at my wedding to walk me down the aisle. We talked about my childhood. He admitted that he had not kept a promise to my grandmother to watch out for me. When I finally told him all that had transpired between my mother and I, he wept. I forgave him. He forgave me. We grew closer together over long, weekly long-distance conversations; and we healed. I moved back home to be with him when he became ill. Then the worst possible thing that could have happened, did. My father died and all of the work I had done to heal, seemed to die with him.
I was lost, numb, unrelenting in my surrender to darkness. I didn't care about anything or anyone. I just wanted to die. I did drugs, got into an abusive relationship with a woman who beat me. I didn't care. I hurt. I was tired and I was sick of trying. I felt like my life was over. I felt like I had either been abandoned by everyone who loved or should have loved me or I had hurt those whom I loved. I felt mean, unworthy, ugly and sad. Nothing anyone could say or do made a difference. I spiraled downward. Months earlier, my ex had taken our child away and asked me to leave them alone. Then my dad had died. My mother and I weren't speaking at all. At my father's funeral the priest wouldn't even mention my name. My godfather finally corrected him at the eulogy. After that, I slid into the abyss. My stepmother and siblings had no idea what was going on. My new abusive partner was keeping my friends and family members at bay. She and the drugs were my closest companions.
When you are depressed, nothing ever seems like it will get better. Getting out of bed becomes a chore. Taking a shower is an all-day affair. Food doesn't taste good. Nothing feels good. There is little satisfaction in anything. Everything anyone says that is even remotely critical becomes blown out of proportion. And without relief of some sort the situation inevitably becomes worse. You become your own worst enemy. After a while even the best of friends leave you alone. There is nothing else they can do, but wait it out and hope you come to your senses. That is where I was when I found myself crawling on the black linoleum with the little white specks looking for the rock I'd dropped while filling my crack pipe. I knew I needed help. In my mind, I heard my friend Liz's voice telling me that she knew what I was doing and that I needed to stop before I went too far and hurt myself or worse. "I've been where you are," she said. I promise you, God is still blessing her to this day for the conversation she had when she invited me out for lunch one afternoon.
My journey with depression didn't end kindly. It kicked my butt until I kicked it. I started heavily using drugs when my dad died, but I had good friends who didn't give up on me. They stuck with me and tried to get me to kick my habit and leave the abuse behind. My relationship with my abusive girlfriend nearly killed me, however. And my drug use, depression, nearly successful suicide attempt and subsequent month-long stay in a psychiatric hospital would be well chronicled years later in a one-woman show I would develop for Good Company Repertory Theater in Atlanta. The play opened with the patient screaming at her psychiatrist, "They took my got-damn shoelaces!" after she is sent away to a locked ward for refusing to meet for family counseling and intervention. The "family" included her abuser. Frightening, yes, but true.
It was a rough time in my life. I have since learned that depression runs in a part of my family. The circumstances of my childhood - a lot of details of which I gratefully can no longer recall were sort of the perfect storm for brewing up my particular disorder and depression. Years of therapy, prayer, education, counseling, and some useful therapeutic tools have helped me overcome most of my obstacles - although I am still working on changing the poker face I developed as a child to keep from getting into trouble for crying, laughing or expressing anything too much. Nonetheless, therapy over the years helped me change and grow in a lot of ways. I now understand when I am headed for trouble and can circumvent it. But most of all I have learned when and how to ask for help.
I have learned to forgive - everyone, including me. I learned to pray when things become tough. I learned to ask for help when I need it. And I learned not to be ashamed of all I have been through. It has made me stronger and if nothing else, speaking about it out loud might help someone else much the way listening to Ntozake Shange discuss her journey made a difference to me.
In the end, in 1993 after two hospitalizations, 16 years of therapy and 80 mg of Prozac per day for three years, it was something I heard or read - I honestly can't remember which, that helped me understand I had come to the end of that particular piece of my journey. "You won't have time to live your life today if you are still reliving all of your yesterdays." How could I continue to spend time in therapy talking about what had happened decades past and possibly enjoy my life? Reliving all of that pain, talking, rehashing, reframing and focusing all of my energy on what had already transpired and wasn't going to change was taking away from all that I could change and all of the living I had yet to do. If I hadn't gotten it in 16 years, chances were, I wasn't going to get it. I marched into my therapist's office and quit. Therapy had served its purpose. It was time to move on. I'd been healed.
I got tired of squinting at my life through a rear-view mirror. The view I decided, was much prettier, clearer and better when looking ahead through the very large windshield in front of me. And what a beautiful view it is. I still look back every now and again though, mostly to make sure I haven't left chaos in my wake. So far, so good.
August 13, 2014 Addendum
Since writing this post I tumbled back into depression following the unexpected transition of my birth mom and my birth dad a day apart over Mother's Day in 2011. The depression and grief was unsettling. I turned to my faith and my faith community to manage if not alleviate the grief and ensuing depression, sorrow and guilt. It took a very long time for the fog to lift and for me to understand how truly deep seated this sorrow was. What I have learned through this experience is that the depression in itself is manageable if not curable, that talking helps, for me writing helps and that focusing on the lessons learned through the experience help in understanding the complexities of the disease and the part it plays in my life. I am a firm believer in everything happening for our Highest Good and Greatest Self. I accept this and accept that these experiences move me to a greater understanding of my purpose in this lifetime. That is how I deal with it. Depression for me is no longer a constant companion, but more like the specter of potential unwelcome house guest. I tolerate it and know that eventually it will leave and I will be somehow better for the experience of its visit.
For more information about the affects of Major Depression on adults go to:
For Adolescents and children check out:
If you need help, contact your health care provider.
If you need to talk with someone, anonymous help is available by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline '1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach them via the net at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/800273TALK
Award-winning writer and publisher, Robin G. White "Bobbie!" is the author of two collections of poetry, the award-winning, Resurrection: A Collection of Work (Kings Crossing Publishing) and Reflection of A Life Well Spent (Sunset Pointe Press) as well as a collection of erotica, First Breath. Her third, fourth and fifth collections of poetry, Metanoia, Sophrosyne and Makarios: Change, Balance, Blessings will release in trade paperback on August 30, 2014 in conjunction with her long-awaited collection of affirmations, Omphaloskepsis Affirmations of Self Love. All of her collections will be available in ebook format in time for the 2014 holidays. Her first collection of short fiction, described as Guy de Maupassant meets J. California Cooper meets Toni Morrison, Intersections (Sunset Pointe Press) is the place where our life decisions collide with the lives of strangers. Intersections will debut in Fall 2015. She continues to write her memoir, Nine Lives and is working on her first novel, the prophetic, sci-fi thriller, The Ladder. Robin is the pseudonymous author of seven children's books. She has won the Lambda Literary Award for Independent Publishing for Kings Crossing Publishing, which she cofounded in 2001 and has been honored as an Astraea Foundation Poetry Prize Judge. She has won the Chicago Literary Award, the Urban Media Makers Award and a Georgia Literary Award Finalist. She is a CUNY Writers of Color Alum. She is the founder and publisher of Sunset Pointe Press, a non-profit publishing firm dedicated to the economic empowerment and educational development of writers.
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