Blue Like Me

Depression is on the rise among African Americans. One woman looked inward to find out why.

| July/August 2001

About a year and a half ago, a thought struck me with unprecedented force: Life sucks. Overall. Not physically, but psychically, and in a way rather worse than the modern miasma of inner perplexity and urban wariness that we call depression.This despondency was different, and felt completely above, or beneath, any self-actualization remedy. The usual miasma was there, but surging beneath it, like oil stealthily darkening a floor where you thought only water had spilled, was a sense of brokenness that felt vast and familiar, lived in; it had the wonderful and terrible assurance of a thing that had long been alive, much longer than myself. This great anxiousness seemed to speak, much better than depression could, to all the manifestations of my lacking life: the bills that couldn’t quite get paid, the boyfriend who seemed a permanent fixture but was always passing through, and most of all a weary acceptance that this would be about as good as things would get. Everything and everyone felt ephemeral, so what I was most attached to, what gave me the most comfort, also felt the most ominous. Each day I had to invent the world and appoint its order, try on attitudes like suits of clothes, discard them in heaps, finally bolt out the door with invariably ill-chosen feelings:

Life was making me not sad so much as exasperated and pissed off. Nothing fit the occasion of my life, whatever that was. I had decent-paying work, a roomy place to live in a decent part of town, a car, no family household obligations, license to shop when I wished. What gave? How and why were my blues not like everybody else’s?

I decided, with the help of a few friends and family members, that some therapy might be in order. Quite inadvertently, this decision began unraveling the mystery of my inertia. I had always lauded therapy in theory, but discovered I scorned it in private. Therapy was for wimps and complainers, or at least for people who had sufficient leisure time and money to take up a talking cure in the first place. In other words, therapy was for white people.

When I first sat before a therapist, a very pleasant white woman of un-sparing insight, I realized there was far more to it than that. I am black, and, as such, had never been disassembled as an individual. It had never really seemed necessary, or even practical. In the course of life I had concluded that history had never taken much note of Negroes who were not iconic or tragic figures, or some combination thereof. They were symbols to admire at best and loathe at least, but not people to embrace for their vulnerability and personal explorations and resonant existential crises in the way that, say, Anaïs Nin and Albert Einstein were embraced for theirs. Our people, I had learned over and over in so many ways, are not like yours. We are not so finely calibrated, or so emotionally instructive; the world is more interested in how heavy a burden we can shoulder than in our capacity for curiosity, for observing the stars or walking a beach and collecting shells and bottle caps (which I did as a kid, alone, vaguely embarrassed by the lack of a larger point to it all). The world recognizes our capacity for resistance, and that’s the best it can say about us. That’s the best we can often say about each other; that is the best I can often say about myself. We are thus forever defined by the tension of standing opposite to something; in the absence of such tension, we are the trees that fall in a forest and nobody hears.

But the therapist was listening. I was a tree in full view and hearing range. I began talking, but after five minutes or so I felt I had said too much. Here the mystery unraveled further: I found that I didn’t want to offer myself up. I was nobody’s business. In the environment in which I was raised, character was built not on exposure––that was foolish, if not dangerous––but on a certain imperturbability. You could shore up weakness, but you could never be weak yourself. Being sympathetic and considerate was good, Christian if you looked at things that way, but the sympathy and consideration were supposed to emanate from a rock. It was especially important to be a rock in front of whites, who were all too eager to consign you to dysfunction anyway. So were black people, though for entirely different reasons: They didn’t mind your being drunk, strung out, or ranting––that was common enough––but you must never admit that you couldn’t be something else. One’s eyes must always be on a prize or a better life; hope is the cornerstone of blackness still, and to not invoke it is considered treachery and a waste of precious psychic resources. Melting down emotionally for the mere sake of release therefore never felt like an option for me, even though I longed to do it. Like voting and free speech, it’s practically an American birthright, but another one reserved for Americans of certain birth.

There were smaller scale but no less weighty considerations. I wouldn’t be exposing just myself during therapy, I would be exposing my whole family, my progenitors, my race, my––and our––still unformed legacy. This thought unsettled me far more than the thought of being colossally depressed—that was just me, after all––and so my next move with the therapist was to launch into a passionate defense of my father, whom I had always admired from a distance. I explained to her that he was peerless, that he had kept the wolves from our door even as he struggled to find his place among the wolves in the larger world. He had done battle, he was as rocklike as they come. . . .

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