*For Chester. May your lights never dim.
Your first step – really, your most important step, the step you will return to again and again – is to name the darkness. You see, it operates best in secret, this darkness. It keeps you shrouded and cloaked in its shadows, making sure you feel completely isolated and unseen. To diminish and deny it its power over you, you have to name it. It will be hard. People may not want to hear it. They may not want to see you. But if you are to make it out of the darkness alive, you have to say it.
The next question is about what you say. This is where a lot of people get stuck. If you’re like me – which is to say black, and African – you may battle against cultural norms that are distrustful of the predominantly Western psycho-medical language of ‘depression’ or ‘mental illness’. Try not to get stuck in the meaninglessness of the language argument. Even if those around you reject the label you give the darkness, trust that they are nevertheless familiar with the discontents of the darkness. Everyone knows someone. Sometimes, everyone is someone. Even if they’re black and they come from a culture that doesn’t accept the Western understandings of darkness.
Once you’re over the question of naming, once you’ve spoken out about the darkness and the danger, you will need help. To accept help, you first need to come to terms with the fact that you will not be able to do this alone. You won’t be able to survive on your own wits. You can’t just talk yourself out of this. You can’t write your way out. You absolutely should not try to eat or drink your way through. The darkness is beastly in nature. You can’t do battle with it without an array of weapons at your disposal. Accept that truth. Then – and here’s where it gets difficult – accept that not all of the weapons will be familiar to you or comfortable to use. At first, some of them may seem like giving up. Filling a monthly prescription for an antidepressant. Submitting to a therapist’s couch. Others will seem like luxuries, extras. Acupuncture. Long, solo road trips. Journalling. Making use of that gym membership. Letting go of those things that do not feed you. Letting go of the people who feed your darkness. Some of these will be easy and familiar, others will be scary and unknown. And they won’t always work. You might try something new and find that it does nothing to help you run faster, fight harder. Let it go. That’s the beauty of this part. There are options. And if you try something at the suggestion of a fellow soldier, and it doesn’t work out, don’t feel obliged to stick with it. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this.
The last step is accepting that you won’t ever be more than a single step ahead of the darkness. No matter how far or fast you run, or how hard you work. You’ll need to stick with it. Even when – especially when – you start to feel like you’re in the clear. The Western psycho-medical framework has its limitations, but I find this is where it is most useful. By framing the darkness as disease, as dis-ease, it makes it clear that you need to do everything you can to maintain your good health, your ease. Treating my darkness as a cancer from which I am in remission has seen me through the deepest parts of the darkness.
I know that seems bleak. To be okay, you have to constantly be aware of the ways in which you’re not okay? Okay. You see, the great secret is this: what makes life outside of the darkness so spectacular, and so bright, is the knowledge that the darkness is always near. I am grateful for every bright spark, no matter how small, because I know just how easily it can dim. And so, in service to all the brightness in my life, especially the incomparable brightness brought to me by my partner and our son, and our amazing family and friends, I keep going to therapy. I take my daily dose of antidepressants. I listen carefully to the whispers in my brain that tell me when I need to work a little bit harder at my daily fight. But I don’t ever stop because I know that if I do, darkness falls.
I know I owe it to myself and to my bright lights to keep that from happening.