“So what seems to be the problem?” She sat across the room from me. I’d only ever seen counseling clinics in TV and movies. I expected to be lying on a long, leather couch, as an old guy in glasses spoke strange things in my ear.
Her office was quite cozy, actually. I took a seat and faced my therapist.
“I’ve been feeling a little…off.” That was a lie. I was a trainwreck. But I wasn’t about to tell that to a total stranger.
“For how long?”
I hesitated. Her eyes never left my gaze, no matter how much I tried to avoid them. A notebook sat across her lap, a pen twirling between her fingertips. I felt like I was in an interview.
The truth was, I didn’t know how long. I’d been sad since high school. I’d been angry at the world for much longer.
“I don’t exactly know,” I mumbled.
That was my sophomore year in college — my very first appointment with a mental health professional. I grew up in a small suburb on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. There, the words “mental illness” also meant “bat-shit crazy”. Psychology was a foreign language. I didn’t even know what the word itself meant until I came to college.
Admitting my illness had terrified me, but has since become my anchor. It’s been about four months since I’ve graduated from the University of Virginia. I chose to create a software project that betters mental health for college students. My battles continue to drive what I do every day.
Growing up black, you have to be strong and resilient. African-Americans have conquered some of the most challenging times in human history. Slavery. Jim Crow. And they prevailed. Thus, as a black man, you withstand anything thrown your way. To be a man — a black man — you must be tough and powerful.
A brick wall.
Sadness and sensitivity is everything opposite. Soft. Weak and fragile. Definitely not black.
If you’re mad, you fight. If you’re confused, you pray. And if you’re sad, you don’t talk about it.
This stereotype of “blackness” shaped how I interpreted my emotions. When the therapist asked me what was wrong, I had no idea what to say.
I never quite fit into this mold of being black “the right way”. Someone called me the n-word in 1st grade — my mom told me it was a bad word used by kids who didn’t know any better — and that confused me. In 5th grade, I saw a black kid call another black kid the n-word. That confused me even more. By 6th grade, I was able to distinguish the “er” from the “a”, but by 7th, I convinced myself I would never fit into the black community. I talked too white, I cried too much, I was clumsy and awkward. This led to a lot of bullying, and it affected me more than I realized.
The sadness started sometime during high school, and the depression kicked into full swing senior year. I was careful not to talk about it — I still wasn’t sure what it meant to be black — so I assured myself it was natural. Some people are happy, and others won’t be.
The thing about living with depression though — a lot of the sadness turns into numbness.
Numbness is fatal, because you forget what it’s like to feel anything at all. Life feels very robotic in that way. You’re going through the motions but not quite living.
Again, I’d been thinking this was all a part of life. People told me to stop moping, and that confused me. I wasn’t choosing to be sad. If I was able to be happy, then I definitely would be! Mental illness never crossed my mind.
But mental health is exactly that. Health. If you get the flu, you take the steps to get better. Not treating my depression gave me a bunch of not-so-little side effects.
Social anxiety, for example, was depression’s distant cousin. It skipped the formalities when it introduced itself to me. Middle school crushed my self-esteem, and overthinking became a habit. I started worrying about what others were thinking, all the time. About the way I looked. The shirt I was wearing. Was my hair too nappy? It must’ve been something I said. What did I say again? They wouldn’t want to know me anyway.
College amplified my illness. When I arrived, I experienced depressive episodes for months at a time. Sleep was a quick relief, but I found no obvious solution. I discovered therapy my sophomore year, when my depression was at its peak. After a local tragedy, the university promoted their counseling center. This encouraged me to explore what mental health actually was.
Therapy made me understand a lot of things about myself. It helped me grasp and contextualize reality. I learned to talk about my emotions, and accept them. They were present and real, and they didn’t have to be a consistent part of my life. Reframing my thoughts as human was the first tipping point in treating what was happening.
And that was one of the major things I learned — there was no shame in seeing a therapist.
Although it hasn’t cured me, understanding my illness was an important first step. It taught me to care for my mental health, like I do physical health, and take the right steps when things go wrong.
Creating the toolkit to keep going
Depression is always an uphill battle for me, because it doesn’t hit me all at once. It lurks, waits for an opportunity, and strikes. This often sets me back a few steps. Recognizing factors that make me slip has been an invaluable tool to keep me grounded.
I’m not where I want to be with my illness, but here are some other things that helped, and what I’ve learned along the way:
1. Finding someone to tell. Therapy didn’t rescue me, and I’m still battling illness daily. But, it did help me face the reality. Even saying it aloud was liberating — a splash of cold water to my face.
2. Creating meaningful relationships. Friends can last a lifetime. My roommates are my family, and mean the world to me. They were a major crux I relied on when things started going south.
3. Learning to say no. I was overcommitted, all the time. Letting someone down panicked me, because I had no idea what they would think of me. I often took on many tasks to compensate.
One of the biggest things that helped me was learning to say no to things that didn’t align to my goals.
4. The little things. I learned to slow down and cherish the little things that made me happy. They were simple reminders to keep going.
For example, one that I often cherished — music. The first time I listened to “Yellow” by Coldplay was the first time I felt something in over a year. The guitar played the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. It reassured me that what I was experiencing didn’t have to be permanent.
Happiness hasn’t come overnight. Instead, it comes in small bits at a time.
The little things.
A guitar solo, reading a new book, a new workout — the little things are the light at the end of the tunnel. The glimmers of hope. They’re the tiniest bit of motivation to keep going. They’re hard to recognize, but they become your foundation.
Accepting my mental illness was one of the best things I did for myself. It’s become a part of me, and drives what I’m doing today.
What’s helped me the most, and how it’s led to my post-graduate career:
5. Cultivating what you love.
By far, this was the most difficult thing to find, yet it’s been the most rewarding.
After graduation, I decided to forgo a full-time job to develop a project through the Elliewood Fellowship.
A bit of context — the Elliewood Fellowship is a post-grad program for early ventures, run through HackCville. It encourages students to create something they love after graduation, and provides mentorship in taking the steps to do so.
What you love can be anything. For example, you may want to redefine tech ecosystems, or transform a local beer community. You might wish to empower others in developing countries, or use food to breed tight-knit communities. You don’t need to have the details fleshed out — only wanting to solve a problem you care about.
For me, what I love sits right in the eye of my greatest storm — improving mental wellness.
Ever since my first appointment, I admired the work-ethic of the counseling center. College students outnumber therapists 1500 to 1 in most cases. They often lack the resources to ease the burden.
Early intervention matters now more than ever.
I decided to use the Fellowship to create software that aids in college mental health. Creating mental health technology accomplishes two things: 1) It encourages students to care for themselves, and 2) empowers therapists to continue being as awesome as they are.
At first, I was skeptical. Staying in Charlottesville after the events of August 11th and 12th terrified me. I had no idea how to intertwine mental health and technology. Student loans anticipated my every move. But I found that having the power to create something meaningful to me outweighed my worries.
Finding something you love — and cultivating it. It’s been the single greatest thing that’s helped my illness.
I learned how to be open to new opportunities and experiences that I never would have found otherwise. I discover new things about the world and myself each day.
It’s been a little over 3 months since I’ve started the Fellowship. Some things I’ve learned in the past summer alone:
- There’s no weakness in asking for help.
- You’re often a mentor to someone, even if you don’t realize it.
- Surround yourself with people that push you.
- Networking is creating meaningful relationships to help each other move forward.
- There’s no weakness in placing personal well-being over work.
- Time management is a very underrated skill.
- You have to be confident in yourself before others can be confident in you.
- Forgive yourself. When you fail, when you make a mistake — there’s always something to learn from it.
More than anything, I’ve learned how to create my own happiness.
For much of my life, I didn’t know how to be happy. I relied on others to produce it for me. Being able to create something that matters to me has been a new kind of joy that I’d never experienced before. It’s a beacon of proof that things will change if you put in the effort.
As for the future, I’m excited for what the next few years have in store for me. The goal is that the project changes someone’s perception on caring for their well-being. Right now, I’m doing a complete deep-dive into understanding all the ins and outs of college mental health. The demand for counseling is higher than ever before, and it’s difficult for many to accommodate. Early intervention is critical.
In this way, I’ll continue to use my battles as my anchor.
Until next time,