My youngest son walked in to my room. I was in bed. “Mom, are you being lazy today?”
“That’s not nice.” I replied without thinking. Then I softened. “Why don’t you get a book and read with me?”
He cuddled up beside me and I fell asleep. Eventually he got bored and went back to video games. “Go play outside” I said, “It’s better for you than those video games.”
“You should go with them” I said to myself, “You are a lazy mother.”
But I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t.
I’ve spent a lot of weekends like this.
I’ve always been the strong one. I’ve always been the woman who “gets stuff done.” You know that black woman on tv? The peripheral character who is raising a couple of kids, working long hours, piping up with a snappy comment while also fixing the problems of her white friends? That’s me. In real life. I am that stereotype. I have been a single mother since I was 21. I saved and scraped and put myself through college while working full time and raising a little boy. I was a teaching assistant and a member of the Political Science Association at the same time. I did it all well, too. My son graduated from kindergarten the day before I got my degree.
After college I worked my way up to a pretty decent job. I bought a house. My oldest son has successfully reached teenager status. I have a vibrant social circle. I volunteer. I have a very good life.
“How do you do it all?” My friends ask at a dinner party. And I smile and say, “It’s not that hard,” all the while knowing that I spent the 4 hours before the party staring at the wall of my room trying to come up with reasons to not leave the house, “It’s just all I know.”
I am the strong black woman. I’m persevering. I handle my business. I take care of my people. But I also suffer from depression. All of these things are true. I don’t fail because I can’t fail. Everything you see about me will be put together. It will be exactly the way that I want it to be. Everything you can’t see is a mess.
There is no room in the narrative of the strong black woman for panic attacks. There is no room for days spent unable to get out of bed. The strong black woman is a minor character, she doesn’t get a backstory unless it’s about how she triumphed over a rough and tumble childhood. She doesn’t get to succeed and still admit that her childhood still gives her nightmares. She doesn’t have nuance. She is a mother figure or comedic relief. That is all.
I had been diagnosed once before with depression when I was in college. I went to see a nurse because I couldn’t stop falling asleep the moment I got stressed. It was affecting my schoolwork. She suggested I see a counselor. When the counselor suggested I was depressed I said, “Can you just give me some breathing exercises or something? I’m really busy.”
I’ve fought through depressive episodes -- just forced myself forward because there was too much to do. Nobody ever thought I was depressed. Even this last year, when I started having panic attacks every day. When any social gathering left me bedridden the next day. When I stopped being able to read. When I stopped being able to listen to music. When none of my hobbies held any interest. Nobody suspected anything. Because during that same time I got promoted. During that time I bought a house. Because even though I may have spent the entire day in bed staring into space, by the time I showed up at your party I looked fantastic and I always had a great story to share.
When we think of depression and anxiety we often think of people completely unable to function. Unable to work, unable to carry on a conversation. Wandering around in a bathrobe for days smelling of stale pizza. Or maybe wasting away writing about the meaninglessness of life. And this is all true for a lot of people suffering from depression. But depression doesn’t always look like that. For me, it means smiling at friends while silently berating myself -- because even though I was dressed up, my house was a mess, so it was all a lie. For me, depression means Googling all the diseases I’m probably dying from while crying uncontrollably. For me, depression means going on vacation and not being to get out of your hotel bed for the first three days, but then telling everyone you had a great time. For me, depression means kicking butt at a work meeting and not being able to enjoy it because you are pretty sure that an email will come out soon letting everyone know that you really are horrible, that you’ve had them all fooled. So instead of giving up, you push yourself past the point of exhaustion, to try and bury how horrible you are beneath a bunch of accomplishments. But it’s never enough.
I didn’t realize I had a problem until this summer. This summer my older son went through a serious crisis and I suddenly ran out of strength. I suddenly couldn’t DO anymore. I couldn’t keep my sleep time contained to when the kids were gone. I couldn’t keep the crying to my bedroom. Finally, after 6 hours of sitting in my car in my driveway one May afternoon, crying uncontrollably, afraid to go in the house, I called my doctor. I still didn’t think I was depressed, I just thought I was going through a rough patch for my son and needed some temporary help.
It wasn’t until the meds started to kick in that I realized the hell I’d been living in. Just enough had lifted for me to fully see how bad it had all gotten, it was so very painful. I had lost over a year of my life. Admitting to myself that I was suffering from depression was the most humiliating and liberating thing I’ve ever done. I had to admit that I wasn’t the strong black woman. I had to risk losing that identity. And people noticed. Suddenly people were asking, “Are you ok? I’ve never seen you so frail.”
Frail. Every question of concern felt like a punch in the stomach. But I wasn’t okay. And I had to say so. Everything I didn’t want people to see is now on the surface and people look at me like I’m a different person. People who need me to be an example of unyielding strength have stopped reaching out. I’m not invited to as many parties. We’re all adjusting to this more complete idea of me.
I’ve been working through my depression with a good therapist. Only these last three weeks have I started to feel like myself. I’m able to read a little. I haven’t climbed back into bed this week at all. I don’t want to get over-optimistic, but I feel like I’m turning a corner for now. I’m realizing that I am still strong, even when my brain is lying and telling me that I’m the worst. But strong doesn’t mean that I don’t have any problems. Strong doesn’t mean that I don’t need any help.
This depression can’t be willed away, but that doesn’t make me a victim. I can give myself the same care that I give others. Right now I feel more genuine than I have in a long time. I don’t know if this is a lasting change, but the fact that I’m able to enjoy it right now is saying something. The depression may come back as it has numerous times in the past, but maybe I’ll recognize it sooner and get help. Maybe I won’t lose another year.