[Editor's note: This post is apart of our My Sister's Keeper Project to promote mental health and emotional wellness among Black women.]
For as long as I can remember I’ve been suicidal, paranoid and unnervingly anxious.
There are moments in my life where I can barely tell left from right. I have always been an emotional wreck, probably bipolar or manic depressive. The online tests I took suggested I have borderline personality disorder, and I’ve tried to accept the fact that maybe much of this is true. Most of my behaviors are sub-clinical at best; the less desirable byproducts of a dysfunctional social construct. I am ineffectively coping with the traumas that happened to me as a child, but I wasn’t able to attribute my present pathology to things in my past. If it weren’t for my therapist, I wouldn’t see light at the end of the tunnel.
I first visited the counseling and testing center on my university’s campus desperately seeking help for what I thought was mild depression. It was my plea. I had stopped attending my morning classes two weeks previous and was barely able to get my son to daycare before noon each day. I did not respond emotionally to my fiancé, nor did I smile as much when our child played. I lacked personal motivation. I stayed in bed as much as possible and shied away from social situations. Sometimes I’d lie there, buried beneath the comforter and sheets and think, “I just want the pain to go away. I want to sleep, and if I never wake up again? Well hey, that’s okay.”
I sat in the counselor’s office cuffing a Kleenex, barely able to hold back the tears. I was helpless and hated feeling like I was out my mind. The walls were staring at me, and the anticipation building in my stomach made me sick. What’s surprising to me even now, two months after the ordeal, is how fluid and honest I was with a woman I believed could not know anything about me. It understood it was important for me to be as responsive as I was. (It’s important for every one of us to be honest when dealing with our mental illnesses.)
The therapist and I decided that it would be best if I continued receiving services, and assured me that I would find help if I agreed to come. I opted for individual counseling despite the three-week wait for it to begin. Group therapy was readily available but also intimidating, and for some reason I felt ashamed. I wanted to be selfish then, to keep all 15 free hours to myself because I needed to cling to something. It had been years since I recognized what sanity is, and I longed to keep these sessions to myself because they symbolized security. The most significant part of that first consultation was one simple discovery: that I suffer from clinical depression and severe anxiety. It wasn’t a grim diagnosis; it was a bittersweet beginning.
Before therapy, I did not know that depression was a mental illness. I’ve since learned that it is called the common cold of mental illness because it is so widespread. It’s often an indicator of other mental illnesses and, this too, may be my case, because like thousands of other women who seek out therapy each year, depression is a secondary mental health issue for me. Eleven years later, the truth is as hard a pill to swallow as the reality of experiencing it: I am an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Although I’m well aware that what happened to me is both real and wrong, it struck me as being unremarkable at best. The statistics, however, take my skewed perception with a striking blow.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry accounts that nearly 80,000 incidents of sexual abuse are reported each year. Substantial evidence says that nearly 20% of American women and 5% – 10% of American men experienced some type of sexual abuse as children. HeretoHelp (a project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information) records that 95% of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a mental illness, and that chronic depression is a common response to the abuse.
Knowing the roots of my downheartedness is comforting, but I realize there can be no method to my madness. The defenses I developed are well oiled mechanisms that allow me to perform most day-to-day functions, but they are crippling just the same. The reality of the matter is that I can neither manipulate depression nor make it disappear any more than I made it surface. Those like Tyler Perry may argue that by faith alone one can muster up the magic it takes to be healed of this affliction, but as a person with a strong belief in God I simply can’t agree with them.
Four months into my pregnancy I found myself clenching a kitchen knife, sitting on the countertop wanting to slit my wrists for the feel of it. I imagined drowning myself in the shower or jumping from the highest ledge I could find, just so I could feel the fear of flying before falling to my death. I needed to feel affection when my father returned to prison again. Needed to feel the spirit when my cousin was shot by local police during an attempted armed robbery. I needed to feel a million things because depression had crept from every corner of my bedroom and strangled the color of life from my deadweight body. Essentially I needed to feel the gift of motherhood when instead I felt burdened by the taut belly that grew regardless of my uneasiness.
I am not angry with God, or even at my abuser. By nature I am self-sacrificial, always offering up my happiness so that someone else’s may prevail. I was afraid to speak about my abuse for several reasons, some which seem unreasonable now. I was afraid to begin the healing process because I knew that in order to heal, one must be hurt first. I did not identify with “injured” or “bruised”, I thought of myself as broken goods. Because I knew that I could not be “cured” of the abuse, I wrote off healing as a lost cause and allowed myself to wander away into a world that doesn’t cater to women. Using what I know now, I will never let myself go through that kind of lonely existence again.
Even though I’m apprehensive about consulting a psychiatrist for medication, I’m still working with my therapist. Depression can be treated, and it is not impossible to get better. There are people willing (and wanting) to help you heal. As far as the abuse is concerned, I’m learning to reconstruct my way of thinking and coping. I’ve spent most of my life dissociated and numb, searching for the inner child who never had a chance to grow emotionally and love. I pray for the day that I can break down crying. Tears, too, allow you to heal.
Courtney Boyd is a budding journalist and full-time mom. She believes a woman's voice is her most powerful weapon and encourages the use of spoken word to spark social change. She's intrigued by new, unusual and progressive media. Her writing reflects on self-discovery and personal growth, and can be viewed at http://positivedialogue.com.