My freshman year of college, I shaved my head bald.
The previous summer had been overwhelming and I was dealing with a lot of loss and repressed feelings that I wanted to be free of; I thought that the first step was shaving my head. I sat in the dorm of my novice barber classmate as I watched my hair fall to the ground with tears in my eyes. The emotional turmoil I attempted to manage had come from years of giving my all to not be enough, and losing my own identity. That day was the start of a downward emotional spiral that would lead to my prescription pill addiction.
Women of color experience depression and mental illness in a way that is unlike our peers in other demographics. We are taught to be independent, self-sufficient, and strong, no matter what the circumstance; leading us to find outward and mostly destructive ways to cope with our vulnerabilities in private.
In the latest episode of Red Table Talk, singer Willow Smith got real about how this pressure had an effect on her at a very young age. When she was asked by her mother what she thinks may have been her biggest loss, Willow replied:
"I would have to say, honestly, I feel like I lost my sanity at one point. It was after that whole 'Whip My Hair' thing, and I had just stopped doing singing lessons. And I was kind of like in this gray area of like, 'Who am I? Do I have a purpose? Is there anything I can do besides this?'"
The now 17-year-old was only 9 when she release her platinum-selling debut single, and had embarked on her first tour when by the time she was 10. Her father Will Smith said in an interview that he first noticed the immense pressure that Willow was under when she spontaneously shaved her head after one of the earlier shows on her tour. Willow continued:
"After the tour and the promotion and all of that, it was like, they wanted me to finish my album. I was just like, 'I'm not going to do that.' And after all of that kind of settled down and it was kind of a lull, I was just listening to a lot of dark music and it was just so crazy. I was like plunged into this black hole and I was like cutting myself. Yeah, and doing crazy things."
Aside from confiding in one childhood friend, Willow chose to keep what she was going through from her family. Her mother and grandmother looked genuinely surprised by her admission, but their effort to understand the root of her pain was heartwarming.
"I honestly felt like I was experiencing so much emotional pain, but my physical circumstances weren't reflecting that."
Willow explained that self-harm was a way of making her pain more tangible, rather than feeling like it was all in her head, and I relate to that on a personal level. My addiction to pills, although self-destructive, was the only way I knew how to neutralize my emotions in a way that made me numb. In Willow's case, her self-destructive habit gave her an opportunity to physically experience the pain that she felt internally.
Today, it's been five years since Willow harmed herself and she says that what she went through taught her the importance of aligning her heart and mind.
"It makes me feel like what I need to keep doing is training my heart and my mind to accept and move with loss."
Willow's moment of transparency is a reminder that no matter how strong you are, you can't do it all. Take the initiative to check in with yourself, make sure that your sanity is in check and refresh as necessary. May is Mental Health Month, and Willow's story is a reminder that black women have to find healthy ways to cope with their emotional trauma, too. For ourselves, but also for our children.
If you haven't already, watch the latest episode of Red Table Talk here: