After my father died, I no longer recognized myself. From 2006 to 2012 I lived with an anxiety disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some nights I would lie in bed awake, thinking, until the sun came up.
Panic attacks gripped my body like bear hugs, and I couldn’t control them. I didn’t discuss it with my family, because I wanted to avoid the stigma linked to mental illness. I had a full-blown panic disorder that would go untreated for years. I didn’t socialize with anyone beyond the few people I trusted.
Plus, thanks to emotional eating, I ballooned up to 360 unhealthy pounds. I was a recluse. If the pants didn’t have an elastic waistband, they hung in my closet collecting dust.
Yet I hesitated to seek help for my physical and emotional issues.
At that time I represented what people don’t see in the plight of black men.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the way black men are socialized, and I believe our definition of masculinity has a major influence on the way many of us process our experiences and express ourselves. We don’t always share how we feel. When we’re hurting, sometimes our first step—or even our second or third step—toward healing doesn’t include medical intervention.
When I finally decided to seek that intervention, things got better. For me, understanding that I needed and deserved treatment took a powerful reminder from a special friend that there is strength in vulnerability. Now, under the care of doctors and open about my struggles, two things are clear to me: We don’t transition into adulthood with everything together. And “faking it till we make it” is killing us.
I lost weight and am maintaining my weight loss. But people who see my before and after pictures don’t know the whole story. I’m also more conscious of things that triggered my emotional eating, so I use the tools I’ve acquired over the years to cope. But I remember a time when I couldn’t afford care and felt I didn’t have anyone to reach out to.
That’s why I started Fitness Fleet, a community service project, when I was still unemployed. Low income and low self-esteem are a deadly combo. Through my organization, I shared my experiences with emotional eating, with growing up overweight and at risk of developing chronic illness because of my family history.
What was once a philanthropic effort is now a corporation that I plan to use to launch a program that will work in conjunction with a weekly flag football league to empower black men and boys with the things they need to move closer to their definition of health and success, no matter what they might be going through. I also want to use this platform to help eradicate the stigmas linked to mental illness. How we define “healthy” is an ever-evolving, ongoing process.
And however it evolves, I’ll continue to share my story in order to encourage other brothers who need help with their physical or emotional health to get it. I believe it’s important for black men to see that everyone hasn’t always had it together, and I’m happy to put myself out there as an example of that.
The black community often touts loyalty to others as the metric of “realness,” but this can come at the expense of living a fulfilled life. What about loyalty to ourselves? I hope I can start a movement of black men encouraging one another to be mindful of our own needs and make our optimal health a priority. After all, our partners, children, community and friends need us, and we need one another.
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Kaleb J. Hill is the founder and CEO of FitnessFleet, Inc., a medical-fitness company based in New Orleans.