Guernica

Black Girl Going Mad

I’d been living in Dallas, Texas, for six months when the city began to reject me like a hastily transplanted kidney. The comfort and convenience of being close to family—they were a half hour’s drive away in the northern suburbs—no longer eased my various disquiets. I’d abandoned the Gulf of Mexico with its infinite rain to resettle the beige-lawn land of my childhood, but I was as disassembled here as I was in the previous cities I’d lived.

It was a lie I’d invented, that moving past pain was at its heart a locational matter, an issue of trading memory-soaked geography for a pristine place. But the problem lived in me. I awoke regularly at 2 a.m., feverish and sweating, certain my mattress was a conveyor belt. I pictured my limbs arranged in a row on the black rubber, an invisible mechanic carrying them toward a disembodied torso where they clicked into place.  

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies,” Bessel Van der Kolk argues in The Body Keeps the Score, his book on trauma and recovery. “The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.” By sixth grade I’d already collected a small backpack’s worth of misfortunes. My mother, baffled, would stare at me as I cried inconsolably and begged her not to make me go to school. By the time I was a teenager, I was already familiar with the numerous ways a body could make itself into a stranger because of pain.

Dallas during the Bush II years was Peak Texas. The sort of Texas that lives in the collective imagination of both its fans and discontents. Sexual harassment, racism, and misogyny were a daily reality at the fundamentalist, Baptist school where I was a student.

In retrospect, it seems strange that at twenty-six I chose to return to this city of Good Christian Bitches, but I’m not the first person to be fooled by the notion of a fresh start. My spouse and I had just had a baby. Born three months early, Little F. brought a level of upheaval into our lives that left us wondering why we stayed in a city we had little to no connection to. In Dallas I had my mother, cousins, and old friends, at least. We hoped a move would undo the crushing loneliness that is new parenthood.

My partner worked from home at a job she despised to support us financially. This was the solid, dependable woman I’d fallen in love with at college eight years earlier. I was an eighteen-year-old, already mercurial, prone to volatile relationships, while she was anchored, a remarkably good student from an intact two-parent family. Her life seemed like a sitcom and I wanted to be her quirky love interest.

I cared for our newborn as lovingly and devotedly as I could. Despite the baby’s demands, which were overwhelming and many, mothering was a stabilizing force for me: warm, regurgitated milk running down the skin of my back, pea-sized toes digging into my belly during joint naps.

I should’ve been content in our little East Dallas bungalow. The tiny three-bedroom was in a family-friendly, working-class neighborhood, home to many Mexican immigrants. The neighbors had a cockerel they hid in their garden shed that woke us up most mornings at dawn, and that seemed like a dream to me, like I’d hit the big time.

That didn’t stop me from going crazy. True crazy. While my days spent at home meant few knew about what I was going through, my behavior had passed the lines of what was socially acceptable. Not for the first time, I started seeing a psychiatrist, confessed to him about the things I saw that others didn’t see (messages in the stars, in street signs, in numbers on billboards). He prescribed medications whose only saving grace was that they were small and therefore easy to swallow.

Despite this, I still felt a profound wrongness that would not go away. In the middle of one January night, I left my home. I left for a place that did not exist.

I was going to a place called the Facility. It was Nikitas “Division.” The Men in Black headquarters. I felt certain this underground laboratory contained wondrous things relevant to my redemption. Nanobots to scrape my brain of unpleasant data. Scientists to remove the magnetic chip in my neck that drew ugliness toward me.

Lost in delusion, I fixated on a metallic and silicone baptism. Lasers scrubbing me clean. A mechanical Jesus who, in addition to washing away what I’d done, washed away various things that had been done to me.

Even lost in the depths of hallucination, it didn’t occur to my misfiring neurotransmitters to build a fantasy in which I blew up the Man or brought my victimizers to violent ends. Instead, my brain exaggerated a real-life scenario in which I was the one at fault and needed to be cleaned.

I was well versed in how to turn blame inward. I knew that whatever my life was, whatever misfortune came to me, it was of my own making. Is that not the heart of independence? Of bootstraps? I’d been properly indoctrinated into the dog-eat-dog tenets of capitalism, and I constructed my delusions around a myth of self-sufficiency. I was a frontierswoman, and I would shoot my traumas like they were attacking grizzlies or invading marauders.

Tanya Luhrrman, an anthropologist and professor at Stanford University, has devoted a large portion of her career to chronicling and understanding the intersections of mental illness and sociopolitical location. She, along with other scholars, conducted the interview-based study “Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the USA, India and Ghana” in June 2014, which revealed that local culture shapes the voice-hearing experiences of those with psychotic disorders. Auditory hallucinations in Americans were almost universally persecutory and violent. They perceived their voices as interlopers and violators. Indians and Ghanaians tended to view their voices as more benign. Not only were the hallucinations not experienced as invasive, the study found, but people formed “rich relationships” with them.

My Western upbringing has had its toll, then. My paranoid delusions that late January evening had absorbed a distinctly American message: independence being the greatest virtue, we must suffer trauma and illness alone. There’s a reason we call mental disturbances “personal demons” and not “culturally orchestrated demons” or “societal demons.” My bad brain designed an appropriately American scenario in which I, by sheer will and gumption, would fix myself.

The night I went to the Facility, I walked an ambling course. I looked skyward, searching for messages, signs, or coordinates in the heavens. The sky was marled gray-black, but I saw a cluster of seven stars in the shape of an arrow.

Dogs barked at me from every backyard. Every family kept a semi-neglected pit bull chained behind the house. “I know,” I told them. They sensed it, too. The wrongness of this place.

A woman across the street smoked a cigarette from a beach chair on her porch and I wondered if she was a spy. Her nightgown and house slippers appeared too new.

Stop acting so crazy.

I arrived at an empty playground and walked into the field, madly in love with its openness. The grass was wet and dewy against the bottoms of my bare feet. A single streetlamp lit the cul-de-sac at the end of the block. I took off my clothes because they were laced with wires, bugs, threats I couldn’t articulate but could feel.

My partner called my name, repeating it again and again, but I could not hear her for the persistent beeping telling me I was close to my destination. There was a portal underground that would transport me to the Facility, where I would be saved.

Soon, there was a blanket about my shoulders, my partner leading me home for the fifth time that week.

*

Madness and I have been companions for some time. Eleven years old, at a summer camp in rural Texas, I swam alone in the lake, fifteen yards from the nearest camper, my head underwater and my hands clasped around my ankles, cannonball-style, for minutes at a time.

One of the camp counselors shouted at me to resurface, then asked, “What are you doing?”

“I’m seeing what it’d be like to be tied up and thrown into the water.”

But the most exhilarating moment came later that summer. Counselors took us to a small cliff where we could jump into the icy river. When I took my turn, the dam opened, and the current changed from light and frolicking to massive and deity-strong. My whole body numb, I let myself be dragged. When a counselor called my name, an arm reached out toward me (they were anchored to a tree on the riverbank with a rope). I swam as hard I could toward them. Once safe in their arms, I imagined them taking me back to a secret cabin and having sex with me. This was my ultimate dream.

So young, and already strange and deviant. I look back on my little-girl self with fascination. I don’t know how she survived.

*

Black women are mad even when we’re not mad. Loud, defiant, expressive, emotional, oversensitive, dumb, hypersexual. The dominant cultural image of the Black woman projects deviant traits onto her. This is evident in angry-Black-woman and promiscuous-Jezebel stereotypes, in media portrayals that disproportionately show us as unreasonably outspoken, and in the demonization of our religious expression—whether it be the raucous Holy Ghost–filled Christianity with bodies convulsing in church aisles and shouting praises in angelic tongues; women singing so good they must’ve made a crossroads deal (heels thrown to the side, choir robes abandoned); or veiled heads at the mosque, showing we’re repressed, extremist, terrorists.

An article in The Guardian recently addressed the struggles Black women in England face with mental health, devoting large attention to the pressure on women of African-Caribbean descent to conceal their natural selves to fit into white work environments. Being careful not to talk too loud, or to gesticulate, or to somehow play into the image of the mad Black woman. Constantly policing your expression has a damaging effect on the psyche. The article notes that Black people are hospitalized for mental health reasons at twice the rate of  white people—not surprising, considering the overlap between mental illness and poverty, trauma, neglect, racism, and sexism. For those outside the white Western mold because of their ethnicity or background, life is a constant barrage of stressors. Those stressors have long-lasting impact. How could they not?

For Black women further outside the realm of social acceptability because of their sexuality and/or coercively assigned sex at birth, because of their chronic illness or disability, because of their status as a recent immigrant, because of their accented English, mental illness, or, at least, mental health crises, can seem like an inevitability.

*

Depression, it’s true, is considered a White Folk Thing. Search “Black women and mental health” and you’ll turn up several results on the stigma surrounding mental illness in Black communities. It’s been my experience, however, that mental illness is a rather mundane topic for many Black people. We may not use the same naming conventions, and we may not medicalize or pathologize it in the same ways. While I cannot deny the subset of people in the “pray it away” camp,  I would argue that they are greatly influenced by the larger, white, Protestant version of Christianity that considers mental upset a personal failing.

Then there is my bipolar aunt, whose unpredictable moods are shrugged at, and my hot-tempered grandmother, often deeply sad, who saw ghosts. I see ghosts, too. My family would say, That’s because ghosts are real.

*

When I was fifteen, my mother called the police after I’d been stalked by a sixty-year-old white man. I’d initiated the relationship. I’d been acting out like that since I was young.

At the interview with the detective assigned to the case, I sat in a rolling chair, twisting in a semicircle on its axis. Jeans and Chuck Taylors, hair cut short, glasses, I could’ve just as easily been in the principal’s office. It was the same sort of police station you’d see in a movie. Oversized brown desks from a different era. Handcuffed people, mostly Black and brown, here and there. Everyone was drinking black coffee. The detective seemed compassionate—realist but compassionate. I told him about my part in the relationship with this much older man and he understood that confession for what it was: absolutely irrelevant.

“First, you’re going to testify to a grand jury,” he said, and that’s when I shut down. I believed I’d lured a God-fearing Christian man into sin with my wiles. After all, I’d met him in an AOL Christian chatroom. His screen name was Carl4Jesus.

When the stalker in question had approached me earlier that week, I was standing on the sidewalk outside of my apartment building, backpack hoisted over my shoulder, headphones around my neck. I shook with fear as he demanded to come upstairs. I yelled at him to go away, to leave me alone, my mother would be home soon.

Men and women walked by, fastidiously averting their gazes. I was a child, declaring that I was frightened of this man, and no one thought to intervene and say something as simple as, “Hey, is everything all right?”

I probably sounded hysterical. I was hysterical. I was screaming, but no one heard.

Somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of Black girls under the age of eighteen are assaulted in the United States. This is according to research by the Black Women’s Health Imperative and Black Women’s Blueprint. Black women and Black girls are so intimately familiar with violence, it is no wonder so many of us are crushed under its weight.

There is a long-established history in the United States, in the world at large, of violating the Black woman, but the effects of it are still widely framed around individuals. Single victims. It’s not a cultural problem. It’s not a collective campaign of abuse. In America, there aren’t societal failings, only personal ones.

*

Trauma and mental illness braid intricately, neatly, and beautifully together to form a noose around my neck. I speak about them as though they’re interchangeable because, for me, they are. There is the trauma that led directly to mental illness in the form of stress disorders and maladaptive behavioral traits. There is the trauma I’ve experienced as a result of being mentally ill.

My schizophrenic aunt, whom I met only once, used to be “perfectly fine.” That’s how my paternal extended family describes it. Something happened, some catastrophic event, from which she never recovered. Some know. Some don’t. All of us can guess.

I hear voices, I see things. I don’t know if this  would be true about me if I lived in a different world. If I lived in a different world, my relationship to these phenomena, and society’s relationship to me as someone who experiences these things, might be vastly different, built on genuine compassion and understanding. In a world where caring and compassion were the default, where we understood mental illness as part of a larger network of relationships and policies, there might not be fewer mad people, but fewer people who felt plagued so violently by it.

Recently, during a pregnancy scare, a very close friend of mine told me they were worried by the prospect of another baby for me because postpartum depression could trigger preexisting psychosis. “Does that mean I can never have more children?” I asked them. Their council and friendship had saved my life before, and I wanted to know what they thought. We were talking via Internet messaging, so I’m able to quote their response exactly:

I think you absolutely can have more pregnancies and kids, but I would really hope for you to get a great medical and psych team assembled beforehand even if the psych side was largely non-professional supports. I would want to know you had committed members of a community ready to care for you. And contingency plans. And live in a place where a hospital stay wouldn’t mean losing your kids.

The implication is that I lack the community and support to help me get through a mental health crisis safely. My friend is right, of course. I’ve always counted myself more fortunate than most that so far I’ve been able to avoid the frequent repercussions of mental illness, especially as a Black, queer person, a category already precarious unto itself. I have never had to make a park bench my bed or sleep in a shelter. I do not have an addiction. I have not killed myself, though I know too many who have, one being my first serious girlfriend. She was a Black, queer woman whom I was certainly not there for enough in the years after our breakup. Anyone who has lost someone in this way has done the math, trying to calculate how much of the cause was the person’s own madness, and how much of it was the madness of this world.

I am alive but by the skin of my teeth. I am alive due to the support of people I can count on one hand.

I cannot yet talk about the experiences that made me a preteen obsessed with being destroyed and an adult who talks to ghosts. I was corrupted and I was corrupt. Born this way or made this way, when I cast the cherry pits onto the table in the manner of ancient runes, the universe told me I’d grow up to be a mad Black girl.