Monday, August 30, 2010

Life is Not a Fairytale: Black Women and Depression


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I have a confession to make. Despite my outward appearance and demeanor, some days it is a physical struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  At least once a month I cry myself to sleep, to the point of waking up with puffy red eyes and hiccups.  Dating back as far as I can remember (early childhood) my mood has always been generally melancholy, an oceanic blue.  I experience bouts of depression that range from simple sadness to life re-considerations as predictably as season changes.  It has become more manageable the older I get.

This feels like a confession because while I am only admitting to having moments of humanity and vulnerability, I am a black woman, and for me these realities are oftentimes seen as weaknesses.  We (black women) are supposed to be strong.  We (black women) are not supposed to break down.

Fantasia Barrino's recent confession of her suicide attempt sparked a realization that black women are as susceptible to depression as anyone else.  When asked (see attached video) about her recent suicide attempt, she explains "I was overloaded with carrying six years of so much…dealing with my family, dealing with my father, dealing with men and their bullshit…"  I think we can all relate in one way or another.  While her "so much" and (y)our "so much" may not be identical, people feel overwhelmingly inclined to pass their issues off to black women—assuming we can handle it stoicly—because we have been doing it for generations.  Or have we?

I have followed Fantasia's career from her early aspirations to be an American Idol to the more recent scandals that have surrounded her life and career (not the least of which was an M.C. Hammer-like dissolution of funds for trying to "look out" for more people than who could "look out" for her, a foreclosure on her home, and her most recent love relationship, which ironically is the only mention of a romantic relationship, outside of references of her baby's father, I remember over the years—but I could be wrong, I have not followed her career or celebrity gossip, that closely).

In 2004 I tuned in to American Idol because somebody said that a black girl from High Point, North Carolina (I am from North Carolina) was competing.  And while I never participated in the voting process, I did watch this rural black girl from North Carolina, who not unlike me, had already experienced her fair share of heartache.  At the time she was a 19-year-old rape and domestic violence survivor, and a single mother.  She was not unlike many girls I knew.  I was happy for her, but like many people, after she seemingly "got over" all of the struggles she had endured, by beating the odds and winning the prize, I stopped paying attention.  I bought her first album, watched her Lifetime movie (a poorly acted mini-drama based on her autobiography of the same name), and even tolerated two or three episodes of her reality series, Fantasia For Real, on Vh1.  However, I never paid attention to what must have been happening behind the scenes.  I never considered what the impact of going from little known high school drop out to rags to riches heroine must have been.  I never thought about how vulnerable she was to being taken advantage of being so young, so naïve, so ignorant, so vulnerable… she was just supposed to be "so strong."

A few weeks ago when I heard about Fantasia's suicide attempt I wasn't particularly surprised.  Once again we seemed to share many things in common.  In her interview on Good Morning America she stated, "everybody feels like I'm so strong…and it just became heavy for me…to the point that I just wanted to be away from the noise."  It would take both hands for me to count the amount of times, in my life, I have pondered the same dilemma, come to a similar conclusion.  I did not, however, immediately admit that I could relate to Fantasia's hopelessness because there are precious few women friends who won't judge or chastise you (a black woman) for not being strong. Or, who won't attempt to encourage you (a black woman) by reminding you that as a black woman, YOU ARE STRONG.  And while I have my moments of fortitude, there are far more moments of pain.

There is a problem when we (little black girls) are taught to be strong from an early age and we have that expectation reinforced by everyone in our lives from other black women, to churchfolk, to white folks, to the (wo)men we love or want (to love).  It is further complicated when our (supposed innate) strength is celebrated and memorialized in ways that make us territorial of it.  We are encouraged to embrace it.  Black women's strength is the single stereotype that is disguised as a compliment, and we oftentimes don't want to relinquish it.   But what does it mean to be strong?  What happens when we don't feel it, when we are tired of it, when sadness, hopelessness and strength trade places?

Interestingly Fantasia, while trying to give up the superwoman façade that plagues black women, has in many ways reinforced it.  Without giving herself more than a week to recover from wanting to die, she re-emerged to face her demons, her critics, her family and her fans head on.  In what can only be interpreted as her demonstrating and proving her strength, her private and public drama was put on the back burner so that she could move forward.  Within two weeks of her suicide attempt, she was already "back to herself" (the name of her new album is "back to me").  The Behind the Music special premiered almost two weeks to the day of her suicide attempt.  I guess as a black woman with so many people to take care of (herself notwithstanding) she didn't have time to be depressed or to recover from her emotional breakdown.

Depression has always been problematic for me because it was something the women in my family and household could not relate to or readily admit. Depression was white women's shit and my uncontrollable tears and obsession with death was met with confusion and shaken heads. We (black women) didn't have time to cry over spilled milk or break down from a broken heart.  There will bills to pay, mouths to feed, ways to make (out of no way). And over the years of watching and witnessing women hurt (from unsuccessful relationships, struggling with finances, dealing with discrimination, and simply waiting for something better for themselves or their children), I saw them struggle, but I never saw them "feel."  So my feelings, of unspeakable, unexplainable sadness, didn't make sense.  And while the women I knew never demonstrated the reality of depression in their lives, the reality of my experience tells me that there had to have been tears in the dark, moments of surrender in prayer rooms, wishes of ending lives over seemingly mundane struggles. I have surely wished my life away for less.  Living is hard. Living with oppression is harder.   I think we all sometimes or at some point, like Fantasia, just want the noise to stop.

Superwoman syndrome has the capacity to take us out in myriad ways.  Fantasia's story, while tragic, is not all that unique.  And while not all of us will attempt to "silence the noise" by un-accidentally swallowing a bottle of pills, there are those of us who isolate ourselves, overwork or overcompensate, overeat or don't eat, trade sleep for worry, say yes when we need to say no.  Self-care is not a selfish negotiation.  I strongly believe that black women deserve a story that shows us how to negotiate multiple possibilities for how to be strong, even when the strongest thing to do is nothing!  We need narratives, beyond our own, to show us that we are not alone in these emotional quagmires.

There is a danger in being strong… because ultimately we are all human, and black women do not have superpowers of physical, emotional, or mental strength.  We have to let ourselves off the hook so that we don't feel like we are failing (others or ourselves) when we simply get tired.  While black women have the benefit of our experiences, the training to cope in particular ways (with racism and sexism), and the wherewithal to expand our capacity to deal with bullshit (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) we are not unbreakable.

I list here a few things I have relied on over the years to help me cope with the un-fairytale storyline/s of my life.

  • Sisterfriends. We need to have outlets, support systems, and a space to not be strong.  We also need people in our life who we don't expect us to be their savior or our own.  I tend to avoid people who try to talk me out of how I am feeling.
  • Narratives. Finding other black women's stories about what they have been through and how they got over is important. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah's book Willow Weep For Me: A Black Woman's Journey Through Depression was a powerful testimony for me.
  • A professional listener. We are oftentimes the person people come to with their problems, but we don't always have someone we can go to with ours.  I think we could all benefit from talking to a counselor who will offer an empathic ear and allow us to hear what we think/feel/need out loud and in our own words.  Our friends are wonderful allies, but having a professional counselor who will simply listen has tremendous benefits.
  • Crying. I read somewhere some time ago that crying is a kind of soul cleanse.  As a black woman I was conditioned to never cry unless something hurt (something I could substantiate or prove) so many times my unprovoked tears did not make sense.  However, reframing crying as a way to cleanse my soul has been helpful.  I now see the function of tears as an opportunity for me to rinse away the residue and hurt from the inside out.

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