Content warning; this post talks about suicide and suicidal ideation
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a foreign place psychologically, momentarily feeling truly depressed and hopeless. Depression is not something that I have ever experienced to any major degree—no, my jam has always been anxiety.
Anxiety and I met several months after my son was born, at the tender young age of 19. For 30 years now, I have lived with anxiety—feelings so intense that there have been several bad days in which I rushed to the nearest emergency room, convinced that I was dying of a heart attack.
Since my late 30s, though, anxiety and I have been in an uneasy truce mostly. If I practice yoga dutifully and meditate regularly, I can keep the anxiety at bay. The exception has been in the last two years. First, a day after moving my father to hospice, I experienced one of my most intense panic attacks ever. That attack resulted in me needing to wear a heart monitor for days, just to rule out a cardiac event. The next attack was several days after winning my seat on the Portland Charter Commission. I had gone away for a few days to relax, but as soon as I did slow down, everything I had been holding inside came rushing to the surface—in the middle of breakfast, while on vacation. I don’t know what I thought absolute humiliation was before, but now my measurement is to compare against the waitstaff of a restaurant needing to call an ambulance for you.
So, I am no stranger to severe anxiety. Depression, though, is an unfamiliar feeling. Even with things like the deaths of both my parents and two divorces—all pretty depressing experiences for most people—I am more inclined to push on and get anxious.
Which is why the feelings I experienced several weeks ago were jarring. I was alone; my daughter was at her dad’s house for the week. Due to the recent COVID surge, in mid-December I decided to pull back on all unnecessary outdoor activities. As of this writing, I haven’t left my island in over six weeks—my only outside contact is a twice-weekly visit to the island market and a coffee run to the island cafe. I won’t lie, it is an isolating existence, but my work keeps me busy and I spend hours daily on Zoom and on the phone. Frankly, between my day job, my work on the Charter Commission and Black Girl in Maine Media work, life is full—especially with homeschooling my teenager thrown into the mix. Despite the physical isolation, I am regularly in contact with people.
However, that night I felt all alone in the world. I was still processing the fact that after seven years, my ex-husband had finally met someone and was dating. I was happy for him; he’s a good guy and he deserves to have someone special in his life. That said, sitting with his news and my own single status seemed to have kicked off a round of self loathing the likes I had never experienced before.
Before I knew it, I started to question my worth and very existence and—for an hour—I went back and forth in my head wondering, “Do I matter to anyone? Was my life valuable? If I were not to be here anymore, would anyone even care?” After all, my adult son has his own family, my daughter would still have her father, my parents, are gone and I no longer even have anyone I would truly call a best friend. I’m not doing so well in the romance department either lately, so there wouldn’t even be a heartbroken lover to miss me. Perhaps my staff might miss me, but who really cares about their boss?
In that moment, I felt as if my only value to anyone was to serve as a mule, to carry the load for others, to be the strong Black woman. All my losses and failures loomed large. Never am I afforded the privilege of comfort when I need it; only when it is convenient for others.
For a time, I was in such emotional pain that a singular thought dominated my mind: I could walk outside, stroll down to the beach, walk out into the ocean, and just lay down. I am a shitty swimmer, so it would be a wrap. No more Shay. Game over. For a few minutes, that thought was so very, very attractive. But then it scared me, that dark moment that had nearly consumed me passed.
Thankfully, I have a wonderful therapist and as she has reminded me, even people in therapy these days are struggling. We are living in the midst of a crumbling empire that is unwilling to assess itself—instead, we are having “normal” rammed down our throats. Except there is no normal and we have no functioning structures to support the services and systems that so many need right now—have needed since before now, to be honest, but now more than ever.
At present, I am in a better space, I know now that almost two years of limited human contact is taking a toll on me. I am not a truly introverted person, though I may seem so at times. While I am thankful that I have work and a lifestyle that allows me to avoid people and stay safe, I am having to assess the value of avoiding people and COVID alongside the risk to my mental and emotional well-being. As a buddy recently said, at some point I need to take the risk and fill my human needs cup. I would agree.
So why am I sharing this?
This weekend the story broke that Miss USA 2019, Cheslie Kryst, took her own life. By all accounts, Kryst had a charmed life: she was a gorgeous young Black woman, she was an attorney with a passion for reforming America’s justice system, and served as a correspondent for Extra. A quick look at her social media feeds shows a young Black woman who by all accounts was living her best life and yet she clearly was in pain—a pain that she saw no end to. it seems.
As the story of Kryst’s death made the rounds, many asked, “How was this possible?” Had she been dealing with mental health issues? What happened?
Obviously none of us know. She is no longer here to tell us. But for many Black women regardless of age, we understand the reality that the more accomplished you appear to the larger world, the more likely that veneer of accomplishment is hiding a lot of pain. For Black women, we sometimes accomplish to avoid the feelings. Then there are times that even when we speak out about our reality, we aren’t heard. Our feelings and reality are minimized by well-meaning people who cannot conceive of—much less grapple with—the enormity of our pain. On more than one occasion, I have reached out to a friend only to not be heard. It hurts and it magnifies the feelings. There is also the reality that as we wrap up year two of this pandemic, most people have no bandwidth beyond their own immediate needs.
In recent days, there has been a spate of prominent Black people ending their lives. Suicide is increasing in our communities, even among our youngsters, but still the myth endures about Black strength. A myth that renders our pain invisible, even when we try to express it, to all except others who know our path themselves.
Affirming Black humanity is far more than a sign declaring that Black lives matter or asking us to more or less lead the fight to save democracy. Affirming Black humanity means seeing us and holding us in our vulnerability—looking beyond the facade of having it all together. Understanding that even “holding it together” is a learned reaction to the racism that is intertwined with our lives.
Black people, particularly Black women, have been taught that our survival in this racist society requires us to do more and be more. To not show our frailties but to wear our mask. If our lives are to truly matter, we need to be able to lean into the entirety of human emotions, replete with the accompanying messiness.
While it is easy to say that mental health issues are at the root of suicide and suicidal ideation, I would say that is a bit simplistic. It’s a bit more complex than that. People not being able to meet their needs, whether emotionally or financially, can create the conditions that lead them to feeling hopeless. In these times of great financial and resource inequality, too many are struggling for a meager survival. How does one retain hope if one is struggling to meet their basic needs? Given the income disparities between Black people and others, the struggle to survive when compounded by the daily assaults of racism create the perfect storm for hopelessness to occur.
I don’t have the answers on how we shift things so that people don’t lose hope, but I suspect if we can rally as a collective to offer support and work on creating stronger safety nets and more affirming and uplifting social structures, that would be a start. At the very least, people need more than empty platitudes or referrals for non-existent services.
As for Cheslie Kryst, may her memory be a blessing to all who loved her: Rest in peace.
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