When my grades started dropping senior year of high school, I didn’t think much of it. School had never held much interest to me and I had always done just enough to “get by” anyway, so not being able to focus in Physics or AP Government wasn’t a big deal to me. And I never had many true friends, just a bunch of associates who came in out and of my life, so the fact that I closed myself off from them didn’t register as a warning sign. The sleeping in late, the not eating, the constant worrying about things that hadn’t happened…I thought I was just being my normal, neurotic self.
But staring in the mirror, wondering how much blood there would be if I bashed my head against it, wasn’t normal. Sitting at the dinner table thinking about taking the knife I’m using to cut my steak to slit my wrists, wasn’t normal. Something was missing.
I had thought about suicide before, but never in any real way. It was always a “what if?” Now, it had become a “maybe I should…” I learned firsthand what the true meaning of the word “depression” was.
Something was missing, but I had no idea what.
I “got over” it though. I moved past it. I never spoke a word of it to anyone. I was “better.”
Two years later, I wasn’t just “better”, I thought I was completely “cured.” I spent the summer in Atlanta working a well-paying internship, going to concerts every week, meeting some of my heroes, just enjoying life.
Then I bought the Gnarls Barkley album, St. Elsewhere. I was taken aback. I realized I wasn’t too far removed from the space Cee-Lo was singing from. The isolation, the helplessness, the feeling of being trapped inside your own mind and it being locked from the outside and there is no one around to pick the key up from under the welcome mat to let you out…these feelings were all too familiar. I never spoke a word of it to anyone. No matter. Cee-Lo was doing that for me.
There’s a song toward the middle of the album called “Just a Thought” that is a hauntingly accurate description of what goes through a person’s mind while suffering from severe depression. Each verse ends with the phrase “…and I tried, everything but suicide, but it crossed my mind.” I could only nod silently in agreement as he belted out the most secret of my thoughts for the whole world to hear.
In 2008, just as I was supposed to graduate from college, I experienced the worst depression of my life. The misconception is that depression is basically a prolonged sadness that can be cured by staring at the bottom of a gallon carton of ice cream that one devours in a matter of minutes. I don’t mean to make light of that feeling, but it’s not necessarily depression. When you’re truly depressed, ice cream is the furthest thing from your mind. You don’t eat anything. You don’t sleep. Or maybe you do sleep, but you sleep insane hours that prevent you from functioning normally. Everyday activities like taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and getting dressed become arduous tasks you believe you can live without. You no longer value yourself or your interactions with others, because what’s the point? There’s nothing outside for you and even if there was the effort it would take to prepare yourself for it ultimately isn’t worth it. Unless, of course, there is alcohol involved.
That’s depression. It can last for as little as a few days or, in my case, many months. And coupled with my deep-seated anxiety that caused me to suffer severe panic attacks on a near daily basis, I was rendered useless. I put a smile on my face for the few people who saw me, but they noticed something was off. “Have you lost weight?” they would ask. I hadn’t noticed; I avoided mirrors and couldn’t recognize any substantial difference in the way my clothes fit. Despite my best efforts to hide it, people saw that something was happening. Slowly but surely, I was dying inside, and day-by-day a physical death looked like a more and more attractive option.
I was alone. No one would miss me. Who cared? I was meaningless. No. I couldn’t believe that. Someone had to care, right?
But every time I tried to open up, the depression spoke to me. “They don’t understand you. They never will. Talk until your lungs collapse, but they don’t care. You’re wasting your time. Your heart is worthless.” No matter how many people said things to the contrary, I refused to believe them. Even Gil Scott-Heron was lying to me. “You could call on Lady Day, you can call on John Coltrane,” he sang, “’cause they’ll wash your troubles away.”
No, Gil, they won’t.
I suffered in silence. I started surrounding myself with people but failed to feel the human touch that I longed for, the touch that could save me. I was drinking more. I got high for the first time.
“Justin, take me to the hospital!” I yelled at my roommate. My heart, so far as I could tell, was beating outside of my chest. My nostrils were closing. Oxygen stopped flowing to my brain. This was the end.
Thank God I was delusional. It wasn’t death. What it was was a loud-ass wake-up call. I couldn’t keep everything inside any longer. Unexpressed emotions can and will rip your insides apart and set your mind against itself, turning yourself into your own worst enemy. Despite what the depression may tell you, there is nothing healthy about that. When you recognize that, when you can see clearly that you’re in a space that is killing you, you get help.
There would be more tears, more hospital visits, more panic attacks, more sleepless nights, hours of therapy, and countless notebook pages filled before I could say I was “OK.” I had to see the bottom and its infinite despair before I could give what I felt a name. My friend and mental health advocate Bassey Ikpi helped give me the courage to speak out openly, honestly, and publicly about all that I had gone through. I’ll never be “cured” of anxiety or depression, but it is no longer debilitating. I get better every day. And that’s all I can ask for.
July 2nd is No Shame Day, created by Bassey Ikpi of the Siwe Project to encourage Black people to eradicate the stigma around mental illness. Click here to learn more.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.