This story was submitted by Dr. Jamye Hardy of Nashville, TN in support of our “Black Girl Mental Health” series. We admire your resiliency, vulnerability and passion.
Sis, even now, as I piece together this blog entry, I struggle. Though I must say that two years ago to date, I did not have the capacity to even formulate the thoughts to make such a statement. I experienced a deep, deep depression, triggered by grief from the loss of my grandmother while completing my doctoral program, that had been brewing for while – seasoned by perfectionism that twice previously had escalated into a panic attack. And seeing that I currently have the wherewithal to actually reflect upon my experience and articulate even these first few sentences, I must pause and allow space for gratitude that I am no longer in that place. Shout out to God, the Ancestors, and my Black, female, Yoga-informed therapist.
They say, (like I’m not a therapist myself), that there is a such thing as potential predisposition to mental illness. My grandmother was my protector, my best friend, and my only grandparent growing up. And even that doesn’t begin to describe how much she meant to me. My grandmother also lived with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia for her entire adult life. Some of our most frequently visited places together were Kroger (specifically), the garden at her assisted living home, and the psychiatrist’s office. My mother would tell me sometimes that “Grandma Bowins was sick”, and I could tell when she was really ill because she used words that were opposite her typical poised and gentle demeanor. But that didn’t seem odd to me because I always thought that I’d be cussing up a storm if I was sick – again – too! Hell, I was pretty peeved about it myself! It wasn’t until later when I was able to comprehend how she was ill and what that actually meant. I had no idea that it was out of the ordinary to have full on conversations that made absolutely no sense to anyone else listening. But that was fine with me because these were MY conversations with my grandmother, and it didn’t matter that no one else understood because I wasn’t talking to them!
Over the years of spending so much time with her, especially when my parents divorced and my mom went back to get additional master’s credit hours in counseling and dad went to pursue a doctorate, I developed the skill of patient and compassionate listening to actually hear the person who was experiencing her illnesses. I loved listening because I loved her. Through this experience, she inadvertently taught me that if you love people, you can help them through anything. In hindsight, I’m pretty confident that I became a Social Worker because of my relationship with her, and the skills and characteristics that were instilled in me just because I was her granddaughter.
As I grew older and increasingly became more interested in helping as a profession, I learned of predisposition to mental illness and increasingly grew curious as to whether I would “develop any signs” of a chronic mental illness myself. I learned that chronic mental illness often emerges in late adolescence, so I was always “on the look out” for myself. According to my mother, my grandmother had her children in her twenties, and she as the middle child, doesn’t remember a time when her mother wasn’t ill every once in a while and had to go back to the hospital to recalibrate her medication. I also learned that back in those days, my grandfather would follow the ambulance to the hospital to make sure that they did not harm her as a Black woman in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s (and likely onward until his passing).
I can’t remember a time when I did not know that I was going to college during my “late adolescent years.” I’m one of those people who went to college for my own liberation and was determined to leave home at 18 and never return to my mother’s house for any extended amount of time. Much of me hated the fact that I was growing up in two households, while I also had to reconcile never understanding how my parents were ever compatible in the first place. Because of their personalities and my individual relationships with them, I liked them better apart as individuals, but always hated that I was split between the two of them and longed for the opportunity to one day establish myself so that I could have my own family – in one household, specifically.
So, all throughout my childhood I was involved in everything that I could get one or both of my parents to finance. Partially because I was confident that one of those extracurriculars would lead to a scholarship to college, thus setting me on my way to my own household, and partially because I never wanted to sit still long enough with the thoughts in my head about how much I hated being in two households, among other thoughts related to often being teased for being the “smart Black girl” (pre #blackgirlmagic days). I strived to excel in everything that I did, and if I wasn’t good at it, I was quick to pivot to something that I felt had a smaller learning curve because I was on a mission and needed to get there as soon as possible. By the time I got to college, I had very much sharpened the skill of being an “over achiever”- not realizing that this constant drive for perfection, running away from what made me uncomfortable, was slowly driving me into the ground. By my senior year in undergrad, I fell victim to my aspirations and had my first two experiences with panic attacks. If you’ve never experienced one, I pray to the God of our collective understanding that it never happens to you. All at the same time, I was the president of my sorority chapter, step show co-chair AND step show performer, who was running for Homecoming Queen while completing my Honor’s college thesis after returning from a study abroad trip to Tanzania (my 2nd trip to the continent at that point), all while pursuing a Social Work Major and trying to maintain part-time hours at Hollister and my spot on our Majorette team… and that’s just most of it.
Despite eventually obtaining my undergraduate degree in Social Work, half a masters in Student Affairs (where I experienced my first symptoms of depression as a result of this lifestyle), a masters in Social Work plus licensure, and beginning a doctoral program, it NEVER occurred to me that my lifestyle was in any way “unhealthy”. Despite all of that schooling about helping and teaching other folx, my first hint that my lifestyle was truly unsustainable didn’t occur to me until my grandmother passed away and the grief from that event shattered any semblance of what was left of my spirit, and I emotionally collapsed. I had become so hyper focused on what I had determined was the only process to “my own liberation” that I ended up losing sight of my own needs as a human. The whole time I had been looking for a certain “sign of potential unwellness” that I completely overlooked the dis-ordered living that I was experiencing in my own body. I downplayed any emotion that I viewed as “unhelpful” (time for tears was something that I viewed as “taking up valuable time”), developed an illogical values system for consuming food (such as “I’ll eat when I’m done” as opposed to eating for energy to get things done), and I viewed self-care and self-love activities as a choice that I could move around on my calendar just like any other task that was viewed as “not important/ not urgent”, as opposed to a non-negotiable practice that fed who I was at my core. Saying all that to say, I may not have received a formal diagnosis at that point, but I was surely unwell.
It wasn’t until after many, many therapy sessions after my grandmother’s passing that I finally was able to recognize my version of “unwellness,” unlearn those unhealthy thoughts, behaviors, and expectations, and relearn how to treat myself so that I could actually BE myself.
And while I can confirm that I have been able to accomplish much of what I have set out to do in the name of building a self-sufficient foundation for myself to one day establish a nuclear family of my own, it is challenging to reflect and consider at what cost I made these achievements. Moreso than tens of thousands of dollars of tuition, I paid for what I wanted in quality of life, and sacrificed my health and my sanity to get it. I almost drove myself to an early grave and would have robbed myself of what I had worked so hard to obtain.
This is not about whether or not my journey was worth it. Indeed, if anything had been different about it, I probably wouldn’t be sharing my story with you now. This is about the realization that I can have both a successful AND healthy life.
It is my hope that my story provides some level of helpful insight to anyone else who may see a part of their experience in my own. “Unwellness” is not just “diagnosable” disorders. It’s the conscious and subconscious thought to deny oneself for some illusion of a greater cause. There is no greater cause than taking care of yourself. There is value in being present with emotion. There is value in vulnerability. There is value in listening to my inner child who was screaming WHAT ABOUT ME!?
I am in the process of relearning how to live, and as I mentioned at the top of this blog, I still struggle. The unhealthy habits and thought processes that led me to mental and emotional exhaustion are deeply engrained, BUT, I am encouraged by the progress that I am able to recognize in my current lived experience of taking care of me in a sustainable, gentle, and loving way. After I recognized that I was perpetuating, in a way, the feeling of never being “settled”, “satisfied” or “at home” as a child, I began to understand that how I take care of myself is essential to my being – the person who I’ve done all of this “achieving” in the name of.
Yoga and journaling, the actives of self care and self love that most deeply resonate with my soul, are as essential as brushing my teeth and taking a shower, and until VERY recently, I have never treated it as such. Doing those things have always been something that I have treated as a choice, but never a non-negotiable. They were things that I did, not the things that I recognized as what gave me access to being my truest most joyful self. Finally, a phrase my therapist shared with me in one of our first sessions made sense to me – it’s not in the doing, it’s in the being.
Sis, if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, I am still on a journey to prioritizing my mental health. But at least now, I’m confident that I will live to see it through because I have decided to pay attention to and care for myself in ways that I never knew were available to me until I made the decision to do so.