I was in my early to mid-20s when I discovered that I had anxiety and depression. In fact, if it wasn’t for my best friend having, I’m sure for her, a hard talk with me about my behaviour and why she thought it might help me to speak with someone (a therapist), it might have taken longer. I was immediately defensive and retorted “I’m not sad, I’m angry”. And she lovingly said, “That’s why I think you might be depressed”. Perhaps her words would have been better received if they had been given at a better time. Sadly, they were not (no fault of hers). She was telling me this after I had just exploded on my supervisor at my part-time evening job and had called her to validate my feelings. Thankfully, she did not. It was not my finest hour; and I cringe at the thought of writing about it now. As much as I regret my actions that night, I know now that it all had to happen that way for a reason. Because my best friend was right! I was deeply depressed.
I had so little knowledge about mental health back in my early 20s. To me, depression and anxiety were just words that were casually thrown around to describe someone who appeared miserable or someone who hyperventilated in brown paper bags when situations were too stressful. That wasn’t me! Either way, I viewed the diagnosis as failure. And I did not want to be considered a failure. For the most part, everyone got along with me at work. I was pleasant and sociable. But, in that moment, I wasn’t thinking about how it took everything I had just to get out of bed most mornings. I would scream and curse myself to get up until it was absolutely necessary I leave the bed if I were to make it in on time. My pleasant mood argument was moot after my outburst as well. Turns out, anger and irritability are in fact signs of depression. My lack of desire to hang out with friends or do anything I loved was easily excused away. I worked two jobs! It was more than that though. My bed seemed like my only sanctuary, and that is where I would stay…all weekend. Barely leaving my house until it was time to go back to work on Monday. By then, I would be mentally prepared to play the part (hopefully).
Playing a role is very easy for me. I imagine that ‘code-switching’ is something that BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of colour) do all the time at work, at school, and in other places where you’re required to carry yourself a certain way in order to assimilate to the environment you find yourself in. As a first generation American born to Liberian parents, you understand very early on that there is an outside you and an inside you. Like in many African families, the church is the cornerstone of my family. And any problem you have, you pray on it, but you’re not to discuss it outside of your home.
I lived in Liberia from age 3 to 7 with my grandparents, while my mom, unable to take care of two young children alone, stayed back in Boston with my older brother Arthur who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2. I loved living in Liberia as a child. My grandparents had a big yellow house! There were always people around and mischief to get into. It was a great place to be a kid. I had a very idyllic life in Liberia; before the war came and changed all of that.
While my mom was in Boston, working and taking care of my brother, my dad was in Liberia, starting a revolution. He grew up in America, graduated from high school at age 15, college at 19, and Suffolk University’s Law program summa cum laude. He then flew back to Liberia, became the leader of a rebel group of soldiers, who eventually took part in a coup to overthrow the then president, Samuel K. Doe. This coup turned into a decades-long civil war that destroyed Liberia, killing thousands of men, women and children, including my dad. I saw him one last time before he died. I was so surprised to see him because I didn’t even know he was in Liberia. It turns out, he had to sneak around town to visit me at my grandparents, because he didn’t want his enemies to know my whereabouts. He came to tell me that I needed to return to America. I kept saying, with tears in my eyes, “but I don’t want to go, I like it here”. He finally grabbed me in his arms and put me on his lap. He promised me that if I went back, he would take me to Disneyland when he got back home. I was so excited. I said, “Ok, but I want an American hamburger and fries, too!”. Disneyland never happened and I never saw my dad alive again. Weeks later, he would be dead and I would be in America sick with chickenpox.
I wouldn’t realize the effect his death had on me until I started seeing a therapist. My mom did the best that she could taking care of two children alone. Her main goal was to make sure I got a good education and an even better job, like most immigrant parents. And like most immigrants, mental health was just not important. Who has time to worry about being depressed? As an immigrant you don’t get the luxury of depression and anxiety; not when you have to work to pay bills, raise children, support parents and/or family members back home. Mental health was simply not a priority. Growing up, if anything in my life seemed too difficult to handle, my mom’s only solution was for me to strengthen my relationship with God. Her go-to phrase was “just read your bible and drink some tea”. If I was sick, that was her answer; if I broke a foot, “read your bible and drink some tea”. It’s funny now, and we both joke about it. But back then, I just felt unheard, and more importantly I felt like something was wrong with me. My thoughts were usually “Why do I feel this way? And what am I doing wrong?”. I felt like a failure, which made what I was going through even worse. So when I decided to start therapy, I didn’t tell her. To this day, she still doesn’t know that I see a therapist. There is no shame about it, not any more. But I know my mom would not understand, and maybe it’s not for her to understand.
My mental health journey has been just that – a journey. I’ve gone forward with it and I’ve taken many steps back. Through it all, I was able to find some grace for myself. I know that I have depression and anxiety, but I am NOT those things. I can’t go back and change what has happened to me in my life or bring back my dad. I can choose to heal though, whether I choose to pray to God for the answers (which I will always do) or I decide to talk it out with my therapist. I know that I will be more than all right.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter how I found out; what matters is how I dealt with it.