I was 19, sitting in a doctor’s office complaining of chest tightness, heart palpitations, and (what I thought to be) heart attacks. What I hypothesized to be heart disease or asthma based on my WebMD research beforehand turned out to be much worse: anxiety.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. As the doctor told me, my stomach dropped. I…was…crazy?
When my family visited the next day, I told them my diagnosis, and they dismissed it saying things like, “This is what happens when you’re around white people;” “You don’t pray enough;” and “Don’t take those crazy pills. Drink some wine or smoke some weed.”
Mental illness wasn’t a new concept for my family. I had mentally ill relatives who were diagnosed with schizophrenia. To my family schizophrenia was a valid mental illness. Talking to people or seeing things that aren’t there are obvious symptoms that you can’t ignore, but a tight chest and panic attacks, however, could easily be dismissed.
May is mental health awareness month. One in five Americans will be affected by mental illness in their lifetimes. That’s 20 percent of the population and millions of Americans. Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to suffer from mental illness than the general population.
Although my family made me believe I was an anomaly; I wasn’t. I’m one of millions of Black people who have to deal with this invisible disorder. What has proven most useful for me in terms of living with mental illness is therapy. Therapy reminded me of the childhood bullying and racial discrimination I repressed, informed me that the bad relationship in my teens was actually abusive, and showed me that I have terrible coping skills. Therapy has also taught me the importance of living my own truth and following my own path.
It’s funny that May is mental health awareness month because it’s also the month when many people graduate from high school and college. As I was graduating from college, I gladly boasted that I would not be attending grad school. This came as a shock to my family, friends, and professors who saw my academic excellence as a reason to obtain a higher degree.
Even though I had a high GPA, participated in extracurriculars, worked several jobs, and appeared to have it all together, I wasn’t sleeping. I was binge eating or not eating for days. I suffered from panic attacks regularly and neglected to take care of myself. I was miserable. Undergrad wreaked havoc on my mental health, and I knew that grad school or a PhD program would not be kinder. I chose and still choose to take care of myself over a higher degree.
After college, I still struggled with trying to follow everyone’s timeline. I took a few months after college to rest and travel but rushed to get a job within the six month post-grad time-frame to feel as accomplished as my peers who obtained their full time job before or shortly after graduation. I eventually was hired at my first full-time job, and I made more money than anyone in my family. I thought I was a success.
But the cracks at that job showed early. I was there for three weeks when one supervisor yelled and publicly embarrassed another one. I saw supervisors physically assault their subordinates. Work cliques assembled to harass other employees. All types of harassment and discrimination occurred there. By my second month, I hid in closets and under my desk crying trying to get through the day.
By my third month, one of the employees who had been there the longest encouraged me to find a new job. She saw the toll it took on me and wanted me to leave, but I was determined to make it work. I was a Black woman. Nothing was too hard for me; I could do anything.
The attacks at work increased. I wasn’t sleeping. My panic attacks multiplied. I starting breaking out in a rash all over my body. My brain shut down. I would look at the computer for hours and couldn’t figure out how to work or what to work on. I was a shell of myself, all because I thought I could work through my mental health problems alone. I sought therapy again mainly because I knew I needed help and had the resources available to get it.
Not only did my therapist teach me tangible steps to cope with the symptoms of mental illness, but he also taught me that my life had no timeline. As I was frustrated and distraught over my first full time job being a mental and emotional drain, he reminded me that I could quit. Even though I had thought about it, quitting wasn’t what I did. I saw things through. I finished what I started. Quitting would also signal to future employers that I was unhirable, and it was hard enough finding a job in a new state where no one knew me, my background, or my skills. But I quit that job and I slept, and the panic attacks lessened, and my skin cleared.
Even though I was unemployed for six months after that, it was a break that I needed. I needed to slow down. So what if everyone had full-time jobs? I was fortunate enough to not need full-time work and part-time work was much better for my mental health. So what if everyone was going back to college? I still can not afford college and am not healthy enough to attend.
Mental illness is no walk in the park. There are still days where I‘m frustrated that my brain isn’t “working” or that I can’t get to sleep because my brain thinks I’m in danger. It’s frustrating and embarrassing, but mental illness has not derailed my life. I’m learning to live with it.
Now I’m at a place where I no longer have the resources to afford one-on-one therapy, but I’m so grateful for mental health counselors like Jessica Dore who uses tarot cards to provide free daily steps that we can take to improve our mental health. People like her remind me that I may have to work harder, but there are little steps that I can take everyday to live a healthy life.
Just because I’m not getting a PhD or because I don’t have a fancy title at a corporation does not mean I have lost my potential. I can still be Black, brilliant, and abundant while being mentally ill. I know that comes with rejecting this idea that my life has a set course that I must follow. By pacing myself and living life on my own terms, I’m learning that my pathway to success is learning to take care of me first.