Editor's note: This story contains references to child abuse and suicide.
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen
This is my story alone. It doesn’t reflect the experiences of my five siblings. You will not read these words and gain any insight into the lives of my brothers and sisters. In fact, you may not even gain a deeper understanding of me. This is my story alone, my truth. And I hope it will inspire someone to get the help they need faster than I did.
“I didn’t think you cried.” A friend said this to me a few years ago when I talked about going through a difficult time. I was so taken aback, I do not remember how I answered. Now, my response is, “Of course I cry.” I am human.
“You are so strong, I didn’t think you needed help.” A family member said this when I admitted I needed someone to talk to. “I am strong not because I want to be,” I think I said. “I have had to be strong to stay alive.”
Sometimes I had to protect myself from those who should have protected me. Sometimes even from myself.
“That is not a good enough reason to want to harm yourself.” I was sitting in a circle of doctors, with this one white male doctor right in front of me. I was 14 or 15 years old. I was outnumbered. Even now, I can still recall the feelings of despair as my stomach recoils and my fists ball up. “What would be a good reason?” I ask myself. If that was a counseling session to help me, it did not work.
The straw that broke my teenage back was sitting in a room talking to lawyers about not wanting to be placed in my mother’s custody. A mom who I am sure loved me at one time, but had become emotionally and physically abusive to me. Looking back, I think she did this in a convoluted way to protect me; or, maybe abuse was all she knew? I remember how the abuse started, it was when I got my first period as we watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. My life with my mom and, in many ways, my life in total changed.
Back in that courthouse room, I sat with lawyers and my mom’s sisters. I spoke with such eloquence, one of the attorneys suggested I become a lawyer. However, I did not impress my aunts who told me I was a bad daughter. The huge burn scar on my shoulder, the last time my mother hurt me physically, was not a good enough reason to want to avoid any more of her parenting. It seems abuse was the expectation, an inheritance I had the audacity to reject.
Not finding love or nurturing from a mother or from most of my aunts, it was hard to determine where motherly love would come from. So I decided not to bother trying. I came very close to dying at 15. But something in me rejected that desire. I decided to protect myself in a way no one around me seemed capable of. At least I would be alive.
So I became a kind of robot. I call it my automaton phase. I would not hurt, I wouldn’t feel pain because I wouldn’t feel anything. People saw this as strength, and I did too. Until I realized I wasn’t full. I had replaced all of my internal organs with pain, and the pain fueled my life. But the worst thing is, I did not know it.
"Get healed, I love you.”
Not until 2020, when a lot of great things in my life that were supposed to happen — a prestigious residency in West Africa, another in South America — were canceled or postponed. I was to turn an amazing corner in my relatively new creative life, but instead, I sat in the guest room of my father’s house not knowing what or how or when or why or anything.
A depression and despair that I had not experienced since those teen years swept over me. The things that gave me joy — sewing, designing, reading — I could not do. Miracles were happening all around me. I fell in love, but I was not fully me. How do you go from age 15 to 50 broken? While I had been able to gather much of my insides back into my body, the pain was still pulsing through my veins. I had not healed. I was angry at myself for being depressed. Until I had my second therapy session.
When I was writing in my journal reflecting on the session, these words came out through my hand. It wrote: “This depression is a gift to you. It is a sign that you want more, that you’re not healed, but that you can be. Get healed, I love you.”
My depression is not a punishment. It is a sign that my healing is not finished, but I am on the path now. It is not a simple path, but it is necessary. I want to look inside myself and see joy and love pulsing through, not pain and abuse. Love is the inheritance I wholeheartedly accept.
Thanks to Steel Smiling, a Pittsburgh organization that aims to bridge the gap between Black people and mental health, for their love and support on this journey. Learn more at steelsmilingpgh.org.