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

April 14, 2014  |  

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“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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