The room that surrounds me is filled with light. The sun’s rays stream through the large windows on the room’s northern side, despite the heavy chill of winter. Plants nearby stretch and lean into the rays with desperation, like fish out of water gasping for air. There are half-read books on nearly every surface and neglected artwork on the dining room table. Dishes are piled in the kitchen sink and laundry overflows its hamper in the bedroom. Though it isn’t orderly and not quite chaos, in every room there is evidence of a life being lived. But with it, much unfinished business.
The last time we met, I introduced you to my grandmother through a dream that I had only a few weeks before. But it wasn’t the whole story. It didn’t end with the loving gaze shared between us, with my chin in her heaven softened hands. After that lovely silent moment, she started fussing.
I have no recollection of what she said or even my full reaction to it. Whatever it was, it might’ve been spoken telepathically, because I don’t even remember seeing her lips move. But even still, I know it was out of love. She was setting me straight about something I had gotten wrong. It was a teaching moment that I needed. But it’s only in the last few hours that I’ve begun to glean anything from it.
I often wonder what my grandmother would think of me now. While I know that she would be proud of the woman that I have become and have a sense of pride in my accomplishments, I wrestle with how she might perceive my struggle with mental illness. This woman who never slowed down, never got sick, and never seemed overwhelmed, I wonder, if she looked at me, what would she see?
This woman whose physical pain was evident only in the silent rubbing of an arthritic knee. This woman who had lived the Great Migration and the traumatic indignities of overt and systemic racism in the South and the North. What would she think of me and my blues? Would she chastise me? Or would she share her own?
Last week, I found myself in the middle of a depressive episode. I felt myself sinking when a week or so before, I began crying at the drop of a dime. I cried at tv commercials. I cried while gazing out my window. I cried while scrolling on Instagram. I just cried.
With my period on its way, I figured my body was playing musical chairs with my hormones again. But depression and PMS do not mix, and I was afraid that it would trigger an episode of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), which I’ve experienced as I weened my body off of medications that didn’t work for me. I didn’t consider that there could be something else brewing; some event in my life that was adding more weight to the sinking that I was feeling.
Again and again, I find myself in work environments where painful micro-aggressions and overt racial bias are not considered to be evidence of a hostile environment, but instead as innocent mistakes and misunderstandings. In recent weeks, I have seen my supervisor knowingly sacrifice my well-being for his own comfort and convenience. In other words, a walking micro-aggression was promoted to a supervisory role.
It didn’t matter that there was a clear track-record of overt hostility from this person. He made a calculation that I would probably quit as a result and decided that he could live with that. The potential loss of my knowledge and experience did not matter. But he was surprised to find that the promotion would not be enough and that he might lose two people at once. Then he tried to back track. The whole thing felt dehumanizing, painful, deeply insulting and manipulative. And while I am positive that I will be moving on in the near future, I feel overwhelmed about how that future might look and how I will deal with this stress in the interim.
This experience is not unique, nor is it confined to my job or career field. I have too many friends in other professions and environments that have similar experiences. And this isn’t my first rodeo. Unfortunately, as difficult as this scenario is, I’ve experienced worse, much worse, than this.
At this point, I’m just tired. But my hurt and fatigue don’t pay the bills. And here’s my distressing dilemma: there’s nowhere to go. There is no escape or even respite. Racism is everywhere. And grappling with that reality is depressing in the literal sense.
I wonder what my grandmother would think about my psyche’s reaction to that fact. Would she respond to my self-neglect and despair with contempt or a kind word? Would she think I was weak, lazy, or worse … not black enough?
Mental health and mental illness have only recently begun to be culturally accepted by Black people, at least, in the U.S. Back in my grandmother’s day, things like depression and anxiety were thought to be luxuries afforded only to whites. Black people were too busy trying to survive to be depressed.
The fact that most Black people were trying to navigate a country that was outright hostile was a traumatic experience shared by everyone you knew. Trauma was the norm, not an illness. And often, prayer, faith and worship were a remedy for a pent-up pain. The strong black woman stereotype is based on a real, hard-won resilience that both empowers and burdens Black women. In the here and now, it underscores my distress, while the dream of my grandmother’s fussing plays heavily in my thoughts.