For the last few months, I have been experiencing a wave of depression. During this time, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about being both Black and depressed.
I’ve heard a lot said about Black people and depression – mostly that depression often goes unacknowledged in our communities. Perhaps that is true for some, but when I was growing up, depression wasn’t so much unacknowledged as unnamed. I don’t ever remember hearing the word “depression” used to describe someone’s state of mind, unless it was on a show about a lovably neurotic white character. However, though “depression” wasn’t in my everyday lexicon, I was familiar with people who experienced long stretches of sadness punctuated by moments of despair.
“I’m just feeling down,” I might hear someone say, their voice tired and low, as though they were dragging themselves through mud. Or I might see someone medicate themselves with work, prayer, alcohol, cannabis, or isolation. Because of this, I witnessed the full range of emotion – from intense joy to wrenching sadness – but I don’t remember anyone actually uttering the words “depression” to describe a descent into melancholy, however long or debilitating it was.
Perhaps we never called it “depression” because that term bears the heft of something official that comes from a doctor or therapist. To get such a diagnosis, you had to have the time, the money, and the willingness to go see a professional. Having all three resources align in a time of need seemed a rarity. Even rarer, it seemed, was knowing someone who took medicine to ease their depression. The historic bias of the medical industry coupled with the stigma of mental illness made it challenging to seek help, and even more challenging to admit that you did.
At least this was true for me.
In my case, depression descended slowly. At first, it was barely noticeable, the way you can’t tell the exact moment when dusk becomes night. At first the sky is bright, then dusky, then, suddenly, an ink-colored abyss. When you’re in that abyss, it can be difficult to find a way out.
For one thing, obtaining help is logistically challenging. By the time I realized I needed help, I had lost interest in tending to my basic needs, like eating regularly and drinking water. Most days, nothing tasted good, and joy was out of reach. I felt the desire to withdraw from social activities and would have been content to stay in bed drinking tea and staring at the ceiling. Instead, I forced myself out of bed, signed on for work, picked up the kids from school, made dinner, and then promptly slid into the bed. There, I drowned myself in funny TikTok videos and Instagram reels so I could laugh and feel something other than sadness and anxiety.
I felt so lethargic and demoralized that it took me a couple of months to gather the energy to seek out my therapist. When I finally did, she emailed back to say she was preparing for parental leave and wouldn’t return for several months. I read her email, swallowed hard, and fought back tears.
“Congratulations!!” I emailed back. Then I sank into the bed, unsure of what to do next. I felt like I was starting from scratch.
I began the arduous task of finding another therapist. I clicked listlessly through websites, searching. At times, I would shut my laptop and scroll through social media to dull the overwhelm. I breathed a short sigh of relief when someone from church, a therapist herself, gave me the names of a few Black therapists who take insurance. But even then, it took another burst of effort to look these therapists up, choose one, schedule an appointment, fill out the necessary paperwork, and then follow through with the appointment itself.
Another reason seeking help was challenging was that I hoped to “fix” myself on my own. I tried exercise, walks in the sun, vitamin D supplements, magnesium gummies, writing, CBD oil, fragrant candles, buying clothes, eating my favorite foods, scaling back at work. While these efforts helped a little, I still found myself ugly crying in the bed several times a week and grappling with an all-consuming despair that clawed at my heart. By now, depression had been with me so long that she felt like a symbiotic companion I couldn’t quit. At times, I even felt reluctant to say goodbye to her, since that would leave me feeling even more isolated and alone than I already felt.
I kept thinking of that saying, “You have everything you need within you.” Well, I didn’t. And if I did, I was far too numb to feel it.
So, I scheduled an appointment with my physician. I wiped away tears in the examination room and asked for medication for anxiety and depression. When I was prescribed medication, I picked it up from the pharmacy and left it unopened in my medicine cabinet for a few days.
“Maybe the depression will go away on its own,” I told myself. When – surprise – I wasn’t cured by merely being in the presence of an antidepressant, I finally took it. About a week later, I boarded a plane for our family trip to New York. As I got buckled, I braced myself for the familiar feelings of impending death and doom. But they never came. I looked at myself in awe when the plane took off and I didn’t think “We’re all gonna die!” on a loop like I normally do.
It took a few more weeks, but the world seemed to brighten a little. About a week ago, I felt like I’d turned a corner when I found myself in a Trader Joe’s with my daughter, laughing – really laughing – for the first time in I can’t remember how long.
It’s strange to be typing these words now – to be talking about my depression as though it’s in the past tense. But this post is not necessarily the happy “after” to my depressed “before.” What this is, I suppose, is a snapshot of the present – a time when, finally, I can see flecks of light and hold brightness in my hands for more than just a few fleeting moments.
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