Black Girls Don't Get to Be Depressed

When I finally got help for my mental illness, I was sure I was letting Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman down by talking about my silly little feelings.

When I was young I was frequently described as "moody." Or dismissed as "angry." According to the social worker who routinely pulled me out of class, I was intellectually bright but "quietly hostile." Never mind that I was basically living in squalor with my mother's half-dead body, subsisting on the kind of cereal that comes in a 5-pound bag and whatever meals were being served for free hot lunch; I was diagnosed as having "an attitude problem." So I rocked with that. When you're a kid, it's sometimes just easier to go along with other people's definitions of who you are. They're adults, right? So they're smarter? I would listen to this Faith No More tape on my Walkman (do young people understand what those words even mean) over and over while sulking and looking morose, or whatever it is poor kids do when we have no access to semiautomatic firearms or prescription drugs. It was the only thing I could do to make it to the next day.

No one in my house was talking about depression. That's something that happened to white people on television, not a thing that could take down a Strong Black Woman. Which also fucked with me on the "Why are you listening to Smashing Pumpkins instead of [insert name of popular R+B artist]? Are you even black?!" level. Sigh. So I was (1) super fucking depressed, (2) super fucking depressed with no one to talk to about it who wasn't going to immediately suggest child services remove me from my home, and (3) super fucking depressed while clocking in on the low end of my skinfolk's negrometers because I identified hard with Courtney Love and read Sassy magazine. Depression seemed like just another way I was desperately trying to be white.

[pullquote align='C']Depression was something that happened to white people on television, not a thing that could take down a Strong Black Woman. It seemed like just another way I was desperately trying to be white.[/pullquote]

I tried to take my own life in 1993 and the general response when it failed was basically LOL, TOUGHEN UP. I just slept straight through the rest of the weekend and went back to school the next Monday and kept doing the same shit I'd always been doing. I figured that if I wanted to try again, I needed to wait until I was old enough to get a car and drive it off one of suburban Chicago's many cliffs. I think my mom started watching me a little more closely, but what was she really going to do? She was severely disabled and my being hopeless all the time was trumped by "You know I can't walk, right?" and I get that. I was a kid, it was my job to go to school, so I did my job. I would deal with it when I was off Medicare and making enough money to pay for therapy myself. BAHAHAHAHAHA *choke sob* AHAHAHAHAHA!

Even when my parents died five years later when I was 18, and I had an actual thing I could point to as a source of my depression, I played it off. I come from the kind of people whose response to "Hey man, I'm pretty bummed out" is "Shut up, there's nothing wrong with you." Or "You just sleep all of the time because you're lazy." If it isn't broken or hemorrhaging, you need to bury it under these Dollar Store snack foods and work it out by your fucking self. Oh, OK, cool.

I developed very glamorous coping mechanisms like covering myself with grisly death tattoos and eating food out of the trash. And then, because I wasn't actively trying to kill myself and could keep a job and make friends and pay my rent and not do heroin, I made peace with it. This is just how I am. I'm fine. It was easy to ignore because it doesn't bother me that much. And I don't want to be some shiny, happy idiot. This is gritty, this is real.

I am just an old garbage bag full of blood patiently waiting for death to rescue me, but sometimes when I tell people that, their immediate response is, "How can you be sad, you're hilarious!!!!!" And then for five seconds I'm like, "This asshole who has never met me before is correct. I'm so funny I should stop thinking life is a trash can." Until five seconds after that, some human roadkill yells at the grocery store bagger or pulls his scrotum out on the train, and I get the urge to peel my skin off like the layers of an onion and jam my thumbs into my eye sockets. And then it's easy to just write the depression off as an irritation at the dummies I have to share the planet with. "I'm not depressed; dudes who ride unicycles in rush hour traffic are fucking idiots," or, "Nothing is wrong with me; the real problem is all these people mindlessly texting while their dogs shit in the middle of the G.D. sidewalk."

Two things forced me to finally have the "Sometimes I have a disproportionately rage-filled response to otherwise harmless shit" talk with my doctor. I was working my usual shift at the front desk of the animal hospital and the worst person in the world came in to buy dog food. She asked an unending stream of questions that I couldn't possibly answer as she emptied the entire contents of her handbag onto the counter in front of me. I hate the "please don't write a negative Yelp review of this business" trap that requires I stand there trying to look engaged while this woman uses me as a sounding board for questions like, "Is [redacted] going to eat three cans or maybe should I just get one?" She's not asking me, but she's not not asking me. And I have to wait there, held hostage because one of these questions pouring like vomit from her toothless maw might be one I can actually answer. "Can I really carry a 17-pound bag up my stairs?" (Well, not that one.) "I wonder if the dog really wants me to switch back to his old food." (Yeah, not that one either.) I could feel the familiar rageheat scratching at the backs of my eyeballs. And as she kept rambling nonsensically to herself, I calmly raised my hands to my ears and used my forefingers to hold them closed and said, "You have to get the fuck out of here or I will destroy you." So much for that stellar Yelp review.

A week later, I had the kind of anxiety attack that makes you feel like you're going to die on the spot in the parking lot of a combination gas station and Subway. I tossed my sandwich (tuna, plain, whole wheat because duh, I'm a health nut) onto the passenger seat and pawed at my chest while trying to catch my breath. What a depressing place to die, I thought. I assumed I was having a heart attack and I went straight to the hospital, smelling like old-ass Subway tuna fish.

[pullquote align='C']If you're African-American and female, not only are you expected to be resilient enough to just take the hits and keep going, but if you can't, you're a black bitch with an attitude.[/pullquote]

I know when you feel a panic attack coming on, you're supposed to relax and do your breathing exercises, but in that moment, it feels like if I lie down and close my eyes for even a second, I will never open them again. And most of the time I'm down with that, but this shit always happens when my sheets need changing or my garbage can is full of freezer-burned Hot Pockets, and I get even more stressed out by the thought of whomever finds my corpse discovering the last thing I Googled was "Shark Tank bonus clips." Not being able to deal with your life is humiliating. It makes you feel weak. And if you're African-American and female, not only are you expected to be resilient enough to just take the hits and keep going, but if you can't, you're a black bitch with an attitude. *Rolls eyes for sarcastic effect.* You're not mentally ill, you're ghetto. Sitting in that hospital bed with a 23-year-old dude who looked like he was playing doctor with his father's stethoscope looped around his neck, I was so embarrassed, ashamed to be talking to him about being so sad as he dumped a syringe full of Ativan into my arm. I was sure I was letting Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman down by talking about my silly little feelings.

All this might be easier if I could punch shit, but I'm not a punching-shit kind of person. I'm a sit-in-the-dark-in-the-bathroom-with-a-package-of-sharp-cheddar-cheese-slices person. The world is scary and terrible, and motherfuckers out here don't want Obamacare to fix a paper cut, let alone offer some discounted mental health care, so what can we do? Talk about it? Stop being afraid of it? Shut down dudes who want to dismiss us as fragile or crazy? I went on Lexapro, but after three weeks, it made me stop sleeping and fuck that. I'd rather be angry and well-rested than tired and happy. Or "happy." I have generic Klonopin and Ativan, and I learned how to do this 4-7-8 breathing technique that's supposed to switch your body from fight-or-flight to a passive response, but come on, bro. The only time it even occurs to me to do it is when I'm sweating and trying to dry-swallow some of these benzos. If I ever have more than $37 in my pocket, I'm going to open a school for girls with bad attitudes where we basically talk to therapists all day while wearing soft pants and occasionally taking a field trip to the nearest elote cart. And if that doesn't work, I'll just tell some jokes. Good thing I'm hilarious.

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Samantha Irby is the New York Times bestselling author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. Her latest book Wow, No Thank You will be released in March 2020.