By Arturo R. GarcíaLongtime readers of the blog will remember friend and alumnus Tamara Winfrey Harris: Tami’s voice, which many of us first discovered through her blog What Tami Said, has been essential reading in the POC justice ecosystem for years.
But over the past few years, her reach has expanded, and she’s been published everywhere from The Guardian to Salon to — just last week — The New York Times.
Well, we’re proud and happy today to be able to share with you a part of her most pivotal work yet: The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, in which she takes on the stereotypes regularly used to deride black women in the US — their romantic lives, their mental health, their beauty and more.
“The more Americans face stereotypes about us in media, pop culture and other places, the more they are subconsciously ‘activated’ where real black women are concerned, affecting the way we are seen by potential employers, partners, the government and others,” she writes.
In 2003, the California Black Women’s Health Project found that only 7 percent of black women with symptoms of mental illness seek treatment. And, according to a 2009 National Institutes of Health manuscript, a 2008 study of African American women’s perspectives on depression found that many “believed that an individual develops depression due to having a ‘weak mind, poor health, a troubled spirit, and lack of self-love.’”
A member of the mental health profession currently working in higher education, Adrianne Traylor says, “I am cognizant of our community being left out of mental health discussions, not having appropriate access to mental health support, the cultural restrictions and barriers that keep us from seeking that support and that there are really not enough competent therapists to deal with situations that are unique to the black experience in America.
Finding a black therapist to refer a client to is extremely difficult. Even when it comes to self-care, I think. ‘Who am I going to talk to? Who am I going to refer myself to? Who can I talk to who can really understand what makes my situation unique as a black woman?’ We really lose out in the mental health equation — particularly when it comes to areas of depression, stress, and anxiety.”
Members of the black community often learn that mental health care is something they neither need nor can afford — economically, socially, or culturally. Black folks are encouraged to take it to the Lord in prayer, but Adrianne stresses that many mental health issues cannot be ameliorated by a pastor, friend, or family. Some mental illnesses require intensive therapy or psychotropic drugs, and not getting that treatment can be devastating.
Her own family provided her with a strong example of this cultural challenge. Adrianne says she grew up surrounded by women who exemplified the positive aspects of “black women always being strong and resilient and always being able to carry everything.” But as she grew older, “I saw the [unwillingness to pursue mental health care] weighing more heavily on the women in the family, because it seemed they were the ultimate repositories for sanity and intactness for everyone.”
When she was a teen, the house where Adrianne was born burned down. It was her grandmother’s home and had been the center of many family memories. The loss was devastating to Adrianne. “But I remember watching [my grandmother], who was temporarily living in this itty-bitty house out in the country, and on the one hand admiring her strength. She had lost everything — her physical mementos of her life with her husband — everything. She seemed so strong and seemed on the surface to be coping. But I wondered what happened when she went to bed at night. What did she do then, when no one was looking at her? I started thinking if we were wearing a lot of masks to get through our lives and whether they were helping or hurting us.
“As you become older and more aware of family dysfunction . . . it is an awakening. You’re oblivious to things as a kid and then your eyes open. You realize that the things that seemed like such strength could have really been someone doing what they could to hold things together.”
Thirty-five-year-old Vivian St. Claire* is a high-achiever, perfectionist, and inveterate “good girl.” She earned a PhD before she was thirty “because I was bored.” Vivian also suffers from clinical depression. And three years ago, she had a nervous breakdown, driven in part by her relentless drive to meet societal expectations.
Despite her academic and professional success, Vivian couldn’t shake the notion that she was a failure as a woman. A late bloomer in affairs of the heart, who was always more confident in intellectual pursuits than romantic ones, Vivian was childless and single, having just broken up with the man she once thought she would marry. “I never wanted to be the single black woman, and I think that fear created that whole pressure.”
Her undiagnosed clinical depression began to spiral out of control as Vivian grappled with fears about her personal life, her weight, and other issues. She began taking Ambien to cure the insomnia it caused — Ambien, red wine, and occasionally marijuana.
“I would black out,” she says. “It was just all this very unhealthy mix of me trying to hide from a lot of different things. I know I was all over the place.
“Another part of my depression is I had a pact with myself: if I wasn’t married by thirty-five, I was going to kill myself. I very much planned everything out for my life. At thirty-five, my plans ran out,” she says.
“That came out when I had my breakdown. My parents were in the room. While I was being evaluated, my mom was just sitting there silently crying.
“I would like to be more open with my struggle with depression — let close friends and things know,” says Vivian. But she admits her openness is tempered with the realities of being an academic hoping for tenure and a desire not to “embarrass” her parents. Although they were there during her breakdown, they still have not processed her mental illness.
“My mom is fine with it for other people, but not her children— even though her brother is a paranoid schizophrenic.”
As her parents helped her complete paperwork that would commit her to the hospital, Vivian was surprised to hear her father answer in the affirmative when asked about mental illness on his side of the family.
“‘Oh, yeah, your Auntie So-and-So has this. Your uncle is paranoid schizophrenic and whatever.’”
Black families often keep mental health histories under wraps, treating suffering members like guilty secrets. Quoting author Nalo Hopkinson in the book Brown Girl in the Ring, Vivian points out, “We as a people — our secrets are killing us.”
It was a hard road back to mental health. Healing required that Vivian learn to be gentle with herself, to practice physical and mental self-care, to let go of her perfectionism, and to refuse to see her mental illness as a stigma.
“Today, I would say I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been — mentally and physically. I’ve come to a peace with myself. Yoga, therapy, being open about my mental illness and my medication, having coping mechanisms, and staying healthy — they are just part of my life now.”
Her voice catches as she describes her pride at making it through: “At this point, every day it’s a blessing that I’m happy, that I’m content with myself, and that I’m okay. I’m very proud of myself. I’m proud every day, because at least I keep holding on. It’s not so much of a struggle for me anymore.
“Putting other people’s pressure on me almost killed me. I’ve had to become comfortable with the uncomfortability of not being perfect. I’m amazed at the woman that I have become. . . . Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional, but it’s been hard. It’s been very hard. But I’ve earned a life beyond thirty-five years.”
Learn more about Tamara Winfrey Harris and The Sisters Are Alright at www.tamarawinfreyharris.com.