The women in my family are black and carved from stone. Solid, they are relics unearthed from generations calcified in domestic servitude: slaves, cooks, maids, nannies, nurses. Aunt Bee Bee, her gray feet calloused and swollen, walked miles down country roads to then stand and bend for hours cleaning rooms at the Holiday Inn in the days before people tipped hotel maids. Grandma Eliza-Ann, a petite woman no taller than 5-foot-3, lifted and washed grown men twice her size at the same nursing home she would one day reside. My mother waitressed at a buffet cleaning up after toddlers whose parents were too oblivious to pick up their mess while her daughter stayed home and babysat her 4-year-old son. When life was hard, there was no luxury to wallow. Don’t nobody have time to be depressed! There were children to feed, bodies to bathe, houses to clean. I know there are black women not so strong, but I don’t remember seeing my mother cry. I’m sure I have seen it, but to recall a particular memory or reason outside of someone's death would be impossible. Because to express this type of emotion outside of a shared grief is to expose your own weakness. And nobody has time for that either.
Years before I knew I could even have children, my mother called me a name I’d heard many times growing up. Crybaby. It was during a nasty argument where I’d decided to open up about my feelings but was unable to express myself. I stammered through hyperventilating breaths. My body boiled, and I wasn’t so much as mad, but hysterical. I panted and kept saying, “Come on, Ma. Come on, Ma,” a mantra pleading for understanding. She finally stopped me, called me a crybaby, and said, “You sound like a white woman.”
I imagine she saw me as some frantic white lady, head shaking, a mass of hair whipping my face, screaming with black mascara bleeding down my cheeks. My mother’s words slapped the nonsense out of me, reminded me of that board called “pride” strapped to my back — to most black women's backs — that helps me to sit up when I feel like slouching.
These women didn’t tell me about postpartum depression, never mentioned the baby blues. They didn’t warn me about the anxiety, insomnia, or evil thoughts. They didn’t tell me how to get over it or offered an ear. My worries or well-being wasn’t important, and really, no one talks about mental instability in the black community. The idea of seeking treatment never crossed my mind. I wasn’t some hysterical white woman with the privilege to lie in bed for days crippled by my emotions. There was nothing wrong with me, and besides, black people don’t do therapy.
When my boys were born at 25 weeks gestation, I tacked on three more sides to that board and turned it into a box, incubating myself from the world. People saw what I let them, and the rest of me— my fears, anxiety, depression (although I never called it that, never acknowledged it despite that it overwhelmed me) — was buried inside a stone-cold coffin. I never got out of it, not even to breathe or slump and fall short of the expectations I felt I had to hold up.
That board was all I needed to keep me straight. It kept me from openly breaking down after my twins’ premature birth. No — that’s a lie. I did cry. After the C-section, lying flat on a gurney, my arms strapped down with IV tubes and the world a blurred mess of lights, and beeps, and faces, and clear plastic boxes occupied by tanning palm-size babies, they rolled me into room B of the neonatal intensive care unit to see my children for the first time, and I did indeed cry, loud and in front of the entire world. And again, I lost my breath and all ability to speak other than to ask the nurses to take me away. Guilt crashed into me. I hadn’t braced myself, and like a stone, I crumbled.
I didn’t disintegrate again, at least not in front of anyone else, for a long time. That just isn’t what black women do. I recuperated, brushed myself off, and went back to work less than a month later. My children were in the NICU, they didn’t need me, and what else was I supposed to do? As my aunt would’ve said: Crying is for funerals.
Instead, my family did what black folks do when someone is in need: They sent prayer warriors. My mother’s pastor called me while I was at work. When my mom and my godmother visited, we went to a local church. Against my wishes, my godmother told the pastor about my boys. That same day, he and his wife came to the hospital. The pastor put one hand on each incubator, my husband and I on either side of a box, holding his over it. My father prayed with me when James had surgery. Every single night when we left the hospital, the hospital named Holy Cross, my husband and I went to the chapel and worshiped silently. All of this praying yet none of it was for me. Why would it have been? I was alive, I had work to do, there wasn’t any time to worry about me. What would they be praying for? What could happen?
I know what happened. I know they were born weighing 1 pound, 13 ounces, and 1 pound, 3 ounces. I know James had two surgeries and an infection while in the hospital. I know we bought them home on oxygen when they were 37 weeks gestation, still premature, but alive and thriving, and gorgeous. I know they grew, and gained weight, and learned how to roll over, and kicked their feet, and that they laughed, and that I laughed, and that in pictures, in videos on Facebook, in emails, at work, at parties, when we had company, and when I spoke to my friends, that I was happy. I know these things because of those pictures and videos. Because Facebook sends me memory reminders to show me what I felt like.
But I don’t actually remember. I cannot imagine those moments separate from the visual reminders of them. I keep saying that they must’ve been real, but when I think about that time all I see are plastic boxes and two tanning palm-size babies with tubes down their noses and IV prick wounds. I see me lying in my bed, the room dark, my face and hands illuminated by the glow from my phone watching videos of open-heart surgery on other palm-size babies. I see me pretending to cope with it all, embarrassed by the praise from others: You are so strong, you are so brave, this must be so difficult. But, I was not brave. I was not strong. Yes, it was difficult. I see nighttime, always nighttime, and my breasts are hard and painful and wet and the only thing I want to do is mother my children, and the only thing I can’t do is mother my children. I see me crying, hard sobs that shake the bed. I see me grieving in the dark lying next to my husband yet feeling utterly alone.
I locked myself inside that box and hid from everyone — even my closest friends, who would have listened if I said I needed to talk, but I never did. I am fiercely possessive of my burdens — another learned trait. You don’t give to others what you can bear on your own. I shut down and shut out those who cared about me the most in the moment I needed them the most. My husband understands and hates this personality trait of mine more than anyone else. He learned the hard way, early in our relationship, that talking to me about issues I cannot or do not want to deal with only leads to an argument or resentful silence.
I hadn’t realized he knew about my insomnia and bouts of late-night sobbing. He is a man I’ve jokingly called “not an average Negro,” a black man who air-drums to Rush, is obsessed with hockey, and can eat Mexican food every day of his life but isn’t into football or collard greens and stopped listening to hip-hop in 1995. I’ve always been envious of his ability to remain faithful to himself regardless of what others expect from him. He has seen a therapist for many years since the death of a good friend left him grieving in the dark. His treatment is private, a topic we generally do not discuss. The one and only time he suggested therapy to me was before the boys were born, and it led to an epic argument.
But he is a brave man and without my knowing, he looked into a postpartum therapy group and signed me up. Between work, the hospital, and then later, feedings, naps, and tantrums, I glanced at my phone and registered the emails sent from a friendly-looking white woman with glasses. I immediately deleted them, not even bothering to open them up. I didn’t need therapy. Didn’t have time for therapy. He asked had I gotten the messages, not chancing to take it any further. Truthfully, I told him yes, I got the notices. Then I lied — I don’t know why, to make him feel better, I suppose — and said maybe I’d go to a meeting.
After the first two years of their lives, when the doctor appointments waned, they both were walking and talking and playing, and day care gave me some semblance of security, our family rocked slowly into a routine of normalcy. But anxiety still haunted me, so much so that at times, I felt crippled by fear.
I asked my mother during one of our weekly calls, “What would you have said if I told you that after the boys were born I was sad?” I was walking between buildings at my job on a typical unyielding D.C. day in August.
“What do you mean? I don’t understand the question.”
“You know…” I let my voice trail off. I tried to sound as if I spoke about past events, as if I came from a place of wizened recollection. Yet, even after two years, it was difficult for me to even say the words out loud.
“Oh, like postpartum. I don’t know. It happens.” I was surprised by her reaction, regretting I hadn’t trusted her sooner. “I knew you had to be going through something,” she said.
I looked at the blacktop instead of where I was going as if avoiding her eyes despite the fact she wasn’t there. “Well, I didn’t really talk about it,” I said, kicking a rock and letting it bounce away from me in the opposite direction.
“You could’ve talked about it. You chose not to. But you got to talk about these things. Otherwise, you go nutty.”
“I know,” I said.
“I wish I could’ve done more, but that traffic up there…”
And just like that, we changed the subject.
If I were a healed person, this is where I would tell you about my moment of epiphany. It would be some long scene where I break down my mental coffin, exposing myself to my loved ones asking that they not only pray for my children, but for me too. I would describe searching for a doctor, or finally opening those emails, meeting that friendly white lady with the glasses. She would recognize my name and say, “Oh, Tyrese, I just knew you would make it.” I’d say therapy healed me, I no longer think about all the terrible things that could happen to my kids, all the terrible things I could do them, and all the ways in which they could die. That I no longer had to recite my mantra: I am not crazy. I am not crazy. But, I would be lying.
I did not receive treatment. Until I spoke to my mother, my undiagnosed depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress — whatever I can call it now — didn’t feel real to me. I’d done what people in my community say to do in difficult times: I strapped my back straight, put on my strong-black-woman face, relied on my family and friends, and prayed. And, I got by. Working helped. School helped. Witnessing the beauty of my healthy, thriving boys helped. Maybe my admissions will help another woman of color realize the board isn’t enough, tell her the things that other women of color didn’t say to me. Because getting by isn’t the same as making it through.
Recently, my husband’s parents visited, and we took a trip to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Dr. King’s likeness is carved into a cleft of granite, a metaphorical mountainside overlooking the Tidal Basin. My husband stood behind one of my boys at a black gate separating the monument’s platform from the Potomac. I watched them — my breath shallow, my heart pounding — and I squeezed my other son’s hand tight. Thoughts clicked in my mind like the hushed distorted chatter of the crowd around us. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I wasn’t a crybaby, and when I was ready, stood up straight, and led my son toward the water’s edge, toward my family, toward my fears.
So that this, right now, could be my moment of epiphany.
Tyrese Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, fed and student. She’s written for "mater mea," a website celebrating black women, and elsewhere. Reach her at tyresecoleman.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.