Theodora Marie is my mother. She is one-half of an identical twinship forged in Grandmother’s womb some 66 years ago. Teddie is a fiery Sagittarius, an old-school nationalist and my very first love.
My mother is a slight woman, 5 feet 7 inches tall and 110 pounds, but her mouth? Gargantuan. Her heart? Titan. If you test her, she will quickly show you why she got the name “Desert Storm” (Her twin? “Quiet Storm”), but she’s never malicious. At least, when she’s well.
Teddie makes friends everywhere she goes, and would undoubtedly give a stranger her last (and mine). Her aura is such that when she went to a lecture with my daughter at Howard last year, the students and the head of the African-American-studies department invited her up onto the stage to join the panel after she made a comment from the audience. On good days, she takes it all in stride. And on bad ones, she can’t see how anyone would want to hear what she has to say. (My daughter and I still laugh about how “Grandma made her hot” on campus.)
My mother’s unending love for the underdog (e.g., the blacks) is profound. It is actionable, it is unending, and frankly, it’s unnerving when you just want to watch Scandal without a running commentary about the white man. But it is because of her that my daughter and I are still marching out in these same streets with a DNA-imprinted mandate to uplift as we climb.
I was 15 years old the first time my mother was hospitalized. I was a junior in high school, and though she hid it pretty well, it had gotten to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed. Her very first psychiatrist, a man we called “Dr. Teddie Bear” (because he was doughy and brown and we’re silly), was the first to name her anguish: major depression. That diagnosis turned into manic depression (now called bipolar disorder), then anxiety and some mo’ shit.
Having visited her in psychiatric wards more than 30 times since that first episode, I am an expert on the drill when she’s “inside”: bring underwear and socks, a robe, toiletries and some “outside” food, usually sweets.
There are some days, some years, when I have gone out of grudging obligation, sitting in an ER, or a day room or lounge, trying to watch Jeopardy! while an old man with his ass hanging out mumbles show tunes and aimlessly rubs his hands. I sometimes catch knowing eyes with other visitors, bonded in our helplessness and desperate hope that our loved ones will emerge again.
One time, when Mommy was sick, she called 911. A SWAT team showed up to her Bronx, N.Y., apartment with the ambulance, and when I saw the men with guns and steel eyes, I swaddled her body, shielding it with mine, fearing for her life. Being in the line of work I’m in, I know how this can go. (Deborah Danner was my mother’s age when she was shot by New York City police. During a mental-health crisis. In the Bronx.)
Honestly, besides genetics and poor-black-lady trauma, I really believe my mother battles demons because her heart is too clean for this country’s long-practiced perversions and inequity.
So many times I’ve wanted to write about this—when Kanye West met with Donald Trump the day after being released from a psychiatric hospital; after Maia Campbell’s latest crack-fueled episode on video made its rounds. But it was Tyrese and his recent ordeal—the one where he appears on social media crying, begging for help and lying about millions of dollars, that finally pushed me forward.
Several years ago, Theodora had a very public meltdown on a New York City subway train. She had been on the phone with her best cousin Laurie from Far Rockaway in New York’s Queens borough and, spun in the throes of pure mania, was railing against white supremacy, “handkerchief-head Negroes” and a revolution led by black women. She also used the f-word several times (and not “fuck,” just to be clear).
On that day, Laurie called me. I was in a coffee shop having a meeting, and after hers, I began getting frantic calls from my family telling me to “go check on my mom.” Days later, she was once again in a place where doors open only one way.
Soon after that, my best cousin Chanise said she wanted to talk to me. She revealed that “Aunt Teddie was on WorldStarHipHop,” and the family didn’t know how to tell me. I looked up at her in half amusement (like, word?) and half horror. Oh Lord. Within days, people all over the country were hitting me up, friends and family, telling me that they’d seen my mom on WorldStar (who knew that shit was so popular?). Her video has been viewed more than half a million times (something I think my mother is slightly proud of), but to me it was crass, it was ugly. It was personal.
It was my mother.
In an age of social media, public breakdowns, meltdowns and crises on blast, I often think of people’s children, or parents, or friends, who have to witness such a raw, sometimes scary, moment with everybody who has access to a screen.
Someone you love is sick, and a snatch of one of the worst moments of his or her life is on constant loop for all to see. And comment on (the comments under the video ranged from “Right on!” to “She’s not talking to anyone on the phone” to much worse).
Bigger issues came up: privacy and people’s right not to be put up like that. Mental health in America. Mental health and the police. The question: “Will we ever tire of the spectacle of black pain for entertainment—even our own?”
Watching these videos, or WorldStar, or Kanye on a stage, or Martin Lawrence running naked into traffic, as they make the rounds, and hearing people say “He crazy” or “She just wants attention,” or “lol lol,” as they meme it out—I always want to scream that they might actually be having a mental-health crisis, and damn, why can’t we be nicer?
Even in my headline about Tyrese’s situation, I callously called him, “Cry-rese.” Yes, funny, but now not so much, given that it’s obvious that something much deeper is at play.
In my mother’s case, a lot of people thought her rant was positive. The guy down the street in the wine shop said he “loved it,” and others said she was “telling the truth.” I would always shake my head up and down and say, “She’s in the hospital” in a rote monotone, as if that explained it. Me? I was embarrassed and resigned.
I wonder, is it easier to laugh at a black woman being loud or promiscuous or violent in a McDonald’s than to think about why? Or have we been so calloused that we truly don’t give AF? About us. Do jokes mask the bitter truth that mental health affects many of us, whether it’s depression, mania, explosive anger, substance abuse, anxiety or some combination thereof?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, close to half of the American population will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. So there’s a good chance you or someone you know will be affected. Suicide is on the rise among black children, especially young boys, and anxiety is through the roof for our teens. Despite better diagnoses and a plethora of brain meds, our mental health is in continual decline. There are many reasons for this. But with that, and the fact that social media tracks our every move, we should expect to see a lot more of this black-pain porn.
So maybe we should take it easy the next time we see a celebrity obviously acting in a way that is not healthy. Or, if you see someone in public and it’s safe, turn off the video and give them a word. A nod. Ask, “Are you OK?” Pray with them if you’re the praying type. Basically, recognize their humanity and our shared fragility.
Because it’s easy to laugh when we see Tyrese crying all over the videos, but much harder to confront the pain that we all experience in life. Tyrese is somebody’s father. And that “crazy lady” on the subway screaming about revolution into a cellphone? That woman just might be someone’s somebody. Or their mother.