Bad Nerves


you have found yourself

in each broken body

each elation


your mother’s scar

hers and


and you.


Bettina Judd, “How To Measure Pain II”


As a kid I often wondered at the full meaning of the phrase “my nerves are bad.” Sure, I’d heard, “You’re getting on my nerves” or “You on my last nerve” more than once—my mother was always talking about her nerves in relation to how quickly I washed dishes or put away my clothes. I was perhaps even “tap dancing on her nerves,” but I digress. Having “bad nerves” was more puzzling because of the myriad other ways I understood how nerves worked. Were these “bad” nerves broken or sick?

Eventually I learned that having “bad nerves” was a way to talk about feeling nervous, uneasy, even scared without using the fancy jargon of mental health professionals. Sometimes a sporting event or a scary movie could give you bad nerves, or weird, jumpy individuals could give you that feeling. Being in close proximity to dangerous, impulsive, and unpredictable people—like your landlord or a cop—could make anyone’s nerves bad. Then there were folks who always had bad nerves—folks who didn’t like to drive at night or in the rain, who hated thunderstorms. Folks who could not stand the children running up and down. Folks who couldn’t take bad news, be in hospitals, or go to funerals. And while these folks—us, them—sometimes got the side eye when they had to receive “special” treatment I grew up with an understanding that some people had bad nerves and that’s what it was. So, even if they loved someone a lot they couldn’t go to the hospital when they were sick. They’d take care of them in another way, show up in a way that was more manageable for them and folks understood.

I have bad nerves. I’m not a perpetually anxious, nervous, or ridden with angst type person, although throughout the years I have had my fair share of anxiety and even depression. Usually I walk around like I’m unbought and unbossed because when folks want to see you broken, what else can you do but be unapologetically you?

But since the break in of my house three weeks ago, and the breakup of a long-term relationship a few months before, my nerves have been bad. Real bad. I feel shattered, broken open, unsafe. I feel (overly) emotional, easier to frighten, mistrustful of others. It’s been hard to focus. All I want to do is lie in bed and let the world turn and burn.

Still, if I’m honest with myself, my nerves have been bad for a while.

When Mike Brown’s body lay on the ground for hours, my nerves were already on the edge. When Islan Nettles was murdered, not far from her house, I was already shook. When Renisha McBride was shot while asking for help, I was already broken. When Jordan Davis was massacred in a parking lot over loud music, I didn’t want to leave the house. When I heard that Freddie Gray’s spinal cord had been severed and his voice box crushed, my neck stiffened so bad that I had a migraine for days. It only began to dissipate when I got in contact with my cousin, who had his own run-ins with law enforcement in Baltimore, and found out he was ok.

This shit is visceral. We feel it in our bodies, this trauma. So that even if it doesn’t happen to our own bodies, we still feel it.

james baldwin rage

This rage has a price. I’d say to be Black and conscious is to perpetually have bad nerves. I don’t mean that we are always emotional, easily frightened, mistrustful, and so on. But I think the cost of unceasing rage and violence is a physical and mental pain that can make daily living excruciating, which is undoubtedly the point of the terror campaign that is white supremacy, misogynoir, and transphobia.

I’m thinking about that young sister from McKinney, Texas, Dajerria Becton, who was assaulted by a police officer. I’m thinking about her pain, anger, fear, mistrust. How is she doing today? How are her nerves? How is her spirit? Is she being held in a circle of love or will she just have to forge on despite the rage, fear, and shame?

I don’t have an answer for Dajerria or myself. I do know, though, that walking around as if we are not in pain is not the answer.


4 thoughts on “Bad Nerves

  1. This resonates at a deep level. I’ve found myself crying, a lot, with each new report of blacks being violated, murdered, targeted. In a recent conversation with my daughter, I said “I’m tired of white people! ” I backtracked, however, because the truth is that I’m tired of racism.

    Thank you for this powerful, authentic piece. And btw, how are you?

  2. I love having bad nerves.

    Let me rephrase this. I hate being mentally ill. I’m not thrilled about being bipolar with an anxiety disorder, not just because it impacts my life but because I’m in SUCH a white state. It’s always addressed very openly by people who seem to have eaten a Web MD and then gotten most of the information there mixed up with tv plots.

    That doesn’t happen when I’m around folks who understand the code ‘I have bad nerves’. Do I get that same side eye sometimes? Yep. I also get people more likely to send me in for that old southern cure all, a lie down with a cold rag on the back of my neck when they see me start to fling and flutter my hands instead of corner me in public and rant about what meds I should/shouldn’t be on.

    When you’re mentally ill, white people treat you like you’re damanged and dangerous. When you’ve got bad nerves Black folk make the kids go outside before you holler at them.

    Sometimes I consider moving south again just to go back to having Bad Nerves.

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