The Sad Black Girl

I lost my cool at work today. The details don’t really matter, but suffice it to say, this is not a regular occurrence for me. No, this story isn’t about the angry black woman. It’s a story about the sad black girl.
I grew up on a Caribbean island. Yes — I am that dreaded “immigrant” that has become America’s undesirable. That is a story for another day however. Like most of my peers at that time, I was raised by a relative. We were what is known as “barrel kids”. Barrel kids are children from developing countries whose parents leave them behind with relatives to find a better life to support them. The terminology comes from the barrels of food and clothing that are sent back periodically to those left behind. Now though, I think Western Union kids is a better fit.
My parents had migrated to the States to follow that dream of a picket fence and 2.5 kids. I didn’t feel like I was a part of that dream. I felt especially left out after my parents had my little brother — an American who I absolutely adore— who lived with them. I couldn’t work out in my head how they couldn’t afford to have me with them, but they could afford him. As an adult, I can, but as a child, I couldn’t. Your thoughts as a child frame how you view yourself as an adult. Subsequently, as an adult, rejection is my kryptonite — rejection and fear of failure. And believe me, there’s nothing like a bout of depression to highlight and magnify those fears — but I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
I was raised by my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister. My grandmother herself had migrated to England with my grandfather, leaving my mom and aunt also to be raised by my great-aunt. My grandparents also had other children while living in England. I guess that’s what you call tradition. I now wonder if my mother had felt the same pain I did, watching her siblings grow up with her parents while she couldn’t be with them.
I had a great childhood. My great-aunt, “auntie,” was the perfect parent. At least that’s what I think now. Her being the perfect parent was certainly not what would run through my mind while she was spanking me with a belt for some misdeed I had committed. I remember a time when she spanked me for something I swore up and down I hadn’t done. About twenty minutes after the spanking, she realized that I had been telling the truth. Her apology: “Well, I’m sure you did something that you deserved that spanking for.” And she was right.
As the headmistress of a school, she was a strict disciplinarian. If you look up the word “matriarch” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find her picture there. She was a strong believer in etiquette and education, as well as in kids knowing their place. I can’t tell you the number of times I got “the look” for trying to interrupt “adult conversations” with my take on whatever the adults were talking about. What she gave in discipline however, she also gave in love and support. Balance is what parents need to learn. I can take a spanking as long as I know there’s love on the other end of that palm.
Etiquette and discipline were reiterated in my preparatory and high school. Lack of finances was no excuse for not knowing the proper way a lady must sit, dress, or act. I remember once after tennis practice on a Saturday afternoon, going to the only Kentucky Fried Chicken on the island with some of my friends from high school. It was brand new and everybody was excited about it. We were a little rowdy and loud that evening… Okay, maybe it was more than a little rowdy. Bright and early Monday morning, the prefects went from class to class with a list of names of students who were being summoned to the headmistress’ office. Somebody had reported us. We were given a lecture on representing our parents and our school at all times. I did mention that we had done our misdeed on a Saturday, right? That’s school in the Caribbean. We personify “it takes a village to raise a child.”
As good as my auntie was at being there for me, she wasn’t demonstrative with her affections. I don’t remember hugs and “I love yous.” Then again, I don’t remember missing them either. This might account for my intimacy issues, but again, that’s another story. Suffice it to say, I don’t like people in my space. I actually feel an unpleasant physical sensation when people get too close to me. Now, try being from a West Indian culture. We don’t believe in personal space. Have you seen the way we dance?
What I do remember is auntie being at every school recital, and telling me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, as long as I put the effort into it. When I was in college, I received a C grade in biology. I was so upset, I went to my room and cried. Her reaction would have been, “you didn’t study enough.” When I called my mom, she said “I’m sure you did your best” — a perfectly normal statement to most kids. That wasn’t a conciliatory statement to me however. I was raised to think that the amount of effort I put into something was what I got out of it. My reaction was anger, and the idea germinated in my mind that either my parents didn’t care enough about me to care that I had gotten a bad grade, or they really believed a “C” was all I could do. Either way, it just added fuel to the fire that was slowly burning. At this point I need to mention that if I was thinking clearly, I would have realized that my worried parents driving 2 hours to my college to take me to dinner that night was a clear indication.
The years apart from my parents had taken it’s toll. By the time I moved to be with them, they didn’t know me or understand my needs. I didn’t know them or understand their lack of understanding. This led to huge communication issues. Not to mention I had to deal with not being the only child anymore, and the jealousy that hadn’t gone away, but had in fact magnified. It had magnified because, while my brother was secure in the fact that his parents loved him and would always be there, no matter what he did, I didn’t know that. To make matters worse, my aunt had made a mistake. Yes, I discovered it was possible for her to be fallible. Her words to me before we left for New York were “Don’t give them any reason to be unhappy with you.”
Now, somebody who grew up with their parents might not take that statement to heart. I did. I was afraid to be too loud; I was afraid to be a teenager. I didn’t want to give them a reason to be unhappy with me. My parents expected me to ask for what I wanted. I expected them to know. I expected them to parent like my auntie had. There were a lot of expectations on both sides that weren’t met. I withdrew into myself. I kept all the hurt and fear inside, and it slowly burned or, maybe more accurately, iced.
School didn’t make it any easier. If anything, it gave me the worst culture shock I had since moving to New York. The other kids were like aliens to me. Coming from such a strict environment to the hallways of a New York school was like seeing a different planet for the first time. At my old school, we had to stand when the teacher entered the classroom. Here, they didn’t even stop talking when they were asked to. Kids were rude to the teachers. In one instance, a kid called my favorite English teacher “fag” in front of the class. I even witnessed a fist fight between a teacher and a student during class — and this was a private parochial school! My parents were not crazy enough to put lil’ ole sheltered me into a New York public school. I can’t even imagine what a New York public school would have been like.
I was different. I had an accent. I was shy. After being with the same kids from preparatory school up to high school, I didn’t know how to make friends. I hadn’t had to since kindergarten. Not only that, but I was the worst of the worst — I was smart and respectful.
Unbeknownst to me, being smart in a New York high school wasn’t the “in thing.” No one told me. So, I raised my hand when a question was asked; I turned in my homework on time; and I aced all my tests. The teachers loved me, but the kids hated me. I started pretending I got a C when I really got an A. And, of course, just so I could further cement myself as an outsider, the teachers nominated me for All-American Scholar. My life sucked.
No friends. No boyfriend. Dating was a foreign concept to me. In the Caribbean, most of us were so sheltered at that age that kissing was a big deal to us. In the States, the kids were way beyond the kissing stage. They were doing things that I had only read about in the Harlequins that I was forbidden from reading but snuck under my mattress anyway. It really seemed like during my flight over from the Caribbean, I had actually stumbled into some type of time warp and had lost some years and stages of my life in the process.
My life at college had so much potential. College is where you’re supposed to find out who you are, and I really needed that. I felt stuck in between two worlds. I still hadn’t made the transition and adjusted to my new life. I was stagnant, wary of the world around me that I didn’t understand. I didn’t have any coping skills. I had never needed them. I had been sheltered my whole life.
It started out well enough. I made friends, some of whom I’m still friends with today. Learning that it was okay to be smart again was an adjustment. I was a pre-med major. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about that. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a doctor. It seemed like my whole family was in the health field. I wasn’t forced to want it; I genuinely wanted it. By the end of my first psychology class, I realized that I had a real love for analyzing people’s behavior and understanding why they do the things they do. I decided to switch my major to psychology with the idea that I might go into psychiatry. Precious little help my psychology studies were, when I couldn’t even recognize the symptoms of depression in a school friend.
My friend Joy was beautiful. I used to look at her and wish I had her hair and her legs and her hips… Well, you get the drift. And no, I don’t swing that way… not that there’s anything wrong with that. I didn’t understand why sometimes she seemed to want what I had. She seemed to have such low self-esteem, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. In my eyes, she had everything.
One day, I was walking with a classmate to lunch and was stopped by Joy’s roommate, who was looking for her. Joy had overturned all the detergent and bleach in the dorm room into the sink, and her roommate was worried. I was worried. To this day, I still think it was divine intervention that led me to her, lying on the floor of the library frothing at the mouth. That was the end of dorm life for this sheltered chick. I ran home with my tail between my legs, searching for the normalcy I had known before that blasted genie granted my wish.
You would think that after majoring in psychology and witnessing a friend suffer through depression, I would have recognized the symptoms in myself. You might think so, but you’d be wrong. I’ve given you a glimpse of my life up until then, not to say that any part of it caused my depression, but so you would understand the frame of mind I was in at the time of my discovery.
After moving back home with my parents and going to the local college, I began to isolate myself. I didn’t socialize. I would lock myself in my room and cry, and I still had no clue. My grades began to fall. I began thinking I just needed a break from school. I couldn’t concentrate in class and I didn’t remember anything of what I learned. I finally stopped going to school, but would just sit in the school lounge all day. It didn’t hurt that Boris Kodjoe, who also went to my school, also sat in the lounge speaking German with his friends. Hey, I said I was depressed, not dead.
It came to a head when my dad walked into my room one day and found me crying. I was taken to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed clinical depression. That was just the beginning.
For my part, I just wanted some help. I was tired of fighting. But that’s what it seemed like I did from the moment I awoke. I had to fight to keep my head above water. The images of self-destruction that run through your head when you’re depressed are no joke. You’re so tired of trying to keep your head above water that you just want to end it. How long can you swim in the deep end before you’re so tired, you just want to give up?
I hear a lot of people who aren’t educated about depression say things like, “That is so selfish; they don’t think of the people they leave behind.” On the one hand, they’re right. What people have to understand is that there isn’t much of a normal thought process. There is a feeling process. You feel too much, and you don’t understand why you feel the way you do. I’m sad. Why? I don’t know. I’m tired. Why? I don’t know? You have no control over your emotions. You just want to stop the pain, fatigue, and mental torture, and since you don’t understand why you feel that way, you don’t know how to fix it.
I kept my head above water until I found the shallow end.
It took years of medicine and therapy for me to emerge from the fog that had enveloped me, but I was still bogged down, only, now, it was by my fears and low self-esteem. I was afraid of not being smart enough. My grade point average had fallen so low during my undiagnosed period, that I basically gave up on the idea of ever gaining acceptance to medical school. I was afraid of not being pretty enough, not being good enough, strong enough. I feared rejection and, worst of all, I was terrified that the depression was not finished with me — that it would rear its ugly head again.
I was scared of letting go of that tight control I held over myself; scared of being hurt; scared of rejection; scared of losing that precarious mental balance I had finally found. It’s funny, now that I’m a recovering depressionist (I just made that up), I no longer feel like I’m swimming. Now, I feel like there is this cloud of fog hovering above my head, threatening to cover me as soon as I give it an opportunity.
I have never felt truly cured or truly happy. I live every day like a true Libra, just trying to keep my mental balance. Part of my fear, I think, came from hearing that after having lived for years as a seemingly successful woman, Joy had committed suicide. That scared me the most. What if that happened to me? I don’t think I could make it through another bout of depression.
I give credit to my parents for searching for a diagnosis and enabling treatment. In the Caribbean, depression isn’t something that is readily addressed — you’re crazy or you’re not. To their due, I do, however, see a major change and acknowledgment of mental issues from my Caribbean people.
Healing from depression is an ongoing process. I don’t think people realize the struggle I still live with, of trying to keep the depression at bay. It doesn’t just leave you. It’s like cancer in remission — just waiting for an opportunity to seep back in. That’s why days like today are so hard for me. I don’t like losing control of my emotions. It reminds me of a time, when I had no control. The thought is always in the back of my mind that one day, my grasp might slip. That day — thank God — is not today.
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