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ASK JANICE SPECIAL: Can We PLEASE Redefine the Strong Black Woman?

Sisters, we really need to redefine what it means to be a Strong Black Woman.

Listen.

I long for the day when a Black woman’s strength isn’t only measured by how much mistreatment she can endure. When you’re strong because you have to be, people tend to forget that you’re only human: fallible, vulnerable, and capable of feeling pain.

I’d love for people to recognize the strength it takes to be vulnerable and ask for help. It isn’t easy to let your guard down and bare your soul. It’s hard to be open and raw and deeply honest about who you are or how you feel. To do so takes real guts.

I want to redefine the Strong Black Woman image to include not just our resiliency in the face of oppression, but also our beauty when we’re broken and our joy when we’re ecstatic. I want it to include the full range of what it means to be human. We’re as complex and confusing and confounding as anyone else, and should be allowed to be our full selves without being considered “weak”.

The image of the Strong Black Woman as society’s “mule” persists, most certainly because it serves both white supremacy and the patriarchy to do so. But it persists also because we, as Black women, allow it to.

Consider the way we praise the long-suffering Black girlfriend who puts up with her man’s cheating, beating, or whatever, only to finally “get the ring” years later when the guy finally settles down and proposes.  This sister is celebrated, by men and women alike, as “strong” and “loyal” and “deserving”.

I call bullshit.

She was “deserving” before she spent the best years of her life waiting for that man-child to grow up. She would have still been “strong” had she kicked him to the curb, even if it meant being alone. “Loyalty” in the face of mistreatment isn’t commendable, it’s just sad. And we need to recognize that a woman’s strength has nothing to do with her ability to endure heartache from her romantic relationships.

Further proof of how this unhealthy notion of the Strong Black Woman is so deeply entrenched in our culture is how medical professionals treat us compared to how they treat white women. For example, studies have shown that in the U.S., Black women are prescribed opioid painkillers far less often than our white counterparts. On the one hand, this has resulted in fewer opioid overdoses among Black women than have occurred among white women. On the other hand, this also proves that Black women are expected to be able to endure more pain.

And it goes beyond pain management, too. I mean, don’t even get me started on the ridiculously high Black maternal mortality rate in the United States. But that’s a topic for another day. The bottom line is that this outdated, misogynistic notion of the Strong Black Woman is literally killing us!

When you’re seen as impervious to pain and abuse, you’re easy to hurt and abuse. When you’re strong because you have to be, people tend to forget you’re still human. And it’s easy to ignore your humanity because they think you can take it.

Sure, we can take it. Black women can take whatever life dishes out, and look damned good doing it, too. After all, we embody Black Girl Magic in spite of our oppression. We continue to show up and show out for the people we love; we run successful businesses and build empires; we’re the backbone of our places of worship; we enrich our culture with our art and talent; we dominate sports that a few decades ago were completely closed off to us; we serve our communities from the grassroots to the military to elected office; and we change the world with our scientific and technological genius.

In spite of everything thrown at us, we rise, we conquer, and we flourish! So yeah, Black women can take it.

But we shouldn’t always have to.

#NotYourMuleAnymore #StrongButHuman #BelieveBlackWomen #RespectBlackWomen#ListenToBlackWomen

Photo: Pixabay

Girlfriends: The Power of Friendships Between Black Women: ASK JANICE

 

Given the pervasiveness of rape culture, misogyny, and especially misogynoir, I’ve come to believe that we women need more safe spaces that are just for us. Let’s face it, sometimes, regardless of our relationship or marital status (or even because of it), “we’re all we got”!

So we need each other to keep us sane, keep us grounded and more often than not, keep us from catching a case! The powerful energy that a good group of women friends produces can be transformative. I know this firsthand because I’m blessed with the most amazing and supportive girlfriend village, ever!

That’s why I decided to celebrate the power of close friendships between Black women. Socially and culturally, our society seems to be at a crossroads between progress and regression. On the one hand, the rise of the #metoo movement has caused a dramatic shift in how we view the treatment of women, especially in the workplace. On the other hand, the fact that R. Kelly is still a free man with a musical career is just one example of how entrenched rape culture is in our society. It also illustrates a general lack of regard for Black girls and women.

There is still so much to do for women, especially Black women, to attain equal status. Being at the intersection of racism and sexism leaves us especially vulnerable in a world where the powers-that-be (namely white men) have dug in their heels to maintain their power. And the reality is, we don’t have a lot of support out there.

Sure, there are some allies in our fight, but non-Black women tend to focus on issues that center them rather than us; and Black men tend to center their activism around racial issues alone, without any regard for the Black women in their ranks. This has been true since the 19th century, in both the early feminist movement and the early Civil Rights movement. And not much has changed, despite the Black woman’s tireless efforts on behalf of both gender and racial equality.

So today, I celebrate the power of friendships between Black women. I do so for a myriad of reasons, but mostly because there’s no way I could have made it this far without my girlfriends.

Full disclosure: I adore men, and my village is filled with them.  I’ve never bought into the notion that men and women can’t be friends. I have several close male friends who mean the world to me. Most of them are married with families, now. So of course the dynamics of those relationships have changed. But the friendships are still true and strong. And I wouldn’t trade any of them for all the riches in the world.

But I can’t imagine my life without my girls. I have friends I’ve known since before we lost our baby teeth, wore bras, had our first periods or experienced our first kisses. Girls I went to grade school, high school and college with are still my closest “homies”. And I’ve even made some very dear friends as an adult.

These women are my rocks, my beacons of light during my life’s storms. They’re my comfort when I’m down and the first ones I call when I’m happy. They’ve seen me through every failed relationship and heartbreak. They’ve been by my side for every victory and triumph.

My close friends propped me up when I’ve faltered and lifted me when I’ve fallen. They prayed for me when I lacked the faith to pray for myself. My girlfriends have celebrated my greatest moments with me, like the birth of my son. And when I lost most of my immediate family in the span of just a few years, my girls were the ones who literally held me up when I couldn’t stand on my own.

When I’m in a hole of despair, I have friends who will climb right in there with me, wrap their arms around me and hold me. Then, when they know I’m ready, they’ll gently help me find my way home.

My girls don’t judge me for my quirks and oddness. They get that I’m more than a little nuts. My many mistakes haven’t driven them away yet, and they continue to put up with my insane misadventures. For some reason that I just can’t fathom, they love me despite all my faults.

Sure, we’ve had our fights. We’ve fought over stupid stuff like lipstick and who’s going to bring the ice to the next party. We’ve bickered. We’ve bitched. And we’ve gone months and even years without speaking. But the reunions were always joyous and somehow, despite the time and/or distance between us, we managed to pick up right where we left off.

None of this comes easy, though. Like any relationship, friendships between women take work. We have to be willing to deal with each other’s crap. If one friend is always late, you have to swallow those snarky remarks when she finally gets there, because you know you love her anyway. And if you know your other friend is going to spend over an hour complaining about a guy she should’ve dumped three years ago, you listen anyway. After all, she’s done the same for you.

It’s also important that we accept each other where we are, which isn’t always easy. As our lives change, so do our relationships with each other. We’re always growing and changing, and our friendships have to follow suit.

We have to be understanding when one of us needs space, and present when one of us needs comfort. We have to listen when we really want to talk, and hold our tongues when we want to say “I told you so”. And at the core of these and any successful relationships, is mutual respect.

Not every friendship is the same. You know what I mean. You have those friends to whom you can turn for career or financial advice and they’ll never steer you wrong. Then there are the “good time” girls who turn every outing into an adventure. You never know where you’ll end up by the end of the night, but you know you’ll have fun getting there.

Of course there are the friends with whom you can talk for hours about anything, happily picking apart any manner of subjects, no matter how trivial. And there are the sounding boards, the ones you bounce ideas off or just generally bitch to. They’re always willing to listen, to let you spill your guts.

And there are the girlfriends who will always tell you the truth, even when it hurts. They’re the “straight shooter” friends and everyone needs at least one. Who else will stop you from leaving the house looking a hot mess? She’ll take one look at you, and lovingly but firmly tell you that you need to completely re-think your outfit or hairstyle or shoes.

I don’t know where I’d be without my spiritual guides, always ready with the perfect Bible verse for any situation. They remind you to keep God first, which is probably why you’ve made it as far as you have. And they will pray for you even when you don’t think you deserve it.

Oh, and we can’t forget the friend with whom you can share every dirty little secret. You already have a pact with her that if you die first, she must immediately empty your “secret” drawer and erase your browser history before telling anyone the bad news. Phew! I’m so glad I have me one of these! And she knows I’d do the same for her!

And of course, no group of friends is complete without that ride-or-die friend. She’s the one who’s got your back no matter what. If you call her upset and ready to crack some heads, her only question is “Your car or mine?” She’s always on your side, even when you’re dead wrong. She’s the A.C. to your O.J., willing to drive the white Bronco as you run from the police.

I know girlfriends can never replace a spouse or a life partner. They’re not supposed to.  But they can enhance your life is so many beautiful ways.

Yes, I love my family deeply. But God chose my family for me. I chose my friends, and they chose me. That makes our bond truly remarkable. It’s a bond of choice. We’re here for each other because we want to be. And I wouldn’t be anywhere else!

Pictures from Pixabay, onyxtruth.com, and financialjuneteenth.com

 

How Do You Beat The Holiday Blues? ASK JANICE

Woman not happy about her laptop against snow falling

Do the holidays have you stressed and pressed? Are you buckling under the yuletide pressure to buy the perfect gifts for your loved ones? Is it hard for you to remember the “reason for the season”?

Listen. The holidays can be fraught with angst and stress, despite the happy faces we put on for the public. There’s the obligatory work parties to contend with, along with various family functions and family drama, financial pressures, year-end job stresses, etc. It’s enough to make even the jolliest of souls a little crazy.

If you’re feeling “Bah Humbug” and have lost your holiday spirit, here are 5 simple ways to lift your mood and end 2018 on a positive note:

1. VOLUNTEER: You know that non-profit or charity that you’ve always admired from afar, but never really got to see how they do what they do? Well, here’s your chance to get up close and personal with them! Volunteering your precious time helping others is a wonderful way to give back to your community and improve your mood. I know you’re busy, but even 2-3 hours will do the trick. Giving your time and talents to those less fortunate than you is great way to change your perspective about your own life, reminding you of your many blessings. So, go ahead and call that charity or non-profit and ask how you can help for a few hours this holiday season.

2. DONATE: If you don’t have a lot of spare time to volunteer with your favorite charity or non-profit, writing a generous check may be just what you need to lift your spirits. Every organization that’s working hard to make the world better could certainly use an infusion of cash, and you’ll be able to take another tax write off for 2018. So it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. You can even go a step further and ask your friends and family to donate, as well; or, make the donation in their names. This will get everyone in your circle in the giving mood and do some real good for others, too. After all, it is better to give than to receive.

3. VISIT A CHURCH (or other place of worship) DIFFERENT FROM YOUR OWN: Even if you already have a church home (or if you don’t), visiting a different place of worship during the holidays can be a beautiful, uplifting experience. There’s something about strangers coming together for praise and worship that reminds us of our common humanity. Hearing different testimonies, sermons, and even hymns can offer you a fresh perspective on your own faith, and strengthen the bonds you already have with the Almighty. Besides, being welcomed into a new or different place of worship can tap into a level of love you’ve never before experienced, and you just may get some new friends out of it.

4. ADOPT A CHILD OR FAMILY FOR THE HOLIDAYS: Check with your pastor or others who are “in the know”, and select a child or family in need to “adopt” for the holidays. You could buy toys or presents for the child(ren), or provide a delicious holiday meal with all the trimmings. Maybe they need coats, boots, or other winter-wear. Or maybe they need a utility bill paid. Whatever they need, your generosity will go directly to someone who could use it. Again, giving to someone less fortunate than you not only helps others, but will surely put you in the holiday spirit.

5. UNPLUG, DISENGAGE, AND JUST RELAX: Maybe what you really need is to simply re-charge. You’ve been running all year, working hard, and probably putting others’ needs before your own. In fact, you’ve probably worn yourself out taking care of everyone else. If this is the case, then you need to take some time to unwind, relax, and allow yourself the time and space to reflect and re-charge. Logoff your social media accounts for a few days and disengage from all the noise and madness. Treat yourself to long baths and afternoon naps. Have a spa day. Catch up on some reading. Spend a day or two in bed watching sappy, Hallmark movies; or binge watch that show everyone’s been talking about, but you haven’t had a chance to see. Take some time for renewal and refreshment before you tackle a new year.

The holidays can be hard to get through, and many people really struggle with sadness, depression, and/or grief. These tips are merely quick fixes and won’t help someone who’s really suffering. If you’re having a harder time than usual this year, please reach out to your loved ones or seek professional help. The suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255. You don’t have to suffer alone.

Is A Threesome For Me? ASK JANICE

Dear Janice: I really hope you can help me with my problem. My boyfriend of 2 years wants me to have a threesome with a mutual female friend of ours. She’s game, he’s game, but I’m not. At all.

I’m not a prude by any means. I personally don’t have a problem with people having threesomes if that’s what they want to do. In fact, under different circumstances, I might even be down for a threesome. But I don’t want to do this.

My boyfriend keeps bringing it up, trying to change my mind. Even the mutual friend has brought it up to me. I feel like they’re putting all this pressure on me to do something I don’t want to do.

I love my boyfriend and don’t want to lose him over this. Should I just go ahead and participate in a threesome to keep my man happy? What should I do?

Please help.
Sincerely,
Happy with Just the Two of Us

Three friends relaxing at the beach.

Dear Happy,

First of all, you should NEVER do anything sexually that you don’t want to do. Period. Full stop.

That said, I understand your quandary. On the one hand, you want to keep your man and make him happy. On the other hand, you’re not feeling a threesome. So, what should you do?

You did say that under different circumstances, you might be down for a threesome, but you didn’t elaborate. So my questions to you are:
1. Under what circumstances would you be down? Maybe you could counter-offer with a scenario you would like. That way, your boyfriend gets his threesome, but it’s in a way that you like, too.
2. Would you be down with a different woman? Maybe it would be easier for you if the third person was a stranger? The partner he suggests is a mutual friend. I could see how that might be a little awkward, especially if you all run in the same circles. A stranger or at least someone not as well-known to you both might be easier to handle in the long run.
3. Would it be better for you if the third person were a man? I know a lot of straight men aren’t cool with the idea of sharing their woman with another man right in front of them. And a lot of straight men also worry about “crossing swords” with each other. But if this scenario is more appealing to you, maybe your guy would be cool with it.
4. Would you be more into it if you and your boyfriend weren’t so serious? You did say that you’ve been with him for 2 years, implying a certain level of commitment. Maybe if you two weren’t as serious, you might be more inclined to share him with another woman. If this is the case, you need to express that to your guy.

Since you said you’re not opposed to threesomes in general, there must be a reason why you don’t want to do it with these two people. It could be for the reasons I listed above, or it could be something else.

Whatever the reason for your not wanting to engage in a ménage-a-trois with your boyfriend and this mutual friend, I stand by my original statement: you should NEVER do anything sexually that you don’t want to do.

Also, you might want to ask a few questions, yourself. Like, why is he so insistent on having a threesome with this particular woman? And why is she so insistent? Is there some reason they’re both pressuring you?

I think you need to dig a little deeper, Sister. I see red flags all over this one. But still, you should stand your ground. If you lose your guy over this, then he wasn’t the one for you.
Good luck.

Power & Control: My Night Of Terror – JANICE

The first hit woke me out of a deep sleep. Stunned, it took me a few seconds to register what was happening. Beyond the ringing in my ears, I could hear a familiar voice, shouting angry words I couldn’t quite understand. Then he dragged me out of bed and slapped me, knocking me to the floor. I finally opened my eyes.

The only light came from the adjacent bathroom. Even in the semi-darkness of our bedroom and not fully awake, I could see how dangerous he looked with his clenched fists and raging eyes. I was terrified. And then it got worse.

That night, more than 27 years ago, the man I loved beat me for the first time. We’d been living together for about a year and half at that point, in a one-bedroom apartment near one of the city’s prettiest parks.

I don’t remember when I came to understand that jealousy was at the root of his rage, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. An ugly, twisted jealousy had lurked beneath the surface of our relationship from the beginning. In hindsight, there were several red flags throughout the relationship that foretold that beating. I just didn’t see them for what they were. Or I ignored them.

We met when I was in my mid-20s, and my self-esteem was at an all-time low because I’d stopped getting treatment for my depression. I was also lonely and tired of having one failed relationship after another. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a textbook target for an abusive personality.

Then I met HIM. We were set up by his cousin, who was dating one of my best friends at the time. He immediately stood apart from the other guys because he was really into me right away. That was the first red flag I ignored.

He fell fast and hard, and took me right along with him. At last, here was a man who made me his only priority from the start. With him, I was the smartest, coolest, most beautiful woman in the world! He was sweet and charming, and no one had ever treated me better.
His over-attentiveness was the opposite of what I was used to. In my previous relationships, I’d always felt like more of an option than a priority. That’s why, when more red flags popped up, I ignored them.

It’s sweet that he’s so possessive, I told myself. He must really love me!

The first major incident occurred a few weeks after we started dating. He flew into a rage just because I had a phone conversation with an ex-boyfriend. He ripped the phone out of the wall and flung it across the room. I know it’s crazy, but at the time I was more worried about my roommate’s phone than my own safety.

It shames me to admit this, but I actually liked his over-the-top reaction! I thought it proved he loved me, and so I happily promised to cut all ties with my ex. I know now that his behavior and my reaction to it were the genesis of the sickness that would consume our relationship. And it led to one of the worst nights of my life.

The night he beat me, his face was twisted with a rage I’d never seen. I almost didn’t recognize him, he looked so deranged.
Somehow, I got to my feet. He hit me again, which surprised me because I honestly thought he was done. I tried to get away from him, but he was too fast. Plus, he had the advantage of surprise. He grabbed me and hit me again, even harder.

I’d never been hit like that in my life, by my parents or anyone. I’d never even been in a real fight! For the first time in my life, I felt real terror and pain.

I fought back, though. All these years later, I’m still proud of how hard I fought back that night. Once I knew he was really trying to hurt me, I hit back. I kicked back. I even hit him over the head with an empty liquor bottle like they do in the movies!

It’s funny what we remember about traumatic events. While parts of that night are blurry, I still clearly remember that empty bottle. It was a gin bottle, and it was useless against his rage.

He got more vicious. He punched and kicked me all over the apartment, forcing me into survivor mode. I remember protecting my face and head.

Domestic violence (also called intimate partner violence, or IPV) is abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetuated by one intimate partner against another. It’s not just physical assault and battery, but also includes sexual assault/rape and psychological, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse.

IPV is so pervasive, a woman is beaten every 9 seconds in the United States. While men are often targets, 85% of abuse sufferers are women. It can happen to anyone, regardless of race, color, age, class, religion, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, socio-economic status, education, gender identification or geography. Still, nobody ever thinks it’ll happen to them.

I certainly never thought it would happen to me. I didn’t grow up with domestic violence. My father never raised his voice, much less his hand to my mom, my sister or me. A social worker who spent most of his career advocating for abused and neglected children, my father didn’t even believe in spankings!

On the other hand, my abuser saw his step-father beat his mother often, which was another red flag I ignored. His parents had long been divorced and married to other people by the time we started dating. We spent a lot of time with his father and step-mother, who were always good to me.

I only met his step-father and mother once, though. And that was enough for me, because his step-father was clearly a cruel and bitter man. Unfortunately for me, he was also the man who raised my boyfriend, since his mother got full custody in the divorce. So my abuser spent much of his childhood in their toxic home.

Even though he harbored deep resentment towards his step-father for beating his mom, my abuser still continued the cycle. Many children who grow up in violent households end up becoming abusers or abuse sufferers, themselves.

Anyway, as good as those early days were, the beating that would change me forever wasn’t the beginning of our troubles. Before that first punch ever landed, he’d already established a pattern of power and control that was actually harder to recover from than the bruises he inflicted.

His jealousy soon included all my friends and family. He resented any time I spent with anyone other than him. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but I slowly started isolating myself from my loved ones to avoid conflict.

He was really insecure, which manifested itself subtly through emotional bullying and manipulation. For example, he was intimidated by my college-educated family and “bourgie” upbringing. Conversations would turn ugly the moment he felt outmatched intellectually. He’d pout and whine if I read books for any length of time. And he always found ways to disparage higher education, once referring to libraries and colleges as “buildings full of lies”.

I dumbed myself down to protect his ego and avoid conflict. I even stopped talking as much, lest I prompt an argument. Normally a talkative social butterfly, I actually got quiet. I didn’t even recognize myself! He bullied me into dimming my own light so that he could shine, and I let him do it to keep the peace. After all, I loved him.

The isolation was the worst, though. He never explicitly forbade me from seeing my family or friends. But as soon as I returned home from seeing them, he’d pick a fight. He was especially ornery if I came home happy, even admitting that he hated the idea of me having fun with anyone other than him. Eventually, it just got easier to stay home rather than risk his foul moods.

Isolation is an abuser’s primary tool, and another major red flag I ignored. Remember, back then I saw the world through the lens of my low self-esteem and untreated depression, so I couldn’t recognize his manipulation. Besides, it all happened so gradually, I didn’t even notice it.

Between blocking his blows and begging him to stop hitting me, I finally figured out what triggered his violent tirade that night. This was the early ‘90s, before cell phones and the internet made communication effortless. My best friend had moved across the country, from Detroit to Seattle, for a job. Between the time difference and long distance rates (remember those?), we didn’t talk as often as we wanted. Letters were fine, but we missed talking.

I think it was her idea to start making tapes instead of writing letters. One of us would record ourselves for 30 minutes (one side of a cassette), and then send the tape to the other via snail mail. Then that person would listen, flip the tape, record a reply and mail it back.
That night, he found a tape that I’d made but never mailed, where I vividly described sleeping with this really hot guy from my past. As this was for my best friend’s ears only, I got very explicit.

Back then, most of our music was on cassette tapes stored in our entertainment center. Somehow, the tape that never got sent to Seattle made it into our combined music collection. He often went to bed later than I did, and would sit in the living room listening to music through headphones so he wouldn’t disturb me.

That night he heard me describe my night of passion in great detail. It didn’t matter that I’d made the tape long before I even knew him. It was my voice, directly in his ears, talking about having great sex with another man.

I know this because he stopped hitting me long enough to grab me by the hair, throw me onto the couch and force me to listen. Then he started hitting me again.

Why didn’t I run out the door and leave? Why didn’t I scream for help? Why did I stay in that apartment, crying, begging and apologizing?
By this time, I was a mere shell of my former self. Between my untreated depression and months of his bullying and manipulation, I couldn’t think clearly. Besides, it was the middle of the night and I was only wearing a t-shirt and panties.

Anyway I did try to leave, but he caught me and threw me against the wall. Hard. I remember seeing a smudge of my blood on the wall near our front door, and being shocked. I don’t remember what part of my body was bleeding, but it wasn’t my face. Miraculously, my face barely showed signs of the attack.

Things are a blur after that.

I don’t know when the beating ended. The next conscious memory I have is of us lying in bed. I know he cried and apologized. I know we had sex, and that I was both ashamed and relieved that my body still responded to him.

But even as I quietly accepted his touch, I was planning my escape. I still loved him, but I had to go. I left the next day, taking only a few clothes and necessities, and fled to my parents’ house across the border in Canada.

By far, even worse than the beating was the deep shame I felt telling my father what happened. I had to look into the eyes of the man who’d raised me, and tell him that the man he never liked anyway had beaten me. The look on my dad’s face when I lifted my shirt to show him my bruises still breaks my heart to this day.

The only time I felt worse was when, a few months later, I had to tell my father that it happened again.

Yep. After all that, I went back.

I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m not alone. Most survivors leave an average of 7 times before leaving for good. Thankfully, it only took me one more time to leave forever.

After a blissful period the experts call the “honeymoon phase”, he hit me again after flying into a rage about yet another guy from my past. This beating wasn’t as bad, though. For one thing, I was wide awake so I saw it coming. Also, I didn’t really fight back. I didn’t even cry! I just ducked and covered my head. But that was it for me.

This time, I planned my escape more efficiently. Some friends helped me pack up all my stuff while he was at work. Thanks to my boss’ influence, the police were waiting with me when he came home. They couldn’t arrest him for hitting abuse (no witnesses or bruises, this time), but they got him for driving with a suspended license and threw him in jail.

I never talked to or saw him again.

I was lucky. I could easily leave because we weren’t married, we didn’t have kids, and I had my own money and somewhere to go. Far too many women aren’t so lucky.

That’s why I continue to write about IPV and advocate relentlessly for survivors. That’s why I share my story, even though parts of it still fill me with shame. I raise my voice for those silenced by violence, shame and fear. I do it to offer hope and encourage anyone suffering to hang on until they can get help.

And I do it so that I can continue to heal.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 any time, day or night.

ASK JANICE MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL, PART 5 GOD BLESS 4 EAST – HOW YOU CAN HELP

“We all got here from different places: some came voluntarily (like me), others came involuntarily. Some came after suicide attempts, some after a ‘really bad day’. Most of my fellow patients’ stories are unknown to me, and that’s ok. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter how we got here, just that we are here and that we all want to get well enough to leave.” Journal Entry, August 27, 2018, 10:00 P.M.

Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4

As much as I tried to focus my journal entries on me and my own problems, the writer in me couldn’t help making notes about the different people I met during my stay on 4 East. From the staff to the patients, I met some really interesting and fine people. I could write ten different books on their lives, alone.

Take Gia*, for example, a tiny, white, soft-spoken bundle of energy who struggled with depression and profound loneliness. Her loneliness got so bad she attempted suicide. Gia described her family as fractured and distant. She said she had no friends, beyond a neighbor who was willing to care for pet while she was in the hospital.

To me, Gia seemed smart, funny and engaging. I couldn’t imagine why she didn’t have lots of friends. But she didn’t even have anyone close enough who could bring her more clothes to wear (she only had the clothes she was wearing when she was admitted). She did have a good visit with her brother before I left, so I’m hopeful that her life will change for the better.

Then there was Nigel*, a quiet, 21 year-old Latino with a sweet smile. I felt very maternal towards him, probably because he’s the same age as my son. I have no idea what brought him to 4 East, but he’d already been there two months by the time I arrived. There were rumors about him threatening his brother, but Nigel steadfastly refused to answer any questions about why he was there. He did disclose to me that he’d been a patient on the Unit back when he was 18 years old, so he was very familiar with the place.

There was also sweet Elsie*, the songbird of the Unit. 21 years old and white, Elsie had a pretty, clear, soprano singing voice, and she often walked the hall singing. She usually sang pop songs, but could do any genre justice. She was the first person I met when I arrived on 4 East, and she kindly showed me the ropes. Elsie was a self-proclaimed drug addict and alcoholic. The rumor was that she’d overdosed before being admitted, but I never asked her about it. Elsie was one of my favorite people and I cried a little when she was discharged two days before me.

In a funny twist to the story, there was a romance brewing between Nigel and Elsie. I’m not sure the Behavioral Services Unit is the best place to start a relationship, but they were both so sweet, it could actually work.

One of my favorite patients was a married, Black man in his mid-40s named Mario*. He was insightful and funny, and a great listener. Mario was also a fellow writer, having written a book about his time in prison.

Mario watched a lot of television during our free time, but was always available to just sit around and talk. He disclosed to a few of us in Group that his wife had a fall and miscarried their first child together (she has children from a previous relationship) at seven months while he was on 4 East. He harbored a lot of guilt for not being with her when it happened.

Timmie* was a Black man with blue eyes who arrived on 4 East two days after me. He was in his mid-30s and a transplant from the South. He had that Southern charm going for him that immediately endeared him to everyone. Timmie told us that his attempt to jump off a freeway over pass brought him to our Unit, but he had a lot of medical issues as well. He’d previously been in a horrible car accident and ended up with chronic pain and a lot of metal in his body. His initial struggles on the unit were about the many medications he had to take, not only for his mental health, but for his pain, as well. Seems our doctors had switched his meds against Timmie’s will. Even with his pains and struggles, he was a delight to have around, always so sweet and fun.

One of my favorite nurses was Rachel*, a chocolate, salt & pepper, natural-haired sistah who won my heart the first time we met. She was doing the daily “check-in” with me, asking how I was feeling and if I was having suicidal thoughts, etc. During our all-too-brief chat, she told me that she was intentional in choosing to work on this particular Unit. “I could be doing anything as a nurse, but I chose this. It’s hard work, but worth it. I’m determined to help more people that look like you and me get the help they need. I want to raise awareness in our community so that we can get rid of the stigma of mental illness and treatment.” A woman after my own heart.

My absolute favorite nurse was Jeffrey*, though. Jeffery was a low-key, handsome brotha, with a bald head, goatee and a “panty droppin’” smile. Jeffrey was so smooth, you didn’t hear him coming. One night at snack time, I was trying to finagle an extra granola bar to go with my sugar-free cookie. Jeffrey sidled up to me and said, in that low-key voice of his, “You can’t have that. You’re diabetic.” He then proceeded to coach me through healthier snack choices.

On the day of my discharge, Jeffrey approached me as I was walking the hallway with restless energy. “We’re going to have to delay your release,” he said, looking solemn.

“Oh my God, why?” I asked, tearing up.

Then he smiled slyly and said “I’m just not ready for you to leave me, yet.” We had a hearty laugh and went our separate ways, with me thinking “Lord, if only I were 20 years younger”!

Jeffrey was the nurse who officially discharged me. He wasn’t supposed to be, but I was getting so impatient to find out exactly when I could call my son to come get me because I couldn’t get any answers from anyone else, he simply took over and made it happen. “Go eat lunch,” he said. “And by the time you’re done, I’ll have everything ready for you.” He was true to his word.

Leaving the Behavioral Health Unit was harder than I thought. In a mere seven days, I’d come to care deeply about both my fellow patients and the staff. I deeply respected everyone I encountered on 4 East, because regardless of their role (patient or nurse or tech or doctor), everyone had a place and a purpose.

Inpatient mental health treatment isn’t for everyone. But it was exactly what I needed. I proudly stand by my decision to ask for help because I’d allowed my illness to affect my life for far too long. Before my week on 4 East, I couldn’t even imagine a future for myself. I was waiting for the courage to die, yet I knew I really wanted to live.

Thanks to the doctors, nurses, techs, psychiatrists and therapists who treated me, and thanks to the effective medications I now take, I’m doing better than I have in years. The fog of depression is finally clearing, and I’m filled to the brim with hope.

One day I’ll be on the other side of this thing called mental illness. Until then, I’ll keep working to get better. I’ll also keep doing my part to raise awareness and erase the stigma surrounding mental illness and treatment, especially within the Black community.

If you’re wondering how you can help keep the conversation about mental health going, here are a few simple things you can do:

1. Make sure your church, group, or club includes mental health programming. For example, if your church’s Health Ministry does not include mental health programming, you can lead the charge by inviting mental health professionals to come speak.

2. Use your social media platforms to spread the word and raise awareness. The more we talk about it and post about it, the more we will normalize these discussions. Normalizing this topic will encourage more people to get the help they need.

3. Contact your local hospital to find out how to make donations. Then donate new or gently used board games, books, puzzles, puzzle books, and coloring books. Patients have lots of downtime, and if your hospital’s Unit is anything like 4 East, these items are in short supply.

4. Be gentle and kind to the people you know who struggle with mental illness. I know it’s hard to love someone who’s sick. I know it takes a lot to deal with the mood swings, erratic and even violent behavior, etc. But your kindness and understanding will go a long way, especially if you can convince your loved one to get help.

Thank you for allowing me to share my journey with you.

“The souls who pass through this Unit are brave warriors in the fight for mental health and stability. Some of us will make it. Some of us won’t. I pray my fellow travelers on this bleak and harrowing journey come to know peace in whatever form that takes for them. And I hope they find joy. God bless us all. Even the Bully. Especially the Bully. God Bless 4 East.” Journal Entry, August 27, 2018, 10:45 P.M.

*All names (patients and staff) have been changed to protect the privacy of the souls I encountered on 4 East, which is the floor where the Behavioral Health Unit is housed in my local hospital.

ASK JANICE MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL, PART 4: SOMEONE LIKE ME – I’M SUCH A HYPOCRITE

How I Sought and Received Inpatient Mental Health Treatment

Click here for Part 1: I’m not okay

Click here for Part 2: I’m just happy to be here

Click here for Part 3: The Bully of 4 East

“Friends keep calling me ‘brave’ for doing this … but I believe I have it easier than most. I have supportive friends and family who made taking this step easier. I’m so blessed to have such a strong support system. Almost makes me wonder how I could even get so low. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even someone ‘like me’ with all this love and support, can get so low.” Journal Entry, August 25, 2018, 11:45 P.M.

One night, during our 9:00 P.M. snack time, I started chatting with a really cool nurse named Dino*. He was about my age and we had slightly overlapping backgrounds growing up in Detroit. As we played the “do you know so-and-so” game, I could actually see the shock on his face as he started to put the pieces of my life together: I went to a well-known, all girls, Catholic high school, then to a Big Ten university, where I pledged one of the largest Black sororities in the world. Finally, unable to contain himself, he blurted, “With your background, what the heck are you doing here? This must just be a bump in the road for someone like you”.

“Someone like me”, as if my upbringing somehow protected me from having a mental illness. As if middle-class, college educated, Black sorority women don’t sometimes need inpatient mental health treatment. To Dino, I was an outlier patient. I didn’t fit his idea of who a patient on 4 East should be.

Dino’s response bothered me. When he said pretty much the same thing again a couple nights later, I gently reminded him that even “someone like me” needs help, sometimes. I wasn’t feeling very gentle when I chastised him, though. I was angry.

His response is exactly why more Black people don’t seek treatment when they need it. There’s this notion that Black people don’t have the luxury of having mental health issues because we’re too busy just trying to survive. For Black women in particular, there’s the expectation that we’re “too strong” to need help; we’re too busy taking care of business to be bothered with therapy; or my personal favorite, we turn our problems over to God, so we’re fine.

This archaic attitude is killing us! Our steadfast refusal to face the fact that undiagnosed and untreated mental illness runs rampant in the Black community is literally killing us. So is the notion that therapy is for “other people”. We need to de-stigmatize mental illness and treatment, and start getting the help we need.

Black women need more safe spaces to not be ok. Because sometimes our “not ok” is different from other people’s “not ok”. To quote the late Bebe Moore Campbell, “Your blues ain’t like mine”. Our unique experiences at the crossroads of race and gender aren’t like anyone else’s. That’s why we need to create and sustain more safe spaces just for us.

But, I digress.

The bottom line is the old, tired trope of THE STRONG BLACK WOMAN is dangerous. Yes, we are strong. But contrary to popular belief, we aren’t impervious to pain. To only judge our strength based on the pain we can endure is to deny us our full humanity. To only see us as “strong” is to deny us our full humanity.

That’s exactly the point of my advocacy. Mental illness affects EVERYBODY, regardless of class, education, religion, race, ethnicity, etc. The fact that “someone like me” seems like such an anomaly to a seasoned professional like Dino proves that there’s still a lot to be done in terms of awareness and stigma, particularly among African Americans.

I know I’m not the only Black, college-educated, sorority member who needs mental health treatment. My being such a rarity on the Behavioral Health Unit means there far too many people “like me” out there suffering in silence.

As passionate as I am about erasing the stigma of mental health in the Black community, you’d think I’d be more compassionate about anyone seeking mental health treatment. Sadly, I’m not. This realization was a humbling, yet necessary experience, and it involved Barb the Bully.

Barb acted up and out on a daily basis, sometimes more than once a day. Sometimes, she was so violent and disruptive, security had to be called to the Unit to subdue her. I even saw the police once.

One such incident occurred one morning while we were in Group. There were about six of us meeting that day, and we were in one of the group rooms with our door closed for privacy. We were about ten minutes into our session when we could hear yelling and screaming in the hallway. The only words I could make out were profanity-laden threats to cause someone physical harm.

It was Barb, of course. I don’t know what precipitated her outburst, but it got ugly fast. Through the window on our closed door, we could see other staff and armed security running down the hall towards the nurses’ desk. After a few seconds, the screaming suddenly stopped and all was quiet.

A patient named Jimmy*, who’d been on 4 East, against his will, for almost two weeks by the time I arrived, said “I bet they sedated her and chained her to her bed again”. I didn’t take him seriously, though. Jimmy was given to hyperbole and loved to talk smack about any and everybody. (He was actually much cooler than that description made him sound.)

Anyway, after Group, as I walked down the hall to my room, I passed Barb’s open door and looked inside. Sure enough, she was lying prone on her bed, dead still, with her eyes closed. And to my surprise, her ankles were bound to the bed with what looked like leather straps. Jimmy was right.

The image of my nemesis strapped to her bed shook me to my core. For one thing, it creeped me out in a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” kind of way. I mean, I had no idea this kind of thing happened on this Unit! I was shocked.

Also, I was so busy resenting Barb for her toxic behavior that I failed to recognize not only her humanity, but the fact that she was a patient on 4 East, just like me. For all my “she’s beneath me, so I’ll just ignore her” and my holier-than-thou “a bully is a punk-ass who hasn’t met the right person” attitude, I failed to see the obvious: Barb and I were both mental patients on 4 East.

I further realized that for her to be so toxic and disruptive, she must be in immense psychic pain. Like me, she was sick. Just because my sickness didn’t manifest itself the way hers did doesn’t mean she wasn’t as deserving as I was of care. She deserved healing as much as anyone else on the Unit. And she deserved to be healed with compassion and dignity.

I don’t doubt that the staff took appropriate measures to diffuse the situation with Barb. I trust their expertise and experience, and believe they did the right thing. In fact, she had to be sedated and restrained on two more occasions before I was discharged. But for me, that first time seeing her knocked out and tied down was an eye-opening experience that forced me to face my own hypocrisy.

Here I was, this so-called advocate for mental health awareness, being judgmental and petty when it came to Barb. I actually believed she was beneath me. How hypocritical of me! I wrote in my journal, “I’ve been such a hypocrite – advocating for the mentally ill in my writing, all the while hating on her”.

Facing my own hypocrisy was a revelation. It made me take a long, hard look at how I perceived and reacted to other people, and what I saw wasn’t always pretty. I’d treated Barb as badly as others treat Black women – I’d used her pain against her, and denied her humanity in the face of that pain. I’d deemed her beneath me without any regard to her circumstances.

Someone like me, indeed.

I later journaled, “I am no better than anyone here. We are all sisters and brothers in this mental health fight. May we all prevail.”
*Names of patients and staff have been changed to protect their privacy.

END OF PART 4. STAY TUNED FOR PART 5, THE FINAL INSTALLMENT.

ASK JANICE MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL, Part 3: THE BULLY OF 4 EAST

How I Sought and Received Inpatient Mental Health Treatment

CLICK HERE for Part 1: I’M NOT OKAY

CLICK HERE for Part 2: I’M JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE

“Trying to make these notes just about me and my feelings, but this Barb b**ch is working my f***ing nerves! Every damn day she wants to cut up! She’s a bully and an attention whore and super disruptive. And she loves being so damn disruptive!” Journal Entry, August 24, 2018 3:45 P.M.

“Well, that b**ch tried me! And I was ready. When I stepped to her and said “Well come on wit’ it, then”, she wouldn’t even look at me. The nice nurse Gavin* talked me off the ledge, though. But my heart is still racing and I know my blood pressure is off the charts. Let me do this breathing exercise we learned today before I stroke out. That b**ch really ain’t worth it.” Journal Entry, August 24, 2018 4:15 P.M.

Listen. It’s been decades since I’ve encountered an actual, real life bully. Then I chanced upon Barb*, another patient on 4 East. Barb was impossible to miss because of one fact: she was your garden-variety, after-school special, dyed-in-the-wool bully. She picked on and threatened individuals regularly, including staff. However, her best bullying performances occurred at two specific times: during meals and when the phones were open.

We had our meals in a multi-purpose room equipped with heavy, four-seater tables, and heavy chairs that were nearly impossible to move. It took me a while to figure out that the reason the tables and chairs were so heavy was to prevent people from flipping or throwing them.

During meals, we lined up with our Styrofoam trays, cafeteria-style. Each patient was served a Styrofoam plate of food right where we collected our plastic utensils and napkins. Then you stepped down a little further, where there were Styrofoam bowls of fruit or salad, desserts, condiments and covered Styrofoam cups of coffee and Crystal Light. It was a short, uncomplicated system. There weren’t any real choices, and it only took about two minutes to get through the entire line and be seated.

Barb deliberately took a ridiculously long time to get through the line, holding up anyone who had the misfortune of arriving to the dining room after her. She’d hem and haw about which entre she wanted. There was only one choice of entre, let’s say a hamburger. But Barb would take her sweet time choosing which particular hamburger she wanted. She’d do the same thing choosing her cup of coffee, or salad or whatever.

She’d really hold up the line at the condiments, though. She’d quibble over which packet of ketchup to get, often taking a handful for no reason. By this point, the servers tried to hurry her along, as did whichever staff person was covering the dining room. Even the patients would moan “Come on, Barb! You’re taking forever!”

Barb relished the attention she got during her mealtime hijinks. She had this look of gleeful satisfaction on her face while people complained. And the more people complained, the slower she’d go, until finally, the staff person in charge would threaten to make her eat in her room. Then she’d huff to her seat, usually spouting nasty remarks to whomever she encountered on her way.

Barb was also a bully when it came to the phones. On 4 East, patients only had access to three phones: two that made outgoing calls, and one that took incoming calls. Also, we could only use the phones from 6-9 AM, 11:45 AM-1 PM, and from 3:30-10 PM. Given these parameters, there was a strict, ten-minute time limit for all calls. At any given time, there were between 22 and 26 patients on the Unit. With only three phones available, it was imperative for us to keep our calls to that time limit.

Well, Barb mostly ignored the ten minute rule and hogged the phones. Since both our rooms were on either side of one of the phones, she and I often vied for that particular phone at the same time.

It galled me to watch her sit there, thumbing through her scraps of paper with numbers written on them (remember, we had no access to our cell phones, so we had to either memorize numbers or have them written down), pretending to look for the number of her next call. Sometimes, she’d be on the phone for an hour, or until someone complained loudly enough. Usually, she just sat in the chair “pretending”, getting everyone riled up and enjoying the attention.

I saw Barb for the bully she was my first night on the Unit. She irritated me during meals, and watching her hog the phones bugged me. But, as I’d resolved to mind my own business and focus on my own healing, I tried my best to ignore her.

Until she tried me.

Here’s what happened.

The phone that takes incoming calls was all the way at the end of the hall. The normal protocol was that if you were near when it rang, you answered it. Ideally, if you expected a call, you were already nearby. Usually the caller asked for the patient by name.

On this particular day, I just happened to be the only person in the hall when the phone rang. Now I rarely got incoming calls. That phone was usually occupied, so it was just easier for me to make outgoing calls. So when it rang, I knew it wasn’t for me. Still, as a courtesy to my fellow patients, I answered it.

As I answered, I could hear Barb yell, “It’s for me!”, as she made her way down the hall. She walked with a limp, so it took her a while to get there. In the meantime, the caller simply answered my “Hello”, with “Hello”, herself. So, I did the logical thing and asked who she was calling for. That’s just when Barb reached the phone.

“I said it’s for me,” she huffed. I just looked at her and handed her the receiver. Then, as I started to walk away, Barb continued, “I don’t know why you have to be all up in my business, asking who she’s calling for …”

I should have kept walking. I knew it then and I know it now. But I’d had it with Barb and her bullying. So, against my better judgement and my good home training, I responded with “I was just making sure the call was actually for you. Trust me, I’m not interested in getting into your business.”

Then, I added fuel to the fire by saying “Look, Barb. Don’t start none, won’t be none with me, ok?” And I turned to walk away.

When I turned, my back was to Barb and I was facing the nurse, Gavin*, as he headed our way. I think he knew something was about to happen. He was right.

Barb said, “Oh, I’ll start some, finish some, and do everything in between!”

Yes, she said those exact words.

Now, I’m a 53 year old woman with at least 20 years on Barb. In other words, I’m a grown-ass woman who knows better than to let a playground bully get under my skin.

But she did get under skin. I can’t stand bullies.

From the exact moment Barb’s words registered in my brain, everything seemed to move in slow motion. I could see Gavin heading towards me, calling my name.

Ignoring him, I slowly turned around and asked, “What did you say?”

Y’all.

She had the nerve to repeat herself, verbatim, starting with “I said …” and ending with a neck and an eye roll.
Now I faced Barb, with my arms outspread. And before I could censor myself, I said “Well, come on wit’ it, then!”

Thankfully, Gavin stepped between us, led me to my room and calmed me down. He reminded me that such an encounter was completely out of character for me and beneath me.

I also realized it wasn’t very smart because if things had gotten physical between us, I could’ve got into some real trouble. My being Black and older, and Barb being white probably would have worked against me.

So far, my stay on 4 East was voluntary. Had I molly-whopped Barb like I’d wanted to, that “voluntary” status definitely would have changed.

Barb limped, but she was a big girl. I’m a big girl, so when I say she was bigger (fatter and taller) than me, I’m not exaggerating. I’ve never physically fought another woman in my entire life, so I wouldn’t even know what to do. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Barb’s mouth had gotten her in some fights, so she surely had more experience than me, too.

I still would’ve kicked her ass, though.

All joking aside, I didn’t know it at the time, but that brief encounter with Barb the Bully prompted a profound change in me. It just took a minute for it to happen.

*Names of patients and staff have been changed to protect their privacy.

END OF PART 3, STAY TUNED FOR PART 4.

ASK JANICE MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL, PART 2: I’M JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE

How I Sought and Received Inpatient Mental Health Treatment

To Read Part 1: I’m not Ok – CLICK HERE.

“1st Night: Nervous – how long will I be here? I miss Michael (my son). I miss Facebook. I don’t miss Facebook. I’m glad I did this. Nervous/excited about tomorrow. Ready to work. (Also, I weigh 15 pounds less than I thought!)” Journal Entry, August 22, 2018, 9:15 P.M.

When you first arrive on 4 East, the Behavioral Health Unit of my local hospital, there’s an initial intake process which includes a physical inspection of the patient’s entire body. This happens regardless of the time you arrive, even in the middle of the night. Two nurses who are the same gender the patient identifies as conduct the inspection.

In my case, after a series of intake questions, taking of my vital signs, and a thorough inventory of my personal items (most of which were not allowed on the Unit and had to be locked away until my discharge), two perky women nurses conducted my inspection. One of them looked and instructed me on how to move, bend, lift, and shift; while the other took notes and drew my scars and bruises on a silhouette of the human body.

This was uncomfortable for me because I have a lot of scars on my body, most of which are never seen by other people. The scars are old, but very obvious. And at the time, I believed they had absolutely nothing to do with why I was on the Unit. So, I got a little irritated for the first couple of days when I had to explain, again and again to a new person each time, the old scars covering my body.

I even wrote in my journal that I was sick of getting asked about my old scars, but then I wrote “But isn’t that the point of being here? To deal with old scars?” I decided right then that addressing those old scars could only help my healing. So I patiently played along and told, in great detail, how I got each scar. Doing so did help.

During almost every encounter I had with patients and staff during my first two days on 4 East, I would exclaim something along the lines of “Hey, I’m just happy to be here”. I felt like I had to make that distinction because not every patient on the Unit was there voluntarily. Besides, I really was happy to be there, even with all the rules and restrictions.

There are a lot of little things that make living on 4 East a unique experience, not the least of which is why we’re all there. But, for example, every trash can liner was a brown paper bag, not just because of the hospital’s efforts to be “green”, but also because someone could suffocate themselves with plastic liners. Ink pens could be weaponized, so we were only allowed golf pencils. We used plastic utensils and ate off Styrofoam plates. Even the trays we used to carry our food, cafeteria style, was Styrofoam. If we needed to shave, we had to use carefully distributed razors, and only under close supervision.

In the showers, the water only came on for 45 second intervals. You had to push a button to get it going again. We had no control over the water temperature or pressure, just whether or not it actually ran. It was annoying to keep pushing that button to get wet. But, you get used to it and besides, the water pressure was better than I have at home.

I was nervous at first, like the new kid at a school where everyone already knew each other. And like any new kid who wants to get along, I spent those first hours watching everyone and everything around me. But I did so unobtrusively, because I was afraid of making eye contact with the other patients, at first. This was my first time getting inpatient help and I was afraid to engage anyone. So I kept my head down, but remained watchful.

It wasn’t long before I figured out who the most boisterous and outgoing patients and staff were. I also peeped the quiet ones because, frankly, they made me the most nervous. But the loud ones had huge personalities, and my writer brain couldn’t help but be intrigued by them. It took considerable effort on my part not to get “sucked in” to their stories and focus on myself. I’m not sure if I succeeded, either.

I also got a sense of how long some of my fellow patients had been there. One woman left after only two days. Another man was discharged after one day, but he went to another inpatient facility for substance abuse. And one patient had been there two months when I arrived, with no end in sight.

I’ve always known that mental illnesses manifest themselves differently in different people. But this was my first time seeing these differences up close. Again, the writer in me was fascinated by the different personalities, quirks and foibles. It took a lot of discipline to keep my focus on my own healing.

I spent the first two days observing and getting acclimated. I learned that my individual meetings weren’t really therapy sessions, at all. Instead, they were brief meetings with two doctors: an attending psychiatrist and another psychiatrist; two medical students; a resident; and another person whose title I don’t remember. These meetings never lasted more than 10 minutes, and took place randomly in the mornings after breakfast.

I did have a couple of longer, more detailed meetings with one of the medical students, whom I came to like and respect more than the attending psychiatrist. The medical student used the information I provided to guide the meetings with the entire team. At first I was concerned that a student had so much influence over my case. However, he was skilled at getting to the heart of the matter and, like I said, I liked him more than the Attending.

The most regular and consistent meetings were the different types of group therapies. Patients were assigned to a particular group after an assessment by one of the recreational therapists. I had three daily group sessions: Group Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Recreational Therapy.

Group Therapy, or Group, as we called it was my favorite time of day. Group is exactly what you think it is: a small group of patients (no more than eight or nine), led by a therapist, where we each took turns “sharing” our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. I loved Group!

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) got better for me as the week progressed. In these sessions, we learned skills and techniques to help us achieve “balance” in our lives. That’s the way we defined dialectical, as behaving in a way where our “emotional” mind and “rational” mind were in balance, so that we used our “wise” mind. It’s actually more fun than it sounds, and I ended up gaining some valuable skills and knowledge.

Recreational Therapy was my least favorite, even though it was fun. It was exactly as its name implies: recreational activities to engage our minds and enjoy ourselves.

We were done with our groups by 2:00 in the afternoon. With the exception of meal/snack times and visiting times (which only lasted one hour each day), we were pretty free until 11:00 p.m. Of course, there were specific times for showering, and meds were dispensed at planned intervals throughout the day and night. But until the televisions were turned off at 11, patients had A LOT of downtime.
As happy as I was to be there, the downtime got to me. The earlier entries in my journal said things like “Time moves so slowly here”, and “I’m kind of bored. I’m kind of cool with it”.

As a writer, I was tempted to write about the staff and even my fellow patients, because they were all interesting and entertaining. But I was determined not to deflect from my own problems, so I turned inward and, for the most part, kept my entries centered on myself.

So, I spent several hours a day writing on the blank, unlined, scrap paper that was so judiciously doled out from the nurses’ desk. Per the rules, of which there were many, in order to get sharper pencils, I had to trade in my dull ones. I used lots of paper and went through lots of those annoying, little golf pencils.

I should note here that I was on anti-psychotics and anti-depressants, as well as a myriad of medications to deal with my high blood pressure and my out-of-control diabetes. I had my blood sugar tested no less than four times a day, and my blood pressure taken so many times, I lost count. Both my glucose levels and my blood pressure were too high during the first several days on the floor. But since the psych meds had me feeling so much better, I didn’t mind.

Don’t get me wrong. The psych meds weren’t a panacea for whatever ailed me. But they did stabilize my mood and helped me focus. Most importantly, they helped clear the fog of depression that had been bogging me down for at least four years. For the first time in far too long, I felt whole, stable and clear-headed.

END OF PART 2. STAY TUNED FOR PART 3

ASK JANICE MENTAL HEALTH SPECIAL, PART 1: I’M NOT OK

How I Sought and Received Inpatient Treatment for My Mental Illness

I’ve battled chronic depression since my early twenties. I’m 53, now. Over the past three decades, I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression; manic-depressive disorder, later referred to as bi-polar disorder; and chronic depression. My current and seemingly most accurate diagnosis is:

Major Depressive Disorder, single episode, severe without psychotic features.

That’s not only a mouthful, it’s a lot to process. I came to receive this diagnosis about four years too late, during my voluntary, inpatient stay on the mental health ward of my local hospital. My mental health had finally deteriorated enough for me to take the drastic step to “check myself in” and get some real, professional help.

2018 has been particularly bad year for me. I’ve spent most of the year battling thoughts of suicide. From the beginning of the year, I’ve been on a downward spiral mentally, and just couldn’t figure out how to stop it.

This was going on despite my public efforts to eliminate the stigma of mental illness and treatment, especially within the Black community. Over the past few years, I’ve published a couple of essays about my decades-long struggle with mental disease, and I’ve used my social media platforms to educate and raise awareness about mental health issues.

But even my armchair activism couldn’t keep my own darkness at bay. I was sick and getting sicker, looking at my reflection in my mirror every day and whispering, “I’m not o.k.” So, I asked for help … finally.

Full disclosure: I was already in the hospital, by way of an ambulance ride to the ER when I asked for help for my depression. I’d been struggling with stomach issues for months, but since I didn’t have health insurance, I didn’t seek medical care. By the way, my lack of health insurance and money were also the reasons my deteriorating mental health had gone untreated for so long.

My most recent “stomach issues” turned out to be a severe diverticulitis flare-up exacerbated by my diabetes, resulting in an awful infection that left me dehydrated and sick enough to remain hospitalized for five days. While I was still in the ER, I told the attending doctor that I was having suicidal thoughts and wanted to be seen by a psychiatrist. My thinking was that, as I was already being treated without insurance for my medical problems, I might as well get the help I so desperately needed for my mental problems, too.

In other words, I saw an opportunity and grabbed it.

In all honesty, I doubt I would have sought help at all if I hadn’t already been so physically sick. Not only was I uninsured, I was also broke. I work part time at a job I love, but my depression has been so severe, I haven’t been able to handle full time work. I simply could not afford therapy or any more meds than I was already barely taking. So my diverticulitis flare-up probably saved my life.

After I’d been admitted to a regular room, a psychiatrist came to talk to me. He asked me how badly I wanted to get better, and I tearfully told him that I was desperate to get better.

“What are you willing to do to get better?” He held my gaze, not allowing me to look away, even I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t.

“I’ll do anything to get better,” I told him. “I don’t want to feel this way, anymore.”

“Would you consider inpatient treatment here, at this hospital, if I can arrange it?”

“Yes, please. But I don’t have any insurance.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he assured me. “Let me take care of it. As long as you’re willing to be admitted once you’re medically cleared from this floor, it will all work out.”

I cried with relief. It actually took that doctor and another mental health professional (I’m not sure of his title) a lot of string pulling and maneuvering for it to “all work out”. 21st century hospital bureaucracy is still a slow-moving beast. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), I wasn’t medically cleared to move for four full days. I was just that sick. And even then, it still took another day for me to get transferred.

The other reason I could be transferred was that I worked with a social worker to complete a new Medicaid application. I’d had Medicaid in the past, but for some reason, it was cancelled. Probably because I’d failed to submit the documents necessary to “renew” it. Again, my depression stopped me from handling a lot of personal business. This was just another example of how my mental illness negatively impacted my life.

However, the hospital came to the rescue and I was getting what I wanted: some intense, professional help to deal with my chronic depression. Knowing help was available and imminent lifted my mood tremendously. Before I was even transferred, I felt better.

I immediately decided to journal about my experience with inpatient care. First because on the Behavioral Health Unit, 4 East at my local hospital, patients can’t have access to any devices, the internet, spiral notebooks, or even pens. As an avid user of social media, the prospect of an undetermined amount of time “off line” was daunting.

At least journaling, even in pencil on the unlined scrap paper stingily doled out at the nurses’ desk, would give me a way to focus my healing, write away my anxiety and fill my downtime with something constructive. I probably would have journaled in my own blood on tree bark, had that been a requirement of the Unit. I was just that ready to get better.

End of Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2.