It seems that at twenty-one, I’ve gone through so much that I could write a book. I’m sure that sounds naïve as hell, but the thing is, I don’t think that I’m ‘grown’, but I sure do feel like it.
Let’s start here. I believe it may have been on a Thursday afternoon in May, very close to the end of the first grade, when I stood on the front porch with my mother and said, “Mummy, I’m depressed.” At first, she was baffled. But her confusion quickly turned into concern. Her little baby was SAD. My mother assured me that I was in fact not depressed, but rather SAD. However, what she didn’t fully understand, was that even at such a tender age, I was mature enough to articulate my feelings. I was depressed. I constantly felt hopeless, misunderstood, lonely and incapable of truly connecting with my peers.
They were all watching cartoons and stuck in the blissfulness of youth, while I went home every day to see cancer suck the life out of the only father figure I truly knew. To put it simply, at age seven, I faced – for the very first time a disease, a demon that would leave m e fighting for my own life.
Let’s fast-forward 12 years down the line, I walk onto the campus of my dream school, a top ten word-class university claiming a diverse environment, which consisted of a million white people, and a speck of colored people. All of this, in the wake of the current socio-political tensions in the US. White privilege was blatantly obvious, but I was still so ignorant, so unaware of what it truly meant to be black in America, especially at a PWI.
My imagination of joyful diversity was quickly dismantled when I started to encounter racist professors and racist kids who didn’t even blink an eye, before they uttered the most offensive things. They would proudly allow derogatory words to bounce of their lips, often using the word ‘NIGGA’ to refer to their very white peers.
“The otherness of our blackness became our safe haven. It was unsafe, maybe even unacceptable to socialize outside of your black friend group, and if you did, even your own community may not feel safe around you.”
There were very few safe spaces on campus for people of color. Imagine a young black woman -minding her own business- being harassed in the library by a teacher’s assistant for wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. But it didn’t end there, the derogatory slurs were often mixed with some stereotypical shit like “Black people sure do love their fried chicken” as if they didn’t down that shit like a hot commodity in the cafeteria. Maybe I didn’t truly understand the otherness of blackness on campus, until I began to mingle with groups of people of color, who after spending three years on campus did not have a single white friend. The otherness of our blackness became our safe haven. It was unsafe, maybe even unacceptable to socialize outside of your black friend group, and if you did, even your own community may not feel safe around you.
I was not unaware of my blackness before, because until I was 14 years old, I was very insecure of my darkness, the almost purple hue of my skin tone. I was ridiculed by a society which prided itself on colorism. I hated my skin tone, resentful of my mom for giving me her big nose and dark skin, when my father was light-skinned and had a straight nose. I was called ‘black and ugly’ and if ever I was told that I’m beautiful, it would go a little something like this, “You’re so pretty for a black girl.” Like… what the f**k is that supposed to mean?
“Since I could not escape my skin, I tried to escape the fat on my body.”
Since I could not escape my skin, I tried to escape the fat on my body. I would, all the way throughout high school and college, gain and lose rapid amounts of weight, at one point gaining 35 pounds in a little under a year, and losing 20 pounds in two months after sticking to a very strict diet. I endured the worst hunger pangs and I rationalized my ridiculous diets as a way to finally gain the confidence I lacked. If I couldn’t really be pretty, I could at least look sexy.
My diets always paid off. Only then would I receive genuine compliments about my appearance. Only then would my general practitioner not call me fat and urge me to lose weight. However, there was one big problem. I was increasingly insecure. I had zero confidence hidden behind a well put together, confident exterior of a teenager, who “had her shit together”. My insecurities then led to other issues: mood swings, long bouts of depression, self-harming, and an occasional purge.
I soon began to base my self-worth in academic achievements. I was always a high achiever. I always did well in school and I made it look effortless. But behind the scenes, I would beat myself up over not performing excellently on every assessment, often times not sleeping. I spent an unhealthy amount of time trying to achieve perfection, in the one thing where I was seen for my mind, not for my body.
I know I’m beautiful and I’m extremely proud to be black. I’m also depressed and very stressed. At 19 years old, after escaping the ignorance of the Jamaican population’s awareness of mental illness, I finally sought psychological help, as I saw the one thing I was good at (academics) slowly slip through my grips. My disease after being ignored for twelve years decided to show me who was really the boss. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. This was a breakthrough for me, a sign that all my cries for help were finally being heard. I could finally get the intense therapy that I needed to have a second chance at a normal and healthy life.
I sincerely believed that I was healed. I thought that things were great, that I finally had control of my life, until my depression came around full force, like a category 5 Hurricane and forced me to take an entire year off from school. Those who know me, especially my Jamaican friends, might well to say the least, be surprised to hear this. Well, yeah, I don’t always have my shit together.
I was forced to learn that things don’t always go as planned. But I went with the flow, mainly because I had to. Being out of school stole a big part of my identity. I was unaware of who to be, if not a student. This was beyond distressing and continues to be. As I prepare for my first day back on my beautiful campus, I worry. I worry if my brain has died, and if I’m now incapable of passing my classes. I worry about the judgment I will face being the only junior in a class full of sophomores, or the judgment I will face by the black community for disappearing or “dropping out of school” as many of them have understandably assumed. I worry about re-connecting with the people who made living on campus, away from my family bearable. I worry about graduating on time. I worry about how I’m going to lose weight before I go back on campus, to keep up appearances. I worry about the endless possibilities of the future that lies ahead of me.
However, there are a few things that I know, even though I do sometimes need to be reminded. I am beautiful, I am black, I am depressed, and I am distressed, and all of those things are okay. They’re more than okay. I don’t have to strive for perfection. I am only human. I will no longer pretend that I have my shit together, because in reality, who does?
I will not be ashamed of my disease, I will wear it as a badge of honor, because I am unimaginably strong. I have held on to my life at times when I had planned to the very last detail how I was going to end it.
I will be living proof that your mental illness does not define you, that you can gain so much more from it than you lose. There is help out there. There is hope.
This chunky, little, black girl, born in the heart of Jamaica will be great, she will defeat all the odds, whether you like it or not.