When I was 19, I lost my father, the only caretaker I'd known my entire life.
Growing up in Brooklyn, NY in the '80s, it was common for black children to be raised by drug-addicted parents. My mother abandoned my sister and I while succumbing to her addiction to crack cocaine. But my father, he stayed. And that man loved me fiercely for the years we had, while battling his own addiction to heroin. Despite his own pain, he took care of me. Losing him is still the worst pain I've ever felt in my life.
Throughout my 20s, I was excessively drinking, crying uncontrollably, and thinking of ways to cause myself harm. It wasn't until 2015 that I was finally able to put a name to the despair: I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at 27.
For as long as I can remember, I soothed the painful experiences of my life with achievement.
As a child, it was E (excellent) and G (good) marks on my report cards, perfect spelling test scores, and Student of the Month awards. As a teenager, it was acceptance to every college I applied to, thanks to my 1800 SAT score. After my father died, I kicked that soothing into high gear with college and starting my career. I loaded my school schedule to the brim. I pulled long nights at the college paper. I brought home A's and B's. I interned at VIBE Magazine, and nabbed an editor job. I worked 14-hour days on weekends. From VIBE, I landed at BET Digital and became the Entertainment Director. I worked and worked––all day, and all night.
After my diagnosis, I was in and out of therapy, wholly unprepared to tackle the roots of my gripping sadness. By 2017, I decided to commit to the work: I began weekly sessions, started learning coping practices and adding two-and-two together between my childhood traumas and my current behaviors. I began what was, and still is, a necessary and exhausting crawl towards my own healing.
While doing this healing work, I had to face some tough realities. The first one was that I simply could not handle the external workload I'd piled onto myself anymore; I began to find it more and more difficult to get through the day with dry eyes. Secondly, but more piercing, I had to face the fact I had made success a mechanism of distraction and a marker of my self-worth. I wasn't just achieving all my life to numb pain, I was achieving to find reasons to love myself.
My inner work was showing me my unhealthy relationship with my outer work.
Ultimately, I had to put one on hold for the other. Without a healthy mental and emotional state, I was not able to perform at work, and was asked to take a short-term disability leave. Disability? I struggled with the term for weeks. But according to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety cost the United States $1 trillion in lost productivity, and is one of the leading causes of disability filings.
For the first few weeks of my leave, I grappled with feelings of failure. How dare I not be strong enough to cry and work? I wrestled with anxiety by putting pressure on myself to "figure this out". I wept on the phone as I told insurance reps things I had never said out loud: "I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning," "I ask to work from home when I'm crying and can't figure out why," "I'm having a hard time focusing," "Some days I'm really sad and have a hard time being around people." I felt useless. Defeated. Unworthy.
But as the weeks went on, a necessary detachment from achievement took place. I started to muse over who I was outside of all the gold stars. I started to find things I liked to do that didn't include my job. I found things to be happy about that didn't equal "success". I cried––a lot. I made room for myself outside of the hustle and bustle. I slowed down.
And when I did all of this, I learned something that I will never forget for the rest of my life: I am not a superhero.
Black women are groomed to be super. We are groomed to carry heavy weight, to endure––all while still getting shit done. But we are human. Humans who deserve healing. Humans who deserve to be extraordinary without being left on empty. And I am glad I afforded myself that space and time. I don't have anything figured out. But I feel more prepared to continue the fight.
To all the black women pouring from an empty cup: Take a break. It is so necessary.
Iyana Robertson is a self-proclaimed Content Nerd ™ from Brooklyn, NY. She has built her career as a writer, editor, producer, host and show creator in the digital space since 2012, and is now finding room for healing in the hustle. Follow her journey on Instagram at @iyanarobertson.
Featured image by Iyana/@iyanarobertson