Here's Where It's Safe to Take Off Your Mask
In the midst of a divorce many years ago, I found myself weighed down with anxiety and depression. I reached out to family and friends only to notify them of what I was going through but not necessarily how I was getting through.
I remember thinking at the time that I needed to be “strong” and figure out how to move past what was happening. I had to get up every morning, put on the proverbial mask, and go to work. I maneuvered through everyday life not giving any inclination that I was about to break down at any moment. People would tell me that they knew I would make it, because I’m “strong.”
There’s that word again.
There is a stigma around mental health in Black communities, particularly with Black women. Historically, we’ve had to dismiss what we’re feeling and what we’re going through as a means of survival. And that survival trickles its way down generation after generation.
Growing up, I was never taught to withhold my emotions but I watched my mother wear that mask a lot. So, I learned how to push through difficult moments in my life, without stopping to take care of myself. It’s the idea that if you stop to acknowledge your emotions, or have the audacity to deal with them, you will let others down. And then you’ll be destroyed.
Truth is, the strong Black woman narrative is detrimental to our mental health and well-being. It robs us of pure joy. It’s a mountain of pressure that forces us to internalize all situations and not truly express how we really feel.
In one study from 2011, Black women were interviewed about this common stigma. They described feeling an obligation to suppress their emotions, and considered asking for help as a sign of weakness. They also recalled avoiding help when they truly needed it. As a result of suppressing their emotions, some of the women described experiencing emotional and physical breakdowns.
After my divorce, my primary care physician asked me if I needed an anti-depressant, since I was going through a lot emotionally. I refused. I knew that I didn’t want to be medicated. What I did need was a therapist but I worried what people would think if they knew I was seeking help. So, I pushed through. I found myself making decisions that weren’t in my best interest, when it came to who I was allowing a front row seat in my life. I was trying to fill a void in all the wrong ways and I suffered emotionally for it.
In light of everything that has happened this past year with COVID, we’ve all been forced to take an inventory of ourselves. The pandemic not only disproportionately affected the Black community medically, legally, and financially but it has also caused tremendous stress and sadness. However, these things are not signs of weakness. Acknowledging emotional vulnerability is healthy, because now the healing process can begin.
I have made significant strides towards improving my mental health and wellness, especially within the last two years. I realize no one can do that for me, and I have to take responsibility for my how I maneuver through this life. The mask no longer works, except for getting through this pandemic!
I know that being a strong Black woman means that I don’t have to do things on my own. It’s speaking up for myself personally and professionally, and knowing that going through and getting through are two separate things. I love myself more than anyone ever can, and it’s my God-given right to have pure joy.