As a black woman, attorney, and single mother living with depression, I thought that I had little besides race in common with black men with the same mental illness. Then I saw Fences the movie adapted from the play by August Wilson.
In Fences, Troy Maxson is a fifty-three year old black man working as a garbage collector. Troy played baseball in the Negro Leagues and even did a stint in prison. I was immediately drawn to Troy because he wore a “big apple” hat. My father and other black men in and around Troy’s generation wore these hats. Troy represents every black man in America struggling to be respected in the midst of the desolation that comes with living in a country that refuses to see him as human. On the surface, Troy is tough, blunt bordering on harsh, stubborn, and hypocritical. However, to dismiss Troy as one more angry black man who had an extra-marital affair that resulted in a child with a woman who is not his wife misses the source that is, at least in part, driving his behavior. Perhaps it was Denzel Washington’s amazing ability to step into the skin of the character, but as the movie unfolded it became increasingly clear that Troy’s hardness was actually a mask that hid his fragility, pain, and depression.
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that between five and ten percent of black men live with depression. This statistic is further compounded by the fact that within the black community depression remains the word that must not be named. Historically black men have not had a safe space to acknowledge their depression and seek the necessary treatment. They birthed other generations of black men who grew up believing that they had to compartmentalize their depression and bury it deep inside. Left untreated, depression grows into an unruly garden filled with weeds and thorns. Some black men use drugs and alcohol to blunt the physical and emotional pain that comes with depression. Others are so weighed down with hopelessness that they saw suicide as their only means of escape.
This is where my path intersects with black men who live with depression. I have lived with depression for at least thirty-nine of my fifty-four years. Like Troy Maxson, I wore a mask to hide my depression. I did not tell anyone that I was depressed or that my mind lived in that gray space of suicide. As a result, my depression and constant thoughts of suicide became normal. I became expert at navigating my depression and suicidal thoughts along with daily responsibilities. My so-called coping skills worked until February 2006.
Eleven years ago, I experienced a major life shift that knocked my mask askew and exposed my depression. With that major life shift came the realization that I had been beyond clinically depressed for at least a decade. My depression was laid bare for everyone including my children to see. I had to find new ways of managing and treating my condition. This started with accepting my need for medication to treat my depression. I formed a “kitchen cabinet” of people who hold me accountable for following my treatment plan so that I am mentally strong enough to resist the voices inside my head constantly telling me to end my life. Eventually, I became strong enough to tell my story about living with depression.
Looking through Troy Maxson’s lens, I now realize that for black men their depression is just as painful, isolating, and soul sucking as mine. Like me, black men have attempted suicide or are bombarded daily with suicidal thoughts. The difference is that as a black woman it is more acceptable for me to tell my story out loud.
Now when I tell my story, I intend to speak truth to power for those who keep persisting through their depression. At the same time I will stand in the gap for black men like Troy Maxson who cannot talk about their depression and those who see suicide as their only means of escape.
So, I leave you with my person mantra for telling my story about living with depression is #noapology #noretreat #nosurrender