I Took Mental Health Days During Mental Health Awareness Month. That Wasn’t Part of the Plan.
A year ago, I was getting ready to graduate from college, aka my biggest achievement (thus) far. I was surrounded by excited family and friends, I had accepted an offer to work here at the Law Center, I signed a lease to live in my first apartment by myself, and yet I felt like my world was caving in.
I remembered one night in May 2022, almost exactly a year ago, when I took a step into the night showers where I felt my deepest solitude, and I was launched into my first panic attack in almost ten years. Every day after that, I would experience multiple panic attacks. My stomach was clenched all the time, my appetite was completely gone, I wasn’t sleeping more than a few hours a night in total, and it almost always was hard to breathe.
At dinner with my family the night before my graduation, I felt like crying. I was so exhausted, but wired. Hungry, but queasy. Overwhelmed and overstimulated. When they brought the food out, I got up from the table and walked out of the restaurant, trying to assure my family that everything was okay, and I would be right back. I sat on the curb of the busy DC street and cried for what felt like the hundredth time that month.
My anxiety disorder diagnosis came a few months after that, but I’ve felt anxious for my entire life. It is nearly impossible for me to remember a time where my life wasn’t ruled by fear of the “what if.” To myself and others, that fear was mostly praised, motivating. My anxiety was, after all, what got me to get good grades, to keep things clean and orderly, and to be the best daughter and granddaughter that I could be.
As the oldest kid (and grandkid on both sides of my family), my job was to lead the way. And as the only Black kid in most of my classes, my job was to be (at least) twice as good as all of my peers. It didn’t really matter if my anxiety kept me up at night and made me so nauseous that I couldn’t eat before big tests or auditions, because the anxiety helped me get results. And those results were worth the physical distress.
Especially in the Black community, mental health typically isn’t discussed explicitly or treated properly. People with mental health issues are usually just called “crazy” or “looney” and that person isn’t sick, they’re just “like that.” Even growing up, I would talk to family members who would tell me that they would get so nervous sometimes that they couldn’t eat or sleep, and it wasn’t until it happened to me that I realized that it wasn’t normal. That people shouldn’t have to live like that/this.
That living became even more difficult during the pandemic, which especially strained Black women’s mental health. And of those women who experienced mental health struggles, over 73% didn’t seek treatment, many saying they didn’t need it, or could handle things themselves. There’s also the fact that 41% of Black women couldn’t afford, access, or make time for mental health treatment in their day-to-day lives.
Every time it seemed like I had tackled one mental health issue, another one popped up. With one anxiety disproven, at least one new one was there to wreak havoc. When I had access to free counseling in college, I took advantage of it, but never left the series of sessions feeling like I was better off. I had been deescalated from whatever “crisis” had caused me to seek counseling in the first place, but I still felt anxious to my core, which would cause me to come back every following year with a different topic but the same underlying issue.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s also the one-year anniversary of a pivotal moment in my mental health journey. When May 1st came around this year, I remembered everything that I was feeling a year ago. And even if I hadn’t noticed the date, my body knew. Something felt off. I couldn’t eat and I was having trouble sleeping. Everywhere I was, I wasn’t mentally there.
It’s taken me a while to get to a place where I could finally start taking my mental health seriously. But this May, when I started noticing those physical manifestations of my anxiety, I decided to take some sick time from work.
I am so proud of myself for that brave and vulnerable decision—and proud to work at a place that values physical health and mental health equally.
Because of our union contract—signed last October!!!—every employee at the Law Center gets 20 sick days a year, which all can be used, if needed, for mental health. I also have insurance through my workplace that allows me to receive affordable weekly therapy, and my support system (composed of my friends and immediate family) is there for me whenever I need anything.
Everyone deserves to know that someone will catch them if they fall, shine a light in the darkness, or hold them when they’re falling apart. You don’t have to wait for a breaking point or traumatic event to advocate for your mental health. It’s okay to ask for the support that you want. The support that you need. You deserve it.
I’m giving myself grace this month and always to heal, grow, cry, laugh, and learn. I hope that you do the same.