I recently spoke to my mother about my mental health issues for the first time. It went as you would expect a conversation about mental health to go between a caring mother who grew up in an age where therapy was stigmatized (it still is), and her youngest daughter who seemingly has everything going for her.
-- What is wrong?
-- I don’t know.
-- But something is wrong?
-- Yes. I have depression. I think I am having an episode.
-- What do you mean? Did something happen? Did you lose your job?
-- No. I’m depressed.
-- What do you mean, you’re depressed? Something has to have happened. You cannot just be depressed.
I have probably struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life, although I only found the words for any of it a few years ago. Growing up, I was mostly a reserved child, preferring the comfort of my own company to interacting with my peers and adults. I cannot pinpoint a time when my mental health issues began. But I can pinpoint the various instances throughout my childhood that could have contributed to it. Nonetheless, without the words to describe what I was feeling, and to avoid being called rude or snobbish, I learned how to put on a poker face and ride the waves internally without telling a single soul. This has led to me becoming an adult who cannot muster enough energy to tell anyone when I am not okay.
-- You have to tell me when things are wrong, you know? I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.
-- I know.
-- So what’s wrong?
-- I don’t know.
-- What do you mean you don’t know. How could you not know? You have everything you need, yes? So what is wrong? Why won’t you talk?
—I will just call you back.
I did call back. But both my mother and I have since avoided the topic of my mental health. Although I know she cares and might even genuinely believe she is helping, I find myself once again putting on a poker face and riding the wave. I prefer the silence of my own pain to the constant demand for an explanation. How do you tell your fifty-something year old African mother that you cannot explain your sadness because it is a matter of brain chemistry and not circumstance? How do you explain to her that your inability to vocalize your pain is a direct result of all the trauma that was ignored and pushed aside in your childhood? Apparently, you just don’t.
Over the years, I have become known as the family member who periodically disappears and reappears without notice. My family has mostly come to terms with this, despite accusations of selfishness on my part. The friends who have stuck around have accepted that they might not see me as frequently but that I am always available when they need me. I am strong, I am reliable. And I have no issues meeting new people (except when I run into writers I admire). To everyone in my life, my periods of isolation seem like a choice. One that they either choose to respect or treat as evidence of my lack of care. I, too, have come to terms with this dynamic. But it still brings me immense sadness to lack the ability to be vulnerable when I probably need help the most, and compounds my anxiety to know that everyone is taking my isolation personally.
What I wish more people would realize is that for people like me, isolation may sometimes be a deliberate choice when asking for help becomes too big of a burden. I know people care about me, but I am not so sure they know how to care for someone like me. So, we pretend all is well. And we hide. Asking for help requires vulnerability and vulnerability requires trusting that others will handle you with care. And even when we do reach out, we are often left having to reassure our loved ones that no, this isn’t their fault. And that no, they cannot fix us. The process of asking for help then feels tiresome, and we only have so much energy to spare.
Sometimes, all we need is for someone to notice our pain and say “I’m here. What do you need?”
It has taken me months to be able to write this. Not because it was too painful to write; but because I despise vulnerability. I hate feeling powerless and vulnerability is one of those things that make me feel as though I am giving away the tools that can be used to dismantle the armor that I’ve so carefully constructed over the years. But these thoughts have clawed their way from deep inside my conscious for so long. So I release them here in hopes that they will finally be free and push me one step closer toward my own goal of freedom.
They say heartbreak is one of those things that builds character. What does not kill you makes you stronger and all that jazz. Except I do not feel stronger. Rather, I feel all the parts of me that are susceptible to break. Those points where my spirit is held together by love, humanity, trust, and faith. All things that they say make you stronger but have only made me vulnerable. I am ever conscious of how fragile these points are; how easily they can be manipulated, stretched, dismantled. How they open me up to trauma. As I navigate my journey of healing, I often wonder what the point of it all is. Why open up? What do I gain? But most importantly, what do I stand to lose and what can I afford to lose?
There is no need to revisit what led me to heartbreak but examining its impact on my life and relationships has been important to me. And not because I am new to trauma, but because this particular trauma feels different. Deeper and more difficult to shake. I’ve always been someone who is great at building relationships with people I genuinely care about without letting them see all the dark, messy, complicated, and vulnerable pieces of myself. I would call myself an illusionist, except that I don’t feel as though I sell an illusion. Keeping the most fragile parts of myself padded and safe from harm was not an act of deception, but rather of self preservation. But somehow, I let the padding slip this one time and did not see all the warning signs of imminent impact. So now, in the midst of this dizzying healing journey, I find myself frightened of what will happen if I neglect to protect that part of myself again. It is disconcerting to know that vulnerability and human connection is good and healthy; but to also know that those things can be so easily weaponized. Even when intentions are good.
So I come back to the question of what I stand to, and can afford to lose. And I don’t quite have answers to that. But I do know this, my heartbreak did not last forever. The sense of fragility, however lingering and uncomfortable, will not kill me. Whether or not it makes me stronger is debatable. But a greater loss of power than feeling vulnerable is giving up my ability to connect and love again. And now that I know that heartbreak will not kill me, I am becoming more comfortable with feeling deeply, loving freely, and throwing away that padding that for so long had kept me safe yet hindered me from experiencing the best parts of humanity.
I tried to find the words to articulate why I was up at 6:13am on a Saturday dry heaving into a pillow in our guest room. My partner — this sweet, caring, beautiful human — stood next to me unsure what to do as I began to convulse from crying.
I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening. I just feel empty. I feel like I have nobody and it is awful.
In my attempt to explain what “empty” meant, I managed to imply that my partner was not doing everything possible to support me. I blamed this empty feeling on a lack of love. Neither of these things are true.
What I thought was emptiness was actually a profound sense of loneliness. A loneliness so deep and encompassing that it left me feeling utterly hopeless and drained. I cried, and I cried. I napped, and cried some more. In the midst of these fits, I managed to send supportive texts to friends and check up on the people I love. Never once did I type the words “I’m having a really difficult time today and I’m not sure why”. I hid my pain behind my wit and avoided people’s concern by smothering them in mine. All the while, my loneliness grew stronger. With each “what’s good with you, though” message, I felt myself retreating even more into myself. I watched this happen and had no idea how to stop it.
There is no shortage of love in my life. I have been blessed to find so many amazing people who love me intentionally and without reservation. So many people I could reach out to who would cover me in their warmth and happily reassure me of my worth. Yet, I chose loneliness. Sharing good news felt good for a few hours, then I went right back to wallowing in my own sense of worthlessness. My emptiness felt like a black hole, sucking everything good in my life and leaving me longing for more. I went to work and class, avoided human interaction as much as possible, and came back home to the comfort of my tears and isolation.
After a few weeks of this, I realized I needed to get a grip. So I looked up a bunch of therapists and made intentional introspection part of my morning routine again.
While I still have not found a therapist I trust (queer Black women therapists, where y’all at?), I have began to grapple with what I think is the root of my loneliness: internalized self doubt.
It’s difficult to pinpoint where this self doubt originates from but it has had a tangible impact on my personal relationships and decisions. It has been an omnipresent voice in my life, constantly reminding me of all the ways in which I don’t deserve the things I have and should not aspire to more. According to my self doubt, I do not deserve the love of my partners nor my friends. I do not deserve to have a career or to aspire to build on that career. Even on my best days, my self doubt is always hiding right around the corner ready to snatch my confidence and joy. My self doubt prevents me from fully receiving love and support by convincing me I’m undeserving.
So I’m making a promise to confront my self doubt head-on. I will take risks in my personal and professional lives. Although I will likely never completely eliminate it, I will no longer allow it to prevent me from embracing all the good things that come my way. I promise to at least try.
I ask all of you to join me.
adjective | self·ish | \ˈsel-fish\
2017 was the year I decided to be selfish.
For as long as I can remember, I had been told that decisions about my life were not mine to make. Growing up in a family house with multiple generations of my extended family, I quickly learned that nothing in this world was “mine”. Everything was expected to be shared; from the beds I slept in to the food on my plate. Our aunts had equal authority over me as my mother did and my cousins often doubled as my siblings. This communal spirit was not borne of poverty but rather the practice of our culture and the genuine belief in the age old “blood is thicker than water” adage. In my family, every decision was inclusive of everyone old enough to have an opinion. I learned very quickly that my life, body, and labor were in service of all the people around me. It was my duty to make sure everyone was good. Everyone except, apparently, myself.
As a teen, I learned how to sacrifice. Interest in extracurricular activities were put to the side because my sister needed a baby sitter. I did not foster any serious friendships because I always needed to be available for family members and couldn’t commit to any trips to the mall or the movies. My sister needed me. She always needed me. I convinced myself that I did not need or want to participate in the things all the other kids were doing because I was above it. My social anxiety began to develop at this age because, on the few occasions when I did take time for myself, I was constantly hounded with questions about when I would be back home. Someone needed me. I began to associate self-care with guilt.
I made my way to college and decided it would be my time. Freedom, or what I thought would be freedom, felt so sweet. For the few months when I was on campus, I enjoyed the power to make my own decisions and spend my time how I truly wanted to spend it. But then came the summers and the trips home. My plans of interning were usually pushed to the side because, as always, I was needed. Coming home became a demeaning experience for me and I avoided it as much as I possibly could. Home, the place that should feel safe, became the place where I felt the most nonhuman. In my home, I was little more than labor. I moved back home after college because my mother convinced me that, yet again, my labor was needed. That family was all I had and I could not disappoint them. I skipped out on my final convening with my Posse because I could not stop mourning the loss of my autonomy. I was legitimately terrified of how moving home would impact my career goals.
But staying true to my upbringing meant I couldn’t complain and I had to do what needed to be done for family. Afterall, family was all I had. I lived my life in servitude to family. I suppose I would have felt differently about all of it if there was a sense of reciprocity. But there was not. I was expected to give and do because I owed it to family but apparently, nobody owed me. Nobody noticed that I was spiraling into a severe depression. I gained weight. I cried in the middle of the night so nobody could see me. I resented everything and everyone. So, I moved out. My first taste of selfishness tasted so good.
Over the next couple of years, the feeling of obligation I felt to my family became directed at my partner. I was so socialized to continiously do for others that I became a helicopter girlfriend. Always doing, always worried. This had a terrible effect on myself, my partner, and our relationship. I quickly got back to feeling like a source of labor, existing only to ensure that the people around me are taken care of. All while I slowly withered on the inside.
I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. The pressure to make life altering decisions as the clock struck midnight was always too great for me. But in 2017, I decided I was going to be selfish. 2017 was my year, everyone else be damned. And it has been a joyous ride.
Selfishness is one of those things that women are not supposed to be, along with cocky and aggressive. Somewhere in the development of the human race, someone decided that selfishness was a trait only acceptable in men. Men were allowed — expected — to be selfish but women needed to be self-sacrificing to maintain The Patriarchy. The socialization of women to be self-sacrificing at any and all expense to themselves ensures that men have the labor they need to be selfish. Men don’t have to worry about giving up their careers or aspirations, as long as they can find a woman to perform labor for them. Having a baby doesn’t have to impede a man’s life trajectory because there are women available to provide care for that baby AND the man. Growing up, I often heard the proverb “the man is the head of the household but the woman is the neck”. It was not until I was older that I realized this proverb was not a compliment of women’s ability to lead their families but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that women are required to perform the labor that keeps a household afloat and hold their men up (metaphorically) while he still held all the power. Being the neck meant being the labor. As a woman from a long line of self-sacrificing women, my selfishness was a stain. I was not supposed to be this way. Where did my mother go wrong? I was not supposed to want to be the head, I was supposed to cherish my role as the neck. Labor without resentment; serve without complaint. That was not the life I wanted to live. I realized that I needed self-care. And self-care for me meant caring for myself first.
So I became “selfish”.
In 2017, I stopped basing every decision on the well-being of others. I started to center myself. Outside of work obligations, I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do or that does not feel true to me. I finally applied to grad school becuase I stopped worrying about how that decision would affect the people around me. I am fostering better relationships with the people I admire and love, and who admire and love me. I finally mustered the courage to end relationships with the people who took me for granted and used me for my labor. I get my nails done without guilt. I travel without fear of being needed. Although I am still a deeply empathetic person and I still perform labor for others, I only perform the labor that I want to do. My acts of service are now rooted in love and not in guilt. Doing for others feels more worthwhile and beautiful. I no longer feel the need for reciprocity because I am not driven by obligation. At 25 years old, I am finally experiencing what it means to live authentically and feel genuinely loved. Not for the labor I provide, but rather for who I am as a person.
I understand that I am fortunate to be able to make these decisions. Living life “selfishly” is not accessible to everyone. I wish that anyone reading this is able to take at least one weekend to put themselves first and live according to their own rules and desires. Be selfish (if you can).