By Tekita Bankhead
About two months ago, I hit a low point. I sat in my office after staring at my computer screen for hours. For the life of me, I could not concentrate on anything. I couldn’t begin to do anything productive with work or my website. I kept re-reading emails over and over because they just weren’t registering, all the while panicking every time a new email notification buzzed. I can’t let myself get this behind. If I do, I’ll never get caught up. I closed my office door hoping that it would help me focus but also because I didn’t have the energy for usual colleague small-talk. Why couldn’t I do my work? I love my job, and I have some of the most awesome colleagues and supervisors I’ve ever worked with. I take extreme pride in my career and The Pedestal Project, but what I was feeling was far beyond burnout or an empty tank. I was tuned out in my usual morning meetings and mindlessly taking notes of more things to add to my overwhelming to-do list. On this particular day, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right in my spirit.
I called my best friend of nearly twenty years from my office phone. She knows me better than I know myself, and I knew she would find my call odd because I typically called after work in the evenings. When we spoke, all I could manage to say was “I don’t feel like myself today. I prayed, did my devotionals, listened to my gospel, but I just feel…heavy. I don’t know why.” She met me with loving compassion the way she always does, reassured me that my natural response of trying to pray through it was exactly what I needed, and gave me some encouragement that only a trusted friend can. It’s always so hard for me to talk about anything that bothers me, but I’m so thankful that I have friends that don’t always require lengthy explanations. For the moment, I had a bit of relief just by saying it out loud and giving my feelings verbal weight in the universe. I did as much as I could to cling to that moment of peace and finish the semester strong. Little did I know that heavy feeling was connected to much more than I realized.
Most people who know me know that I have always struggled with being on time. I’m typically only about 5 minutes late, and it’s rarely from oversleeping. It’s literally just me overestimating how much time I have, and that ends up in me rushing to wherever I’m going, a harsh internal conversation where I scold myself for never being able to get this right, and a shortened level of patience that completely disrupts my energy wherever I’m headed. I try to give myself grace, but it’s still an area that I’m continuously working on. Around this time, I found that not only was my tardiness becoming incessant, but I also was starting to feel absolutely exhausted all the time. I never had much of an appetite. I was screening phone calls (more than my normal, lol). I started declining most invites for socializing. And to end the days, I retreated into a daily glass of wine, just like Olivia Pope taught us all, under the guise of self-care and “me” time. What really was a red flag for me is that I was literally afraid to write. To journal. To post on my social media pages. I had been going strong with The Pedestal Project, and the response had been overwhelmingly positive in my first few months of launching. Writing is the one thing that has always made everything alright in my life, but for some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to put words to the page. Literally couldn’t even make myself log into my blog account because I felt so behind. I kept telling myself that there wasn’t a real problem. This too shall pass. I’m just going through a season. I’ll be fine in a couple of days.
This wasn’t just a season. This wasn’t self-care. These were warning signs of a depressive episode.
Thankfully, I have since been able to practice healthier coping mechanisms that actually work like reading, vacationing, eating healthier, and taking breaks from social media. However, as I reflected on that time in my life, I realized I wasn’t alone. Many of my friends, especially the Black women in my circle, had the exact same feelings at some point. Thriving in their careers or personal endeavors, surrounded by supportive friends and family, spiritually fed, financially sound, and still wearing smiles on most days. To the naked eye, these women have it all. Yet there were moments behind closed doors where they felt as if they were struggling in some way. I share this to highlight the fact that depression is primarily biological and rarely, if ever, circumstantial. This does not mean that our environments do not play a huge role in our mental health, but it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the cause or onset of a depressive episode. The wonderful thing about Black women is that we make literally everything look easy. Similarly, a challenge can be that we make things look easy—so much so that people assume that we don’t desire or require support and assistance. The common thread is that while we may recognize something may not feel quite right, it can be incredibly difficult to ask for what we need. Heck, that’s if we even know what we need to begin with.
Last week, my social media feeds were inundated with followers mourning the unfortunate and untimely deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. The initial reaction from most was shock that successful people could be struggling with depression and suicidal ideations (despite several other celebrities, particularly Black celebrities, who have been vocal about their struggles with mental health and met with mockery and disregard…but chile, that’s another post for another day). What followed was a continuous barrage of posts urging people to “check on their strong friends” or urging people who are struggling to “reach out” followed by the suicide prevention hotline number. In my opinion, these were noble yet misguided declarations. As someone who works in the field of mental health and as someone who is becoming more aware of her own struggles, I was annoyed by what seemed like a trend of shallow concern. Firstly, if your friendships are truly reciprocal in nature, all of your friends have probably been the “strong friend” at some point so the check-ins should not be one-sided. In addition, checking on them is not enough if you don’t know them well enough to know when they have deviated from their normal routine. For example, if I don’t have your number saved in my phone, I will sincerely appreciate the effort, but I’m probably not going to share my deepest feelings of inadequacy with you. On the flip side, if a friend is struggling, it is unrealistic to expect someone to offer up so much vulnerability without even the slightest prompting. This assumes a level of awareness that you’re not sure they have, a feeling of safety you can’t necessarily guarantee, and a promise of support that you may not be able to deliver. Truly observe your friends and create safe spaces for conversation when the time is right for them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to suicide prevention, and it’s dangerous to portray that in an arena as pervasive as social media.
If we want to truly shift the online narrative around depression, suicide prevention, and overall mental health, we have to become more aware of our online interactions, outside of tragic headlines. What messages are we sending with our posts, both explicit and underlying? Are we sharing demeaning messages of negativity or are we uplifting others? Are we enthusiastically welcoming messages of vulnerability and imperfection? Or are we telling people to stop telling all of their business on social media? The comments, the likes, the views, they all hold more weight than we’re willing to admit, but we have to make sure we are using that weight in a beneficial way.
I’m making a promise to myself and to The Pedestal Project to write and tell my stories even when they are intimidating or uncomfortable. That’s how I know they need to be shared. Another Black woman could be out there feeling the same way and simply not have the courage or words to describe it. We don’t have to have it all together all the time anymore. I’m committed to maintaining my peace in that, and I hope I can encourage others to liberate themselves in the same way. I’m optimistic about the future because we are clearly shifting into a culture that is willing to talk about mental health a lot more openly, especially on social media. I just pray that we finally start to listen.