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Finding Our Minds: Mental Health and African-Americans

There are many things that remain unspoken in the African-American community. It’s as if these things will simply disappear if we refuse to give our time, energy, and thoughts to them. One such topic is that of Mental Illness. In our community, we operate on the belief that all that comes our way (be it good or bad) is that of Divine Intervention or Planning. It attempts to offer rational thought to many instances in our life. It’s always the answer to our question, “Why?”

 However, in my life, there has been the constant question: Why must I have a mental illness?

 This blog will be part of a series on Mental Health. My hope is that we can begin talk about these issues and break down the barriers of communication. Too many people in my community deal with a mental illness of some sort and there really isn’t the space to speak openly about it. There is no room for us to really be ourselves. To ask the necessary questions. To live without fear of judgment.

 To the reader, I hope that these posts open up something within you and that you become more accepting of others. I hope that you find the necessary strength to reach out to someone you may think suffers from a disorder. That’s all we want as people…to feel a safe connection with another person.

 ~Miss C. Jayne

My Story

 I’ve always wondered if there was something about me that just made me different. To say that I was sensitive would only have been the tip of the iceberg. As a youngster, I remember that I could pick up on the emotions of others; and it’s something that I’ve grown to feel is a gift and a curse. My sensitivity to others (and intuition to some degree) allowed me to build close relationships with others but it often left me feeling drained. As I grew older, this trait became something more of a burden. When I started middle school, I went through many transitions because of family issues. Lots of things had to be held inside because I operated with the intention to protect my two younger brothers. But even then, I noticed something wasn’t quite right.

 I became withdrawn and many of the adults that I trusted wrote it off as my becoming a “Young Lady” (whatever the hell that meant). I became angry and I wanted to lash out. I figured out ways to hurt myself because I was in pain. I would go days and even weeks feeling as though I couldn’t do anything the “right” way and much of that “down” time was spent contemplating my death. Then there were the days that I was up. And when I was up, I was way up. Most people just wrote this off as me being my regular “goofy” self. I could always find silver linings and offer great advice or tell just the right joke that made someone else feel better.

 But inside, I knew it would be a matter of time before I was thrown back into that dark space. For a while, I hid it. I hid it well. Since I’d always been the “Sensitive Child” and the child that loved to read in my group of siblings, my parents didn’t think it was odd that I would lock myself in my room. And stay there. Because I was the “Goofy Friend,” close friends and acquaintances would assume that I was simply having a bad day and that I would come around soon.

 I always did.

 I managed to float along in high school and get through life. I joined organizations. I followed a strict schedule. I worked hard. I was able to cover up my insomnia by saying that it was the school work or practicing for whatever cheerleading competition was coming up. In hindsight, I managed to handle my “illness” and I felt that I had finally overcome whatever it was that plagued me. Then I went to college. I had a break. In the worst way possible.

 Freshman year of college was when my depression started to spiral out of control. Many people wrote it off as homesickness but I started to attend counseling sessions. Just to talk it out. I didn’t want to admit to the counselor, who was white, that I, a Black woman (who is supposed to be strong and is more than capable to handle life), felt as though I was losing control of my mind. This scared me. I was so afraid of becoming like the people who I’d seen in homeless shelters coming up or the people on the street. I remember the jokes that would be told in my group of friends about mental illness and I’d hesitate to even ask if it were possible to have an illness. I remembered the many church sermons that made it sound as though the people afflicted with mental illness had committed some unspeakable sin and this was their punishment.

 My depression only got worse. It got to the point that I lived for my “up” days. I tried to cover these extremes up and bring some form of happiness into my life through organizations and other student groups.

 My final year in college, I broke. My grandparents passed away. I went to their funeral and came back a different person. I drank…heavily. I did things that I’m not too proud of. I attempted suicide (landed me in the hospital). I took painkillers. Whatever. Just to feel something other than hurt.

 I knew then that I had “something.” I just didn’t want to admit what it was. I was still in counseling and it was obvious that I was crushing from the weight of my problems. So, I looked for an out. I left Michigan. I moved to a place where there was little family around me. I went to graduate school. I threw myself into my work. I got sick. I stayed sick. I had migraines every other day. The depression was intense. In a day, I could go back and forth between depression and mania almost twice a day. Three days before finishing my courses for my program, I decided that I didn’t want to live anymore. I took 3 sleeping pills (with an alcoholic drink) and I drank an entire bottle of wine. When I woke up, I was sure that the Universe hated me.

 This thing that I had…it had to be some punishment, but for what, I didn’t know.

 I didn’t want to talk about myself anymore. I didn’t want to focus on myself anymore. I started once again to focus on others. If I could get them through the day, then I’d have gotten myself through the day. But it was hard. It was lonely. It was the scariest thing I’d ever confronted about myself. One night, I finally decided that it would be okay for me to admit that maybe, just maybe, I had a mental illness. It would be okay to admit that it was something that surpassed depression (even though this is what I felt most of the time).

 I graduated in May. I flew home the following day. When I saw my therapist for the first time, I cried. It was all I could do. I sat in a chair across from a white guy who seemed caring and I cried. Then I explained everything that I was feeling. The confusion. The depression. The fear. The almost happiness. The panic. The mania. I explained myself.

 When I left his office, I felt freer…but I was more afraid that I’d ever been in my life. I was no longer a young Black woman with an education and a bright future.

I was bi-polar.

 To be continued….

*Image courtesy of Google Search. I’m not the young lady pictured.

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