Reflections on my thirty-four years as a Black man with mental illness
By Kelvin Easiley, Jr
July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. This is the time when a laser focus is trained on the various complexities people of color encounter while facing mental health stigma and a shoddy healthcare system.The same healthcare system many people of color approach with grave skepticism.
There are many people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or both but are high-functioning individuals. These folks get dressed, go to work, attend social gatherings and have mental health concerns that are untreated, undiagnosed, and unaddressed. In some cases the pressure of keeping up a veneer of wellness eventually drives these high-functioning people to seek care.Others fall into a cycle of being asymptomatic, which means that an individual is “presenting no symptoms of disease” (depending on the absence of triggers and stressors), to experiencing a deluge of symptoms that run the gamut of mental health disorders.
I turn thirty-four in a few days. I am excited about it.
I realized this morning how hard I fight for my fucking life. I am a Black man with schizoaffective disorder. Nine years have passed since my twenty-fifth birthday and I’m still alive. I don’t take this lightly, because growing up, it was common knowledge that many young Black men did not make it to their twenty-fifth birthday.
I woke this morning unable to get out of bed. Thus, I couldn’t make it to work on time, again. I had to alert my supervisor to my belated arrival. It wasn’t the usual, “not feeling like going to work today, so I’m staying in bed”, it was “my medication has me so drowsy, that the six hours of sleep I got last night hasn’t sufficed to have had the half life of the side effects wear off.” kind of staying in bed.
My daily medication regimen requires me to take at least six psychotropic medications at various times of the day. These magic pills help keep the symptoms of a severe mental illness at bay and allow me to lead a seemingly successful and productive life.
These medications sedate me heavily. Some mornings, it is easier to rise than other mornings when my alarm tells me to. Then there are mornings like this morning where I literally just cannot.
I always try to explain to people what it is like to have a mental illness. It is best summed up as a brain being sick. Therefore, brain functions that regulate thinking, behavior, stress response, and other high level processes are all filtered through a malfunctioning mechanical sorter. Items that should be placed in a specific area are strewn about elsewhere and the sorter continues in this fashion until someone adjusts it with very specific tools. In the case of mental illness, the adjuster would be a psychiatrist and the tools would be medications, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and utilizing various lessons and tactics learned through therapy.
My full-time employer affords me with health care that assists with paying the exorbitantly high cost for my remedies. Without them I would suffer a more pronounced anxiety and depression than I already do daily. Those symptoms would be accompanied by paranoid delusions, feelings of persecution, suicidal ideations, racing thoughts, and olfactory hallucinations just naming a few. These maladies have landed me in some of the best and worst psychiatric wards. Sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not.
My first psychotic episode was at the tender age of nineteen and I have not been asymptomatic since. I spent most of my twenties in tumult brought on by drugs and alcohol abuse that I used to self medicate, but they only served to exacerbate the worst of my symptoms. I lost a lot during those years and torched a lot of relationships, hurt hella people and put my immediate family through what can only be describe as trauma. It’s a fucking miracle that I survived at all and presently have the wherewithal to string together my thoughts in an organized fashion.
I believe Blackness and strength are intrinsic. Challenging cultural narratives that say mental illnesses are family business, can be prayed away, or are a sign of weakness was necessary in order for my personal development of a positive self-image. Coming up in the Black church, folks suffering from mental health issues could interpret their symptoms as a failure of faith. They might say that if I was up all night worrying and unable to find rest, it was because I was leaning on my own understanding and not trusting God to fight my battles. No one in my faith community mentioned that your obsessive thoughts and insomnia are hallmark symptoms of anxiety. They failed to mention it could possibly be a symptom of a medical crisis.
I should not be alive right now. It’s hard to convey the joy I feel at the prospect of turning thirty-four. To date, I am the most stable that I have been since nineteen and it is all because of love, the love and support of my mother, father, sister, and nephew has been unconditional and affirming. The love of some dope ass friends who supported me through some of my darkest transitions. The love of my partner and his family has renewed my faith in romantic coupling. And the new friends that I have let close enough to get to know this version of myself.
Not everyone is as privileged as me. There is a dearth of mental health care providers and of these few, far less are persons of color. If you do not have health insurance that adequately covers the cost of seeing a therapist or psychiatrist you may find yourself in precarious limbo while searching for a provider that will accept patients with Medicare, Medicaid, or the uninsured. Many state run facilities are poorly funded and are generally staffed by pre-med students who are completing required clinical hours. These clinicians often do not have the capacity to develop and invest crucial time with each person they treat, so trust relationships with their heavy caseload may never develop.
For people encountering mental health providers for the first time, these factors may have a lasting negative impact that could prevent someone with a severe mental illness from seeking further help. For people living on the margins this leaves them extremely vulnerable to experience the negative impacts an untreated and undiagnosed illness can bring about. Many face housing insecurity and joblessness, that perpetuates a cycle of social despair.
Since it is the month that we reserve for people of color with mental illnesses, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the more public displays of a mental health crisis that many witnessed this month. Last week, a series of videos featuring Maia Campbell, who gained notoriety in the 1990’s, when she starred on the hit television show “In the House”, alongside L.L. Cool J and Kim Wayans, went viral. The footage did not go viral because Ms. Campbell is staging a comeback. One of the more popular videos gained traction because she was featured in only her bra and panties, telling a male companion that she wanted some crack.
In recent years, videos have surfaced of her in what would appear to be episodes of mania and various states of sobriety. The commentary surrounding the videos is overwhelmingly negative and generally just mean-spirited.
As someone who has toed the fragile line that separates sanity from insanity, I am always dismayed at the vitriol that is reserved for Ms. Campbell. If there was ever a time that she needed love and compassion, it is now.
To anyone who struggles with any disability, never stop fighting for your life. A great list of resources for care can be found here. Finding mental health care with and without insurance is a challenge, but it pays to be patient and persistent. Knowing who in your personal network you can call is extremely important. If you have friends and family that are willing to be supportive, take advantage of it. If you have burned every bridge and you feel alone, people are more forgiving than you may think.
Reach out to someone, I know how dark it gets. I know what reprieve death seems it can provide. But living a full life is absolutely fucking possible. Despair and hopelessness are ever present even without the added burden of living in a world where ableism is the norm.
To those who know or love people with disabilities, just know that not everyone looks like they are suffering. Be compassionate, be empathic and above all else, love. That shit is transformative.
Photo via Pexels