To love me, you must accept my depression

The arrival of autumn always coincides with a sense of melancholy for me, because autumn beckons the inevitable arrival of winter, beckons shorter days and less exposure to sunlight, more temptation to hunker down, and less incentive to emerge from bed each morning. Autumn reactivates my awareness of my mental illness or wellness in a particular way.

In case it’s not already obvious based on the content of this blog, I think a lot about mental illness and wellness. I think about the ways both have been foundational to my lived experience since adolescence. I’ve written about my feelings of ambivalence toward my depression. Emphasis on the possessive adjective: my depression. It is mine, and at times it feels fundamental to who I am. There has always been a subdued, melancholy aspect to my spirit and presence. I think it is the same quality that leads people to tell me that they feel calm around me, at ease, like they don’t have to try so hard or put forth so much energy in our interactions.

This is a hard thing to articulate to my loved ones, or even to my therapist. That depression feels like a part of me, and that in some sense, I would not recognize myself without it. It has drifted in and out of the landscape of my life for the past 18 years, and I have had to reject any notion that my depression is something that can be “fixed.” It feels more like a relationship that I have to manage. This idea of being in relationship with my depression to me echoes the medical model of depression as disease. Both require management, for the long term. Sometimes depression tries to take the upper hand, to rule and dominate, and I have to problem solve to force it back in line with the other parts of my being. I imagine it is hard for the people around me to accept depression as a part of me, because when someone we love doesn’t feel well, we want them to feel better. And depression is painful, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. So I can understand that when the people who care for me see me in pain, they want to help me find ways to “fix” it.

To be clear, I do not enjoy the pain of depression, and I don’t want it to be my daily lived experience. It’s a difficult balance. Whether it is wrong or right, true or untrue, depression feels like a part of me. And it is for this reason that I have had ambivalent feelings about “getting better” and recovering from the major depressive episode I experienced in the fall of last year, and recovering from what feels like a lifetime of chronic low-level depression. In some sense, I know that recovery has been necessary, that the reality I was living in was a false one, and that having casual thoughts of passing away from this world is not a good thing. And yet, even though that reality was not / is not permanent, I can remember it quite clearly, and I can remember that it felt so fundamentally valid and rational, even as I knew it was unthinkable to those who love me.

To say that being depressed is always and fundamentally bad is to condemn a piece of me. To say that I will have arrived at the perfect pharmaceutical solution when and only when I no longer experience depression is to say that part of who I am as a person is wrong. A revolutionary shift has taken place in my thinking within the last year: I expect the people who love me to accept my depression, and love me even when I am depressed. The fact of the matter is that they have to, if they are going to love me at all. My relationship with depression is not a short term or temporary one, and so anyone who cannot love me when I am depressed is going to have a difficult time loving me for the long term. I expect their love, and I want them to expect mine in return, but I also, expect this reciprocal love to be difficult and painful and complicated. I also expect that some people will not be able to love me in this way and that our relationship will be different because of it.

Another revolutionary thing happened after the major depressive episode that I experienced last year. For the first time, I made efforts to describe my full, unfiltered reality to other people. To my therapist. To my friends. A reality so lucid that I was actively pushing away thoughts of dying on a daily basis. The thing that saved me from dying was naming my desire to die, out loud, and asking other people to respect it, even if they were unable to understand it. It was a strange thing being suicidal. It meant I was in total disagreement with everyone around me. I thought dying a very reasonable solution, and they disagreed. What was I to do? I decided that if I was going to continue living, I needed to be known and understood. And so I asked my friends and my therapist to put forth effort in understanding, and I agreed to put forth effort not to act on the desire. I more or less made a demand that people try to understand my reality as I was experiencing it, demanded that they not write me off as wrong, troubled, misguided. And when they were able to do that, I was able to stay alive, because I was able to be fully myself, without worrying that the profoundly depressed part of me would be rejected.

In order to stay alive, I also had to consent to safety planning, and come to understand that I cannot burden others with total responsibility for my safety, but that is another post.

A friend of mine posted a link to this article titled “Rethinking Mental Illness: Are We Drugging Our Prophets and Healers?” What would it look like to not immediately condemn those of us who experience depression, mania, psychosis, delusions? What would it look like to put forth effort to understand their reality, and empathize in what ways we can? What would it feel like, for those of us who love someone with mental illness, to be honest and say “I feel so sad knowing that you are sad/scared/hurting,” and not to immediately follow it with, “what can I do to make it better?” because this question implies that being sad/scared/hurting is not an okay way to be?

I don’t know. But I’m curious. And I’m committed to being transparent about my own experience, in the hope that we can talk more honestly about what is possible,

How I feel seven days after the murder of Keith Scott

The Mighty, an online community that catalogues the stories of those who are facing serious health conditions, recently published a piece of mine titled Surviving Depression, and Getting Breast Cancer. They also republished a piece I wrote on self-care. This burst of momentum around my writing has stirred feelings of pride, exhilaration, fear, and the ever-enduring impostor syndrome. We are all creators, creative beings, whether we are artists, writers, organizers, athletes… and we put a piece of ourselves into what we create. There are pieces of me in my writing, and so it feels strange to know that 80,000+ people have read and shared my writing. It feels as though they have consumed a piece of me, and I am not yet sure if I am more or less whole because of it.

I don’t know how to be a proper blogger (or what a proper blogger even is), but after receiving more than one hundred email notifications of new followers, I feel as though I ought to write something.

All I can write about is how traumatized I feel in the wake of the murder of Keith Scott by a Charlotte, NC, police officer. He was shot and killed on Tuesday, September 20, 2016. In the course of seven days, the primary emotion I’ve felt is despair. It sits heavy with me, even as life continues to happen around me, even as I endeavor to participate in my own life with some measure of… I don’t know what.

Regarding life continuing to happen around me… all of this madness and upheaval and uprising came in the midst of a hectic week for me individually. The organization I work with had an event scheduled for Sunday, an event that would have over 22,000 attendees. “Take care of yourself,” people say, when tragedy strikes, when racially traumatic events such as this happen. I tried. Wednesday I went home early, and screamed into a pillow until my voice was hoarse. I tried to lay down and rest, but found myself restless, and so instead I drank wine and smoked cigarettes with a friend. In the course of the week, I had two coworkers ask me how I am doing, and had one coworker ask me why I didn’t seem excited for the event on Sunday. That same coworker asked me on Sunday if I could smile to look a little more approachable at the booth I staffed at the event. I wanted to scream, but there were no pillows. And so I chose decorum over self-care, and I did not scream.

My partner lives in Alabama, and we see each other every three to five weeks. He came to visit me in Durham from Thursday to Tuesday, today. We felt the effects of the madness acutely, albeit differently, as our different racial identities color our experiences in very different ways. We talk frequently about the dynamics of him being a straight cisgender white man and me being a straight cisgender black woman. One thing we talk about is how it seems that some people want to celebrate our relationship as some sort of post-racial triumph. We know the truth, that there’s nothing post-racial about our world or our relationship, and it’s especially clear during a week like this one.

I do the self-care things. I shower. I brush my teeth. I eat meals with vegetables. I take my medications. I go see my therapist. I check in with friends. I show up to work so that I can pay my bills, and so that I still have a job when the despair lifts and I am able to enjoy work again.

Honestly? It doesn’t help. At least it doesn’t feel like it.

It’s not all bleak. There is resistance. There are courageous freedom fighters on the frontlines. And there are those of us, like me, who are caught in the throes of trauma and unable to fight at this present moment. Neither one is less than the other. We each need each other.

I know I am not the only person in despair. Be gentle with yourselves, dear ones. You are too precious to do otherwise.

Loving white people, as a Black person, in times like these

PART I:
I am a Black woman, and the majority of the people I am closest to are white, white women to be specific. They are the ones I call chosen family, the people for whom I would drop whatever I am doing if they are in a crisis, the people whom I call upon for daily love and support. It’s a messy, confusing way to live, and every now and again, I interrogate myself: “Why does this pattern persist? What does it say about you? Are you colluding and distancing just as much today as you were prone to do all those years ago?” I am the product of a white supremacist suburban upbringing, the product of advanced placement classes, horseback riding lessons, violin recitals, and predominantly white classrooms. Some things that I chose, but others that were chosen for me. I learned to survive immersed in whiteness, and I managed to all but erase my blackness. It has been a slow process of discovering and understanding my blackness, of undoing this erasure. Socialization in Black spaces has been important for this; developing friendships with Black women has been a key part of this; learning to desire collective Black liberation has been integral. There are vestiges of my white supremacist upbringing still to do this day. One of the consequences of that upbringing is that my instinct is and always has been to attend to the emotions, wants, and needs of white people.

I started thinking about this yesterday, as I reflected on how I was engaging in social media in the wake of the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile murders at the hands of police. I observed and realized that most of my posts, comments, and efforts to engage people to think were addressing white people. Why am I attending to white people at a time like this? Even if all I’m doling out is rage, and tough love, and truth bombs, I’m doling them out for white people, and white people are taking up my focus and attention at a time when I ought to be attending to MYSELF and to the OTHER BLACK PEOPLE in my life who are also numb, hurting, enraged. I started observing how other Black people were engaging, and realized that many of them were paying white people no mind. Their focus was on sending reminders of love and hope and joy to other Black people. Their focus was on attending to their own, grieving the dead, but also loving on the living who are still here and who still matter and who desperately need to be buoyed and bolstered to be saved from despair. Times like these make Black joy and Black love an imperative, elixirs that will heal and fortify and rejuvenate and save us from stirring up crazy shit, because how can you not want to stir up crazy shit at a time like this?

What am I saying, to myself, and to other Black people who love white people? I am telling myself to take a step back, and inviting you to do the same. This week especially, but maybe for longer than that. Certainly, the white people in your life are demanding your attention, as they are fucking up their efforts at allyship, but trying so hard, and struggling so genuinely to see the way forward, to step up in the ways that are necessary. But know that you are not responsible for them, and you do not have to respond to their bids for your attention. Change the channel. Mute the feed. Step away from social media, and step into Black spaces where you can get your life, at least for a little while.

PART II:
The other part of being a Black woman who loves white people, and is loved by some white people as chosen family, is that shit gets even more confusing when folks start reaching out to offer comfort and assistance. It is one thing to receive that type of reaching out from white people who are my chosen family. It is another thing to receive that type of reaching out from white people who are acquaintances at best, friends estranged for years in other circumstances. You have to understand, that Black people are being gaslighted as fuck during a week like this. And this can’t not mess with our psyche. I find myself on the one hand, wanting and expecting my white friends and acquaintances to reach out, to check on me, to offer help and support. Because that’s what chosen family does in a time of crisis. And  yet, I also find myself intensely irritated when they do reach out.

Here’s the thing, white people whom I love. Non-black people whom I love.White acquaintances that I only hear from when shit like this happens. I DON’T NEED YOU RIGHT NOW. You are not who or what I need.

I am not saying you don’t have a role to play or work to do, because you sure as hell do. However, I do not need you, personally. Second however, I do want some things from you. I want you to talk to other white people. Not, like, casually, “shit ain’t this sad,” but really initiate dialogue and argue and fight and risk burning some bridges, because until people start turning their backs on you, you aren’t doing enough.

Yes, there are some things I need and want you to do, if we ever are going to see some comprehensive change and an end to ruthless, intentional police killings of Black people. I need you to do those things if we’re ever going to make some progress so that we can move on to address the other one thousand indicators of systemic racist oppression.
But, in my grief, in my pain, in the joy I pursue to keep me from despair, I do not need you, or your comfort. If we are not chosen family (and maybe even if we are), I do not need you to reach out to me and ask me if I’m okay. How the fuck could I be okay? I do not need you to reach out and let me know you are thinking about me. Think about your own damn self, and your parents, and your uncles aunts and cousins, and your friends from high school. Think about the people in your life who are lacking an analysis to understand what is happening this week, and reach out to them.

Reaching out to me with generic laments and prayers of comfort and “I’m thinking about you” is so not as useful as you want it to be. Know that you are doing that for your own damn self. You are mostly in the way of my process. Either you are doing your work as a white ally all the time, in which case you will hear this and find some resilience to know that our love and friendship can withstand my ‘harsh’ words, or you are an opportunist, a voyeurist, pouncing on Black pain, thinking too highly of yourself in your efforts to swoop in and offer comfort, prayers, and reassurance that you will ‘stand with me.’

If we are chosen family, and this is NOT the first time I am hearing from you on this issue, and we are people in relationship with another on a daily basis, do reach out, because that’s what family does for one another. But please, do not to make it personal if I tell you that is not what I need today. Our relationship and our love is real, and it can weather this shitstorm of divisiveness that is unavoidable during events like these.

If this is the first time I am hearing from you on the issue, you are too late, and you are in the way, and you have more work to do. So do it. I need you to. I want you to. But I don’t need you right now.

**The words above are mine, and I tried to inject them with nuance. They are probably still lacking sufficient nuance, and may not ring true for other Black people who love white people. I also may recant my words tomorrow, but that’s what it means to be human. That’s also what it means to be fucked with by systemic racism to the point of not knowing who you can trust. On that note, cheers. 

Interference

I’ve been tuned out of current events for weeks and months now. For any and all news happening outside my immediate environs, I’ve turned the volume down to nearly zero. This means that I’ve bookmarked at least a dozen think pieces, each, on Bernie and Hillary, and they remain in my queue, unread. I know that another young Black man was killed in the place I presently call home Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina; and I know that the Ku Klux Klan is terrorizing people of color in my home of origin, Anaheim, California. I know that our governor signed a horrific bill that endangers the safety and wellbeing of queer and trans folks. All bookmarked for later. Later, because right now, I cannot have my roots upended on both coasts of this country. Recovery from depression means reminding myself that this world is my home, and that I can build a sort of life worth living here. The state of politics and Hollywood pop culture and the news cycle advertising the new racist thing that someone did today, these would derail my recovery efforts, I feel. Part of this is because my brain is busy with other things.

My brain has always been busy. Worries and what-ifs pulsate at a constant low frequency, like static just barely audible beneath a radio station. It’s quieter when my body is busy and active. This is why cardiovascular exercise is the only type I ever want. It turns the volume down on the static. But the moment my body slows to a stop, when I sit down to read a book, or watch a movie, or write, the static is at full blast. Sometimes there is a person sitting right in front of me, a person I love pouring out their heart, and I can’t hear them over the white noise in my brain. Repeat that? I’m sorry, I know you’ve already told me this, but remind me? When do you head off to blank, again?

I do not know myself to be a bad listener. I do not know myself to be a person who buries her head in the sand to avoid politics and misses voting day because I didn’t get my shit together to register from my new address. I do not recognize myself because I am at capacity in every way, and I am being stretched to the point of distortion. I have to reshape the space of my life and the landscape of my brain before I can tune back in to what is happening in the world.

Let me tell you a truth about the culture around “activism,” “movement work,” “social change.” It’s competitive and shaming as hell, or at least it can be. It is easy for me to berate myself for not participating fully in all the rallies, not reading all the articles, not reposting all the insights, not fighting all the battles, not initiating all the tough conversations, because I am simply too busy dealing with my own shit. Lately, my strategy when I catch myself berating myself is to leap to my own defense. Hey, asshole. Don’t speak to Mawiyah that way. She’s got a ton of shit on her plate, and she’s doing the best she can. Also, the “movement” and the “social change” that we are talking about is for the express purpose of improving her well being. Therefore, Mawiyah attending to her own needs is as full participation in the movement as is marching in the streets. So back off, and let her do another online crossword puzzle if that’s what her brain needs in order to experience some peace.

What I’m trying to say to you all is… it’s okay to tune out. All the same shit will be there when you’re ready to tune back in. Our inner lives can be loud, unbearable to the point of tears. The best way to deal with this interference is to attend to it. Pay attention to yourself, to the detriment of other priorities if you must. The work within ourselves and within our relationships is perhaps the most important and most difficult. But that’s just if you ask me.

The shitty side of self-care

In social work, self-care is one of those terms that is so overused, it has ceased to mean anything. Typically when self-care is referenced, the speaker is referring to activities and experiences that bring you pleasure. “The work in this field is really tough. You have to practice self-care. Go to a yoga class. Take a walk on a sunny day. Protect your leisure time. Get a mani-pedi. Soak in a bubble bath. Treat yo’self.”

Pleasure is great, and it is important. During seasons when I am depressed, I force myself to indulge in pleasure as though it were a lifeline, because it is. Most likely, there is actual theory and clinical principles behind this, but I’m no clinician, so I can’t speak to that. Here’s my interpretation: feeling bad all day, everyday, is exhausting. It’s not good for your body, or your heart, or your psyche. So when I reach day 3 of feeling sad and terrible, I force-feed myself pleasure, even though depression sucks all desire for fun and pleasure out of you. For me it feels similar to the way that you might force yourself to eat a salad because you know it’s good for you, even though you may fucking hate eating salads. (I am doing that right now, by the way – eating a fucking salad. It is picture perfect, with local lettuce and beets, tomatoes, dried cranberries, with a lemon-balsamic vinaigrette. I hate it. I’m eating it anyway.)

I thought I was doing this self-care thing the right way until November when it became obvious that I was not. Yes, sometimes self-care looks like pleasurable activities, and such cases, it is not so hard for me to get myself to do it. But if that were all that self-care entailed, I would not have found myself in the place I am in. I’ve been doing that kind of self-care for years with insufficient gains, so this leads me to believe that my self-care regimen was incomplete. What social workers and other people don’t often tell you is that self-care can be completely terrible. Self-care includes a lot of adult-ing, and activities that you want to put off indefinitely. Self-care sometimes means making tough decisions which you fear others will judge. Self-care involves asking for help; it involves vulnerability; it involves being painfully honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you need.

I am reconstructing my ideas about what it means to take radically good care of myself. I am making it a priority, to the detriment of other priorities, because I have to come the realization that my life depends on it. I will tell the truth about my present self-care, even though I have zero assurances that I am getting it right. Because a) getting it right is not the point (but God, do I love to get things right), and b) the other thing that nobody tells you about self-care is that it’s nearly impossible to know if you’re doing it right, until months later when you either find yourself feeling better or shittier. Check in with me in June for an addendum.

Take care of your body.

Medical self-care is completely unglamorous. Is there anyone on the planet who enjoys going to the dentist? If I go to the dentist once every three years, I’m doing really well. Self-care is paper gowned, bare assed vulnerability, as you do the un-fun work of showing up for your Pap smear, mammogram, or enema. Medical self-care is particularly difficult for me when I am depressed and anxious. The depressive part of my brain doesn’t care if I’m sick, because it can’t care about anything. The anxious part of my brain doesn’t want to make the doctor’s appointment, because what if something is wrong, and what if the nurse is mean, and what if the doctor commits a microaggression, and what if I have to go to doctor’s appointments by myself for the rest of my life because I never find a partner? I’m almost thirty, and I can no longer indulge the myth that I am invincible and I will never have physical health issues. Right now, self-care means getting the medical care I need, even if it is difficult and scary for me to accept that I am a person who sometimes needs medical care.

Quit.

In the past year, I have just been quitting shit left and right. Marathons. Jobs. Pet ownership. I hate quitting so much, I can’t even tell you. For a Type A perfectionist who has always based my self-worth in my accomplishments and being perceived as a capable self-reliant person, admitting that I’m not well enough to do something, like work a full time job, is one of the most painful realities I can imagine. People talk about setting boundaries and avoiding over commitment as though it’s fun. That shit ain’t fun. It is not fun to sit in the office of your work supervisor and explain why you keep calling out sick. It is even less fun to finally suck it up and leave a job because you’re not well enough to work full time, even if you think you ought to be. Even if I have been before, I am not now, and self-care means being honest with myself and other people about that.

The painful self-care I am doing now is coming to terms with the fact that I have built my life around performing only the best parts of myself for other people, or performing for myself to project an image of who I would like to be. And it’s time to quit that shit. I hate it. I feel weak and lazy and dramatic and irresponsible. But I know deep down that I am not any of those things, and regardless, it is the self-care I need to do. I can hate it and do it anyway. And maybe tomorrow, I’ll hate it a little bit less. And next week, I’ll hate it less still.

Ask for help.

In my experience, people talk about reaching out for help as though it is cathartic and will always be well received. The truth is that it is scary and uncomfortable, and until you’ve done it, you have no assurance about how people will react. You would think it would be easier if you have strong loving relationships with your friends and family, but I am lucky enough to have all of that, and I still find asking for help completely terrifying and painful and shameful, even though it ought not be any of those things. Having loving parents means that I worry about causing alarm. And if the people who love you are empathic people who pour intention into your relationship, it can feel really scary to let them into the dark places of your life, and own up to feelings of deep sadness or suicidal thoughts. For me, a person who is driven to please and to perform, and who has immensely loving friends and family, being honest about my depression causes a unique anxiety – fear that I will say, “I don’t want to live,” and people will hear, “your love is insufficient, and so insignificant to me that I’m willing to leave you.” This line of thinking binds me into a false choice between my pain and someone else’s: if I am honest about my pain, I will cause pain for the people I love; therefore asking for help is a bad choice. No. Reaching out has been necessary, and now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m glad I did, but it took a lot to overcome that line of thinking, and it certainly was not the pleasurable type of self-care.

Also, maybe there are some people in this world who have the ability to ask for help in a graceful and appropriate way. However, I do not possess that trait. My efforts at reaching out and asking for help have fallen in the center of a very unattractive Venn diagram, the circles of which include a) clumsiness, b) histrionics, and c) mild disregard for other people’s needs and perspective. Asking for help is difficult on a good day, so when you’ve waited until you are the worst version of yourself before you try to do it, it’s not a pretty picture. You’ve gotta do it anyway, because self-care; it’s totally shitty.

Take care of your relationships.

I believe that there’s usually a lot of ugly shit at the root of our depression. Yes, it is a medical and physiological disorder, and I’m trying to unpack the stigma that I didn’t know I had toward depression. But mental disorders and illness are never as simple as, “here, you need more of this chemical between your neurons.” Underneath the physiological processes, there is usually a ton of FOO (Family Of Origin) issues, some maladaptive coping, and some cognitive distortions surrounding your identity and your relationship to other people. Recovering from depression means confronting some of that shit and working through some it. (I say some, because baby steps.) Recovery means hard, honest conversations with your loved ones about what you need, and what you don’t need. It also means doing your best to love and support the people who are loving and supporting you, at the very least on your good days. Unfortunately, experiencing a major depressive episode does not suddenly make you the center of everyone’s universe, or give you permission to be an asshole. Taking care of your relationships when you’re depressed or anxious can be hard. Not always, but sometimes. I am finding that the only way to do this is through open, honest, direct communication. I am stumbling through it, and I am lucky enough to have people who are willing to stumble inelegantly along with me.

Take care of your basic needs.

Pay your bills. Plain and simple. It’s necessary if one wants to continue living indoors. I can only speak for myself, so I’ll say that financial responsibility is really hard for me when I’m anxious or depressed. I don’t want to login to my bank account, because I’m afraid of judging myself for seeing how much money I’ve spent on eating out because cooking meals at home is too overwhelming a task. I’m forgetful, and have trouble focusing, which means utility bills get paid at the last minute, and vehicle oil changes get done 1000 miles too late. Even though these things are hard to do when I’m depressed, I have to find ways to make them happen, even if it means asking for help or reminders.

In conclusion

If you’re doing these un-fun aspects of self-care, I’m proud of you. If you’re doing them, and you are sick, mentally or physically, or if you in a tough spot in whatever way in your life, I’m really really proud of you, because it’s not easy to do. If you’re not doing all of them, or you’re struggling in asking for help, or you’re struggling in quitting something that you need to leave behind, I believe in you. It’s not fun or easy, AND you can do it anyway.