Yesterday, I relived what has become an all too familiar experience. In the wake of the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I got out of bed, wiped the tears off my face, and headed to work. Bathroom breaks turned into crying breaks. I was limited in the amount of self-care I could do, so I settled for listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” on repeat. I reached a breaking point in the afternoon so I took a walk in an effort to prevent myself from making a scene. I ended up ugly-crying on a street corner. Not only do Black people have to deal with the emotional aftermath of a tragedy like the recent murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, but then we’re still expected to function. There’s no “calling in Black.” And, honestly, if Black people did get days off to mourn, we would never show up for work.
If you’re lucky (like I was) you go to work and don’t have to suffer through any corporate conversations about race. Last year, my co-working space sent an email blast about a gathering for the Charleston shooting. The last sentence read, “Good times assured to be had by all :) It’s going to be chill, and we can feel all the feels.” Yuck. That’s the problem with these types of conversations. For many non-black people, these killings are just talking points and a way for them to show how aware and compassionate they are. They want to “feel all the feels,” as if the real deaths of Black people are a plot point in an after-school special. For us, though, the fact that we are being hunted is not a rhetorical device. We’re faced with this pain every day. The threat is constantly on our minds: Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t play your music too loud. Don’t ask for help. Don’t…exist.
We’re faced with this pain every day.
When you never have time to mourn — because of the demands of life and the frequency of our deaths — it wears on you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. And in a time when Black kids are aware of racial injustice more than ever, suicide rates among Black youth have outpaced the suicide rates of their white peers. It’s not that big of a leap to connect the two. I’m sure my boss would’ve been fine with me taking some time off or working from home, but I honestly didn’t want to. I wanted to be distracted by work. It was my way of staving off That Moment. If you have a mental illness, then you know what I’m talking about. That Moment is when you notice that something that you can normally do with minimal effort, like getting out of bed, showering, or keeping a clean room, is all of a sudden too difficult to accomplish. And it hits you that, once again, you’re in the midst of an episode that you’re unsure you’ll be able to recover from. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety for most of my life. They’ve been around for so long that their presence is almost comforting, like old friends that are slowly trying to kill me. But it wasn’t until college that I realized how much racism affected my mental health. My therapist, who was also a Black woman, pointed out how years of dealing with the insistent racism that came with being one of the few Black people in my rural Wisconsin town wore me down emotionally and mentally, which is why it made sense that I spent the summer after high school physically unable to get out of bed. It was also around that time that I learned about Trayvon Martin’s murder through social media. After that, thanks to digital activism and the work of Black writers, I became fully aware of the breadth and depth of the systematic oppression of Black people. Back then, I watched, read, and shared everything I could find about racial injustice. I spent hours getting into Facebook arguments with people who fervently believed that Black people deserved to die, engaging with them no matter how crappy it made me feel afterwards. That was back when I hadn’t had That Moment. But that all changed after I found out that Trayvon Martin’s murderer wasn’t going to jail. The next day, I walked to my apartment door but, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t step outside. At first, I couldn’t leave my apartment because of fear. Since the courts had made it clear that it was open season on Black people, I was terrified of what awaited me outside. Fear morphed into self-protection. My thinking was that, if I isolated myself, then I could escape the reality of how Black people are treated in America. It was a full month before I could actually open my door and walk outside. I love that most of my social media feeds are filled with people passionately advocating for racial justice, but I wouldn’t have been able to leave my apartment if I didn’t become aggressive with my self-care, and that meant unplugging once in a while. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I realized that sometimes taking care of myself translated to spending my time watching funny vines, going shopping, or getting a massage. Not being on all the time doesn’t make me less “woke,” it’s the key to my survival.
I’ve been doing my best to avoid That Moment by connecting with the Black community. Yes, I often have to avoid social media just to get through days like yesterday. But, thanks to activists, writers, and entertainers, social media has also become a place to turn for self-care tips, help grappling with the duality of the Black experience (professional self vs. real self), and the hope that comes from a collective striving to enact positive systematic change. My mental illness lied to me a few years ago. It told me that isolating myself was the best way to take care of myself when, in reality, the opposite was true.
I hope that my story of dealing with the emotional aftermath of Black death helps anyone who has either gone through or is going through something similar. Always remember that you’re not alone. You’re allowed to take breaks. You’re allowed to take care of yourself.