My Own Battle With Depression: Why People Should Empathize With, Rather Than Criticize, Karyn Washington

April 14, 2014  |  


“Yeah, tell me about it. Stuff around here has been crazy for me too. I can’t even begin to explain. But I can tell you that there ain’t no crystal staircases around here,” I said in a telephone mouthpiece.

I knew I had butchered Langston Hughes in my attempt to sound profound, but I was too broken to care.

And so was the long-lost girlfriend on the other end of the line. We were never super-close really, only knowing each other in a professional manner. But we were cool enough to the point that I didn’t mind her reaching out to me for help not too long ago. At the time, I just didn’t understand what she thought I could do. “Yeah I know. I’m just going through everyone in phonebook. It’s just really bad right now,” she said, as her voice trailed off into a whisper.

Admittedly, it has been a tough period in life for the both of us. She, a part-time artist, lost her full-time job back in August 2012; Me, a part-time writer, I lost my full-time gig a few months after she did in October. I was saddened to learn that, like me, she too had been struggling to make ends meet while trying to forge new paths in life. The news was somewhat stunning at the time, considering that my colleague always seems to be involved in one thing or another. If she isn’t volunteering for park projects, she is organizing events in the community or having an artist showcase. I see her name and face tagged in all sorts of happy pictures on social media, and the times I had run into her, she always seemed to be extremely positive, optimistic and in good spirits. But she was actually feeling the opposite way.

“Somedays I can’t even get out of bed. And I’m starting to think I have depression,” she confessed.

I was pissed at my friend for not reaching out to me sooner. But that annoyance quickly evaporated when I looked inward and reflected on my own inability to reach out. Then I understood: Who am I to judge?

I think this is why I find myself irked when reading the threads and conversations around the passing of Karyn Washington, founder of For Brown Girls and #DarkSkinRedLip. In particular, it is the lack of empathy and casual dismissals, which have found their way under my skin. I’m not going to call anyone out specifically, because I’m not trying to accidentally throw these specific cowry shell hawking, anti-black women ministrants anymore publicity than they already don’t deserve. But I want to speak to the less opportunistic lot of you, who seem confused about how someone can act as a beacon of empowerment for other women, and not be that for herself. Although I admired her work, I never met Washington, so I can’t tell you her whys and hows. But I can share with you my own battle with depression, which hopefully will give you insight:

I was convinced that losing my job was a universal sign that it was the time to go out and give my part-time dreams a full-time whirl. All of them. I was going to excel professionally (and more importantly, financially), find love and travel. For a while I was really believing that. And then winter arrived – both literally and figuratively. First the heater went. Then the polar vortex happened. Then my plumbing messed up because of the polar vortex. Then the parking authority had it out for me. Then my dog got injured and I had to put him to sleep. Then my grandma died. Then money wasn’t adding up…

Basically, the grand investment in myself, which I was sure the universe had co-signed, had turned into the sequel to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Incidents.

And yet, I was walking around with a fake smile. When anybody asked how things were going, my response was always, “fine.” That’s what we are suppose to do. That’s what we are taught to do: Think positive thoughts. Think so that one day you become. Don’t give into the negative. Negative thoughts become you.

Abracadabra, laws of attraction and all the rest of the self-help jazz hands.

But by mid-February – after the umpteenth snowstorm, fifth personal crisis and the second blue letter from some utility company threatening to cut-off my lights and heat like I wasn’t still living there – I finally snapped.

I went around the house, cursing the heavens, throwing stuff and turning over furniture. It was actually quite therapeutic–until I smashed one vase too many and a fragmented piece ricocheted off the hardwood floor and smacked me right in the eyeball (To this day, I still think I have a piece of porcelain in my eye, but medicaid hasn’t expanded in my state, and I’m too poor for Obamacare, so if there is glass in my eye, I just have to make due with looking around for it right now). Man, I felt like I had hit rock bottom. I couldn’t even get angry and throw s**t, correctly? I curled up into a ball on the floor and wailed from both the emotional and physical hurt of it all.

I thought about it. I thought about the box of over-the-counter sleeping pills in the cabinet. At the time, it totally made sense. What was it all for? What am I doing here? Nothing I do seems to matter. I don’t feel like I matter, and if this is the case, I might as well make an early retirement and find out for sure what is on the other side.

I would like to say that it was faith, which told me not to take those pills that night. Believing in others, and truthfully, even myself, has not always been a strong suit of mine. Rather, I think it was actually hope that kept me strong that night–the hope that I’m wrong about everything, and that I do matter and what I do matters out here.

And it is that contradiction within myself, which inspires me to write daily on principals of justice, equality and empowerment, even at times when I feel powerless. And I imagine it is also why my friend volunteers her time and energy into the community; and why poor people in general tend to be more charitable and helpful to others than their more wealthier counterparts; and why some of us, who harbor the most personal insecurities and hang-ups, teach the virtues of loving yourself to others; and why those in lockdown are often the ones who sing the loudest about black folks gaining their freedom from racial oppression. It’s the hope that whatever we put out into the world will find ways to manifest in our own lives. Maybe. 

Some folks may think I’m weak and a hypocrite. But while we ponder over the strength and vitality of those, who have thought about taking their life, and those who have actually given in to the thought, let us also remember those times when we criticized, mocked, denounced and sometimes angrily confronted people, who talk too much. You know who I’m talking about: the over-sharers on Facebook with baby-mama/daddy drama; The random lady with the frowny-face on the subway you just commanded to “smile” because, “it ain’t that bad”; The sensitive guy, who you laughed at because he dared to show tears after a hard breakup or some other personal loss. As a society, we are good at being judges and jurors, but suck really badly at being good stewards and helpmates to one another.

“Honestly I think the answer is that we have to stay connected with each other. Like, that is the only way we can get through life,” said my long-lost girlfriend on the other end of the phone line. I listened to her wax poetic some more about the emotional and physical value of interconnectedness. She made some solid points. I told her that if she is ever feeling down, I don’t care the time or day, to give me a call.

Then I hung up with her and reached out to another girlfriend, who too is part of the long-term unemployed, on top of her other personal problems. She told me she was happy I called because she was, at that moment, going through it. We talked old-school style with a single bottle of malt liquor on a park bench, unloading on each other. She listened without judgment and I listened without fake concern trolling. Nothing in any of our lives was solved that night. But at least we helped each other to not feel alone.

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  • guest

    I think we as a community need to acknowledge the various degrees of depression. People can suffer from clinical depression, manic depression, temporary/situational depression. It is so important that we understand that depression can also be passed through generations. So many of us think that this is a person attack from The Devil and that we have to wage war with him and stay prayed up. I think this mindset is counter-productive. Because being diagnosed with clinical depression, you will then always feel as though the Devil is taking over your life or that you aren’t praying enough or for the right things. And this is absolutely not true. I confided in my closest aunt that I think I was depressed and needed to find a therapist. She told me not to because I would make our religious organization look bad. So I stayed holed up in my bedroom for a few years. I advise all who feel down and those who feel ALL the way down to seek help. It took me many years, but I finally found a lovely black woman who has been my therapist for the last 3 years. Last week, I reminded her that since seeking therapy, I no longer have panic attacks, severe acid reflux, anxiety when speaking in public. I’m still working on a few things, but therapy helped. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that help.

  • Lynette

    Hey my sisters..I’ve been the dark. The things I’ve learned..1) I NEED GOD. Not Sunday going to church God…I need a real relationship every day! I need the word, love and comfort of Jesus Christ. He is the light in my world. 2) I need to stay connected to people. The enemy loves isolation! When we’re in isolation we cut ourselves off from the very thing we need…SUPPORT. Whether, its your church, family, friends, counselor..tell someone what you’re going through and try to get some help. 3) Control what I can control. I may not have a job…but I can control my ability to exercise, to drink more write, to share. There are a million things we can do to direct our destiny. I pray for you all. Please keep me in your prayer. We WILL make it!!!!

    • Curlyncia

      I need Thee O I need Thee…..every hour I need Thee……***tears up***
      Thank you

  • This! This really spoke to me. We are all fighting our own demons. I walk with my head held high, talking my way out of negative conversations and crude banter on a regular basis. I refuse to let the world know how tired I am, how lonely I feel and how sad and dark it gets at night sometimes. I can smile and laugh all day but the little things I ignored comes crashing down on me at night when it’s time to rest my head. That’s when I need to call my friends and family and just vent…just talk about anything. You don’t want to be the friend that is always having bad news news or having the depressing conversations but sometimes you need to let it out.

    “She listened without judgment and I listened without fake concern trolling. Nothing in any of our lives was solved that night. But at least we helped each other to not feel alone.” – This line was everything. We need to feel like we are not alone and we also need to be trust-worthy friends that won’t take the vulnerable information shared and turn it into gossip. God Bless us all.

  • Overseas Teacher

    Oooo Jesus, it seems like these are the best times and some of the worst time for black people living in America. I didn’t realize how much the stresses of life + the daily deaths stares and institutionalized racism had been affecting me physically and mentally. We really have to do all that we can which means getting professional help, moving to another place, yoga, eating better, meditating, church, whatever necessary to fight the forces of evil that is causing so many of us to have mental illness.

  • Chaitea

    I’m happy I read this. I’m long term unemployed as well and just got a part time job. And then someone hit my car and totaled it. My car was really old and they are only giving me 1800 to get a new one. Not sure what kind of car I can get with that. all the cars I have test driven have been kind of crappy. I lost a relationship, jobs, my home and two cars within the last 3 years. I strongly considered killing myself this weekend.

    • Overseas Teacher

      Sister, please know that there is help available. Free help. Just do a google search in your area and walk in there and get some. God bless you.

    • NVAdamzz

      Love I hope you find it within yourself to come out of the darkness. If I may, I’ll tell you a story: My best friend has a daughter and she had a really crappy car but it was all she had. She put all the money she had (which wasn’t much at all) into her little car because she couldn’t afford another. Within a week, an angry parking attendant smashed her windshield in while we were in the car, then her car stopped working on her in the middle of a busy street and somehow an old lady didn’t see her and smashed into the back of her car at about 40 mph and totaled it. She was so upset because she’d put everything into it but the next day her dad was somehow able to get her another car that was newer and worked perfectly. So sis, these problems you’re having are temporary and the likelihood is that something so much better will come of them. You absolutely will love again, you will get another job and home, and you will get a car that will run like new and get you to where you have to go. Speak to your spirit sis and claim all of this. You are meant to live for so much more.

  • This Too Shall Pass

    This is my life right now. Got fired from a job in 2012 because I pursued an opportunity to showcase my fashion line at Magic. I was energized because I knew God had lined this up for me. Friends told me not to take the opportunity because it was too risky. My faith said you can do it!. I stay positive and most people think that I am rich and living the life. I am very careful about the messages i put out without faking. I am counting change to eat. Putting in a modification for my home loan with foreclosure notices slid under my door daily. Half million dollars in debt (school loans are beastly) And I cannot move. I literally can’t get off my couch. It is real out here. But the light at the end of the tunnel us that I am still here by the grace of God.

    • Overseas Teacher

      Please go to a free counselor in your area. God bless you.

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  • DoinMe

    Good article. I think as a society we need to go back to the old-school way of connecting IN PERSON. Too many people are out here lonely, depressed, and suicidal because there is very little deep and meaningful connectedness and relationships. Our reliance on technology is turning us to socially awkward hermets who are suffering in silence and hiding behind keyboards and text messages.

  • Ashley

    Very well done. Our community still has a long way to go in appropriately recognizing and managing the mental health challenges that so many of us face. As someone who suffers from depression but is always seen as a sunny, positive person by those around me, I can attest to the difficulty of living with a secret you’re amazed you can even keep. I agree that we should continue to support and learn lessons from one another as opposed to tearing down what we don’t understand or are taught to be ashamed of.