Iron Shawls & Unanswered Texts
Text me where you are going to be, and I’ll hit you when I’m done.”
I hit send convinced that by buying myself a little time I would eventually gather myself up enough to go out into the world today.
Sometimes I would get as far as looking into my closet for something to wear, rifling through a few things before conceding to the aching, almost gravitational, pull towards my bed, where I’d lay, again, for another 5 or 6 hours watching netflix or running a checklist of all the things I didn’t get done today.
Though it’s hard for some to believe, I have always been an introvert. My career often requires I perform a sort of extroversion. It is draining, and I often need days to myself to recoup. But consistently flaking on friends is about way more than being an introverted person. It is about being depressed.
It is about needing everyone and wanting no one around at the same time. Depression’s glass wall keeps you from everything and everyone you love and find joy in. And they are all on the other side waving for you to come over, but you know they don’t see the wall. Even worse, you’re afraid they don’t see you.
I didn’t realize it was depression at first, but after months of researching, the scattered pieces began to create a map for me. Each weeklong session spent unproductively in bed, every missed engagement, the indifference towards everything, all of the inexplicable moments of anxiety and every sleepless night become mileposts that marked how far down along the road I had gone. Except it’s not really a road, but a track that I keep running over and over and over, the stretches vary but the next turn inevitable.
The first time I acknowledged depression was after I became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. I remember putting on my letters for the first time, smoothing out the crimson cardigan, sliding the faux-pearl necklace between my fingers, looking in the mirror and thinking, “you are fake.” “I’m a Delta,” I thought, “Deltas don’t get depressed. We are strong. We make history. We run the yard. We don’t battle with depression.” This was in the early stages, when I still thought panic attacks were a white girl thing only experienced by those who could afford to spend all that time in their head. I didn’t want to go to any functions. I went months not connecting with my line sisters. If you’re like me, you worry about the relationships with the people you love. The brunches, meetings, and happy hour invites all feel like an iron shawl draped around you, and it’s too heavy.
I don’t tell any of them for the same reason I almost didn’t share this at all — why I’ll consider deleting it two or three times — because the sympathy such an admission brings is quite unbearable.
Some well-meaning friends will ask, “What are you depressed about?” It would be a blessed thing to be able to point to some sort of genesis –anything to explain the dreadful melancholy and consuming disinterest. At least then it would feel like the darkness is of use or purpose. But it’s just there, hovering.
Then there’s the parent you worry will think they did something wrong in raising you. They are black, southern and religious and mental illness isn’t something black, southern and religious people get. The idea, alone, that the sadness you feel could be burdening someone else only exasperates the problem.
You see, it just becomes easier to carry than to put it all down.
I remember once, during a particularly rough bout of depression, being on the train when four white girls boarded and started singing loud, banging on the doors and laughing hysterically at themselves. They were so carefree, and it made me angry. Each defiance of propriety reminded me of how much space I was allowed in comparison. It was more than just passing agitation, it was a deep and utter loathing. I wanted to get off the train. I wanted to push them off the train. It was only a few weeks after my time in Ferguson when I found myself unable to be in any place that was violently loud without jittering.
The depression black folks experience is racialized and finding help and resources specific to depression compounded by the stresses of racism is not as easily accessible because it gets misdiagnosed. Destiny Washington brilliantly laid this out on her facebook status: “Black girls don’t get diagnosed with depression, they get told they have bad attitudes…” Even in our womanhood we are called sapphire, angry, bitch, unstable, cold, and bitter. The symptoms of our collective trauma called ‘poverty of culture’, called ‘black on black violence’, called ‘apathy’. Black women are reminded that our strength, sacrifice and resilience is so celebrated that it becomes our value. Strong and resilient women don’t get to be depressed. These bridges called our backs are not granted reprieve or space to falter.
Still, it becomes less dreadful when you know what to anticipate. While the beginning feels like a stuck groove under an overworked needle, the new rhythm becomes familiar. There are days when making it past the front door becomes victory. Eventually you may even get a slice of euphoria. It feels good, like flying — except you know you have to come down again.
Those living with depression are often empaths; people who feel the emotions of others to an extreme. I was at a cafe once and noticed an older man sitting all alone. He kept stirring his coffee and intermittently looking at the watch on his wrist. It seemed as if he was waiting for someone who didn’t show up. His face looked sad, almost resigned. I went home and imagined, maybe even created, the loneliness for him and cried for an hour. We feel everything so deeply — even if it’s just our own projections. Being an empath is, likely, why I chose to be a community organizer, and it, sometimes, makes my job difficult.
I don’t share this because I want my workload lightened, or because I want sympathy or concern. I share this because I want others watching me, those who see me on interviews or organizing rallies, to know you don’t need to be the mythological “strong black woman” to be here and do this work. This is part apology letter to the friends who take my absence for apathy. And, lastly, I share this because I want to add to the growing collection of narratives shattering the idea that depression is a ‘white people thing’. I’m sharing so that we may complicate the story of black women- often made supporting characters in everyone else’s production with no backstory of her own. A tweet I wrote about depression and apathy received close to eight thousand impressions on Twitter. So many people responded with “this is my story” or “I wish others knew what this felt like.” So this is also for those who relate. I want you to know I see your glass wall, and I see you, too.