Life is Not a Fairytale: Black Women and Depression

I have a confession to make. Despite my outward appearance and demeanor, some days it is a physical struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  At least once a month I cry myself to sleep, to the point of waking up with puffy red eyes and hiccups.  Dating back as far as I can remember (early childhood) my mood has always been generally melancholy, an oceanic blue.  I experience bouts of depression that range from simple sadness to life re-considerations as predictably as season changes.  It has become more manageable the older I get.

This feels like a confession because while I am only admitting to having moments of humanity and vulnerability, I am a black woman, and for me these realities are oftentimes seen as weaknesses.  We (black women) are supposed to be strong.  We (black women) are not supposed to break down.

Fantasia Barrino’s recent confession of her suicide attempt sparked a realization that black women are as susceptible to depression as anyone else.  When asked (see attached video) about her recent suicide attempt, she explains “I was overloaded with carrying six years of so much…dealing with my family, dealing with my father, dealing with men and their bullshit…”  I think we can all relate in one way or another.  While her “so much” and (y)our “so much” may not be identical, people feel overwhelmingly inclined to pass their issues off to black women—assuming we can handle it stoicly—because we have been doing it for generations.  Or have we?

I have followed Fantasia’s career from her early aspirations to be an American Idol to the more recent scandals that have surrounded her life and career (not the least of which was an M.C. Hammer-like dissolution of funds for trying to “look out” for more people than who could “look out” for her, a foreclosure on her home, and her most recent love relationship, which ironically is the only mention of a romantic relationship, outside of references of her baby’s father, I remember over the years—but I could be wrong, I have not followed her career or celebrity gossip, that closely).

In 2004 I tuned in to American Idol because somebody said that a black girl from High Point, North Carolina (I am from North Carolina) was competing.  And while I never participated in the voting process, I did watch this rural black girl from North Carolina, who not unlike me, had already experienced her fair share of heartache.  At the time she was a 19-year-old rape and domestic violence survivor, and a single mother.  She was not unlike many girls I knew.  I was happy for her, but like many people, after she seemingly “got over” all of the struggles she had endured, by beating the odds and winning the prize, I stopped paying attention.  I bought her first album, watched her Lifetime movie (a poorly acted mini-drama based on her autobiography of the same name), and even tolerated two or three episodes of her reality series, Fantasia For Real, on Vh1.  However, I never paid attention to what must have been happening behind the scenes.  I never considered what the impact of going from little known high school drop out to rags to riches heroine must have been.  I never thought about how vulnerable she was to being taken advantage of being so young, so naïve, so ignorant, so vulnerable… she was just supposed to be “so strong.”

A few weeks ago when I heard about Fantasia’s suicide attempt I wasn’t particularly surprised.  Once again we seemed to share many things in common.  In her interview on Good Morning America she stated, “everybody feels like I’m so strong…and it just became heavy for me…to the point that I just wanted to be away from the noise.”  It would take both hands for me to count the amount of times, in my life, I have pondered the same dilemma, come to a similar conclusion.  I did not, however, immediately admit that I could relate to Fantasia’s hopelessness because there are precious few women friends who won’t judge or chastise you (a black woman) for not being strong. Or, who won’t attempt to encourage you (a black woman) by reminding you that as a black woman, YOU ARE STRONG.  And while I have my moments of fortitude, there are far more moments of pain.

There is a problem when we (little black girls) are taught to be strong from an early age and we have that expectation reinforced by everyone in our lives from other black women, to churchfolk, to white folks, to the (wo)men we love or want (to love).  It is further complicated when our (supposed innate) strength is celebrated and memorialized in ways that make us territorial of it.  We are encouraged to embrace it.  Black women’s strength is the single stereotype that is disguised as a compliment, and we oftentimes don’t want to relinquish it.   But what does it mean to be strong?  What happens when we don’t feel it, when we are tired of it, when sadness, hopelessness and strength trade places?

Interestingly Fantasia, while trying to give up the superwoman façade that plagues black women, has in many ways reinforced it.  Without giving herself more than a week to recover from wanting to die, she re-emerged to face her demons, her critics, her family and her fans head on.  In what can only be interpreted as her demonstrating and proving her strength, her private and public drama was put on the back burner so that she could move forward.  Within two weeks of her suicide attempt, she was already “back to herself” (the name of her new album is “back to me”).  The Behind the Music special premiered almost two weeks to the day of her suicide attempt.  I guess as a black woman with so many people to take care of (herself notwithstanding) she didn’t have time to be depressed or to recover from her emotional breakdown.

Depression has always been problematic for me because it was something the women in my family and household could not relate to or readily admit. Depression was white women’s shit and my uncontrollable tears and obsession with death was met with confusion and shaken heads. We (black women) didn’t have time to cry over spilled milk or break down from a broken heart.  There will bills to pay, mouths to feed, ways to make (out of no way). And over the years of watching and witnessing women hurt (from unsuccessful relationships, struggling with finances, dealing with discrimination, and simply waiting for something better for themselves or their children), I saw them struggle, but I never saw them “feel.”  So my feelings, of unspeakable, unexplainable sadness, didn’t make sense.  And while the women I knew never demonstrated the reality of depression in their lives, the reality of my experience tells me that there had to have been tears in the dark, moments of surrender in prayer rooms, wishes of ending lives over seemingly mundane struggles. I have surely wished my life away for less.  Living is hard. Living with oppression is harder.   I think we all sometimes or at some point, like Fantasia, just want the noise to stop.

Superwoman syndrome has the capacity to take us out in myriad ways.  Fantasia’s story, while tragic, is not all that unique.  And while not all of us will attempt to “silence the noise” by un-accidentally swallowing a bottle of pills, there are those of us who isolate ourselves, overwork or overcompensate, overeat or don’t eat, trade sleep for worry, say yes when we need to say no.  Self-care is not a selfish negotiation.  I strongly believe that black women deserve a story that shows us how to negotiate multiple possibilities for how to be strong, even when the strongest thing to do is nothing!  We need narratives, beyond our own, to show us that we are not alone in these emotional quagmires.

There is a danger in being strong… because ultimately we are all human, and black women do not have superpowers of physical, emotional, or mental strength.  We have to let ourselves off the hook so that we don’t feel like we are failing (others or ourselves) when we simply get tired.  While black women have the benefit of our experiences, the training to cope in particular ways (with racism and sexism), and the wherewithal to expand our capacity to deal with bullshit (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) we are not unbreakable.

I list here a few things I have relied on over the years to help me cope with the un-fairytale storyline/s of my life.

  • Sisterfriends. We need to have outlets, support systems, and a space to not be strong.  We also need people in our life who we don’t expect us to be their savior or our own.  I tend to avoid people who try to talk me out of how I am feeling.
  • Narratives. Finding other black women’s stories about what they have been through and how they got over is important. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s book Willow Weep For Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression was a powerful testimony for me.
  • A professional listener. We are oftentimes the person people come to with their problems, but we don’t always have someone we can go to with ours.  I think we could all benefit from talking to a counselor who will offer an empathic ear and allow us to hear what we think/feel/need out loud and in our own words.  Our friends are wonderful allies, but having a professional counselor who will simply listen has tremendous benefits.
  • Crying. I read somewhere some time ago that crying is a kind of soul cleanse.  As a black woman I was conditioned to never cry unless something hurt (something I could substantiate or prove) so many times my unprovoked tears did not make sense.  However, reframing crying as a way to cleanse my soul has been helpful.  I now see the function of tears as an opportunity for me to rinse away the residue and hurt from the inside out.

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31 thoughts on “Life is Not a Fairytale: Black Women and Depression

  1. Thank you for this. I thought I was the only one feeling that black women are to suck it up & move on. Can we greeve? Can we have time to heal before some one says “Get over it.” I’m truly thankful for this.

  2. You are such a beautiful, brilliant and bright spirit. I really appreciate and can relate to this post on many levels – thank you for sharing! Most poignant is the need for sister friends and for the need to remove all those who “try to talk you out” of how you feel. Word!

  3. Thank you for this important blog about black women and depression. Some people may want to check out Terrie Williams’ book, “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.” I also blog about living with depression – in the context of faith at http://www.beautifulmindblog.com. The more we boldly tell our stories, the safer we make it for others, and for ourselves. I applaud your courage.

  4. Depression is real, but all too often it is not an acceptable reality for black women. I appreciate this.

  5. Thank you SO much for this.

    IMO the strong black woman stereotype is the Mammy stereotype in modern clothing. In my 40s I made a conscious decision not to allow people to cast me in that role: I defined myself for myself, to quote Audre Lorde. Since then I’ve walked an extremely lonely and difficult road, one that surprisingly few black women understand. It feels like one of the last great taboos in our culture: to admit that we have human weaknesses just like everybody else, that sometimes we can’t just “keep it moving,” that sometimes the church isn’t enough, that sometimes we too need professional help. To that last, I too read, and greatly appreciated, Danquah’s book.

  6. It’s time we count ourselves back in! We’ve given too much, taken too much, been there for everybody else, it’s time SISTERFRIEND, to count your self back in. You matter, what you want to do is just as important as what you don’t want to do. Stand up for you. Those who love you will understand it maybe and the others . . . they’ll be okay. Here’s to your keeping the main thang, the main thang!

  7. I agree in more ways than one and appreciate this article. If you don’t mind I will be writing a small blog on the subject cause I feel very inspired, and sendiong people to this blog. I think you have said it best…no need to repeat it. Love and light to you sista. I appreciate your courage to admit strength does not mean invincible. Ashe.

  8. The honesty of this post is giving me EVERYTHING today. So often we as black women do not allow ourselves to name this feeling, as though we think we’ll be claiming it and letting go of strength. But there is power in identifying our sadness, and overwhelmed feelings, and that we are not the only ones. Thank you for sharing this.

  9. Thank you Robyn for bringing this important conversation to the blog. I think this also connects to some of our reluctance as black people to deal substantively with ableism in our communities.

    There is a community for black women with depression started by a quirky black girl friend of mine. Check out http://grou.ps/togetherwestand/ to find resources and community for black women with depression.

  10. thanks for this post. i think that this reaction towards personality and emotional health and emotional work is a weapon that is used against black women in particular, and extended to other women of color. kinda like the so-called “model minority” stereotype of asian folks? that’s simultaneously used as a weapon against other poc (why can’t you be more like asian people) and used to make asian working class/ etc people invisible.

    in this case, i’m a muslim woman of south asian background, who has been told repeatedly that she isn’t a legitimate woman of color because she doesn’t “suck it up” the way that latina women or black women “suck it up” and are “strong.” i’ve particularly been told that by black and latino men as a weapon, saying both 1) i’m not a legitimate person of color with her own history and relationship to white supremacy that differs from black women and 2) that “real” black and latina women are “strong” and “assertive”.

    it is a script i am supposed to follow somehow, the submissive muslim woman, and so i’m “too serious” if i’m assertive and need to “chill out” and “relax” and “not make everything into an argument”, but then i’m simultaneously supposed to fill this fantasy of the assertive, sassy woman of color who doesn’t take shit otherwise i’m regulated on and told to be more like this mythical ideal of a strong woman of color. who benefits from this?

  11. I relate to this issue on so many levels. I suffered from depression for years before finding out I was bi-polar. The real truth is that mental illness is not readily accepted in the black community. Some of my relatives have been less than supportive. This idea that mental illness is a weakness is so prevelent that I don’t know how we are going to break down barriers. Thank you for addressing this issue.

  12. Thank you so much for sharing your story and reflections. I am learning that strength also means asking Depression runs in my family, although it has gone undiagnosed for generations. I appreciate your truth and I’m glad that black women are creating more spaces to acknowledge our pain and seek the help we need. Thank you!

  13. Wow. Your “confession” at the beginning spoke to me. They were my thoughts EXACTLY! I’ve struggled with depression on and off since childhood. I feel that for many black women seeking help for this condition is frowned upon, or simply not an option. I have learned to “manage” my depression the older I get. I have even studied my mood swings to the point of watching my diet, getting exercise, keeping a journal, and staying prayed up.

    When I heard about Fantasia’s attempted suicide I knew see needed love and prayer more than anything. It’s easy to judge other people, but when you know what the struggle with depression and mounting bad decisions after bad decisions brings, it’s more like an all consuming addiction …How can you have anything other than compassion?

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  15. As a black woman, my favorite quote now in days is “strength is overrated.” I even posted it on my Facebook page. I, myself, and done with being strong. It’s o.k. to ask for help. To receive help. I think it takes much more courage to admit you need help and receive help than tell yourself that you can handle it alone. It has taken me several break downs to finally learn to let go-or else my health will suffer. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression. I was diagnosed 15 years ago. I am just now deciding to commit to taking anti-depressants for it. My life had become un-manageable. And I was blaming everyone but myself.

    My mother admires my “strength”-and she’s a strong woman! She won’t except it when I tell her that I’m not. And there where times when I felt used. Like people feel they can dump on me because I’m so strong. I’m a survivor, but life is more than just about surviving. It about living it and living it more abundantly. I survived through prayer. But even with that my depression go worse. I had to learn to say “Damnit. That’s enough!”

    It’s funny her album is called “Back to Me.” I heard her album yesterday. It was so depressing I had to stop listening-lest I fall into deep depression myself.

  16. This article really resonated with me. The whole ‘strong black woman’ thing has always felt like a back handed compliment to me, but I couldn’t articulate why. It’s a cop out to not taking black women’s pain seriously, and prevents us from being viewed as legitimate multi-dimensional human beings who have the same range of emotions and breaking points just like anyone else. Indeed, superwomen we are not. It is definitely a new version of the Mammie/ black women as workhorse stereotype. I’ve also suffered from depression since childhood, and have had black and white friends alike cite my ‘strength’ as an excuse to blow off my suffering because I can “take it”. The writer was right on target when she stated that the ‘strong black woman’ myth is a lie dressed up as a compliment and the main reason so many black women continue to embrace this damaging stereotype. It effectively silences our voices and serves to further marginalize us as a group. It’s so tiring.

  17. Thanks so much for this article and for the women with sense that populate this site. I will have to put in into the favorites category. We need to address the depression that is often couched in anger, shopaholism, alcholism and drug abuse and other things that mask the truth of some of our lives. We need to embrace treatment and help and stop trying to be all things to all people. I applaud you for speaking out and for being honest and I’m sure you helped someone (aside from me) today.

    Thank you!

  18. Thank you for this. I worry what message I’m communicating to my daughter as she watches me do it all because it needs to be done. It’s sad that things haven’t shifted to lessen this burden for us.

  19. Thanks for publishing this article. I was diagnosed with Depression at age 30, but think it started when I was around 23. For seven years I couldn’t figure out why I was happy 4 days out of the week and down trotting for 3…it was definitely a result of bad relationships, rejection, disappointment after disappointment and feeling overwhelmed with living a life that in my head was suppose to play out differently than how things were! However, I decided that I would & could beat this thing! I sought counseling and started reading self help books which helped get down to the root of the problem which was self
    love and self worth! I’m not fully back at 100%, but I’m 85% there and now equipped with the tools to stop the ship from totally sinking!

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  21. Beautifully written and so important. Most certainly there are a number of topics that seem to be “taboo” in our homes and depression is definitely one of them. Thank you for this post.

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  24. Real talk! I appreciate your perspective. Your focus on the myth of the “strong black woman” echoes a lot of what Joan Morgan says in her book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost. I’m glad that we haven’t stopped talking about this stereotype, and that more importantly, we’re working to eliminate it all together.

  25. Hi,

    I relate well with this post. I have the same feelings day in and day out. I haven’t tried to hurt myself in a very long time however, the pain at times can be hard to bare. I never was another mans mistress but the man i am with don’t understand me at all and what I go through on a day to day. I have no friends! No social network! I am completly alone. Whenever I try and express myself it seends like im doing more hurt than anything else. Life just isn’t EASY.

    I know that I am not the only woman in the world to deal with depression however, I feel like I am the only woman in the world dealing with being me daily… Thats my life everyday. Its not easy no one really understands unless you have experience the pain yourself.

    No man put me in my place of depression. The lost of my child did. I was preg in the morning and come the end of the day my child was gone. ECTOPIC pregrancy is what they call it. I call it a curse!

  26. Thank you so much for this post. I watched both my grandmother and mother deal with depression (My mother took her life in 2007) and I’ve dealt with these feelings on and off since I was a child. I remember a former boyfriend calling me “White Girl” whenever I would cry or feel sadness. I felt really isolated and alone at that time. It seems as though everyone tries to silence black women when we try to speak out about issues like this.

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