“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” –Malcom X
I remember the 911 call as if it were yesterday. The sun hadn’t broken the horizon yet, and the January air, with its frigid touch, had never felt so chilling down the length of my spine. Clutching my knees, since they were the warmest thing in my reach, I briefly told the operator I felt like a wanderer, and I wished to walk through Louisville’s busy streets without any sense of direction. It had been three days since I slept, and the line between the conscious and the unconscious had merged in a way that I was uncertain of my own surroundings. I sat on my mother’s front porch questioning whether I was still alive or not.
I’ve always been plagued by my own curiosity. My family always told me stories of how observant I was during my childhood. Raised in a predominantly black neighborhood on the outskirts of New Orleans, I witnessed the woes of my community at a very young age. I was deeply fascinated and disturbed by the pattern I saw — everyone seemed to avoid confiding in each other. Violence, like a lonely phantom, haunted every street corner, and fists met welcoming cheeks as if they were kisses. It was more than a physical phenomenon. The imbalance of my community is a result of historical oppression and the universal delusion that black skin is impenetrable. Words still punctured my skin like knives, and sharing my frivolous anxieties so openly baffled and frustrated my black friends in particular.
There is nothing more terrifying than losing your imagination. It’s a visual playground that contorts to the reality that we perceive, recreating new images to cherish. The light, however, that illuminated my imagination had burned out, and my mind began to feel like a shell that held onto nothing. I cherished nothing.
Over the years, I saw myself following that same monotonous pattern I had witnessed in New Orleans. I slipped into the comfort of censoring my feelings. I had even abandoned journal writing — the medium I used to distance myself from my realities became a documentation of my sorrows, and I refused to pick up a pen. By the turn of this new year, I had stopped dreaming; I awoke from sleep that had been shrouded in darkness, and my dreamless nights made my days unbearable. While I often shy away from classifying myself as religious, I began to pray for a nightmare.
Struggling with anxiety and depression since my elementary years, my inability to lead an active role in my life had posed greater problems than I could handle. My mother says I’m “sentimental” to my environment, assuming that the easiest solution to my anxiety and depression problems was to simply “get over it.”
This was prevalent in my mother’s behavior — she reminded me how strong the female psyche was compared to a man’s and explained to me how this mentality allowed her to raise two daughters without the presence of a father. However, this encouragement failed to hinder my looming thoughts, and my inability to balance school, work and family made me look at my life in retrospect.
I came to the conclusion that although I had been raised by such a strong black woman, who played both roles of mother and father, I was still incapable of exhibiting that amount of strength in my own life. My knees buckled from an eight-hour work day, and my heart palpitated at the sight of a failing grade that didn’t know how to remedy. I was an immobile mess, struck by the new responsibilities of my adulthood.
I progressively withdrew myself away from the world around me and how others assumed I was supposed to react to my problems. I deflected every stressful situation that came my way, and I had not set any particular goals in my life. I was burdened by comments from white and black people alike, who both pointed out I talked too “white” and I didn’t have enough “black” in me. I felt as if I had disrespected my black community with my sensitivity, my lack of perseverance. I have always been classified as the “other” by strangers, like a new breed of black that threatened the status quo.
Having a mother who is multiracial made these comments worse and more confusing — she embraced the privilege her lighter complexion granted her but still identified as black. She advocated for a social revolution in the black community but failed to be a part of it. My mother enjoyed the company of those closest to her skin tone, dividing the house into separate ideologies. The person who had loved me the most, who had good intentions buried inside her authoritative words, still couldn’t understand the pressures I faced as a black woman emerging into the world.
Silence became deafening. The playlists I created, with the dozens of songs that ignited small flames within my chest, had been extinguished by the tears that I had shed. As my days quickly turned into nights, silence only seemed fitting, like a discordant embrace. I was spiraling again — only this time, I didn’t know where I’d end up.
I was immediately rushed to the University of Louisville Hospital psychiatric emergency room when the emergency medical technicians saw what state I was in. I was a vulnerable black woman who had no emotional support at home, and I was left in the hands of a city dominated by white — it was the color of the fluorescence that hung above my head while I sat in the hospital waiting room. It was the color of the walls that gazed at the bones that jutted out from my back, the woman in the corner of the room who claimed she saw her dead wife the night before. My presence felt off-putting and wrong, like a puzzle left unfinished, and I cursed myself for letting myself go off the deep end.
“Where’s the black people?” I thought. “Am I that crazy?”
Approximately 30% of African Americans receive mental treatment each year, compared to the United States average of 43%, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In 2017, the alliance also concluded that 11% of African Americans had no form of health insurance. Also, according to a study published in 2014 by the National Institutes of Health, women are twice as likely as men to suffer from major depression. A separate study published by the National Institutes of Health in 2010 found that African American women face barriers in seeking mental health attention, including stigma, lack of access, social issues and limited availability of services.
These statistics illuminated themselves during my time at Wellspring, a crisis center in Louisville that assists individuals suffering from a mental episode and provides modes of mental stabilization. It was my home for a week, following my 911 call in the chill of January’s arms, and it was there that I recognized my true potential as an independent black woman.
There was a woman who had always excluded herself in group meetings. She was a quiet soul whose stare could utter a thousand words. Instead of presenting her name for everyone to hear, she wanted people to resonate more with the stories she told.
It wasn’t her first time voluntarily admitting herself at Wellspring. She considered herself emotionally stable without the company of her family, given the fact that they were the ones who always drove her back to insanity. We bonded through our conversations on the back patio, puffing on fresh Newports and reminiscing on much simpler times. She pegged herself as a “survivor,” that nameless lady, and referred to me in the same way. Although she had not reached full happiness, she was content to take the initiative to better herself, which was something she couldn’t say for her family.
Suffering from illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, she also felt like an outsider in her community. Her family denied seeking medical attention for their mental illnesses, and this encouraged the violence inside the household. During her abusive childhood, her father often insulted her based on the color of her skin. He depicted black women as frail and weak, subservient to men, and reflected these beliefs on his own daughter. However, she refused to view being a black woman as a curse. She refused to conform to the warped perception of her family. It was her mission to prove to them that they didn’t need to stay complacent in their narrow mindset, and that if she could survive the horrors that she endured inside the household, she could face any obstacle.
“We live in a world that wasn’t made for us,” she said one morning, fidgeting with the spoon inside her coffee mug. “You don’t know how much power you have until you stop believing what everyone else is saying. If I had never gotten help for myself, I would be dead.”
I carry her words with me every day and the memory of her gapped smile when I shared my mental progress with her. I learned that everyone’s life was just as vivid as mine regardless of race and that I was not exempt from reaching out for help just because of the color of my skin. She has shown me that there is strength in vulnerability and that I could set an example for others who were trapped by the same delusions that ripped their communities apart. My dreams have never been filled with so much color and light. I have been set free.