How to Watch Your Family Drown Slowly

Michael and Robin, circa 1992
Michael and Robin, circa 1992
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Harriot

Editor’s note: Until recently, mental health and illness were taboo subjects in the black community. But thanks to the efforts of those brave enough to speak on it, that’s changing. In that vein, The Root team is taking this week during Mental Health Awareness Month to write about how mental health has touched our lives. Read the first post in the series here.


Robin died first.

I almost remember everything.

I remember the date was Feb. 2, 2003. I remember my mother calling me early that morning and telling me that everyone was coming over for dinner. I recall arriving first ... or last. Again, I remember almost everything.

I remember standing in the kitchen after everyone had left ... or before everyone came. I remember standing in the kitchen making my sister Robin laugh, but that part is easy to remember. She was my favorite sister and I knew her sense of humor better than anyone.

We had spent more time together than anyone else in my family. When she graduated, she left our tiny South Carolina hometown and enrolled in the same college as me. We were college roommates. I loved making her laugh until she couldn’t stop. Until her stomach hurt. Until she slobbered.

That night, I remember making up a song on the spot, to the tune of an old church hymn—I can’t remember which one. I remember her slobbering. I remember my mother standing on the porch watching Robin and me leave. She was headed back to her home in Greenville, S.C. I remember that she was parked in front of the house next door when she said, “I love you.” She never said that, so that part is easy to recall.

It was the last thing she said to me.

It’s easy to remember that my mother said that Aunt Phyllis was coming. She was my mother’s favorite sister, and for most of their lives, they never lived more than 100 yards from each other. Everyone knew Phyllis was my favorite aunt, mostly because when my large family gathered (which was often), I often tried to make my other aunts jealous by referring to her as “my favorite aunt Phyllis.”


Just before pulling out of my mother’s driveway, I remember watching Aunt Phyllis’ daughter, Tiffany, walk down the street. I remember her standing on my mother’s front lawn, cigarette dangling from her mouth, wearing a skull cap. I cannot remember what I said to try to make her laugh, but I remember the blank stare on her face; that she did not laugh. I remember wondering why Tiffany, my first cousin, looked so angry.

I remember driving down the highway talking to my other sister on the phone. I remember Metia telling me that Robin and Tiffany had been in a fight, but she didn’t know the details. Neither one of us cared. Robin and Tiffany were first cousins and the two youngest in the family. They were too much alike. Metia and I laughed about it. Then I remember Metia putting me on hold because she had another phone call.


I remember making a U-turn on the highway when Metia told me that Tiffany had shot Robin. I remember driving back to my mother’s house. I remember arriving before the paramedics did. I remember Phyllis screaming, “I’m so sorry.” I remember standing over Robin’s body, knowing that she would not survive a gunshot to the head. I know I saw it, but the image is no longer in my head.

I do not remember that part.

I started dying that day.

For the next five months, I cannot recall getting more than two hours’ sleep. If you want to know how depression feels, I can give you an accurate description:


Imagine being at the bottom of a well as water rushes in. Above you, you can see the world moving. You can see the sun shining and people talking, but you do not call out for help because you are ashamed of being in the well.

Slowly the well begins to shrink, closing in around you, but you are still too afraid to ask for help, even as the water pours in. You know you will eventually drown. Imagine not caring about the water or the shrinking well. Imagine hoping that the well around you will just hurry up and crush you to death. Imagine patiently waiting on the water, wishing that you could just fucking drown already.


That’s how I felt for almost a year. Then, one January night, my uncle James (We called him “Junior” because ... well ... that’s what black people do) stopped by my house during a business trip and couldn’t leave because he was snowed in ... or maybe it was sleet. I cannot remember.

During that night, during a long, winding conversation in which he dropped more life jewels than I could pick up, this strong bastion, then patriarch, of my family began telling me that he could see that I was suffering from depression. He told me that our entire close-knit family was still suffering from being chopped in half and that we all needed therapy. We had never talked about our shared anguish with one another. We swallowed it as if it were just another family meal.


He gave me the number for a therapist because he could see that I was drowning. About a week later, Junior ran into his therapist friend and called me to scold me for not contacting her. A few days later he called me again. And again. Until I finally relented.

I was skeptical of this woman at first. How could talking about the most painful experience in my life fix me? I remained skeptical over the course of 10 to 12 sessions that cost me $88 apiece. I finally stopped going because all this motherfucking woman wanted to do was talk! She never told me what was wrong with me. I could talk to people for free, I figured.


At the time, I was working a full-time job, running a nightclub I had stupidly bought and writing a novel in my spare time, so I stopped going to our sessions. I was too busy for this bullshit.

Then, one day, I noticed that I was no longer in the well. I noticed that I was not drowning anymore.


But that’s when I noticed that my family was still in the well.

At least once a month, we still hosted our revolving “Soul Food” feasts with 30 to 50 members of our family. Our lives still revolved around food (my family has owned and run family restaurants for years). We still laughed until our stomachs hurt. We still talked loudly over one another. We still discussed everything from books to religion to everything.


But we never talked about Robin and Tiffany.

Because I was no longer in the well, I could see them drowning. I watched one sister slowly ease herself into an addiction to benzos, or benzodiazepines. She couldn’t sleep without a Xanax and a Corona.


I watched my mother’s relationship with her favorite sister unravel into frayed strands of what it once was. I could see their conversations tiptoe around their shared pain as if they were a divorced couple who kept things cordial for the sake of their kids.

I watched Tiffany’s three children stand at the bottom of the well. I watched the oldest one, a teenager, try to save herself in the arms of men twice her age. I watched the middle son lash out at everyone and everything while everyone tried to figure out why he was always so angry. I watched the youngest one, whose smile could light up the darkest cave. Once, while sitting on my lap, she told me, “Everyone always feels a little bit lonely, right?”


And I, now out of the well, pleaded with them all to talk about it. My uncle Junior did, too, up until the day he died. My Uncle Otis did, too, and still does.

A few months ago, my sister called and told me she had written Tiffany a letter, forgiving her. She was trying to let go of the pain and addiction. Over the next few nights, we talked for hours as she weaned herself off of prescription medication cold turkey.


A part of my family died that day.

My mother, aunt Phyllis, cousins, sisters and uncles still have not extensively discussed our family tragedy, and I cannot help wondering if it is killing them.


A few years ago, my favorite aunt Phyllis was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS—a disease that ravages the body by separating the mind from the muscles it controls.

But I cannot help wondering whether living at the bottom of the well is not partially to blame. She was once a top fashion designer, a recording artist, a restaurateur and one of the brightest women I have ever met. She spent years of her life caring for the children of her incarcerated daughter and wondering if she was at fault for any of this.


I can sense the hesitation in everyone’s voice whenever I suggest that we talk about what happened with Robin and Tiffany. In 2013, during the infancy of the podcast revolution, I coaxed them into talking about it for an episode of my podcast. It was the first, last and only time we have ever discussed it.

I still try to throw a rope to anyone who I think may be stuck in the well of depression. I honestly believe that those brief three months of therapy may have saved my life. I don’t think I would have harmed myself, but ultimately, it removed the stigma of the need for therapy and showed me the necessity for self-examination.


There is nothing wrong with suffering from psychological pain. But wallowing in depression and trauma without addressing the issue can drown you. It can crush you. I’m just glad someone threw me a rope because, without it, I might not have survived.

I cannot say that I am truly healed because there are still parts of that memory that I have either subconsciously blocked out or choose not to remember. I forgave Tiffany a long time ago and still love her. But I still have not spoken to her since that incident. I know I should, but I am probably still afraid of wells.


Sometimes I will have a random, asinine thought that I know only Robin would find funny. I think: “Damn, I wish I could call her right now.” But that thought no longer makes me sad or depressed. I simply laugh knowing that she would have found it hilarious.

I remember Robin had memorized a long rant from a book that included the line “weak, lactose-intolerant motherfuckers” that made me laugh, so I know she would have thought it ridiculous that I saw a therapist. But I wouldn’t have cared, and I know she probably wouldn’t have, either.


After all, she said she loved me.

That’s all I remember.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.


Monique Judge