I live with major depressive disorder. This article details how I've navigated the world with a diagnosed mental health disorder as my co-pilot. There was a time when I didn’t know what it was; depression is not something a black person necessarily grows up understanding. My journey to understand and accept it is riddled with trials and tribulations, but I hope you find solace in my tale of woe and wellness.
Whenever I have an ‘episode,’ I always feel like I’m starting over — uncertain of the progress I’ve made and what happened to get me to this point. To understand how living with this disorder affects me, it's important to track the checkpoints in my life back to when I first realized something was wrong with my brain.
It all started this morning when I woke up and wished I hadn't. I'm prone to vivid dreams, some delightful, others less so. Hearing my alarm signal me to get out of bed and start my day is a waking nightmare. It means I have to deal with people, deal with technology, deal with the stress that comes with all the above. It means I have to deal with myself. It usually takes me an hour or so to get out of bed, not because I'm physically incapable, but because my brain, or something in my brain, is broken. At least that’s what the voice inside my head tells me — that I'm better off wasting away in bed all day. That I'm better off dead. To distract myself from these thoughts, I grab my second brain, a.k.a. my smartphone, and check all my social media accounts for validation in the form of a red balloon with a number in it. How many "Likes" did my posts get? I get lost in the lives of my friends and perfect strangers. Everyone looks so happy on social media. Then I start thinking “Why can't I feel as happy as they appear?” Then comes the spiral. The Gray Hand grabs hold, guiding me further and further into self-doubt. I question my own self-worth. The familiar darkness emerges; it's where my depression thrives. While The Gray Hand is smaller than it used to be, it's still there to lead me to known places of resentment and self-harm.
Fortunately at the bottom of that spiral of despair, there is a door. That door is the way out. Unfortunately, I have to go through the worst of it to get to the best of it.
Then, and only then, can I get out of bed and get on with the rest of my day. My work. My life.
It all started in fall of 2014 when I tried to provoke my partner into breaking up with me. We were living in our small, overpriced studio apartment in Brooklyn. I was out of work, out of money, and she was supporting me. I felt hopeless. I was depressed because I couldn't find gainful employment, and I couldn't find gainful employment because I was depressed. It had been 10 years since I worked in an office. I taught English as a second language for awhile after living in Japan for a year. From there, I kind of fell into job after job teaching English to tourists and visa seekers. Now, I was trying to make a mark as a freelance designer. In New York, everyone is a freelance something. The daily grind there creates a blend of self-loathing and misery, for me at least.
One day I had had enough. I told myself I wasn't going to do it anymore. I wanted a reboot. I wanted to retreat and hide at my mother's house, only a short subway ride away. Away from the world. Away from my partner. Alone with my gut-wrenching emotional pain. I could feel The Gray Hand behind me, casting its shadow over me as its fingers enveloped me. It was pulling me down. I could feel the gravity of it and that made it easier to let go of everything that made me happy.
My partner and I had gotten into another discussion about money, which led to an argument. I wanted this to happen. I looked forward to it. Anything that would prove to her, to myself, that I wasn't worthy of love. It was an easy out, for her and for me. I begged, pleaded with her to break up with me. That night was the third time (and last time) that I ever cried in my adult life. She didn't break up with me that night. If anything, it brought us closer. It wasn't out of pity or obligation. For the first time, I knew what it was like to have someone outside of yourself and your family care about you. I was loved by someone who didn't have to feel that way and had every opportunity to walk out of my life. Instead, she stayed. And I healed. We healed. And The Gray Hand relinquished its grasp. I felt lighter.
It all started in the summer of 2013 when my best friend cut me out of her life. We had been friends since my junior year in university and we were close. So close that people thought we were dating. This friendship lasted for 15 years through thick and thin. She was the reason I sought therapy in the first place; she recommended it. She helped me find my first therapist and I will forever be grateful to her for that. We weathered plenty of storms together. From breakups to breakdowns and life-threatening illnesses, we were there for each other. Until we weren’t.
As my depression worsened and I withdrew, The Gray Hand set up a barrier between us. As I navigated my mood and medication, I lost sight of her and our friendship. The Gray Hand provided me an ill comfort, one that I knew would always be there in spite of how much it hurt. It had become the most familiar thing to me, more so than even she had. The Gray Hand succeeded in pulling me away from her (and everyone else I called a friend). I couldn’t muster up the energy to leave the house, much less to tell her how broken I was inside. The self-hate, the anxiety around crowds, the financial toll of not being able to work because I felt worthless, I couldn’t express any of it. I was afraid she would shut me out. It was because I couldn’t express this that she shut me out. I don’t blame her for ending our friendship. Dealing with someone living with a depressive disorder is difficult. They can drag you down with them if you’re not prepared for the burden. Mind you, that is not their intent. If anything, they push you away so that they don’t drag you down. It’s a form of selfishly being selfless to protect you from them and their mental issues. I defy anyone in a similar situation as her to say they would do anything otherwise. I wish she could have understood my inner turmoil. I wish I could have made her understand why I couldn’t hang out with her on the regular like we used to. Why I couldn’t go out to the movies, or out to get a drink with her. Why I couldn’t afford to. I wish she could have seen The Gray Hand around me, dragging me into my own personal purgatory.
It all started on Christmas Day 2007 when I wanted to run away from my family. Every year we would gather at a relative's house, and this year was no different. I remember sitting on my sister’s couch. It was a jovial atmosphere: kids running around, adults imbibing rum drinks, everyone stuffed to the gills with all manner of soul food. There was laughter and whooping and hollering as we reminisced and looked forward to the future.
And I felt dead inside.
All I could remember was wanting to go back to my empty apartment and be alone. The joy of my family was too much to bear. What was meant to be an occasion filled with glee and mirth was, to me, a nightmare scenario. It was as if I was moving in slow motion and everything around me was moving at triple speed. I was tunnel-visioning into the abyss. A cold sweat drenched my clothing, and I was screaming on the inside. How could everyone be so happy when I’m in so much anguish? I became resentful, angry, disgusted by their unfettered joy. I needed to escape, to abscond to my cold, dark, closet of a bedroom and sleep. Maybe when I woke up things would be better. I would be able to feel happy again.
I left soon after the panic attack. I got home to my empty apartment and laid my head down. I let The Gray Hand tuck me in and pat me on the head. I cried myself to sleep.
Depression will do whatever it can to isolate you from what and who you love. It is irrational and uncompromising. It doesn’t give a damn who you are, how much money you make, what your skin color is, or what god you do or don’t believe in. If it goes unchecked for too long, it can be dangerous.
It all started in my senior year at university when I attempted to take my own life. I was always a weird kid. I was a “nerd” way before it became cool. I played Dungeons & Dragons, watched anime and wrote poetry. But I had good friends and plenty of them. We were all into those things together —the whole Black, Brown and Pan-Asian lot of us.
Then I went to university and things changed. My friends back home were the ones I grew up with. We became friends because of proximity and stayed friends because of the bonds we formed. In university, I was starting all over. Not only that, but I was one of a handful of black students at the University of Delaware, a majority white institution, majoring in film theory. I tried to join the Black Student Union but I wasn’t connecting with them despite everyone's best efforts.
In time, I made a few friends from diverse backgrounds who had similar interests. Most of them identified as White. The woman I ended up dating for most of my time in university was White. I was happy-ish, but I still felt alone, like something was missing. I felt like a husk of my younger self going through the motions of a “typical college kid.”
I visited my school’s on-campus counseling facility. Even then, White faces surrounded me. Would they understand? Would they want to? Would it be possible for them to understand the inner workings of a weird black kid from NYC in a college town a stone’s throw away from the Mason-Dixon Line?
The answer was a resounding 'No.' The counselor nodded his head and said, “Oh yeah, that is a problem…” for most of the intake. I was unimpressed, and although I didn’t know it at the time, majorly depressed.
It wasn’t long after that appointment that I decided to kill myself. I have lived with chronic back pain for most of my life, so I had a prescription of muscle relaxers. I remember the bright yellow label warning me not to take more than prescribed. 'Consult a physician immediately,' if you do, it read. I interpreted that to mean they could deal a fatal blow. I downed the remaining half bottle in one gulp.
The suicide didn’t take. I woke up the following day sick and disappointed. It was then I realized something may be wrong with me, but I didn’t know what to call it. I couldn’t put words to it because, as members of my community told me all my life, “Black people don’t get depressed. That’s some white people nonsense.” I tried to tell my girlfriend at the time what I was feeling and that I wanted to kill myself. She dismissed it as me wanting attention. I did want attention. What’s so wrong with wanting attention? I needed help. I felt a hand on my shoulder but when I looked over, I saw five gray fingers massaging me, then clenching. There was this weight that was holding me down, pressing me down. I felt like I was being crushed, and that my heart was breaking.
It’s been 19 years since my suicide attempt. I don’t suffer from depression anymore. I live with it. It is as much a part of me as my fingers and toes. The Gray Hand will always be there like a phantom appendage. I take control over it with a regimen of medication, positive self-talk and space to deal with it. I have a support network. I’m still with my patient and loving partner. We bought a house together in Homestead last year after living in Wilkinsburg for two years. Although I still feel like my brain is broken, I have given it a name. Knowing its name gives me power over it. As long as I have that power, The Gray Hand will never own me like it did in the past.
It all started as it will all end, but what happens in between, I have well in hand.
Jason McKoy, 39, is creativity consultant and CEO of McKoy Creative, a project management and design agency. You can catch him in the wild drinking coffee, reading books about the Cthulhu mythos, or playing complicated tabletop games. He can be reached personally on Twitter at @spelledwitha_K or professionally at McKoyCreative.com.