After reading the news of For Brown Girls creator Karyn Washington’s passing, I immediately went to tapping away on the keys of my laptop. The late 22-year-old’s story of dedicating much of her daily life to empowering Black women, and even the possibility that she ended her own life, felt eerily familiar and close to home.
The peculiar thing about doing the work to uplift others is, the world often forgets that the worker also needs uplifting, that the work becomes heavy, that frequently the work is being performed to soothe one’s own soul. And that when one lives even a small portion of her life publicly, that public too often expects perfection. The expectation is that s/he has conquered those challenges s/he advocates against, and that s/he is therefore the face of overcoming.
The reality is, however, that there’s sometimes no such thing as overcoming—not wholly, not forever. Overcoming is daily work, and we often fail miserably at it. Many days we are doing our best to survive, and some of those days we may not be 100 percent sure that surviving is what we truly even desire.
And we are dying…
Masking up as superwomen is killing us—whether we meet that death as a result of suicide or the stresses that lead to heart disease and other serious, life-threatening illnesses. According to Lottie Joiner’s recent post at The Root, stress accelerates the aging of Black female bodies, and Black women between the ages of 45 and 55 are “biologically 7.5 years older than White women” of the same age.
I don’t know Karyn’s personal story enough to comment on why she possibly chose to commit suicide. But I know for certain my own story. I’ve battled depression and anxiety much of my adult life, with some bouts making me feel like I was stuck in a cave-sized hole that I was unable to climb out of.
A most recent period of depression came as I was building a name for myself as a writer, particularly a writer who’d struggled through many of the difficulties Black women face and had come out on the other end. A bit bruised, but smiling. What my readers may not have known was that, upon moving back to my hometown due to some legal and child custody issues, I was struggling daily to get out of bed, to eat, to sleep, and to care for my daughter.
Honestly, there were days when I felt that breathing was an impossible task, and sometimes I wondered if things would be easier if I stopped.
How does one share her struggles with mental illness when she’s convinced the world that she is strong, when she has somehow become an example to others? I suffered silently, and the little I did share was met with the common responses we as Black women frequently hear from our families and friends. “You’re strong,” or “you’ve been through storms before,” or “you just have to pray and trust God.”
I honestly believe we’re so accustomed to delivering the strong Black woman speech to ourselves and everyone else that we lose our ability to connect to our humanness, and thus our frailty. We become afraid to admit that we are hurting and struggling, because we fear that we will be seen as weak. And we can’t be weak. We’ve spent our lives witnessing our mothers and their mothers be strong and sturdy, like rocks. We want to be rocks.
Somehow realizing I wasn’t a rock (and that I had honestly never been one), I fought my way out of bed and onto my therapist’s couch. I became exhausted with carrying all of the masks and the capes. And I knew if I didn’t get help quickly, I wasn’t going to survive.
I’m grateful to still be here, but my struggles aren’t over. Recently, I’ve been contemplating how my life and the stresses I face are affecting my long-term health. As with many of us, I’m working to improve my diet and incorporate more exercise into my daily life, but the stresses of wearing the capes and masks are doing damage as well.
To battle against the challenges I face regarding both my physical and mental health, I’m taking the following actions:
Practice self-care. I’ve gotten into the habit of scheduling spa time, girl time, therapy, meditation and more in the same ways I schedule work meetings and my daughter’s field trips. We have to remember that we can’t be good mothers, partners, daughters or friends if we’re not good to ourselves first.
Share the load. Often, we adopt the idea that it’s easier for us to do it all ourselves, but we have to remember the long term affects of that behavior. We need to begin asking for and accepting help, because we need and deserve it. Start with small tasks, then work toward larger ones.
Seek professional help. I always say that if I had Oprah dough, I’d pass out therapy the way she passes out her favorite things. Your girlfriends, as well meaning and supportive as they are, have their own Superwoman capes to throw off, and they honestly don’t know the answers, either. Seeing a mental health professional to confide in and ask direction from can mean the difference between life or death—for real, for real.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.
This article was originally posted April 15, 2014.