I’ve always considered myself a pretty strong motherfucker. I remembered my mother telling me when I was seven that she couldn’t afford to coddle me and that the world will be hard on me because I had two strikes against me: I was female and I was black. My mother was also a strong mofo—I’m pretty sure I come from a long line of them—Raped at 16 and sent away to raise the child in Texas, I talked many nights with my mother on her struggles with trusting a man, falling in love and being the mother she needed to be for her children, even the one she looks at and can’t help but think about that one horrible night where she fell asleep at a friend’s house.
I lost my mother on New Year’s Day of 2014—a little less than a year when she saw me jump the broom with my husband. My best friend lost her mother suddenly when she was 18—about to head to college. She told me that nothing can prepare you for the pain of losing your mother. She was right. There I was pocketing my grief in a need to “be strong” while I worked with my brothers to lay my mom to rest. I couldn’t deal with it then—I had things to do—burying her, scraping up money for expenses, organizing care of her estate. I couldn’t afford to let emotions distract me from handling affairs. I told myself I’ll grieve later.
My brother, Mark who lived in California, flew down to be with us as we said goodbye to her. It was one of those moments where we recognized our mortality. Here was our mother—the most untouchable, tough, complicated woman we knew—and she was gone. What hope does that leave for any of us? The first time in years all five of us was together and took this as a sign to be closer and enjoy our lives. That year, we all met again. We all had Thanksgiving together and reminisced on growing up, the holiday, and mom’s memories. It was a great time with all of us together.
I wish someone would’ve told me it was the last.
In October of 2015, my youngest brother Chris, called me crying. He never cries.
There I was standing in the store with a cart full of Halloween candy, hearing the news that Mark was dead.
The shock was unbelievable and I had to make Chris calm down to repeat to be sure I heard him right. The last time I talked to him, he broke the news he was planning on moving back to Texas to be closer to us. I still have the smiley face text from him on my phone. But it wasn’t meant to be. Mark had a blood clot that broke off into his lungs. He had a heart attack, coded twice, then died… at 45 years old.
Looking back, even then as I stood in the store, I contemplated how to stuff all the sorrow and anger deep inside. Enough to where I can finish my purchase, drive home and tell my husband (who also loved Mark dearly) the news. I remember chanting in my head all the way home, “Just get home. Hold on till you get home.” I didn’t give myself agency to feel how I really felt in fear I would be seen as unhinged, weak or hysterical.
So I made it home. And prepared to get on the horn to let the family know and prepare to bury my brother.
After the struggle with burying our mother, after her funeral we all made a pact to get our house in order and make sure we had life insurance. We couldn’t deal with the stress of gathering money again. However, no one was successful in locating life insurance information on Mark. A week went by and once again, with Chris and I the only ones financially able, we had to pocket our emotions and pony up finances to bury my brother. I bought his suit and made a program for the funeral. In a moment of wallowing in my family’s trademark dark humor, I laughed and told Chris, “I’ll plan the funeral. Hell, between mom’s death and Mark’s I’ve become pretty good at writing obituaries.”
Side note: I’ve been thinking about writing my own. I love him, but Chris isn't much of a writer and would be terrible at it.
Anyway, so I buried my brother.
Did I make time to grieve?
Of course not. Hell, life goes on.
There’s bills to pay, jobs to get back to, appointments to keep. I couldn’t afford to wallow in grief.
I never took any of my loss out of my pockets and dealt with them. I was too busy. Life was too busy and dealing with that wouldn’t bring them back.
I had to be strong, remember? Strong motherfuckers don’t see grief counselors and stuff like that. It’ll work itself out. I know you’re shaking your head and that’s good. That was the old me talking (and hopefully the old you).
Over the next few years, I began to get busier and busier. There wasn’t nothing I would say “no” to. Stay late at work? Sure!
Starting another side hustle? I’m there.
Working on a new novel? Yep.
Starting a superhero group to put the Avengers to shame? I’m game. (To note, the last one wasn’t entirely true, but rest assured if someone offered it I’d say yes.)
My friends stopped reaching out to me because they felt I always had something going on, when in reality I didn’t really care about that stuff. In truth, I would’ve given anything for a friend to say, “Drop that shit and come with me window shopping.” I was looking for a break, but didn’t know how to do it. If I took a break, I would resent it. I felt lazy and unproductive. When I overslept on the weekend, I would cry because I felt like I wasted the day. Screw the fact I was up till 3:30 in the morning yesterday working on stuff.
And I was turning into an angry, negative Nelly. I was passive about it, cause like every other “bad” emotion, I liked to hide it. I buried resentment for my husband for weeks when he didn’t do the dishes or helped around the house. I resented my friends because they weren’t around and had lives of their own. On top of that, lots of changes happened at work (a place where I had dangerously defined myself against) and felt lost and helpless against the ever-growing negative changes I couldn’t fix. But Clo fixes everything—it’s what I’m known for. “Fix it, Clo” was a call I got all my life. How can I not solve this?
I hated being sociable and no longer had tolerance for people anymore. I closeted hating EVERYONE. They all annoyed me. When I thought about what would make me happy, I couldn’t really identify it. And when I thought I did, and went to get or do it, I didn’t have any happiness. Everything felt like a fucking chore. Something was wrong and I knew it.
How come I didn’t know how to be satisfied with anything anymore?
Now, I’ve always been an advocate and supporter of people going to therapy and getting medication for their mental health. I felt if my mother had worked on that, her last years wouldn’t have been so hard on her and us who loved her. Maybe mom and dad wouldn’t have decided to divorce if they went to couple’s therapy. I never would have bat an eye if anyone I knew had made that decision to seek help. I would applaud them for it. In fact, I’ve had many friends and family disclose such needs and I was totally supportive of it. However, as I sat in front of my laptop at home looking up local therapists, I found myself unable to grant that same approval to myself.
Why did I need to see a therapist? I can fix this. I’ve dealt with tons in my life I should be able to handle this. (Funny, I just heard a “Should is a terrible word.” response pop into my head just writing this thanks to my shrink. He’s right BTW.)
I told my husband I was thinking about seeing someone and he was super supportive. He sees someone too for his PTSD and highly recommended. He also noticed that I was changing over the past years, but didn’t know why. At first, I came up with excuses—“Great, now I gotta hunt for a therapist who is taking clients, will accommodate my work schedule AND take my insurance? Not to mention if I don’t like this individual, I’m right back where I freakin’ started?”
I was fortunate. I was referred to a therapist who wasn’t my preference. The one I wanted wasn’t taking any new clients, but I tried to remain open. I mean, hey he was taking new clients, he worked in my schedule and he took my insurance. Three outta four ain’t bad. But after we worked out the trust, he has been fantastic for me. Why? He helped me understand my emotions and dismantle my harmful belief systems. Trust me, we all have them and it takes someone from the outside to help you challenge them. Like all belief systems, it’s hard to crack at that, so I was resistant. I was a perfectionist. If it didn’t meet my standards, whatever it was, I was miserable. It HAD to be perfect, because perfectionism is what moves you up in life, right? Like no one ever got anywhere from being mediocre, right? (don't answer that, wiser Clo) I couldn’t fathom how that was wrong.
He stressed to me that perfectionists tend to suffer depression because they have a belief system that the world would never be able to meet—so they were destined to be disappointed and upset.
Wait, what? I wasn’t depressed!
You don’t see me moping around, struggling to get out of bed and wanting to commit suicide. I slammed the brakes quick and told him he was wrong, despite him telling me that there’s degrees of depression and I was likely mild to moderate. I also was well aware that depression didn't look like it does on TV and people are great at hiding it. I was also great at hiding things. I was so resistant though, I asked him to give me six months to work on myself before he solidified on that diagnosis. I was obese, had sleep apnea and early onset arthritis due to having such a small 5’2” frame holding so much weight. Knowing me, “Fix it, Clo” I knew if I worked hard enough, I can fight this “depression shit” like I fought everything else. I didn't want meds. I was trying to figure out how long did I need to still see him. I wasn't trying to make this all long-term. I went to doctor and took care of my blood pressure, got my heart checked, got a CPAP and started moving more. Things were looking good. I was gonna beat this thing. Fuck that depression shit.
After six months, though I felt healthier physically, things weren’t getting better. I took a sabbatical during two of those six months and I came back to work just as tired. I hated coming in. Sometimes I would just work from home because I didn’t have the energy to bother coming in. It was a struggle to write. I fell off sprinting with my author bestie, Nicole and missed her. But like all my friendships, instead of making the effort of re-bonding, I just resented. I kept piling on more and more stuff to do. I wanted to be productive and make positive changes, but I was flailing. Each day flowed into the next.
One day, I just broke down crying at work when a colleague came by to check on me. Apparently, I was no longer doing a great job pocketing and hiding my emotions. She told me she could see something was wrong on my face every time she saw me. We went into a meeting room to give us some privacy and I vented.
I felt completely overwhelmed. With EVERYTHING.
Work sucked. Home sucked. Writing sucked. I had no idea what I was going to do next. I hold everything on my shoulders and I really needed someone, anyone to “Jesus take the wheel” on some shit.
The specific trigger for my tears was when I told her about an opportunity for me to join a non-profit board, which has been a professional dream of mine. But she gave me advice to not take that on at the time. She knew I was juggling so much as it was and I was unhappy at work. It was the mere mention that she suggested that I couldn’t do it—that somehow I had reached critical mass of the shit I could handle—Me, Clo, fucking “Fix it, Clo”? It broke my heart. Because she was right.
After she left, I told my best friend (who works at my company) what happened. Of course, she came down to check on me (despite that I hate ppl making a fuss over me) because she knew I needed her. She asked me what happened and I told her I was confused over my emotions of it all. Vickie agreed that my colleague was perhaps right about me being so busy. Her being my friend, knows how much stuff I do. Then she asked me a question that no one has ever asked me before:
“Clo, you do so much. Do you think that you are doing so much to distract you from something else you don’t want to face?”
I couldn’t answer that. I didn’t know it at the time she asked it. So my immediate response was denial. “No, I don’t think so.”
Luckily, that was on a day I had my appointment with my therapist. I told him about the incident with my colleague and shared with him the question Vickie asked me. He started nodded when I told him I didn’t know what I was distracting myself from.
He replied. “You haven’t figured it out? I have.”
With an eye roll, I responded. “Well don’t keep me in suspense. I’m not paying you play with my emotions. (It’s cool —we work together like that. Told you. I got lucky.)
He answered immediately. “Your depression.”
You know, when you hear that people have a “breakthrough” in therapy, they never tell you that sometimes, that breakthrough sucks balls. It’s not always happy and something that you wanted to hear. All it is, is truth. And truth can seem ugly depending on your expectations. But when he said it, it all clicked. He was right.
Ever since my mother died, I have been constantly trying to outsmart, outclass and outrun my depression. I never took time to heal from my losses. I never spent time with my emotions. Didn’t take time to understand how I felt. Be strong. Stop crying. Stop being sad. Get better. I had unchecked hormone issues over the years and my mood was tanking. I thought if I worked harder, it would all fix itself. I piled on the accomplishments, duties and initiatives everywhere I could to feel like I’m okay and making a positive change. Little did I know that the biggest positive change was to focus on me and come to terms that I couldn’t solve everything on my own—and that was okay.
That last part is every important. It’s okay you’re not superman or superwoman. You don’t have to be. You’re not broken--with 1 in 5 people in the US suffering some type of mental health issue in any given year, you’re not an anomaly. Don't let that inner demon of doubt fuck with your self-worth and need to get better.
So, here’s what I want to say to you (who's managed to make it though this saga):
There is nothing wrong with taking care of your mind, your emotions and overall mental health. It is the most responsible thing you can do. The body can’t do shit without the mind.
You are not alone and you’re not broken. We can’t make it in this world alone. Find someone you can trust and share your feelings. You can’t do this alone—you need a healthy feedback loop.
Don’t be ashamed or afraid of therapy or medication. It’s not easy and searching for the right therapist is just as frustrating as finding the right class of medicine and dosage. But think about it, if you don’t feel ashamed about finding the right doctor and getting the right prescription for your busted leg, why should you feel ashamed for this?
Praying is good, no one is knocking that, but suggesting prayers instead of medical help is irresponsible. Why can’t a person get both? Let’s go back to the “busted leg” analogy. I broke my ankle back in ’09 and Vickie drove immediately to see me. I would’ve punched her in the face if she just suggested I prayed. I’m hurting and as much as I appreciate praying, my ankle was pointing the wrong way. I definitely needed more than prayers to supplement my pain. There’s nothing wrong with supplementing your healing plan with medicine and professional guidance. If you do it for your fucked up leg, do it for your brain!
If you’re a friend listening or noticing that someone you care about is behaving different, please don’t just text “are you okay?” Make a connection: listen to their voice, see their face and make it safe for them to open up. Preface the conversation that you aren’t trying to fix it for them, but you’re open to listen and you’re in the circle of trust. No one likes to feel like they're a burden. Let them know they're not.
To my women of color: take time to breathe and heal. The Strong Black Woman isn’t a myth, however, it’s in great need of being redefined. Strength is openness and acknowledgment of your vulnerabilities and emotion. It’s handling your business with yourself—not just at work and home. Again, it’s okay if you can’t do everything and things aren’t perfect. Perfection is overrated--everyone's definition is different, so what's the point? Your health matters. You matter. Take care of yourself before you can conquer the world.
I built two teams at work from the ground up, I’ve won awards and accolades. I’ve counseled countless friends and family through a lot of shit. But the biggest impact I’ve made in my life is recognizing that I matter. My feelings and needs matter and that I can’t save the world if I’m not in it.
I hope in my journey you take away at least my final note: Fuck the haters, your mental state matters to you and everyone around you. Strong motherfuckers get help. They love themselves for it and don't be ashamed. And if people don't like it, Kondo their ass out of your life. The front row seats in your life are reserved for people who value you--and there's no time to mess around with naysayers.
Dedicated to my mother.