I was beaten quite a bit as a child. I wasn’t a “bad kid” or a troublemaker, I just happened to come from a violent place (America) and a culture (small town, black, 1980s; take your pick) where beating children was de rigueur.
As an infant, I was beaten with a wooden yardstick until my chubby legs turned red and I gasped for breath. I know this because some relatives still laugh about how “Baby Cry-a-Lot” (a moniker given to me at a few months old) would cry even more after a beating. I should mention that the reason for these beatings was that I, as an infant, would sometimes cry.
As a toddler, I was beaten with hands, hairbrushes and thicker yardsticks for offenses such as accidentally spilling juice on the table. The juice beating is actually one of my earliest memories. (And the reason why, whenever my nieces spill something, I give them a kiss and a giggle while I help them clean up.) But I would also earn the occasional bruised arm/leg/butt for—yup—crying.
By the time I started kindergarten, I was well aware that the only acceptable nonhappy feelings to express aloud were those of rage or vengeance.
Do unto others ... unless what you want others to do is treat you with humanity and try to understand your unique perspective and challenges as a black person coping with a mental illness.
For most of my life, I have apologized profusely for being different, for having an illness, because mine—major depressive disorder with an amuse-bouche of anxiety—falls into a medical category colloquially known as “Suck it the fuck up.” Then I realized (or maybe accepted?) a few things that completely flipped my attitude:
- To be unforgiving or judgmental of a person suffering from a disease in any part of the body save the brain is almost universally viewed as horrendous.
- Everyone is a pain in the ass sometimes. In different ways, to different degrees, every human being is difficult because people are fucked up and have varied experiences, baggage and communication styles. So I apologize when I actually make a mistake (I make lots!), but not for my existence wholesale.
I figure if I can see beyond the multiple, soul-sucking flaws of the average “non-cray,” said non-crays can certainly reciprocate, yeah?
That’s where I landed, philosophically. I had to. In order to save myself I had to fight like Sofia when feeling like Squeak. I believed the dismissive, vile things people said about me. I believed that I was worth nothing. I believed that my pain was bullshit and that I was just “dramatic” or “oversensitive.” I believed that I should hide in my comforter, forever, thereby permitting everyone with whom I had ever crossed paths to be rid of the incomparable burden that is me.
I believed I should die.
Though I have suffered from mental illness since I was wee, I wasn’t formally diagnosed until my sophomore year of college. I remember being overcome with relief that this “thing” fucking with my brain and my social life had a name. That it was treatable and common. But when I tried to talk to others about it, I was strongly encouraged to keep it to myself or to “tell no one but Jesus.” (I’m an atheist. Different stigma, different story.)
Other people were not going to be my safety net. I accepted that, and the self-hate that comes with it, until I liked myself enough to push back. I started to demand the same degree of thoughtfulness, sincerity and compassion that I showed others. I lost a lot of friends and family members this way and replaced them with a many-nations-strong community of my own design. I am loved now. Because I required that, to remain in my life, you had to value me. (The literal least one can do.) And when loving people are loved in kind, we are a goddamn force.
Not everyone is as fortunate. As a culture, a nation, a species ... we suck. We suck hard and are not getting much better, at least not at opening our hearts. Ours is a cruel, indifferent society where depressives cannot reach out because they are barely hanging on. Consider: We find the most value in sensitive people when we need someone who will listen to our struggles. In those moments, it is totally acceptable to drown your “dramatic” friend in your woes. But who will be there for that same friend?
I am a black woman with all the feelings—a fact that has complicated my life with significant physical and emotional pain since birth. But I am not sorry for having a disease. Or a heart. We’ve all got shit, and I’m managing mine.
I no longer cry over spilled juice.