I had a deadline last Saturday. I’m not typically a down-to-the-wire person, but for the life of me I couldn’t shake the funk I’d been in for two weeks. I couldn’t think about anything that wasn’t coffee or my “this will pass, it always does” mantra. It’s a mechanism I developed late, but I’m glad for it. My depressive spells usually hit like Hulk threw a bus at me, but this one was sneaky. Two weeks with this assignment and I’d typed every curse word I’d ever learned in another language, squares of the Golden Ratio up through the 18th power and what I could remember of high school German.
The essay was on the importance of voting. This was the campiest of my depressions.
I suffer from anxiety. I also have Type I Bipolar Disorder (BD1), and clinical (not “omg I hate when my food touches”) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The worst of the OCD is triggered by episodes of mania in my BD1. Things like symmetry cause me stress. Nothing I’ve ever written has ended on an even numbered word. I rattle off strings of prime numbers to soothe emerging panics or to re-center when I’m tangled in a manic web. If I’m really on a tear, I can get to around the 171st in sequence before consciously factoring in a need to breathe. You see, I’m not worthy of breath until 257 or 263. That “worthy” word is a real and conscious thought until this all passes.
Imagine all of this in the mind of your 13-year-old self mingled with the hormones and pubescent uncertainty. And imagine — though it may not be hard — that your parents and your community are ill-equipped to acknowledge and address it. You are black; and these things just don’t happen to black children, so get over yourself.
I knew at a young age that I thought and felt things differently from a lot of people. Being a black girl with black parents, I was advised that these things were discipline problems and I was treated accordingly. And when the discipline didn’t take, all I knew was my wrongness, that I was a lost cause, better seen and not heard. Eventually, the idea that not even being seen might be a boon to my family grew in my head and heart until I planned a suicide. I was deterred from this by an apparently miraculously timed Muppet marathon.
I had to battle my upbringing and find ways to manage myself in order to meet the standards I set for myself when I decided I was going to live. Looking back I wasn’t as slick as I thought about hiding my destructive coping mechanisms. But they were dismissed and excused as typical teenage eccentricities. My exaggerated leanness was just my being health conscious and a little vain, and couldn’t be anorexia. That’s a white problem and I had good grades. I was curiously clothed even in sweltering summers but not because I was just an exceptionally modest girl. I was cutting and had scars to hide. My secrecy and isolation was read as preferable to being out running the streets like these other kids doing who-knows-what, so why bother it?
Being alone in my burgeoning madness left me to my own ill-developed devices. While I searched for answers, you’d think I was trying my damnedest to wreck my life as soon as it was in my own hands. As such, I’ve never been hospitalized. But, I’ve been to jail a couple of times for some episodes of unapologetic recklessness in my early 20’s that probably could have been prevented if I’d loved myself and been medicated. For better or worse, I’ve sometimes traded my relationships for stories and experiences because who, at the end of the day, would love me in my interminable chaos? I’ve seen some things and some stuff and I wouldn’t recommend a good bit of it. But I don’t hate my mental illness for it. I hate the time I lost trying to love myself and beg others to love me in spite of it.
Mental illness has its negative connotations. I am grown now, and I express my disorders differently because while I suffer from anxiety, I don’t feel as though my bipolar disorder and OCD are things that cause me suffering. With my love of words, I still don’t know how to articulate the high of being able to see colors of a symphony just because my brain is wired that way. How do I accurately describe being able to hyper-focus on fractal patterns in a popcorn ceiling or how magical I find the Moleskine notebooks I’ve filled with fractions of universes and thoughts and ideas simply because I couldn’t help myself? Avoiding the sensory overload of a crowd isn’t mere anti-social behavior or introversion but a need to absorb the most of everything I’m experiencing with minimal trivial distraction.
The price of these things is vigilant self-control. I have to live a life governed by self-love and the fewest possible fucks given about the people who would detract from my joy by continuing to engage in stigmatizing mental health disorders. Without these things, I spiral either to darker or madder places. There is no romance in depression, only in regaining the things it strips from me.
This isn’t a cautionary tale. By far, darlings, I’m more black girl magic now than I’ve ever been. It’s just taken a year or twenty to get here. This is a reminder that mental health is a human concern and that your children — my nieces, nephews and niblings — are humans. Many disorders manifest in adolescence when it may be a little difficult to read them, but it’s important that you try. If you suspect something, equip them with the knowledge that mental disorders aren’t indicators that they are broken or strange in any way that isn’t also exquisite. And seek professional help when that needs reinforcing, and treatment does not always mean medication. Seek professional help, as well, when you need help understanding and guiding them. Understanding your kid, especially when you have no prior experience in the mental health arena, may require some education on your part. And that’s okay, I promise. Your support of what your child is going through will go further toward strengthening your relationship than denial ever will.
For more information on mental health resources, visit NAMI.ORG
LeKesha is a web developer and book blerd. She advocates strongly for carefree blackness in literature, and prefers bloody over sparkly when selecting her anime. She takes her whiskey neat and her coffee with cream, sugar, and marshmallows too if you have them. If not, don’t worry about it.