Black women are punished for prioritizing our mental health
I was 23 and at a birthday party the first time it registered that I was having a panic attack.
I was 23 and at a birthday party the first time it registered that I was having a panic attack. I locked myself in the bathroom to get away from the noise, the flashing lights, the woman who was sharing her secrets and everyone else. Initially, I thought it was a heart attack and reasoned it’d be safer for me to go into the bathroom and check for the symptoms instead of getting the party members’ attention and having them deal with the health crisis. More than medical attention, I wanted time alone.
And when people knocked, I pretended I couldn’t hear them until I actually couldn’t. Then I realized that I couldn’t open the door. I couldn’t leave, couldn’t yell, couldn’t move, couldn’t ask for help. There was a toilet three feet away and I couldn’t get to it. Every part of me was tingling and sweating and turning to stone.
When I was finally able to open the door, that same woman followed me outside to the car. She continued telling me about her struggles and I floated away, eyes vacant, head bobbing, mouth saying “I hear you” and “yeah” at a consistent rhythm. She gave me her number and I said I’d call to check on her, even though I knew I wouldn’t.
Four years later when I’d meet my first therapist, she’d tell me I dissociated as an attempt to depersonalize and protect myself from all that was happening. That the party was a stressful and overwhelming event that caused me to feel anxious. That this was my body’s way of protecting itself and there was nothing wrong with it.
Before then, I fought to keep myself present by repeating mantras like, “In order to feel, you have to heal” and “You have to go through the storm to get to the rainbow”. It informed what I expected from myself and how far I would go. And I inadvertently took on other folks’ storms because like other Black girls, I’d been socialized into being a caretaker, problem solver and person to which anyone could offload their issues.
After being told things “weren’t that deep”, that I asked too many questions, that I felt too much and that I needed thicker skin, I changed. I created a shield for protection and through it learned that bubbles could be tanks and prisons and lies all at the same time. They could arm and splinter me no matter how whole I pretended to be.
Books and video games gave me the opportunity to interact with the world while continuing to be covered. They were my layer, membrane and exit. I used them as a tool to manage anxiety and eventually had to leave video games altogether because I became addicted.
Being categorized as shy, an overthinker and “not a peoples person” eventually evolved into emotionally unavailable, “full of herself” and stoic. I found a home in these at first because people left me alone. And less people put their hands on me without consent or told me stories about their lovers cheating. And while I stopped getting invited to parties and weddings and baby showers, my introversion was weaponized in my professional life as well.
In the last month, 23 year old introverted singer and songwriter Summer Walker has been under scrutiny. Folks have taken issue with her sound, performance, meet and greets and attire. Some have suggested fans boycott Summer while others have admitted that the singer’s performance made them so angry they wanted to fight her.
Last week, Summer responded to the criticisms and apologized to her fans on instagram stating:
Text reads, “I just want to say to all the fans who purchase meet & greets I really APPRECIATE y’all taking the extra time to meet me and share your stories. I tell everyone individually “thank you”, I spread love, we laugh & I give genuine compliments?now for those who’re upset b/c I don’t give hugs idk what to tell you…I’m an empath, and that transference of energy from that many people each day would literally KILL me.. y’all may not understand what I’m talking about but for example… there’s a lot of people out here faking the funk with a smile on their face like they got it together but inside your actually suffering from some sort of traumatic experience, a loss, depressed, fearful, envious or whatever the case may be BUT I CAN FEEL IT. So I ask you please respect my space in those moments ?”
She also made an announcement that she’d be canceling her tour due to anxiety because the impact of being on the road has had a negative impact on her mental health. After this announcement, one fan commented “Atl . Why . That’s the only thing I wanted for my birthday ? you just broke my heart.”
Fans and critics have claimed her mental health needs are an act and that she should’ve thought about that before she decided to get famous. When Summer won Best New Artist at the Soul Train Awards this week, folks made jokes about it being the shortest acceptance speech of all time, calling her entitled and weak.
Black women and girls, like myself and Summer, have been told to suck it up and endure far too often. We are expected to look the part, disregard our needs and prioritize the wants of others and in exchange are subconsciously promised goodness, love and respect. But once we hold our boundaries, our integrity comes into question and we are demonized for being human.
The insidiousness of this culture positions Black women as public property who are unworthy of privacy and even fosters communities where Black women and girls become complicit in regurgitating that violent designation. It encourages critique and ridicule instead of checkins and reminders to take great care of ourselves. When we give in to this narrative, we harm ourselves and everyone around us.
If you are a person who doesn’t live with anxiety, please learn to better support the folks in your life who do. Here are some of the ways you can show up for us:
- Believe us when we say we’re struggling.
- Be present.
- Normalize canceling plans without guilt trips.
- Offer low energy hangouts. (Library visits, parks earlier in the day, one on one hangout at home.
- Crowded spaces can be overstimulating and sometimes knowing where the exit is helps.
- Check in and give as many details about an event as possible.
- Normalize leaving early.
- Build in spaces to talk about how we cope with anxiety.
- Honor ours nos.
- Be kind.