The Big 3-0
Turning 30 years old personally for me was a significant milestone and a year of significant transition. During my time growing up in Chicago’s South and West sides. I was placed in various foster homes starting at the age of three years old; and fortunately, I was adopted at the age of twelve. When I was a child, I always felt I had no control over my life, and that my life was still in the hands of caseworkers and the state. I would often wish during my lonely nights that I had a family like all the other kids at school. This made me always feel like an outsider. This impacted my confidence and self-esteem. I felt ashamed.
As I entered into my twenties, I still never dealt with the shame of growing up poor, abused, and being abandoned as a child. I suffered a lot of physical and verbal abuse in the foster homes and with my new family. Life after the adoption was far from perfect; I believe the verbal abuse and witnessing physical altercations between family members impacted me significantly through the years. In 2003, while I served in the U.S. Navy, I suffered from my first bout of insomnia. It returned with a vengeance during my college years, starting in 2006. Since no medical reason explained my insomnia, I sought counseling at my two universities. From 2006-2013, I saw eight different therapists.
My depression reached its peak during my 2008 college graduation from Northern Illinois University. At my graduation, I watched members of my biological family and adopted family squabble and argue about who I loved the most. Watching them argue over me reopened all the old wounds of my childhood living in foster homes and my counseling sessions. Again, I felt that I had no control over my life, that I was at the mercy of other people. I had served in the military, traveled the world, obtained a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and yet still, I felt that I had no control over my life.
By October of 2012, I was twenty-nine years old and about to hit rock bottom. One day, after another night of sleeplessness—even after years of using booze and marijuana to treat my insomnia—the troubles at my job, lack of a stable intimate relationship, and the holidays looming on the horizon crashed down over me. I broke down in my Southside condo. I did the only thing I could think to do: I called the VA hotline. Fortunately, a person whom I will never be able to thank personally was at the end of that VA hotline call. He shared his story about battling depression for ten years after leaving the military and how it caused a downward spiral in his own life. He stayed with me on the line as I checked myself into the VA Hospital. The doctors prescribed me venlafaxine that day.
Moment of Clarity
I had two moments of clarity during my first two months of turning thirty years old. The first moment occurred when I was driving home utterly drunk from a friend’s wedding from Indiana to Chicago. The second moment happened when I had a terrible reaction to marijuana, which landed me in the hospital. These two episodes forced me to reflect upon my life. My road to self-awareness and self-worth involved realizing I had placed too much value on other people in my life. I had never truly appreciated myself as a man, black person, and as a human being. I had focused on making everyone else a priority while undervaluing and being overly critical of myself in social situations. I had been harder on myself than I had been on other people. Anxiety, bouts of clinical depression, and panic attacks had hindered me on and off since my childhood. This all had affected my personal relationships, romantic ones, and professional life, too.
I made a lot of personal changes over the next couple of years to become a happier, healthier, more evolved person. First, I learned to value myself. Secondly, I quit self-medicating, stopped taking anti-depressants and rejected negative thoughts. Finally, I accepted failure. For years in counseling, I talked about what it meant to be successful and about my constant fear of failure. But I now view failure as a necessary element to becoming a more successful person. I am much more equipped to deal with negative thoughts and self-doubt. Positive self-talk, working out, taking improv classes, travel, developing my personal relationships and getting daily online tips about ways to improve one’s confidence. One must love oneself first and foremost, and not worry about what other people think.
Through my professional work and personal life, I’ve discovered that many young black people suffer from depression and other mental health issues such as PTSD. For instance, I facilitated many peace circles and conducted group counseling sessions where young black men would share their personal struggles. They talked about using drugs, reckless sex lives, violence in the community, and self-hatred. It helped me understand that my past is connected to a more significant systemic problem—of race, class, and ideals of masculinity—in our country. Black people who live in poverty suffer from many health issues, but mental health is something that men, due to patriarchal ideals surrounding masculinity, don’t openly talk about. There has been some progress, however, especially with celebrities like Jay Pharoah, Kid Cudi, and researchers, like my old professor at the University of Chicago, Waldo Johnson speaking up about how depression impacts black men in America. I am sharing my own story as a way of saying to young black men out there, “You’re not alone, and there is always hope.”