Treatment for my suicidal ideation has not been a linear journey
I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time at 16. I cried when the character Neil said, “I’m trapped.” I whispered back, "Me too."
Editor’s Note: April is Black Women’s History Month. Throughout this month, Black Youth Project is celebrating Black women. This month is also National Minority Health Month, Autism Awareness Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Child Abuse Prevention Month. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
by Maya Williams
This essay contains discussions of suicide and suicidal ideation.
I often joke that the greatest thing about being mixed race is having “the best of both worlds” for mental health stigma. Being raised by a single biracial mother, she passed on to me what she received growing up from both her white and Black family members.
From her white side, there were euphemisms for depression such as “sadness” and “something that will pass.” From her Black side, there was the belief that depression just didn’t exist for us, because we were stronger than a “growing pain.” She said, “Just pray through it. Don’t think about it. It’s all in your head.” My Black family members from my mother and father’s side said the same.
My mother tried to help me in her own indirect way. After I suggested it, she allowed me go to therapy. I never mentioned my suicidal thoughts in the present tense during my sessions to avoid hospitalization. I couldn’t hurt my mom again after telling her the first time at age thirteen, I didn’t want to be committed, and I couldn’t have her pay for something as intense and expensive as a hospital stay. House rules shifted: I had to ask permission before taking any form of medication for headaches and colds, and I was not allowed to lock my bedroom door.
“Don’t talk about therapy, people won’t take you seriously,” she reminded.
As a solution to keep myself from talking about treatment, I decided to stop going altogether at age fifteen. Taking my family members’ advice, I decided to pray. I prayed for better reasons to live than the ones given to me. I read Scripture about how God doesn’t forget anyone. As great as prayer was—and still is—for me as an ongoing spiritual practice, I understand now that I used it as an excuse to repress all of the emotional baggage that came with my ideation, my mental illnesses, and my compulsive disorders.
I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time when I was sixteen. I cried when the character Neil said, “I’m trapped.”
I whispered back, “Me too.”
Crying and witnessing a character’s struggle with ideation in a popular film was a relief for me. It was devastating that Neil never got the chance to recover, but seeing his story was something that validated my feelings and my own struggle.
At the age of eighteen, the stress of school and home unleashed the contents of the bottle that was filled with my depression, anxiety, and dermatillomania. I couldn’t pray away what had been capped inside for so long. That same year, I lost a dear friend to suicide. I had attempted before, and I’d had friends who had attempted before, but this was the first time I actually lost someone.
The day after I heard the news, I found myself calling for a therapy appointment. During the time of grieving, my mother asked, “Are you thinking of suicide again?”
I said, “No.”
For once, that was an honest answer. Since then, my mother and I have talked more openly and regularly about mental health. Because things were getting better, I eventually took a break from therapy. Unfortunately, at twenty-one, my ideation returned, pouring out of me with a vengeance.
I kept thinking, “No, no. You’ve been doing so well for the past few years. You can’t have these thoughts again.”
Although the ideation was overwhelming, I had reached a place with my mental health where I struggled with these thoughts, but would not act on any plans. I learned to think about it differently. Instead of panic, I would say, “It’s back again, and it’s okay.”
Before I started grad school, after my mother suggested it, I returned to therapy. During these years, I also engaged in spoken word communities all around New England.
At a slam competition in New Hampshire, I performed a poem I had written for the friend I lost to suicide, with additional lines about my own struggles with suicidal thoughts. It was well received. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to allow myself to write about suicide in my poetry.
As I got deeper into the poetry scene, I also became angrier. Spoken word has been an art built by and for Black folks, yet the spoken word videos that were shared the most in regards to the topic of mental illness and suicide ideation, were often white performers. In therapy, I began to rage about how spoken word, films, news stories, national campaigns, and more about recovering from suicidal ideation that received the most recognition came from the voices of mostly white people. Where were the Black people? Even Dead Poets Society, the movie that made my struggle feel seen long ago, featured an all white cast.
I had so much anger towards family members who told me my depression wasn’t real because it was “a white people thing,” but that anger began to subside when I realized they hadn’t heard Black people in their circles or on TV talk openly about mental illness and suicidal ideation in this way. If a Black friend died by suicide, it was rare that the cause of death was up for discussion. I’m not the first Black person to talk openly about their struggle with suicidal ideation, but I was often the first to do so with many of my relatives.
In September 2018, A Million Little Things premiered on ABC, a show about how people support each other after hearing the news of a friend’s suicide. The show premiered during Suicide Prevention Month after the losses of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Avicii, Anam Tanoli, and more by suicide that year.
I was drawn to the show for one character’s storyline in particular: Rome, a Black man who struggles with his own suicide ideation and re-evaluates how to best seek
therapy in the wake of the loss of his friend. I watch attentively each time Rome appears on-screen. His wife, Regina, is a biracial Black woman, like my mom. After the funeral to honor their friend, she recounts what it was like growing up in a Black family that denied the existence of mental illness.
“It doesn’t exist, just pray to Jesus,” she repeats her family’s words.
I say, “Yup!” Not in agreement with the sentiment, but in recognition of it, remembering all the times family members had said this to me. Later in the episode, Rome opens up about his own near attempt before receiving the call about his friend’s death. I sob uncontrollably along with him as he says, “I just feel like I can’t breathe.”
I cry even harder as his friends embraced him and promise to be there for him. In A Million Little Things, I see a reflection of my own experience with suicidal thoughts and it hits closer to home than Dead Poets Society had. Not only because the character is Black, but also because I got to see the story of recovery that I wanted and needed when I was sixteen.
This kind of representation is going to continue playing a huge role in people’s recovery. It’s going to continue playing a huge role in my recovery
I turned twenty-three last December, and I am still in therapy. Not discounting the bouts of intensity that have come in and out of my life, it has been ten years since my ideation was at its highest point. I know that suicide is definitely not an option for me, but I won’t just leave it at that, or cease to talk about it, or cease to get the treatment I need. I am proud that I am still here and the number of years of my life will only continue to grow.
Maya Williams (she/hers & they/them) is a mixed race black suicide survivor and writer currently residing in Portland, ME. They have published essays in spaces such as The Tempest, Black Girl Nerds, Multiracial Media, and The Trill Project. Follow Maya @emmdubb16 on Twitter and Instagram.