Sick, Part I: Black Girl in the Psych Ward

Golf pencils. When someone asks me what comes to mind after my brief stint in the psych ward, that’s my response: golf pencils. I never want to see another one.  I likely won’t have to since I don’t play or even plan to play golf now or in the future. But even if I did by some chance find myself on a course pretending to care about dropping that dimpled ball into a hole far, far away, I swear I will use a crayon or a sharpie. Golf pencils be damned.

There were a series of steps that resulted in my admission to the hospital.  More phases than steps, I suppose. Survival. Functional dysfunction. Malfunctioning dysfunction. Deterioration. Denial of the deterioration. Detached zombie. Withering mess. Shaking and detached.

These are of course not technical terms.  Nor can I say that they happened in that exact sequence. I can say, however, that I will never be the same. There is something very permanent about losing your mind. Even after you begin to reclaim it, you are putting it back together using different tools. These tools reshape and reconfigure all the pieces, wires and bits differently than they began. That’s good and bad.  But you are indeed different.  Forever.

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I lost my shit approximately five weeks ago. Now when I say lost my shit, I am referring to a dismantling of the connection between my body and mind; a severance between me and the world. I was no longer an actor. I was only a recipient. Of thoughts, of pain, of symptoms and wreckage.  Nothing but contradictions: flurry and paralysis, fight and concession.

My breakdown was a mudslide of sorts. I call it a mudslide because 1) it was most certainly a natural disaster; and 2) I read this explanation on Wonderopolis:

Mudslides occur when a large amount of water causes the rapid erosion of soil on a steep slope.

And that, my friends, was like looking in a mirror. I was a disaster waiting to happen. The makings were always there, but I had managed to keep the precipitation and physics at bay. When it was getting too slippery I frantically worked to dry out.  Drying out in my case was isolation, withdrawing from everyone and everything, and escaping via words (books, writing, web) to avoid my reality. When I had retreated enough to choke back the dangers of being found out, uncovered, questioned by those who truly know me, I would re-integrate, apologizing to those I had flaked on, put off, rescheduled, ignored.

Shame is the real driver for me.  I simply hate my brain and its inability to function in everyday life. Function, independence, value-add, purpose; these are the qualities that lie at the center of my self-worth.  Even now I can’t shake the lessons of generational trauma, systemic oppression, and sexism:

  • Prove your worth through performance
  • Get up and push through
  • Us before you
  • Some things are not talked about
  • That’s something for the White folks

These phrases, along with others, run through my ill mind like ticker tape. And honestly, there is some truth to them. There are individuals who, if trusted with the truth, use it against you or very quickly want you to prove that what you are feeling is real, that you aren’t using it a s a crutch or excuse for bad behaviors. You know what? FUCK THEM. I am grateful that my brain goes to self-destruction and not violence to others because if it did, there would be some wounded ass naysayers around the 253. I would be going all Beatrix Kiddo unleashing the pain that their disbelief causing me and others fighting to remain functional. It would look similar to this:

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) I turn my Hattori Hanzo sword on to myself, ripping the light out of my own life, saving all of my compassion for others no matter how they hurt me. I refuel with reality TV, hard liquor and prayer (yes, all 3 of the things go together!). And when I mustered enough will to get through, I’m at it again.

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Nothing could prepare me for the process of seeking medical help for my mental health crisis. No amount of research, anecdotes, or second hand stories prepare you to be humiliated, dehumanized and disregarded by the system. Seriously, it’s the shit that nightmares are made of.

I’ll break the whole sordid affair down in part 2. And explain why golf pencils can go straight to hell.

The Curse of the Strong Black Woman

“I’m a strong Black women.”

How many of us have said this, heard this, celebrated this affirmation of perseverance and independence?  I would venture to say we would be hard pressed to find a popular Black film, TV show, novel–drama or comedy— girls’ night conversation, that does not espouse this strength of Black women as a core component of our identity.  To this I say, you’re damn straight.  I’m strong.  Black women as a collective represent a commanding level of strength in the historical, political, social, economic, and spiritual growth of this country.  However, this strength has come, and continues to come, at a great cost.  It is estimated that the depression rate of Black women is almost 50% higher than that of White women.  While data in these reports can be limited and questionable, it begs the question:  Does our resilience, our culture of keep on keepin’ on, contribute to our own demise?  The tendency to minimize our needs, ignore or suppress symptoms, our continuous, sometimes chronic focus on others, has resulted in a breakdown in self-awareness; one that has taken its toll on our mental and physical health.

I’m the first one to admit that I am guilty of this self-denial.  I have always prided myself on pouring into others.  However, the downward spiral and subsequent dissolution of my marriage triggered some critical tipping points in my overall health and wellness.  In my heart, I knew I had suffered from depression since adolescence.  However, I had no mechanism or incentive to bring these concerns forward to my mother.  This is not to say my mother didn’t love or care for me. She absolutely did.  However, unseen issues of health, those of the heart and mind, were not talked about.  And even if they were, they were glossed over, dismissed as a mood swing, something I needed to get over.  I took this paradigm into my adulthood, and unfortunately, it remains a norm in our communities of women (of every color).

When my divorce began to impede my daily life (work, parenting, relationships) I was fortunate enough to have fellow sisters in my life that mandated the acknowledgement of my needs.  I fought it.  Boy, did I fight it.  However, my weariness outweighed my stubbornness.  And my desire to disrupt this cycle of denial in my household necessitated a change.  So I did.  I sought therapy.  I took medication.  But more importantly, I spoke.  I said it out loud.  I gave voice to my needs, my pain, and my confusion.  I looked that stereotype of independence and strength in the face and I said, “No.”

Yes, I’m better now both physically and mentally.  However I am still hesitant to share my experience in unfamiliar company for fear of judgment, specifically from other women.  But I resist it, as I am committed to helping model the kind of self-care strategies I believe we have a right to claim.  Yes, prayer is powerful.  Yes, we need to take responsibility for bad decisions.  And yes, sometimes we bring pain and disappointment on to ourselves.  But that, my sisters, is not an environment that cultivates healing.  Our ancestors shared space, story, joy, and pain, to sustain their livelihood.  Let us look back, learn from them, and re-institute safe spaces for our sisters to ask for help.  Never judging, always loving.

QUESTION:  What keeps you from reaching out for help?