Interview Thirteen: My Mental Health is Black

“We all, society, if we come together, if we show more love, if we experience more joy… see people as people and not diagnoses, not stigmas, not the color of our skin… we really could start to shift the trajectory of where we’re at.”

[Content Warning: Depictions of Abuse, Assault, and Suicidal Behavior, Mild Language]

Reading Time – 13 minutes

The Effects of Minimizing Mental Illness

All my life, my family has significantly suffered from mental illness. I remember my aunt having hallucinations. Maybe I was around eight at this point… and not really knowing what was going on. My mom explained to me what hallucinations meant, and what was going on with her. I always felt like it was a very loving thing. There might have been even… just a minimization of it, in a way. Like, this is just the way it is. People just deal with this. Or, something that was connected to… “Well she did some drugs, and it just made her… go off into this psychosis type thing.” So there was probably more of a “This is your family. You love them.” type of thing. Not really as much education connected to it.

I didn’t know what mental illness meant, or how you could go about talking about it. I think the benefit of the minimizing part was that it really helped me to empathize with people. Because of that, I was able to see the person, not the stigma of what that meant. The mental illness didn’t define the person. This was something that they happened to be dealing with, it wasn’t who they were. And I think that kinda helped me in a way. The negative effects were that… you don’t know how to go about talking about it, or getting help for it. It’s just an assumption that it’s just something that you deal with. There’s a heavy burden that you walk around with… or a discomfort that you walk around with, and just assume that that’s just how it’s supposed to be.

Early Symptoms of Depression

So I was around… eleven years old, and I remember just feeling… numb. I didn’t feel connected to wanting to be in the world, or even felt like there was a need to be. My family’s very based in religion, and I remember feeling like there wasn’t a God. Saying that at eleven, my mom and my dad were pretty devastated about that. Feeling just a heaviness and a burden, but not really knowing what that was or what was going on for me. Not having the experience to even know depression was a thing.

I did a… more like a cry for help… I remember taking, like… I don’t know, a handful of Tylenol, and saying, “I don’t want to be here!” It was maybe, like, five Tylenol… just like the rest of the bottle. At that point, I went to the hospital, because they had to go through the process of pumping my stomach.

I went to Southwood for, like, a week. At that point, I met a lot of people who struggled with mental illness, and finally I could put a word to how I was feeling. They all talked about it so normally, like, “Oh, I have bipolar disorder! Oh, you have this!” And it was normalized at that point in a way that was different for me, because all these kids had words to say for their mental illness.

Trying to Find the Words

At Southwood, I was one of the only black people there. It made me realize that, in my community, mental illness wasn’t something that people talked about. I felt… like I wasn’t sure how to go back and that be okay to talk about in my community. These were all white people, and they were very comfortable to talk about mental illness… it was in their vocabulary. But it wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t something that was in the forefront to talk about in my community.

Coming back into my community, it was so weird… you would have thought I had, like… leprosy when I came back. It was all whispers. I remember me and my mom caught the bus one day, and when we got on the bus… this woman that we knew from our neighborhood spoke to us… but then she whispered to her daughter, “That’s the girl who tried to commit suicide.” And my mom… (laughs) …my mom was like, “NO, she didn’t! She was just going through some stuff” And I didn’t realize what was going on. It was really awkward.

Or, I would meet people, and they would say, “Oh, you’re the girl who…” I grew up in such a small community, and I was already different… went to a Catholic school, didn’t go to public school, and the Catholic school was majority white. I wasn’t black enough, and I wasn’t white enough, clearly. So, when I came back, it was extremely isolating. But I came back with a comfort knowing that there were other people out there that were going through the same thing. So I was like, “Okay, so, you clearly don’t understand what I’m going through, and that’s fine.” At that moment, I definitely had a “fuck you” type of mentality.

Developing Resiliency

The whole experience was horrible, but at that time I also developed a lot of resiliency. I started on a journey… to figure out, at eleven, what my purpose was. I went through all of this for what? This didn’t just happen to happen… I remember feeling that way. I knew that I was different, and that I would never be like most of the people in my community… so who was I? And where did I fit, cause I knew I fit somewhere. Coming from Braddock to Bridgeville, I didn’t know where I was. I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m in Ohio!” (laughs) You know, because people didn’t really leave their neighborhood. That opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a whole other world out there. Where do I fit?

After I came back from Southwood, I knew I wanted to be a therapist. At that point, I just started doing everything to get me to that point. My mom had me in therapy since I was, like, three (laughs) so I had a really positive thought process about therapy. She had a friend who was a psychologist, so I did an internship with her when I was twelve. There was nothing else I really was passionate about. I always felt like I had a good connection with people… empathy, listening, fascinated with stories and who people were… how they could grow to who they wanted to be.

Finding Your Passion

My father was always very direct, and he never really talked to me as a kid. I remember being ten, and he was like, “You know, you gotta find your passion. You gotta find your purpose in this world. No one’s gonna give it to you. You gotta take it!” I was like, “uhhh,” but the conversation helped, because around twelve, thirteen, I started thinking that way. Trying to find something for me. Because then I focused less on myself, which allowed me to come out of my depression. I got really into the church, because I needed to find some type of… guide… to my purpose.

I always think about this when I work with young kids… It’s easy to say, “Find your passion. Find your purpose.” But, when someone’s beating you down, whether emotionally, physically, sexually… how you do that, underneath those circumstances, is a whole different ball game. I know that I was privileged to have parents who fostered my need to want to push myself and discover who I was. You know? Because they could have just stuffed me into any career, or pushed me towards a career that was… more fruitful in certain aspects. But they were like, “Great! Let’s see how we can get you to that.”

Going to City School and Breaking Your Peace

Eventually, my parents were like, “Okay, we put you in Catholic school because we wanted you to get a better education… but maybe this isn’t the right fit.” So, at that point, I moved in with my dad, got a Spanish tutor over the summer, and started going to a magnet school in the city for 7th grade. And that was… really challenging, but really good. It felt like, “Oh, this is closer to where I fit.” City school still had people who really, really did not like me, but it was so many different people, from so many different backgrounds. It helped my confidence to know that I was getting closer to the place where I fit.

Once I got into high school, I was really on a high. I started going to church, got baptized, and I got really… what’s the word… like, wag your figure, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be done! Looking back, I’m like, “ugh…” But, being 15, I thought I had found the way… really on a journey to save souls.

But then, 16, I got attacked by five girls in school… over something really trivial. That was pretty traumatic. They pulled my hair out… and my face was pretty unrecognizable. At that point I developed some pretty significant anxiety. Again, in my community, anxiety was not a word. You just dealt with life. There was no time to reflect on anxiety. But I knew something was wrong. I remember breaking out in hives. Since that point, I have never been able to have my phone on ring… because it just made my anxiety go through the roof. I’d have to put my phone on vibrate, because loud, sudden noises made me skittish. I knew that I had broken my peace, to an extent.

Questioning the Journey in College

When I got to college, I started to question everything. I felt that emptiness again, like, what is it all for? I went to Pitt, and it was very sterile… and I felt like a number. I didn’t see myself in anything that I was learning. I feel passionate towards things when I can connect to them, but Psych 101 with 300 people, talking about Freud… it was like, “I don’t think this applies to me or my cultural experience…” So it started scaring me, making me worry… if this is how I have to conceptualize people as far as therapy went, then this would not be a good career choice for me, because I don’t think that way at all about people. I don’t think people are walking diagnoses.

I started questioning that, and I went to therapy. And I met one of the most amazing women that was… just kind and really opened up… I never had somebody who really allowed space for questions like, “What if you didn’t go to school? What if that wasn’t the path?” Just the shear point of being able to explore an option outside of college, because, for my family,  it wasn’t if you were going to college, it was always what college are you going to? Education was a means to get out of poverty and better your life. So when she said that, I was like, “Wow, what would that be like?” I explored it, thought about it, but ultimately decided I wanted to be in college.

At the end of my senior year of undergrad, I got into a relationship… and about eight months to a year in, it became physically abusive. That was really hard… I hid it for a while from my family, because I knew that if they found out, they would either kill him or… you know, it would have been a bad situation. We went to therapy together to the same woman I had seen prior. Being a therapist now, I know this is kind of unorthodox, but we went to therapy, and she called me within the week… asked me if I was alone. She said, “I think you need to leave. I’m not a psychic, but from what I know and what I’ve seen, he will hit you again.” That wasn’t at the time what I wanted to hear.

So, my mental health at that point got… my depression evolved into this overarching, anxiety-driven thing… not being able to be fully present… always worried… not really sad, but not happy. There wasn’t really any time for me to sit and wallow or think about it, because I had to work. I went into that mode. I had all this anxiety in me, but I didn’t know what to do with it. It just laid there.

Ten Years of Growth in Two Years

We stayed together for another couple years, off and on. I went back to school to get my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. That was a huge pivotal moment and saving grace. This program was really intensive, and they required you to do a lot of your own work in order for you to be a therapist. If you were unwilling, there wasn’t space for that. It held a mirror up.

Naturally, when you grow and you see the dysfunction in it, you can no longer just sit with it… You have to make a decision. I was either going to stop the program, or I was going to break up this relationship… because they couldn’t exist in the same space. The abuse had stopped, but it was the memories. You know, he grew, I grew. He learned to manage his stuff that he was going through. Even though the physical abuse stopped, the memory was something I don’t think either of us could get over or work through.

So, the relationship did end, and the program helped me put words to my mental health. It also helped me to understand my sexuality, which was always fluid, but I didn’t have the language to talk about it either. It helped me own a lot of things that were counterproductive that I had learned over the years… You know, like, I was very defensive and hid a lot. Sarcasm was something I used to be protective, but I didn’t know that. It helped me to understand that knowing it all is really knowing nothing and to constantly stay in a state of curiosity. That two years was ten years worth of growth for me.

Allowing Yourself to Be Angry

Abuse changes you, and that was a process I had to get used to. I wasn’t the same person I was when I went into that relationship. Prior to that, I didn’t think about… escalation in someone’s voice, paying attention to that. Or, how their eyes may become bigger. Sudden movements… I am extremely aware of all of that now. Before, that wasn’t something that I needed to be aware of. It was a privilege in the way that, you understand privilege when yours is taken away. When it comes to dating, sometimes it’s really about if your traumas rub up against each other. Like, if you’re someone who yells when you’re upset, I can’t date you. Even if you’re a loud talker, I can’t… because it takes me back to that place, where that was a point where I knew the abuse was about to come.

When you’re in it, sometimes it’s like, not allowing yourself to be angry. There’s a lot of explaining away. Like, I understand why they got to this point, because they had a rough childhood, or something like that. Not angry with them, just angry with their actions. So, these pivotal moments with therapists who helped me through these junctures in my life were so important. After that breakup, I went to this therapist who was very nurturing, which wasn’t something I would normally go for in therapy.

But she said something important, “I give you permission to be angry.” I didn’t realize it, but I would go into session and say, “Well, I’m not really angry…” She’d say, “You’re not angry?? Someone put their hands on you who says that they love you? No one has a right to do that. It took your peace from you, and you’re not angry?” And I just was like, “Oh, shit. I am angry!” Being able to say that to your abuser was like… I remember one point he called me, and I was able to let it all out. “You hurt me. You changed me. How dare you!”

A Change Maker

Here at The Good Peoples Group, we disrupt oppression and help individuals work through their own stuff to provide integrity, as far as oppression and race relations go. If anyone is looking for any help, The Good Peoples Group, it’s like a membership to work your mind. We provide workshops, trainings, and one-on-one individual sessions for people to really explore and do identity navigation… intersectional pieces of who they are. Instead of paying $200 for a workshop you can’t really fit into your budget, you can pay a fee every month that is affordable to come and get the work that you need.

Also, I do therapy at a group practice in the city. Just being a black woman, from a place where you don’t really see many people come out of that experience in a positive way, is something to be said. It’s the reason why, consistently, when I’m working with clients, talking to people, doing this interview, I’m completely vulnerable about it. I see clients on a sliding scale fee, because I’m really passionate about who I’m working with, understanding that there are people who may not be able to afford what I charge. It’s who I am.

All the work I do all constantly provides a mirror for myself. It’s an amazing experience, but it’s what I truly believe in. The things I talk about with my clients, and the work that we do at The Good Peoples Group, I’m constantly pushing myself to think about… this way that when people truly are able to own everything about themselves… we’re better. The world’s more eclectic and beautiful because of that.

And if I can help people feel more self-aware, and more power in who they are and owning who they are… I feel like, I may not change the world, but I could spark the brain or the mindset that could change the world. We need that. Collectively, we need that. We all, society, if we come together, if we show more love, if we experience more joy… see people as people and not diagnoses, not stigmas, not the color of our skin… we really could start to shift the trajectory of where we’re at.

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