We are the sum of our experiences. Some people only want to recognize the good highlights, walking around with a smile pretending like everything’s okay. They don’t want to acknowledge those moments that are too painful, feeling scared to let others know that all is not well. I’ve been there and done that, traveling on that long hard road while learning to cope with depression. The journey to recognizing sunshine when all you can see are dark clouds and grey skies on a clear day hasn’t been easy, but it’s not an impossible feat.
I’ve wrestled with major depressive disorder along with suicide ideation throughout my life. Some of my earliest childhood triggers included attending a predominately white private elementary school where I felt ashamed of being Black when interacting with my classmates during and/or outside of school at their homes; being constantly bullied in the 4th grade by one student while my homeroom teacher ignored the verbal abuse; lacking athletic skills to compete in games like football, basketball, or baseball; the death of my maternal grandmother at the age of 10; and my parents separating two weeks before my 11th birthday.
My adolescence had its share of painful moments where the bullying occurred, mostly during gym classes where I was the skinniest and least athletic person. I was also teased for having an Afro and/or having big lips in high school, which caused me to have low self-esteem and further increased my self-hatred.
The primary trigger of my depression occurred when I ran track in high school. I went out for the sport in the 10th grade to build a better relationship with my father, an accomplished high school and collegiate athlete. I dedicated my efforts to be the best runner I could be to prove I belonged in that locker room when some of my teammates ridiculed me behind my back. I trained as hard as I could, learning to run a mile within six to five minutes, earning a varsity letter that season. However, over the summer break from school, I lost interest in the sport and stopped training. I didn’t do so well my junior year.
The week before a Saturday meet, my father spent time training with me for a 4X1600 relay when I was on Easter break from school. On the morning of the event, Dad fixed me a sirloin steak and several eggs for breakfast. He claimed that my body needed the protein to compete, but that was the wrong thing to eat before a race. I was already nervous about running. Besides, I hated competing against others. The food I ate that morning was too heavy for my system, and I threw up before the race. I didn’t do well and wound up not winning a medal as my classmates did.
When Dad came to pick me up from the meet, he berated me worse than my coach. He told me that he was coming to my next track meet to make sure I would do better the next time. And true to his word, my father did so the following Monday. When I saw his car parked outside my school, I immediately changed my clothes and went home, not wanting to deal with him behaving like a sideline coach. Later that evening, Dad called to lay a guilt trip on me for not being at the meet. I didn’t care and quit running track forever. Unfortunately, this incident would come back to haunt me three years later.
During my sophomore year at Drexel University, I filed my 1989 income-tax return to receive my refund. I was legally over eighteen, and my mother no longer claimed me as a dependent. At the time, I didn’t know much about taxes, and I wasn’t sure if Dad could still claim me. I explained my filing status to my father, but he saw this as an opportunity to take an additional tax break for himself. He kept pressuring me to file an amended return up until the extended deadline of April 16. I reluctantly did so without first speaking to my mother and told her after the fact.
Mom called Dad seeking an explanation for his deceptiveness, but he avoided giving her a straight response. Instead, Dad told her I was nothing but a failure and that I wouldn’t amount to anything because I quit track. Several days later, I spoke with Dad to let him know what he had done was wrong, but it was pointless. He felt justified in his actions and also stood firm in his opinion of me. Dad was not concerned about the impact his words had on my self-esteem.
Following the verbal confrontation with my Dad, I was prepared to drop out of school and commit suicide.
On the day I intended to carry out my plans, I met with Mr. Wilson, one of my academic advisors at Drexel. He approached me as I was leaving and asked me to come to his office. Mr.Wilson grabbed another counselor, who was also Black and we all went into his office. He sensed something was wrong with me and wanted to know if everything was okay. I confessed that I had been struggling in school and planned to withdraw because of what had taken place between my father and me. During our conversation, I also chose not to share my suicide ideation with the advisors.
Both advisors tried convincing me not to withdraw from Drexel, and how throwing away my education would be a huge mistake. Mr. Wilson told me not to hesitate to speak with him or his colleague at any time if I was having problems academically or personally. I appreciated what both men did for me, their outreach and concern saved me from making two mistakes.
I wish I could say that my depression improved following the intervention with my advisors and after graduating college. Upon leaving school, working in the accounting/finance profession only enhanced my misery; my heart was never into my chosen career path. Having to deal with the constant struggle to prove that I belonged or working twice as hard because of my skin color was mentally exhausting.
The pivotal moment when I recognized the need for help occurred in the summer of 2006. One day on my way to work, I nearly got into a car accident that shook me up. I needed to speak to someone about my near-miss so when I arrived at work, I approached Ms. Nona, who had actually gone to high school with my mother. We sat in an empty conference room, and I not only shared with her what had happened but also revealed personal matters that were troubling me like an outstanding debt.
Ms. Nona listened attentively to me, then went on to explain how some of the issues in our lives were minuscule compared to what others were experiencing. She reminded me that I was alive and how my situation could be worse. I responded by telling Ms. Nona I had reached a point where I was ready to end my life. I didn’t even realize the statement I had let slip out until Ms. Nona brought it to my attention. The insightful conversation we shared motivated me to seek help before things got worse.
Therapy has been a godsend in helping me manage my depression. I have been blessed to work with three outstanding clinicians for the past 15 years: Tonya Ladipo, LCSW, founder of The Ladipo Group; Andrea Jackson, LCSW; and Dr. Tina Scott, LPC, NPC. My sessions with Tonya were the most beneficial for my healing. I was totally transparent as I shared my mental health issues with Tonya, including my suicide ideation.
The therapy sessions helped me to release the anger I had towards my father and to forgive him for all of the disparaging comments made throughout my childhood. Tonya even inspired me to change careers in my early 40s by applying to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in mental health counseling. I accomplished this feat by graduating from Walden University in 2014 and afterward, working as a clinician to provide therapeutic services to others in need.
I cannot honestly say that I’m immune to depression now that I’m a therapist. I am, after all, a human being and not a machine. Other life factors that have been mental triggers for me include losing my first home to foreclosure; having relationship drama that broke my heart; and dealing with physical changes to my body as I age, such as arthritis, memory loss, fatigue, and/or weight gain.
Most recently, my mental health has been affected by the senseless murders of Black men like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and the 2020 political climate on these shores. Do I currently have suicide ideation? No! I can’t recall the last time I had a fleeting thought of suicide.
Unfortunately, I did have one suicide attempt years back and only a select few knew about it.
The incident occurred during the summer of 2013, during my final year of graduate school. I was working as an unpaid intern five days a week to complete the requirements for my master’s degree. I also worked as a residential counselor from Saturday through Monday mornings. My social life was practically non-existent, and I didn’t have time to engage in hobbies like exercise or reading that were necessary for my self-care. Outside of journaling, I wasn’t doing much writing either.
I was suffering not only from depression but anxiety as well. My mind constantly raced with worry about finishing school on time to then find a full-time job to keep my home. I lost weight and suffered from bouts of insomnia. The mental pressure felt overwhelming. One evening while at home, and after experiencing one too many panic attacks, I reached for a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol and swallowed the entire container. Realizing what I had done, I immediately forced myself to vomit before the medication could do any harm.
Nearly eight years later, I’m happy and proud to be in a better emotional place through therapy and self-care. God willing, I have no plans to go anywhere anytime soon.
Self-care is a major aspect of my well-being. Every person should have a therapeutic plan of coping skills to recognize their warning signs or triggers when times get tough. Writing will always be my primary coping skill. Other coping strategies inside my self-care plan include exercising, eating healthy, getting proper rest, meditating, setting boundaries, having a positive social support system, and most importantly, attending therapy.
Educating myself about depression and its impact upon the Black community has been insightful both as a therapist and client. I highly recommend reading two literary resources: Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Hurting by Terrie M. Williams and Standing in the Shadows: Understanding and Overcoming Depression in Black Men by John Head, these books helped me realize I am not alone in my struggles with mental health.
Advocating for mental health awareness in the Black community has been a vital part of my wellness journey. I volunteer as an individual therapist for Black Men Heal, a nonprofit organization that provides free mental health treatment, psycho-education, and community resources over eight-week counseling sessions for Black men. The organization is in its beginning stages of national expansion. It is both a full circle moment and a rewarding experience to counsel others seeking help to sort through and process their emotions, especially for brothas who have suffered in silence for far too long.
Sharing my personal story has been the biggest reward for my healing and personal growth. I’ve done so in the past, mostly by reciting poetry about my experience at literary events. This creative gift I possess has positively impacted the lives of many who have received my message.
Depression is more than just sadness in response to life’s struggles and setbacks. It can make emotions like hopelessness and despair take hold and just never go away. Depression can interfere with your ability to work, study, eat, sleep, and enjoy life. Just trying to get through the day can oftentimes be too much to bear. Don’t be afraid to admit when things aren’t okay and seek professional help when needed. The man I am today wouldn’t be here without doing so, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
Bill Holmes is the author of the poetry book Straight From My Heart; the spoken word CD, The Air I Breathe; the ESSENCE bestselling fiction novel, One Love, and the writer and the director of the independent, short-film The Program. As a poet, Bill has opened for artists such as The Last Poets and award-winning jazz musician Roy Ayers. Bill’s work has been featured in 50BOLD, African Voices, ESSENCE, and the anthologies Journey Into My Brother’s Soul, Erogenous Zone: A Sexual Voyage and Step Up To The Mic: A Poetic Explosion. Bill is also the founder of the creative-writing course Write Here! Write Now! which he taught at Temple University in Philadelphia through the grassroots, non-profit organization PASCEP.