Silly girl if you smile they
won’t believe you when you
stand in the middle
of a crowd
I grew up with a crazy aunt. An aunt who was sometimes my uncle. An aunt who had dissociative identity disorder. It took me a while to learn all that. From the bits and pieces I picked up, she was paranoid and not right and crazy den a betsy bug. I just knew that sometimes, when it was only me and her, she’d speak in two different voices. Like reading two different characters from a book at bedtime. But wasn’t no book there; just my favorite auntie speaking first deep and menacing, then shrill and polite. It took me all my life to learn that both voices, all the voices, were her own.
Growing up black, you learn real quick the things you just don’t speak about. My auntie and them voices was one of them things. In a community where everything can be solved by drinking water, putting rubbing alcohol on it, or praying, there isn’t much room for needs. I’m talking the kind of needs that everybody can’t understand. ‘Cause if your only problems are being broke or alcoholic or addicted or abusive, you fit right in, but no, these needs are different. And different is another one of them things you just don’t speak about.
If only our community would speak about them things.
If only our community had a space for them things.
If only our community had a space for us.
I interviewed three black women diagnosed with mental illness, and will share their answers collectively:
Lhea J. Love is a Black poet, lay philosopher, aspiring novelist, and newbie developer who has been diagnosed as bipolar or schizoaffective.
Jay* is a recent graduate with a degree in English and Animal Science, and a minor in Creative Writing, who is currently looking for a full-time job, and living with her grandmother in Alabama. She has been diagnosed with moderate-severe depression. *Name changed for anonymity
Ashara is a 40-year-old single writer and mother from Detroit, who leans (a lot) on her faith. She has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, ADHD, PTSD, and anxiety.
Tell me a bit about your mental illness.
Lhea: In 2007, I began to believe that due to post-Patriot Act data-mining, I am a part of a modern day COINTELPRO, a 21st century MKULTRA. Since no one believes me, I have been hospitalized on several occasions and diagnosed as bipolar or schizoaffective.
Jay: I’ve had moderate-severe (mostly severe of late) depression for eight years. I did not seek help until my sophomore year in college, and since then I’ve been involved in therapy off and on. The last few months have been hard. I moved back home after college, and home is one of my biggest stressors. I also cannot afford to pay for therapy at home (it was free through the school), so I’ve been very low since May.
I’d seen a couple psychiatrists and they told me that based on testing, it appeared I’d been depressed since I was a teenager, or even longer. It wasn’t something we talked about in our household, I think because we were religious. If you were sad, you were sad. If you were tired, you were tired. So, nobody thought anything of it. But the psychiatrists think I might have become depressed around the age of 8, when I was abused for the first time… [I was abused] from the age of 8 until 13.
In 2004, when I was 27, I received the clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder. This is a clinical imbalance in your brain that may be hereditary (my mom also went through depression as a young adult). It is long-lasting and may require medication and/or long-term therapy.
Do you feel that mental illness has affected your career? If so, how?
Lhea: I never use the term “mentally ill” or “disabled” to describe myself. Those terms are much too harsh. These days, I am careful with my self-talk.
My understanding of reality has changed the way I see the world. I have never held a salaried position for more than one year. So, while I planned to be a sales woman for a publishing house, or a literary agent in New York City, my diagnosis completely altered the course of my life.
However, I own a book called Touched with Fire. It chronicles various writers who were depressed or manic depressive. There were many suicides and suicide attempts, alcoholics and addicts, depressed poets and bipolar novelists.
Instead of being depressed that I am not climbing the corporate ladder, I tell myself that I have the brain of an artist. On confident days, I even tell myself that I have the brain of a genius.
So, while my diagnosis ruined my publishing career. My social security check allows me to be a stay at home mom and a full-time writer.
My bipolar didn’t ruin my career. It saved it!
How do you feel mental illness is viewed in the black community? Has this view on mental illness affected you in any way?
Jay: I can’t speak for every black person, but in my personal experience, people just don’t understand it. My grandmother frequently asks “What do you have to be depressed about?” and my mother says, “Everyone feels sad sometimes.” My aunts look on from afar and try not to mention it. This would be okay, but they don’t make an effort to understand. They don’t ask questions or attempt to educate themselves. On the occasions when they do ask me questions, they’re so combative or dismissive that I don’t answer. I think a lot of black people who suffer from depression can relate to this.
Have you experienced discrimination due to your mental illness? Your race? Your gender? How have these experiences been the same or different?
Lhea: When I am in a work environment, they have no idea about my feelings of an FBI-CIA-NSA surveillance state. It doesn’t come up. However, it does affect my dating life. Many men will sex a bipolar woman, but I haven’t found a man that wants to deal with me while the lights are on.
Most of the prejudice I face, whether racism or sexism, is systemic. How can I become a theoretical physicist when white children may enter the university with Linear Algebra credits and many inner city Black folks don’t have access to calculus, physics or AP classes? How can I be the next Gates, Jobs, or Zuckerberg when most angel investors or venture capital firms don’t fund Black entrepreneurs?How can my child compete when public school funding is often tied to property taxes? The schools of the poor will always be separate and unequal.
What do you most want people to know/understand about mental illness?
Ashara: That it’s not something that we choose to have. We didn’t ask for it. Mental illness could be hereditary, it could come from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which I also have. I’ve been through a lot of trauma: several abusive relationships, rape, sexual assault. I grew up with an alcoholic and drug-addicted father. Growing up with all of that, you know, mental illness can come from a lot of different sources. We’re not victims; I like to say we’re survivors. Anybody that has a mental illness and still makes it through the day-to-day: that’s a survivor. For me, faith is the key to pushing through everyday life. It always goes back to my faith.
What are some of the expected hurdles you have faced? What about unexpected hurdles?
Jay: Expected: Hopelessness, lethargy, that kind of thing. Unexpected: Loneliness. I was very surprised to discover that “depression” is an umbrella term. When I talk to my friends or other writers, we have completely different experiences. No one feels exactly the way I do. It’s comforting to have a support system of writers with depression, but it’s lonely to know it’s unlikely I’ll find someone whose depression is exactly like mine.
How do you push through on the hard(er) days?
Ashara: I talk to myself a lot. I have to encourage myself; sometimes I don’t want to reach out to anyone else because I don’t think they’ll understand. I pray, I talk to God and just start trying to affirm certain things in myself . I don’t feel good right now, but I can do this. It helps. I faith it until I make it! Music is also very therapeutic: when I get really down, old school gangsta rap (NWA, 2 Short) fuels me and gets me through; Biggie and Tupac make everything better! When I get back home, I’m in my safe place and say, OK I made it!
Can you share a moment that defines, for you, what it means to be a working-class black woman battling mental illness?
Jay: Recently, my mother asked me why I hadn’t found a job yet. The day before, I’d stayed up until 6:00 AM with my friend, with constant distraction, so I wouldn’t harm myself. It’s an awful, hidden disease that so many people do not understand. It’s discouraging to think that I have the stress of finding a job, but also have to deal with something so crushing on a daily basis.
Looking back at where you started in this journey, where did you think you would end up? How does that compare to where you are now?
Ashara: I thought I would end up dead. I never thought I would see my 30th birthday. I had made up my mind that I wouldn’t still be here; I was tired of pain, feeling hurt, it was literally a black hole with nothing past the moment I was in. I was in that place for months, maybe even years. I did a lot of blaming back then (parents, ex-husband, etc.) but now I’m better about that. I chalk it up as experience, and I’m looking forward to the future. I’m not having as many suicidal thoughts – it’s been maybe a year, which is really good for me. I’m focusing on my son, my businesses, getting back to writing – I have not had it in me to even write because of the depression! Looking forward, I’m excited to make progress in areas I’ve placed on the back burner for the past decade+.
Jay: For a long time, I was in denial about my depression. I was convinced that there couldn’t be anything wrong with me. However, I think that 16-year-old me would be happy to know we made it through college. There were so many nights I was convinced I wouldn’t make it to my twenties. Though I’m in a low place right now, I think with some help and perseverance, I may make it to my thirties, too.
Lhea: I never thought I would have a nervous breakdown in 2007. I thought I would live in New York City, work for a publisher and convince some random Black man to love brown-skinned, nappy-headed me. That didn’t happen.
As a child, I never thought I would see a mental ward. As a child, I never thought I would take anti-psychotics. As a child, I never thought there could be any truth that I could live that my family wouldn’t believe.
I have learned to be happy despite loneliness. I have learned to believe myself.
Kai Harris is Rabble Lit’s “Black, I” writer and editor. She is a college English instructor, and a PhD candidate in Fiction at Western Michigan University.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain.