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 previous posts in the series here, here, here and here.
(Sidenote: It’s going to get pretty dark in here, so I suggest you stay close.)
I became a con artist around the time I was 15. I sold dreams of high school romance to girls who wanted a boyfriend in exchange for lunch money because I wasn’t eating good then. I was a 150-pound, loud, rebellious knucklehead. As such, both my parents had given up on me. My dad was around some nights; my mom was a ghost of her raisin-bread-baking self; and in between the bills they were paying and the dreams they were chasing, I was starving—for attention, for love, for acceptance, for approval.
My height betrayed me in those years. My feet and legs stretched out like a lawn chair in spite of the fact that I didn’t want to be seen. I borrowed other people’s shirts that hung off my shoulders, and socks needed to be doubled up in order to fit shoes that were too big.
If you want to know why clothes are important for high schoolers, it’s because clothing shows other people that someone cares. Someone is taking you to get a fresh haircut, is making sure you have a clean pair of jeans and buying a winter coat that fits. Because I was borrowing from friends whose parents had enough to lend, the world could see me as a decent young man, although I was really a scared boy.
So I started doing pushups and pushing down all the tears I wanted to cry. I pushed down all the moments when I didn’t fight back. I pushed down the parents I didn’t have. I pushed down all the emotions that left me drained. I became mean. Uncried tears punish you that way. They sit heavy on your shoulders until you’re hunched down, weighted with the parts that don’t want to be hidden.
I began slashing people at 16. I kept a razor under my tongue made of all the secrets everyone else thought they were hiding. And I used it even when I wasn’t vulnerable. I would cut deep. I would talk about your dead family members, your drug-addicted mother, the welfare sandwich you brought to school.
My tongue was quick, sharp and hard because—in truth—I was afraid. I know that now. Afraid I would be exposed for being a “bama.” Afraid someone would know that my parents had given up on me. That my height had betrayed me one summer when my jeans receded from my ankles to comfortably rest around my calves.
I became a thief at 18. I stole only what I needed to survive. On the nights that I didn’t have dinner, I stole it from the 7-Eleven, where I’m sure they knew I was stealing. I’d gotten tired of playing the “I’ve come to buy something game” with the man behind the counter, who didn’t give a shit about that food anyway. We had an unspoken agreement, so I took advantage of that.
By 19 I had disappeared. The little boy who loved reading and math and science was gone now. He still had a room, but it wasn’t his house anymore. I was in the streets. Not heavy, but I wasn’t around much. I let my hair grow out. I let my Timbs get dirty. I stopped caring about who was hurt and how they got there. I was smoking weed every day and drinking every night. I don’t think I have a picture of the time with me smiling or not holding up my middle finger. I hated everything.
By 24 I had become a cheater. I had seven girlfriends at the same time. It wasn’t no Floyd Mayweather shit, either, where they all know each other. It was horrible. I was lying to everyone, including myself, and auctioning off pieces of myself to get the comfort I needed. To go on a date was a strategically planned series of “who is where,” hoping that I didn’t run into anyone who knew about the other girlfriends.
It was exhausting: the lying, the phone calls, even the sex. Sex when you don’t feel like having sex might as well be carrying groceries up 10 flights of stairs—it’s just work.
I was 25 when I became a bomber. I blew up my old life from the inside. My closest cousin had just gone to federal prison, and I had my first panic attack. The boy who was hiding wanted out. I’d come up to New York for a weekend and ended up staying there for two months. I lost 20 pounds off my already thin frame.
As the fall weather turned cold, all the clothes I had brought with me for the three-night stay, I could wear at one time. I literally walked around wearing three pairs of jeans for both warmth and weight. When it all became too much, I called my father, who, with my sister and stepbrother, drove up to get me. They brought me home.
By 27 I was on prescription drugs and therapy. Both helped with the panic attacks and agoraphobia. I’ve made amends with the women I wronged—the ones who would talk to me. I stopped drinking and smoking. I started talking to God, and the funny thing is, God started talking back. Not in a hearing-voices kind of way, but things began easing up a bit.
I’m in witness protection now.
That’s how I feel in the mornings when I walk the dogs and make tea. I’m married. I have a son. I feel boring, normal and suburban. And I like it. I still have struggles. Some days are harder than others. Some nights I fall asleep with ease.
I have trouble driving. My therapist drives with me once a week. It’s embarrassing, exhilarating, scary as fuck and life-changing. I’m learning how to get back at it. I still have a healthy distrust of everything—it’s a side effect of being black.
My height still betrays me. I can’t hide. I look put together, but I feel like a dropped jigsaw puzzle. But my son needs me and I’m all in. I’m redefining everything now.
Masculinity isn’t fighting; it’s getting in a car with my kind Latina therapist and driving a block farther than before. It’s crying when something is worthy of tears. It’s forgiving even those who don’t deserve forgiveness. It’s different. I’m learning.
This is me now:
See that smile? I’m working on it. And my son loves my height. He loves to sit up high and view the world. He isn’t hiding. I have a reason to stand tall. For so long, I could feel the world weighing my shoulders down.
I like my world on my shoulders now.