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Black Women and Mental Health: The Pressure to Say We’re OK When We’re Not
When would you say you noticed that you were having feelings of anxiety that were a little more intense than they should be?
College was when it started getting noticeable for me. I’ve always been an anxious person. My parents would readily confirm that. And I’m a perfectionist, which is a bedfellow of anxiety. But, when I was in college, I was trying to do so much. And, I was really at a loss for how to handle the many commitments I had. My parents were getting a divorce. My weight was up and down. Oh, and I got out of a long-term relationship. (I lowkey forgot I was with him for almost two years.) I think those were triggers but where the mistake came in was doing a self-diagnosis of all of these things as leading to situational anxiety, which is different from chemical anxiety.
I started having panic attacks in college. A couple. They were not frequent and they’re still not frequent. But, when I started having them I just took it all as ‘I’m a stressed-out college student. I’m carrying a big course load.’ I was [on the executive board for] the National Association of Black Journalists. I had a job and I was trying to do a lot of stuff.
What was your first panic attack like? Where were you; what was going on?
I think my first panic attack happened junior year of college…
Which was the craziest year.
Yeah. It was incredibly hectic. There was a lot of personal and school-related stuff going on. I just remember a lot of crying. Most likely I was at my apartment. To this day, the panic attacks haven’t changed so much. They’re a lot of hyperventilating, crying, and an inability to calm down. It’s like the world sort of closes in and I don’t see a way out. Your ability to think or see beyond a few seconds is gone. And then trying to calm yourself down, usually doesn’t work because you’re setting up the expectation, ‘I should be calm. Why am I not calm?’ And for me, that leads to me feeling like there is something wrong with me.
Were you by yourself?
So, what did you do?
I think the first time, I probably called my mom, which I still do sometimes, and have her talk me through it. But, I think I also tried to talk to my roommate at the time and that was more or less successful.
Did you have the language to articulate what was going on? What did you say to them?
‘I’m freaking out. I’m just feeling so overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do. I can’t calm down.’ Oh, you know what? I just remembered. The way that this really started building in junior year—sometimes the body holds stress in certain places. And, for me, that becomes my throat. And, I started freaking out because when I would get stressed, which was often, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. So, I went to the student health center and I told them, ‘It feels like there’s a lump in my throat. It hurts to swallow. It feels like it’s stressing my breathing.’ And, everybody looked at me like I was crazy. They were like, ‘You’re fine.’ They ran whatever basic test they needed to do, looked down my throat. But nothing really happened.
So [that experience] was part of a lifelong habit of minimizing whatever I was going through. I think I was like, ‘Everybody thinks I’m making this up or overreacting.’ So, I talked to my mom and my roommate and thought that would be the end of it.
It started getting bad because senior year, I was probably even more stressed and at that point, my roommate, who was my best friend at the time, had transferred to another school. So, I was feeling kind of isolated senior year. I was alone but by that point, I knew what was going on. So, I was able to keep it to myself and just hang in my room, lie down, and just kind of breathe through it. By that point, the throat pains had stopped but I was still getting upset and a lot of crying and feeling very burdened by everything I had to do.
So, I went to the Student Health Center and told them what was going on and I saw a nurse practitioner who immediately put me on the generic version of Zoloft. She put me on about 40 mg a day, which, for a controlled substance, is a pretty high amount to start off with. I now know but at the time I was 21 and had no idea what she was doing to me. I had to take that 1-2 times a day and it made me crazy! I went from being anxious and just kind of easily upsettable to paranoid. And, I had no idea what was going on. I only took it for a week but that week was insane. I didn’t eat. I completely lost my appetite.
It was a box of crackers, I’ll never forget this. There were three packages wrapped in a box. I ate one of those packages over the course of six days. I couldn’t handle it. I would try to eat more and I couldn’t eat more. My stomach was really upset and sensitive.
I was still working a lot. I worked at Michael’s at the time. And, part of my job required me to lift fairly heavy boxes. So, on the seventh day, I went to work, hadn’t had anything to eat all day, and I was lifting a bunch of boxes and I fell down and [my coworkers] were like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I was like, ‘It’s probably because I haven’t eaten.’ They made me eat something and then sent me home. Then I stopped taking those pills. And, I was just like, ‘Fuck Student Health!’
Fuck all these “health professionals.” I’m not doing this no more. And, I kind of decided that I was going to do my best to handle this on my own. I do want to add, as a disclaimer, I don’t think it’s a failure on anyone’s part if medication is a part of their maintenance.
You didn’t know you were dealing with anxiety junior year but by senior year you knew. What happened in between to let you know that you were facing anxiety issues instead of just being overwhelmed?
Junior year, my relationship with my roommate was deteriorating a lot. She was going through a lot of personal stuff and I became her punching bag that year. Then, that was the year my parents got divorced. I had wanted my parents to get a divorce for a long time but I was surprised by how sad it made me when it was finalized. And, I was also really upset with my major in college. I was doing journalism but I really wanted to do creative writing and I was feeling trapped because I was already a junior, my scholarship is up in four years. How do I do what I want to do in the time that I have left?
By senior year, my parents are divorced, my roommate had transferred schools, and I switched to my new major and had committed to doing all the credits that I needed to do. So, everything was “fixed” but I was still feeling stressed.
Yeah, they diagnosed me. I talked to a peer counselor about the various concerns that I had about those situations and then they asked me about signs that you might have an underlying anxiety disorder. For me, for example, I worry about everything. And I always have. My mom used to travel a lot for work when I was growing up. And, I remember being five or six and being inconsolable for days if she would leave for a trip because I was convinced if I wasn’t with her, she was going to die. I was always paranoid about people being out of my sight. Everything stressed me out about driving and traffic. I was always worried that some big, horrible thing was around the corner.
So by the time that conversation was happening senior year of college, they were like ‘That’s probably an anxiety disorder. That’s not what we would consider normal concerns.
Mizzou is such a White environment…
Did you feel like any hesitancy going to speak to these people? Did you feel like maybe they wouldn’t get it or be able to relate? Did you have any reservations about that?
Yeah…I felt reservations around being pathologized. I think I was confident that my concerns weren’t explicitly– there’s racial anxiety and then there were the day-to-day concerns about being a college student, which of course are informed by race. So, until senior year and that horrific cotton ball incident, (Our senior year, two boys threw cotton balls in front of our Black Culture Center.) I wasn’t really feeling a whole lot of racial anxiety on campus.
But, I was feeling like when I went to counseling–you know, I grew up Missionary Baptist and you know church folks are always like: ‘Pray about it’ or they’ll talk to the pastor or whatever. And, I was already distancing myself from church by that point. I still prayed but I didn’t feel like it was doing anything. So, I was feeling some sort of way about going to therapy because in my head, I was like ‘Black people don’t do therapy.’ And, then I was also concerned that some White counselor was going to extrapolate my thoughts to make some sort of statement about all Black women.
And, that’s a reservation I still have. I just ended a relationship with a therapist because it became clear to me that she was not able to discuss or understand race in a way that allowed for my full humanity, during our sessions.
You told me you were thinking about getting rid of her.
Sure did. I feel lighter.
But therapy, in general, has been really helpful for me and I am looking to get back into therapy. Part of anxiety is obsession. So, it’s really helpful to have a built-in system of listening, support, and validation that comes from therapy. I really think that everybody needs therapy because it’s nice to have a removed party listen to whatever is troubling you.
Even with your family… I had to tell my mom, ‘Let me know when my phone calls to you have only become panic calls. I don’t want our relationship to be you managing my anxiety.’
What did your mom say when you said that? That’s so mature.
She said, ‘Not at all, you’re my child. I love you.’ And I said, ‘But seriously, let me know.’ She said, ‘I’ll let you know.’ She also told me that when therapy was helping me the most she could tell a difference.
Ugh. No, not at all. I would say there are more stressors now. I think I have a better grasp of how to deal with it now. I’m not perfect and I still mess up–and when I say I still mess up, I mean, I don’t always prioritize my self-care. That’s something that I continue to wrestle with. When stress gets overwhelming or when there are too many balls in the air that I’m juggling, what has happened historically is, my self-care has been the first thing to go. I start sleeping less. I start ordering more food as opposed to cooking. I start skipping the gym or yoga classes. And those are the sorts of things that keep me balanced. By this point, I know that. So, I’m getting much better at saying no. Just saying, ‘Yes, this will get done. But, it’s not going to get done on your timeline. I’m going to take care of myself and then get this thing done.’
I still have panic attacks. It’s rare though. Last year, I had two or three, which is the most I’ve had in my late twenties. But, there were reasons for that. I was coming out of multiple family deaths. So, dealing with grief and not being close to my family. And, also dating or not dating…some sort of weird situationship.
Situationship! That is the best word to describe what these relationships be like.
What else can you call that? These men out here, ‘I don’t really want a relationship. I can’t be anybody’s boyfriend.’ Except I’m going to call you all the time,
Yes! And, monopolize all your time.
And, take you out and even be your emotional support but I’m not your boyfriend.
OOoo Sick shit.
There are always these sorts of triggers with intimate relationships, especially partner relationships. I’ve struggled for a long time to build up a lot of self-esteem, self-worth, and value, which of course anxiety tends to be wrapped up around feelings of insecurity and lack of control. So, trying to be aware of that and doing a lot of work on myself to know myself so that I combat myself when I’m not at my best.
Have you ever had a situation where you try to describe your anxiety disorder to someone and they diminish or belittle it?
Definitely. Multiple people from parents, family members, some friends (former and current) said something or have just being dismissive or acting like anxiety is a choice. Actually, I was telling somebody about this the other day. I was having a conversation about masculinity.
Right. Which comes into this too because being a woman… My ex said something dismissive before. And, there’s this cultural dismissal of women and their emotions. And, so to see anxiety as an emotional reaction to something as opposed to a real condition dealing with brain chemistry. And, so my ex was pretty dismissive, which is one of the many reasons why we’re no longer together.
What did he say?
He was just like, ‘Oh, you just have to calm down.’ And that’s one of the most infuriating things when somebody tells you to calm down because it’s like, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before! I’m choosing to be upset.’ You think this is an ideal situation for me? Like this is fun?!
I recognize that is how my brain operates and how I perceive things in the world and perceive myself in the world. So, I say all that to say that there’s the brain chemistry part and there’s the part that I can control, which is how to remove as many blockades or triggers as possible.
I remember my first semester of grad school, I had a massive panic attack and I was having heart palpitations. So, I called the triage nurse and she was like you need to go to the hospital. So, I went to the hospital for them to do the EKG and all that sort of stuff. And, the orderly, or whoever he was, that was taking me back to my room was like, ‘You’re too young to be stressed. You don’t have anything to be worried about.’
Ugh! A complete stranger!
You have no idea what’s going on in my life. He just saw that I was 25 at the time and saw I was stressed. And, I was like, ‘I cannot control this. I can do as much as I can to neutralize my environment.’ But, when this happens, the best thing I can do when a new symptom pops up is go to the doctor and make sure there isn’t anything else going on. Instead of trying to calm myself down, I just have to let it happen and that makes everything a lot better.
It really doesn’t. By that time, I had been at the hospital so long, I was doing better so I didn’t even say anything. It was like 2 o’clock in the morning. I was just like go away. When people say things, I do normally challenge them. Particularly in our community, we have a lot of spirited stigmas against both mental health issues and seeking care for those things. We have to be very careful how we talk about these things in general because we don’t want to spread misinformation. But, I think, also, you never know who’s struggling. So, why say something that would make it even harder for that person to open up about what they’re going through. I usually come at it from that way.
I sometimes will say, ‘You’ve offended me.’ But it’s about getting back to kindergarten lessons. Be careful with your words.
This whole story reminds me of something Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas wrote a while ago about how men are conditioned not to believe women in a lot of different things. If they tell a story, the assumption is that they’ve overdramatized something. Or, if they tell you they’re feeling a certain way, it’s not that big of a deal. And he was talking about one of the things men have to learn is that women’s emotions are valid and to listen to them.
Our emotions and our experiences. To be a Black woman, I never really realized, until a few years ago, how much I’d internalized a lot of these things and wasn’t even trusting my own memory of these experiences.
Yes! Gurl, gurl, gurl. Which environments or situations do you have to remove yourself from these days?
Sometimes I get social anxiety. Big groups of people. A perfect example is networking events. My heart starts beating a mile a minute. Situations where I feel like I need to prove myself or sell myself or do a sales pitch. I can’t handle those. So, I remove myself from those. Some party situations. There are certain party groups in New York and everybody is all beautiful and very fashionable. Those events kind of stress me out sometimes. Places where I walk in where the energy is welcoming, where it’s calm, where it’s no pressure, and there’s no sort of expectation, is where I feel at home.
It’s part of the reason why I got rid of my online profiles, my dating profiles. I really don’t think I’m ever going back because it’s the same sort of shit, perfectly curating your photos, you want to find something pithy and witty to put on your profile and all of it is a sales tactic.
Part of why I wanted to talk to you about this and part of what I’m doing as a life mission is really seeking authenticity and a rigorous honesty with myself about what I can and cannot handle. Being real about who I am and what I want, need, and deserve. And, I cannot do that when I feel like I’m being made to fit a pre-existing mold.
And, you know we–women are conditioned to be pleasing. So, it’s a skill to learn how to say no to the things you don’t want to participate in.
It’s a big step for women. We’re also conditioned to seek acceptance from other people. So, that’s been a lot of unlearning that I’ve had to do. I genuinely do not require other people’s approval. I do require your respect because I always give respect but that’s about it.
It’s a hard lesson.
It’s really hard and I don’t always do well with that. But, part of that is being real. If somebody says, ‘Hey how are you doing today?’ Just sort of relieving myself of the pressure to say ok when I’m not.
What I’ve learned from my anxiety and what I’ve continued to learn is to let go of expectations. I don’t expect anything of people. When you don’t have expectations, you then give people the room to surprise you. And, I mean that of yourself and of life.
Gurl, you preachin’
I’m tryin girl.
Veronica Wells-Puoane is the creator of the website NoSugarNoCreamMag. She is the author of “Bettah Days” and You’ll Be All Write, a question and answer journal for Black women. She is also the culture editor at MadameNoire.com.
Find more of her articles by Veronica on Curlynikki.com, HERE!