The day I forgot to pray: the reality of suicide among Black women

My mind is still reeling and my spirit is still moaning; I am devastated by the apparent suicide of beautiful brown girl Karyn Washington, the 22-year old creator of “For Brown Girls Blog.”  Imprisoned by her depression and perhaps also by her work in the black blogosphere that encouraged black women to love themselves, their bodies, their hair, and each other, she didn’t feel free to ask for help, to acknowledge a weakness, that she didn’t have it all together as her persona portrayed. Thus, Karyn Washington saw death as her only option for freedom.

Washington’s story so poignantly reminded me of my own suicide attempt, and I remembered the darkness in which I had walked and lived.  I painfully recalled the profoundly intense feelings of loneliness and aloneness and I cried and cried for her and all of the many beautiful brown girls who experience the pain of living and knowing the reality in which living “ain’t” easy.

On June 26, 2002, I tried to kill myself.  I took a bottle of pills and attempted to down all of them with a tall glass of E&J Cask & Cream, in an effort to send myself into oblivion so that I would no longer have to deal, with my pain, which was a hurt so incredibly deep that I couldn’t breathe. For at that moment, I didn’t want to live.  I didn’t have the courage, the strength, the drive to keep on dealing, not for one more day, not for one more hour, not for one more minute.  Not for my daughter, not for my mother, not for my sisters and brothers, not for my friends, and certainly not for myself.  I just wanted to be done with my troubles and with this world.

Unfortunately, I am one of many who attempt suicide, many of whom are African-American women.  According to Black Women’s Health Imperative, an organization dedicated to Black women’s health issues, “a woman commits suicide every 90 minutes, but it’s estimated that one woman attempts suicide every 78 seconds.” For years, the suicide rate for Black people was one-half of the rate for White people; however, that number is steadily decreasing, primarily because of stressful living conditions:  “poverty, discrimination, racism, abuse, rejection from the American society and dysfunctional family life.”

Unfortunately, depression is “one of the least diagnosed psychological disorders in the African-American community, a community too often diagnosed with ADHD or ADD and overprescribed with Ritalin and Prozac,” notes Denver-based therapist Olisa Yaa Ajinaku of Sankofa Psychological Services, Inc.  Also, depression often manifests itself in physical ailments and pain—back and headaches, high blood pressure—as well as alcoholism, drug abuse, verbal, psychological and physical abuse of family members and loved ones.

Psychologist Edith M. Fresh notes also the sharp increase in the suicide rate for professional African American-women and assigns the cause as their abrupt contact with the glass ceiling, a particularly devastating reality when one considers the high price they have paid to fit in and climb the corporate ladder to obtain the corner office and large window on the 20th floor.  Having sometimes sacrificed family and culture, they have little left over with which to nurture themselves.

Further complicating matters is the cultural tendency of African Americans to not seek help for mental health problems.  We live in a world that tells us to “suck it up,” “cry and you cry alone,” and “stop crying before I give you something to cry about.” When we do share, we often seek counseling from the pastor, who often is not a trained therapist, and with whom we often edit our stories so as not to paint an ugly, although real, portrait of ourselves.  Many of us believe we should just take our burdens to the Lord and leave them there, telling no one about them but Jesus, for “what a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” Because we live in a culture whose motto is “Too blessed to be stressed,” we don’t say a “mumbling word” about our wounded spirits or our personal crisis’ and issues. Instead, we just relegate them to the outer fringes our consciousness, feeling as though we don’t have a right to complain.  So, we don’t tell anyone about our troubles; we just die of high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, conditions complicated by stress.  We don’t see therapy as a viable option because therapy has been stigmatized; it’s for weak people who can’t deal with the real and for crazy people, and not many of us are willing to admit we are weak or crazy, even if it’s true.

There also exists the myth of the superwoman, the woman “who got it going on,” so much so that she can’t tell anybody, not one soul that she’s “dancing on beer cans and shingles”.  That’s where I was, deeply entrenched in the myth; for me, vulnerability was an ugly word.  No one suspected I, like so many of my African American sisters, was in so much trouble emotionally and psychologically, and I didn’t dare to bare that weakness, particularly since it was on my shoulders that many leaned and cried.  I was the one with all of answers and who gave the pep talks and counseling.  Therefore, I was so afraid of being found out, of appearing weak, that I wore a mask of happiness and contentment when all I felt was inner turmoil, a chaos that manifested itself in my intensely nervous energy, a need to be in constant motion, going and going and going.  My now ex-husband, an Ifa priest, saw through my mask and tried to reach for me and free me, but I resisted what he knew, denied that I knew, and pretended that all was well with my soul.

Although I had fleetingly contemplated suicide throughout my life, I was shocked when I actually attempted it, for I had always been a deeply spiritual person, even as a child. When I was a little girl, my mother would have me rub her tired, aching legs or scratch the tension out of her scalp because I had “healing hands.” When I was about five years old, our neighbor, Mrs. Pope, an aging White lady, was ill; I went to her house and prayed for her.  As I was leaving her house to begin the relatively short dirt-road trek back to my house, I met her husband, tired from a long day’s work in the fields, driving into their front yard on a tractor, I said to him, “I just prayed for Mrs. Pope.  I’m gonna pray for you, too.” Amazed at my praying, the Popes called my Mommy to tell her about it.  I was anointed a praying woman when I was 12.  I often lead the church in prayer because I was known to bring the house and the Lord down.

However, there came a day when I forgot to pray.  Instead, I took matters and my life into my hands.  Having heard my husband say he wanted a divorce and looking briefly down the road of my life and seeing only loneliness and emptiness, a series of meaningless or insignificant relationships, unable to love, I decided to kill myself.  As my husband was driving away, headed back to work and to a life that would soon be without me, I told him that I loved him and goodbye. My heart breaking and my tears falling, I said to him, “I wish you would tell me you love me too; it will be your last time.” Perhaps a little alarmed, he asked where I was going. I calmly said, “probably to hell.”

Not taking a moment to acknowledge the many blessings that had been bestowed upon me my entire life, I said to my mother-in-law, whom I believed never really liked or accepted me, “Well, I guess you can be happy now; we’re getting a divorce.” I went to the medicine cabinet, found a full bottle of pills, and without bothering to read the label, I emptied them into my hand, walked into the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and began to calmly and methodically take them, counting each one as I swallowed, giving my sister, whom I telephoned and was becoming distraught, a running count, asking that she make sure Zora knew I loved her. Once I had taken them all, I went into the bedroom to finish my mission. I poured a glass of Cask and Cream, but my husband, having reflected on my last words and come back home, would not let me, which infuriated me.  I just wanted to die.  Seeking to deter the medics from saving me, I told them I had only taken two pills, not 25, a lie they didn’t believe.

But how did I get to the point where I would choose death over life, where I thought my life should end because my marriage was ending? My husband and I started off so much in love.  We gave each other ourselves completely.  Sure, we had our trials, but we had each other, to hell with the world.  But somewhere along the way, we lost each other to misunderstandings, miscommunication, and misperceptions.  Way led to way and that way was away from each other.  So, I wasn’t really surprised when he finally acknowledged he wanted a divorce.  I was, however, devastated.  I could not believe that my marriage had come to this, with my husband alternating between loving and hating me, wanting me gone but wanting me to stay.  I believed that his three sons from a previous marriage and relationship couldn’t care less about me and wanted me out of their lives.

And so I just wanted to be done with the pain, with the intense rejection I felt from my husband, his children, his mother.  I just couldn’t accept what I considered to be my major failure—my marriage.  I didn’t think about family, my friends, not even my daughter, my precious Zora Indigo.  I didn’t consider their impending grief, a pained will to them at my death.  I didn’t think at all of my major accomplishments.  I was the mother of an absolutely wonderful daughter. I was close to completing my Ph.D from the University of Maryland, College Park.  I was a tenured assistant professor at a university. I was loved by so many people.  But in loving my husband, I loved him so completely that I left nothing for myself.  I made him the center of my universe.  So, without him, I felt I had nothing.  But not loving myself was not so difficult. As a child, I had been molested for several years by a close family member, which I kept secret.  The molestation made me ashamed of myself, of my body, my pretty looks, and good hair.  I truly believed I was a nasty girl who was tainted and thus an “untouchable” and so unlovable, even by me.

Although I knew I had been molested, I disconnected myself from that knowledge and cringed in silent repulsion whenever a man tried to caress my body.  But in not wanting to acknowledge it, I convinced myself that I wasn’t affected by it, as I so nonchalantly told my sisterfriend, a therapist, who looked at me aghast, for she clearly saw in me all the symptoms of a sexual abuse victim.  I spent my life running from the truth.  I grew up subconsciously feeling like the molestation was my fault.  Somewhere along the way I believed my molester chose me because of my hair, so I stopped liking it.  Despite my mother’s constant declaration that a “woman’s hair is her glory,” I kept my hair cut low to my scalp.

It was quite difficult submitting this essay, thus acknowledging to the world that I am not this “cool, happening chick” who got it all together, to put my business in streets and admit vulnerability.  However, I needed to say my “peace” and sign my name because suicide is an issue that needs to be addressed openly and honestly in the Black community.  But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.  It took the demise of my marriage for me to acknowledge that I had truths and consequences to face.  More sadly, it took my suicide attempt to get my own attention, for me to see that I was in desperate need of help.

Although my life had been saved with the help of medics, the doctor, and liquid charcoal, it was therapy that saved my spirit, for therapy provided a safe place for me to talk, to express my deepest fears and shame. Therapy also helped me to see that it wasn’t my failed marriage that caused my suicide attempt; it was just an excuse, yet another reason to not deal with the underlying cause of my self-loathing and fear of intimacy.

But in order for therapy to work, we must be honest with our therapists, but more significantly, we must be honest with ourselves.  I managed to convince two therapists that I was fine and was discharged after only a few sessions, even though I had attempted suicide.  I even agreed with my second therapist who said, perhaps unable to address my sexual abuse issues, that I didn’t appear to have been adversely affected by the molestations since I was able to function–I got my Ph.D, taught every class without breaking down, and maintained a seemingly sane standard of living.  While my mind screamed “dysfunction,” my mouth didn’t utter a word of protest.  I didn’t give voice to my sense of betrayal, loss of innocence, and inability to open up and share my innermost self with my husband or myself.  I needed desperately for someone to read between the lines and hear the anguish in my silence and my story, to look into my eyes and see my wounded soul, to know my words and smile were not real.

Fortunately, my third therapist, whom I discovered listed on the Associated of Black Psychologists website , recognized that I had real issues to work through.  She assuaged my apprehensions about a quick and superficial cure; she assured me she wouldn’t discharge me before I was ready.  Because I was in such a dark space, it was only at the conclusion of my fourth session did I realize there were pictures on the wall and light in the office.

With my fourth therapist, I had finally found the perfect fit.  She was successful in getting me to go deep and face painful truths long buried and had an uncanny but gifted way of hearing what I didn’t say and helped me to articulate my jumbled thoughts and secrets.  With her, I didn’t edit or censure myself the way many of us do when we share our problems with religious leaders, family members, and friends, for we value their opinion of us too much to reveal the ugly truths and deep secrets our ourselves, our thoughts, and our deeds.  The things I wasn’t able to voice I wrote down on a sheet of paper for her to read.  And she did, without judgement, shock, or disbelief.  Through her insightful questions, I dug deep inside of myself and uncovered the mask I had long worn.  She handed me a mirror and helped me to see that the molestation wasn’t my fault, my failed marriage wasn’t my fault, that I was indeed a beautiful person, a beautiful woman.  I learned to say with conviction, “I’m not perfect and that’s okay.”

Despite the tremendous gains I’ve made in healing my broken spirit, living without guilt and shame is a struggle.  The superwoman syndrome lurks in my subconscious, haunting and taunting me.  I sometime worry about being perceived as weak, with feeling I’ve failed because I didn’t practice my own teachings.  Even though it was my inability to admit I needed help that led me down the valley of death’s shadows, I still fight against feeling ashamed for needing help, for not being the “sista”
who got it all together that I presented to the world.  So, each day I affirm that I am somebody, that I’m not perfect and that’s okay.

From this experience, I have learned the absolute importance of being still and getting to know myself and actually liking me.  I don’t offer any apologies for who I am.  In a moment of weakness and self-hate, I attempted suicide.  But I survived myself and life’s difficulties.  I am no longer a size 8, and I’m loving my hips, my derriere, my face.  I simply am me and that’s enough.  I no longer feel the need to run away from myself or life.  I know now that to teach a lesson, one must learn the lesson.

Writing this now, all of my reasons for wanting to die sound so trivial, for nothing is more precious than life.  That fateful day is over, and thankfully I am still alive.  I am so grateful that Spirit didn’t let me die because death isn’t what I wanted and would not have chosen, and I forgot to pray.  I realize now that in trying to kill myself, I was trying to kill a woman who had been abused, who couldn’t tell anyone it, who thought she was too tainted to be loved, even by herself.  But I didn’t die; that woman did.

In remembering spirit and all its blessings, I now choose life.  So, whenever I am feeling sad, lonely, and alone, and I sometimes do, I reach for my “re-memories” as I remember that I am loved.  I grab hold to my daughter and hold her tight.  I put my arms around myself and cherish me, and I say, “I’m not perfect, and that’s okay.”

And so I share with you my personal story, which is still a difficult admission of vulnerability, with the hope that there may be no more suicides of beautiful brown girls.  So that we can learn to embrace and love our perfectly imperfect selves.   So that we can bravely remove our masks of strength and be honest about our real vulnerabilities.  So that we can say without fear or trepidation, “I am not perfect, and that’s okay.  I am not so strong, and that’s okay.  I need help, and that’s okay.” So that we can look in the mirror and see reflected in it the beautiful woman looking back at us, full of flaws, vulnerabilities, and the courage to unapologetically love her and introduce her to the world. This is indeed for “colored girls who have considered suicide” because we thought our rainbows were not enough.

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