Last year, the suicide of 15-year-old Siwe Monsanto inspired poet and mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi to begin the Siwe Project to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Last month, after the sudden, tragic death of writer Erica Kennedy, Ikpi asked people to begin July (Black Mental Health Awareness Month) with “No Shame Day”. Here is a longer version of my contribution to No Shame Day, which ended up being about surviving cancer, steroids as a trigger for longstanding depression, and managing guilt as I struggle to raise a teenager.
I’ve suffered severe bouts of depression since I began taking steroids twenty months ago. I take the steroids because they keep my throat from closing. They help me breathe. They also make me fat. But worse than fat, they make my mood swing wildly, which sometimes leaves me emotionally spent. There are days, many days over the past two years, that have been spent in my pajamas (sometimes in public). There are other mornings when my blanket felt like wet sand and I was unable to leave my bed at all.
I worry about how this affects my daughter. I’ve traveled to seek treatment for the very rare thyroid cancer which had me taking steroids, mostly to spare her. I didn’t want her to see me in my most weakened state—not because I believe Black women need to always appear strong, but because my daughter is incredibly empathetic and would have spent her important first two years of high school (where she’s in several challenging honor classes) trying to care for me. So I went to New York for chemotherapy, to Los Angeles for radiation. As far as my daughter was concerned, I was in New York to work and write and in L.A. to edit my first feature length documentary. Remarkably, given the amount of “bad” days I had, I actually did co-author a book and complete a film. I just left out the part about getting treatments when I checked in with her during the weeks I was away.
But when it comes to the steroids I take more regularly and because of my temper, which has always been in need of managing, I was honest with my daughter about taking them. One week night I felt a strong “roid rage” coming on, so I bolted from the house and drove from Detroit to Chicago. I left the house so quickly that I forgot cash or my ATM card. But my daughter had an important math test the next day and I was afraid I’d yell at her for something small, such was the oncoming rage. I don’t know if driving to Chicago, or getting treatments thousands of miles away from home were logical or acts of irrationality caused being on the steroids, but that’s how I handled it.
But if I’m honest, my depression (though less severe) began when I was a teenager, and my recent illness only amplified it. My mother didn’t become sober until I graduated from high school and while she wasn’t a raging alcoholic, the way she withdrew from our family and her life affected me deeply. I’d lock myself in my room for days, mimicking her withdrawl. The summer before tenth grade, I spent the better part of a month in my room. The summer before eleventh grade, I moved out of my house completely and lived with a friend’s family. In my mid-twenties, when my daughter was an infant, though I was mostly emotionally healthy, I began therapy for my untreated childhood depression. I thought I’d see my therapist for just a summer, but I stayed with her almost three years.
Miraculously, I’m now cancer free. I’ve had to come on and off the steroids several times this year. When I come off, my weight and mood begin to normalize, but some nights my throat begins to close in on itself and I can’t breathe. When I’m back on them, I experience rapid weight gain and my emotional climate becomes stormy and dark. With the help of a homeopathic healer, I hope to be off of steroids completely by my September birthday. Then I’d like to get back into therapy, this time bringing my daughter with me, to talk about what this past two and a half years of illness has been for us.