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 and here.
I’m sitting in my therapist’s office in New York City on a cloudy afternoon in November 2014, just a few months removed from actively planning to kill myself. I’m already pensive about therapy in the first place when she tells me I need to start taking medication.
“It will help aid your treatment,” she says. “I strongly recommend it.”
I was woefully in need of help to relieve the pangs jolting my spirit the split second I felt just a moment of joy. Training my mind to concentrate on anything without wanting to blow my brains out required a calm that often evaded me. I was depressed—bad. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to be in pain, either. I was 34 years old, sad, hurting, and feeling increasingly isolated from the world and myself. For more than a year, my mattress functioned as a sinkhole, pulling me down into an abyss that didn’t exist physically but was very much real in my mind.
(If you want the backstory on my journey in dealing with depression, go here.)
I needed help quelling the agony that forced me into therapy in the first place: the workplace bullying I was experiencing at the time, the unresolved childhood trauma and violence that I grew up believing was normal. I was told that medication would help me work through those feelings, and I simply wasn’t having it. Intellectually, I knew I needed to be in therapy. Psychologically, I felt ashamed and embarrassed that life had dragged me down so low. Now I have to take pills on top of that?
Lots of thoughts raced through my mind:
Only crazy people take pills.
And folks are already too fast to take meds for the most mundane things.
Only white people take meds, because they are too fuckin’ weak in the first place. Black people overcame slavery. I—a black man in 2014—can get over depression.
I asked my therapist if there were other options—anything but medication. She suggested breathing exercises and other therapeutic techniques. Then politely, yet firmly, she reiterated her recommendation, and said that we would revisit the discussion in a few months.
At this point, I was going to therapy twice a week. I hated my job and, quite frankly, my job hated me. I was experiencing workplace harassment in the worst ways. The company was black-owned, yet managed by white people. I was widely perceived as “the angry, threatening black man,” and I knew this because middle management and my supervisor had told me as much. At one point, one of my managers informed me that he was instructed to make my job harder on purpose.
I told my therapist about my job woes, and she recommended that I work from home three days a week. My company had no choice but to comply. That angered the leadership at this company, leading several of them to go to human resources and ask to review any medical documents I had on file, an HR representative would later tell me.
Four months in, I was feeling better about going to therapy (I didn’t want to kill myself). But I was still stressed out from my job, and I was in the throes of coming to terms with the violence I had experienced as a teenager, when I was living in a home where drugs were sold, and how that informed my understanding of masculinity. I had a will to live, but living and unpacking the pain that nearly led to suicide was a bit too much. My therapist, very gently, said that I was doing very well and had made a lot of progress. Still, I needed medication.
I knew she was right. I had accepted going to therapy twice a week, and even told some of my close friends about it. But I was still on the fence about medication.
Would medication make me worse?
How would I hide it from people?
Would popping pills make me crazy?
I was really scared, unsure of what that experience would look like. I searched the web to find out which psychiatrists would be a good fit—preferably a person of color. I eventually found a column written by Tracy Clayton, a BuzzFeed writer and podcaster, titled “When Taking Anxiety Medication Is a Revolutionary Act.” I didn’t know her, but Clayton’s words illustrated what I was going through to a tee.
How having anxiety, in her words, was like “walking through the world beneath tornadic skies without an umbrella, unsure if you’ll be able to find shelter if things get bad”; about how it “can be as exhausting physically as it is mentally—the tears that come from nowhere, the knotted stomach, the squeezing in the chest, the muscles that feel like they’ll snap if they get any tauter.”
I had read of white people using medication to deal with depression, and I honor their experiences. But I needed someone—a black person—to tell me that it was OK. My therapist was a black woman, and to my knowledge, she wasn’t taking any antidepressants. But I now knew that Clayton, also a black woman, was. She didn’t write that column for me, but she may as well have.
Through her article, she was able to talk me through the ups and downs of pharmaceuticals. Her fears were mine. The line from her essay that sealed the deal for me was this: “After moving to New York, I decided to go back to my medicine because choosing ‘OK’ when ‘fucking awesome’ is an option just didn’t make a lot of sense.”
I told my therapist I was down with going on medication, and I found a psychiatrist she coordinated with during the year I saw him. He prescribed Escitalopram, an antidepressant, and I was to take one 10-milligram pill each day. Over the course of four months, I began to feel better. The therapy sessions, the monthly check-in with my psychiatrist and the meds worked.
After taking Escitalopram for a year, I was slowly weaned off of it; it was never designed to be a lifetime thing, which is what I had initially feared. The pills were an aid to my therapy, not a replacement. Escitalopram is in a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, which increase your levels of serotonin to help maintain mental balance. Of course, everyone’s situation is different. Some people may very well need medication for a lifetime, or longer than I did.
I get why people, especially black folks, give medication the side-eye. We hear so much about black children being mislabeled and misdiagnosed and ultimately prescribed pills for varying degrees of behavioral, emotional or developmental issues, when in actuality, the deficit lies with the teacher’s inability to create and sustain an environment that enables them to properly flourish. And, of course, I am keenly aware of the Tuskegee experiments.
Historically, the medical community has not been kind to black folks, and it still isn’t today. Access is a primary issue. I was lucky; I had a decent job with great health care that paid up to 90 percent of my total medical costs and therapy sessions, and I was able to choose the exact type of therapist I wanted. I ended my therapy sessions with the same person I started with. Many marginalized people especially often have to go from one therapist to the next to find the right fit, if they are able to afford one at all.
I don’t have the answers on how to navigate the mental health system in those circumstances—I wish I did. But for those who do have access to medication and are advised to take it, I’d suggest they strongly consider the recommendation. I am nearly three years removed from using medication, and I am living my best life ever. My bed doesn’t feel like quicksand anymore, and my brain doesn’t function as if it’s a vortex pulling me into an unknown dimension, from which there is no return.
Medication saved my life, and I am not afraid of it anymore. I never should have been in the first place.