The Big 3-0
Turning thirty years old personally for me was a significant milestone and a year of major transition. During my time growing up on Chicago’s South and West sides, I was placed in various foster homes starting at the tender age of three-years-old. Fortunately, I was adopted at the age of twelve. When I was a child, I always felt I had no control over my life, and I was at the mercy of caseworkers and the state. I would often wish during my many lonely nights that I had a family like all the other kids at school. This perception made me feel like an outsider. It impacted my confidence and self-esteem, secretly I felt ashamed.
As I entered into my twenties, I still never dealt with the shame of growing up poor, abused, and being abandoned as a child. I suffered a lot of physical and verbal abuse in the foster homes and with my new family. Life after the adoption was far from perfect; I believe the verbal abuse and witnessing physical altercations between family members impacted me significantly throughout the years. In 2003, while I served in the U.S. Navy, I suffered from my first bout of insomnia. It returned with a vengeance during my college years, starting in 2006. Since there was no medical reason to explain my insomnia, I sought counseling at my two universities. From 2006-2013, I saw a total of eight different therapists. Even to this day, I still speak with a counselor regularly.
My depression reached its peak during my 2008 college graduation from Northern Illinois University. At my graduation, I watched members from both my biological family and adopted family squabble and argue about who I loved the most. Watching them fight over me reopened all the old wounds from my childhood of living in foster homes and years counseling sessions. Once again, I felt that I had no control over my life, that I was at still at the mercy of others. I had served in the military, traveled the world, obtained a master’s degree in social work from the University of Chicago, and yet still, I felt that I had no grasp over my life.
By October of 2012, I was twenty-nine years old and about to hit rock bottom. One day, after another night of sleeplessness—even after years of using booze and marijuana to treat my insomnia—the troubles at my job, lack of a stable intimate relationship, and the holidays looming on the horizon came crashing down over me. I broke down in my Southside condo. I did the only thing I could think to do: I called the VA hotline. Luckily, a person whom I will never be able to thank personally was on the other end of that VA hotline. He shared his story about battling depression for ten years after leaving the military and how it caused a downward spiral in his own life. He stayed with me on the line as I checked myself into the VA Hospital. The doctors prescribed me venlafaxine that day.
Moment of Clarity
I had two moments of clarity during my first two months of turning thirty years old. The first moment occurred when I was driving home utterly drunk from a friend’s wedding from Indiana to Chicago. The second moment happened when I had a terrible reaction to marijuana, which landed me in the hospital. These two episodes forced me to reflect upon my life. My road to self-awareness and self-worth involved realizing I had placed too much value on how other people thought I should live and the person I should be. I had never truly appreciated myself as a man, black person, and as a human being. I had focused on making everyone else a priority while undervaluing and being overly critical of myself in all social situations. I had been harder on myself than I had been on other people. Anxiety, bouts of clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic attacks had hindered me on and off since my childhood up until my adult life. This all had affected my personal relationships, romantic ones, and professional life, too.
I made a lot of changes over the next couple of years to become a happier, healthier, more evolved person. First, I learned to value myself. Secondly, I quit self-medicating, stopped taking anti-depressants and rejected negative thoughts. Finally, I accepted failure. For years in counseling, I talked about what it meant to be successful and about my constant fear of failure. But I now view failure as a necessary element to becoming a more successful person. I am much more equipped to deal with negative thoughts and self-doubt. Positive self-talk, working out, taking improv classes, travel, developing my personal relationships and getting daily online tips about ways to improve one’s confidence. One must love oneself first and foremost, and not worry about what other people think.
A month before I turned thirty-five, I had a severe episode that landed me in the hospital. After that experience, I’ve come to realize mental illness like any other chronic disease is not something that ever completely goes away. It must be managed every day. The good thing is after my incident, I still had a loving partner, a supportive family, and great friends to lean on in my time of need. From my previous experiences, they guided me on what not to do after such an event, which is to retreat into extreme self-doubt and anxiety. But for a brief moment in time, I thought I had destroyed the life I had built for myself. I was wrong, I still had people in my corner. The world luckily did not end that night for me. All I had to do is pick up the pieces and rebuild again. With the help a loving partner, I’ve done just that. It’s still an everyday struggle, and it would be a lie to say it’s an easy thing to do. But no one is perfect, and we all have our own challenges.
Through my professional work and personal life, I’ve discovered that many young black people suffer from depression and other mental health issues such as PTSD. For instance, I facilitated many peace circles and conducted group counseling sessions where young black men would share their own personal struggles. They talked about using drugs, reckless sex lives, violence in the community, raising their own children and self-hatred. It helped me understand that my past is connected to a more significant systemic problem—one of race, class, and ideals of masculinity—in our country. Black people who live in poverty suffer from many health issues, but mental health is something that men, due to patriarchal ideals surrounding masculinity, don’t openly talk about. There has been some progress. Especially with celebrities like; Jay Pharoah, Kid Cudi, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and researchers, like my old professor at the University of Chicago, Waldo Johnson speaking up about how depression impacts black men in America. I am sharing my own story as a way of saying to other young black men out there, “You’re not alone, and there is always hope.”