You’re a tower of strength when you’re breaking down
But through the wall, I can feel your cry
When it’s quiet, you’re screaming inside
And I break as I hear you
Loud as a bomb, wanting a shoulder to cry on
I hear you
Here and now
Don’t you worry
I’ll teach you to fly before you fall
My friend Tasha has been softly, but firmly, insisting for months that I go to therapy. Whenever the subject arose between us, I took note of the care with which she chose her words. I assumed her intentionality was a response to the general stigma around mental health in the black community. Maybe she feared that I would lash out at the suggestion that I needed something/someone besides Jesus to set me straight. I rushed to reassure her that I wasn’t antagonistic towards therapy and maybe I would go at some point. In retrospect, I see that her carefully crafted wording was more about making it clear that I, Andrea, need to go to therapy. It wasn’t a hey-therapy-is-cool-maybe-you-should-try-it kinda thing, but more of an Andrea, all is not well with you. Get help.
It took me awhile to read the intent behind her words because when the subject of therapy was broached, I couldn’t seem to trace her train of thought. The recommendation seemed to be coming out of left field.
After Thanksgiving, I called her on the verge of hysteria because I had just received word that some children that I knew had ended up in a terrible situation. My indignation and hurt feelings at their fate dissolved into a broader conversation about privilege and injustice. Somewhere along the way, we circled around to therapy and its benefits. I may have said something about how I wasn’t sure what use therapy would be to me because I don’t need someone to make me get honest with myself. Self-introspective is a popular pastime of mine.
“You’ve already done so much work and have grown so much, but…I just think…there is something just below the surface that needs to come out…it’s like right at the back of your throat and it’s exhausting you. You’re so tired and I can hear it in your voice.”
I heard her, but I didn’t really engage with her comments, so drained was I from ranting about the children. Plus, I wasn’t altogether sure what she meant by tired. I had been sleeping a great deal and still feeling exhausted the next day, but I hadn’t told her about that and I also got the suspicion that she was speaking beyond the physical.
But, I was getting nervous about my current habits. The last few months in Guatemala, I work, ate, and slept for the most part. But that was Guatemala. I was back in the States, back in Boston. I should be back to my old social butterfly ways. Why was I so disinterested in the world around me? Why was I not trying to make new friends or spend time with old ones? When would I stop feeling so displaced?
A few weeks ago, I got super excited about going to a live taping of a podcast I enjoy. It was my first night out in Boston in months. I took the bus to Central Square and when I walked in the bar, I noticed my wallet was missing. What in the world? I just had it. I can be a scatterbrain, particularly when I’m rushing, but this was not one of those times. I called the bus line all evening and no one had seen my wallet.
Thankfully, there was nothing too valuable in the wallet. It was just an inconvenience. I had to go to the bank in the morning and get a temporary card until the replacement came in the mail. I forgot to bring ID, so had to rush home and find my passport. The passport was MIA. I started flipping out and yelling at myself for being irresponsible, etc, and then I realized that berating myself wasn’t helping, so I calmed down and tried to conjure up some grace.
Finally, I looked in my linen closet and found a stack of cards and envelopes. One of the envelopes was thick. I looked inside and there was my passport and a card that another friend had given to me on Father’s Day, the first one since my dad passed away. I smiled thinking about how that card was the gift I needed that day. You are loved, Andrea. You are loved.
Back to the bank and then on to the school site I was working from that day, I kept those words on repeat. That afternoon, Tasha was gchatting with me and I told her the story of that morning. In telling the story, I was intending to share a bit of good news. Look how I was able to bounce back from a rough morning and get some perspective!
I was taken aback when the next words she typed were, “Andrea, I think you need to go to therapy.” Did she not just see what I had written? I was fine, I was more than fine, I was loved and I had figured it out by myself. My confusion gave room for the tiny voice in my head to take hold of the keyboard.
“It won’t be like the last time your tried,” Tasha continued. “You’re in a better place than you were.”
“I just feel like therapy would give me false hope. Nothing is going to change and if I can just accept that this is my life, I will be fine.”
It was like my fingers had a life of their own. I was typing, but my eyes were reading what I wrote and growing large with alarm. Ooo chile, whoever is writing this is depressed and needs to get some help. And then the dam broke. I went into the bathroom across the hall and into a stall to give myself space to let my chest heave and my eyes pour water into my hands.
It was awkward because people were coming in and out and I only work at this site once every other week, so no one knew me enough to feel comfortable reaching out. Then, when I was finally finished, my eyes were so bloody and I could not get the red to fade no matter how much I rinsed them.
Yet, when the shock of realization passed, I was filled with a cleansing relief. It all makes sense: the lack of energy, the constant desire to sleep, the anti-social behavior, all of it. Something was wrong, but it’s ok. I can get help. I felt this weight fall from my chest. I wasn’t going to have to carry this burden forever. It feels like there is this tangle of thoughts that have knotted themselves up in my head like a ball of yarn that is pressing down all over and I’m hoping that therapy will help me ease the threads loose of each other.
The relief surprised me. Defeated seemed a likelier response considering that I have been trying to outrun this depression for so long. One of my closest friends struggles with mental illness and I used to try so hard to pull her away from the darkness and when I couldn’t, I ran away from her, from it. I tried to keep moving, always. Busy social calendar, exercise, new classes. And then I moved to Guatemala and time slowed down.
I didn’t have the resources I had back in the States with which to elude the sadness. But, still, I tried. It was like I was locked in this vicious game of freeze tag. When I was finally tagged, I lay there immobilized. Fine, fine. You caught me. But eventually, I am going back home and when I get there, this game is over.
Last Christmas, I wrote a blog about my season of sadness. A friend emailed some of my words back to me with commentary. Andrea, what you described sounds like depression. You know I’m familiar with this. Maybe you should see someone. I narrowed my eyes and shook off his concern. No, no, I’m not depressed. It’s just temporary. I’m leaving Guatemala in five months. It’s going to be better.
But it didn’t get better. It’s February. I’ve been back for nine months. My anger has been brewing. Why did I even come back? Maybe I should have kept moving forward. Maybe this was a waste of time. Ok, let’s figure out the next adventure, maybe Amsterdam, maybe London. I started to get excited about the possibly of a different tomorrow but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to escape what had me so shook. None of my usual tools were working: my sense of adventure, my curiosity, my eagerness. All of them were failing me and in danger of being swallowed alive.
Maybe Tasha’s words found me on the right day at the right time. I am tired. And if someone can help me, I don’t have the strength to refuse their offer. I hear Loretta Devine in my head breathing life into Ntozake Shange’s words:
somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/
& i waz standin there/
lookin at myself/
the whole time […]
waz a [sadness] whose ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow/
waz a [hopelessness] faster than my innocence
I told my little sister what Tasha had said and that I was looking for a therapist.
“Oh for real? Hmm, I mean, I think all of us could benefit from therapy, so I’m excited for this. The thing is, when most people go to therapy it’s like, yea I know what that person needs to work out, but with you, I don’t know. I can’t think about what it could be.”
“I know, right?” I replied. “I’m curious to see what is revealed.” As I have said, I think I’m pretty open about my fears and insecurities. I couldn’t imagine what this person would illuminate for me.
But then, I discussed it with a different friend and she, too, was excited for me. I told her how I saw therapy as a space where people who are not self-aware get help being honest with themselves and I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit into that model. She disagreed with my assessment and said that a therapist can be someone that you can trust with your heart and that that relationship can be a beautiful thing. She reminded me that I have been dealing with trauma and that it’s only natural that I would need help dealing with it.
I think it was her choice of words. The thing about having someone you can trust with your heart. But, it was also an offhanded comment that my sister made when we spoke just before I went to bed that made me relax my guard and allow my mind to drift along channels that normally, I aggressively prevent it from traveling down. It was a mistake.
Last night, I dreamed dreams of longings that I never like to give voice to, consciously or subconsciously. I woke abruptly at 4 am, willing myself to fall back asleep for a couple of hours of quiet sleep, wishing I were skilled at Occlumency. But the dreams kept coming.
In the last dream, I was standing in a huge foyer that was in desperate need of a paint job. I wanted to add some color to the room, but before I could do that, the room needed to be smoothed and returned to a neutral color because there were varieties of chipped colors here and there.
The scene dissolved into Tasha’s apartment where she was talking to a guy I must have been dating seriously. He had a hunch that something wasn’t right with me despite my insistence that nothing was wrong. He was trying to get her to confirm his suspicions. Her body stiffened in discomfort. He kept assuring her that she didn’t have to identify the issue, he just wanted to know if he was being irrational or not. She shook her head slowly. “No, no, you’re not crazy.” I felt her guilt in my chest. She hadn’t wanted to betray me, but felt compelled to answer honestly to ensure that my past pain didn’t poison my future.
I stared at her until I couldn’t and then I ran away, back to the foyer. Someone opened the door for me and when I entered, I found a completely different room. Someone had painted and cleaned up the room and it glistened as the afternoon sun seeping in from the high-vaulted windows shone down on the bare walls. The hollowness sent a chill up my spine and I ran back towards the heavy wood door and grabbed it just before it sealed me in.
I woke up at 5:59, just before the alarm. As I opened my eyes, a sequence of memories flooded my brain. The day after my 28th birthday. Drunken nights during law school. They raced towards me as a collective, telling a story more powerful than the feelings triggered by each individual memory. “Crap, I know what it is.”
This thing Tasha could see hovering at the back of my throat, this revelation that my sister and I were musing about, I know what it is. But, I’m not sure how I feel about talking to a therapist about this issue. I put this need in a box a long time ago and locked it away. Every so often, something inadvertently sets it off and it rages and rattles around in its cage before I find the strength to drop kick it in the gut and silence it once more. In preparation, I tried to voice my truth out loud, just to myself, but the words wouldn’t come.
I do not speak about this, especially to friends. Because they will try to fix it and they cannot fix it. I know. I’ve tried and it just produces resentment. I am such a better friend when I take this particular need off of the table. Also, this need is so deep and unfulfilled that when it rises to the surface, I lose control and I can’t stand to be that out of control. I am Andrea. I slay my own dragons. I don’t lie whimpering on the floor, waiting to be rescued.
I think at the very least, it will be good to voice this need to someone who won’t feel obligated to fix it for me, but in fact, is obligated to help me figure out how to make peace with it. I just need to make sure I manage my expectations. I don’t want to find myself wilding out like Antoine Fisher after his three sessions with the psychiatrist were up.