Dear Miriam, My head and heart have been reeling since your death. Upon seeing your picture and hearing details emerge about your struggles mentally and hospitalization, I sat crumpled in my bathroom, sobbing for you, your daughter, and for myself.
You see, I saw your face, your brown skin, and I saw a reflection of myself-a mother battling a mental illness. Having lived in the darkness of postpartum depression I know the hopelessness, fear, confusion, and pain that consumes you from the inside out. Although I’ve never experienced psychosis, I have and do experience the chaos, scattered and fragmented thoughts, paranoia, and such that comes at times with having bipolar disorder. I know that my having such a mood disorder puts me at a much more significant risk of psychosis postpartum, and that terrifies me. Like you, I’ve been hospitalized, trapped in my own mind, wandering the halls and monotony of the psych ward, getting help, but also wanting OUT and have some sense of normalcy back…whatever’s left of it in your life at least.
I know how triggering and taxing an unplanned pregnancy can be on your psyche, even when you’ve accepted and embraced the new life growing within you. I know the disconnect you can feel once you’re holding that new life in your arms minutes after delivery and long after you’ve been sent home. I know how difficult those first few months can be, and even that first year. And I know what it’s like to need help, be in treatment, but not have anyone you can really talk to about it, no one who “gets” the upheaval your mind and well-being is in. I know what it’s like to have to live with mental illness for the rest of your life. I know what it’s like to have to make a conscious choice to fight for your life daily, and being too tired to make that choice most days. I know the stigma that comes with being sick, and taking medications. I know side effects and having to rely on meds is exhausting and at times can chip away at your feelings of self-worth, and leave you doubting your capabilities to mother, to accomplish goals and dreams…to LIVE.
I know all of these things and that is why I sat in my bathroom crying for you…for me…for your daughter, and for my unborn son squirming in my belly.
After my tears came questions: were you getting help after your hospitalization? Were your boyfriend, mother, and sisters supportive? Did they encourage you to stick with treatment-were they themselves educated on your meds and illnesses? Did you have a therapist and adequate access to other mental health resources? Did you have anyone, ANYONE to talk to? Were you afraid to talk to anyone? Were you compliant in your treatment? Did you decide to stop treatment because you figured you could do it on your own, or were you pressured to by those around you? Did anyone tell you the dangers of quitting meds cold turkey or talk to you about weaning? Were you given speeches about bootstraps and soldiering on? Did your doctor think you were getting better and miss something? Were you even properly diagnosed and given the right kind of treatment? What led you to DC that day? WHAT HAPPENED?
I know that because you are no longer with us to tell your story, we won’t ever really have the answers to these questions-we won’t ever know the full truth. My heart aches with this knowledge. My heart breaks that the events that took place unfolded the way that they did and that your life was taken.
Since your death I’ve seen lots of discussion in the media about the state of your mental health, and lots of misinformation and a lack of distinction between postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, which is what it appears to be that you might have suffered from, or possibly some other form of mental illness. I’ve seen anger and outrage over how the police responded to your actions, and calls for an investigation on their use of force policy. I’ve seen what happened to you become politicized and I’ve seen people make ugly, disgusting comments about you, a woman they’ve never met.
I’ve seen all of this and all I can think about is your precious daughter. When I do anger wells up in me and boils, but not for any of the reasons I see it embodying others. My anger is with our community, with our people. I’m angry that within the black community there is no focus placed on our mental well-being and on mental illness. We fight to quell violence and hardship in our communities but do little to nothing to fight for resources that can help us deal with the mental impact violence, abuse, and hardship has on us. We don’t talk to our children about mental illness, other than to point to “Crazy Ray” who lives down the street and further cement stigma about mental illness in their minds. We are misinformed and uneducated. We are ignorant. We think therapy and medications are for whites only. We are held hostage by a code of silence that throughout our history has kept us safe and helped us survived but is now killing us. Our churches tell us to pray more, have more faith, live right, strive for prosperity…but say nothing about the mental illness that is often quietly sitting amongst us in our congregations.
We will fight for Trayvon and for our black boys. We will march against those who believe it’s better to close our schools and build more prisons. We will rage at police brutality and systemic racism across the board. But when it comes to our mental health and the facts on mental illness, particularly for the WOMEN’S mental health, we are cold…silent…apathetic…hushed…disbelieving and ignorant of the science and biological roots of mental illness and how vital a role environmental factors play in the manifestation of illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Our national black leaders and organizations speak little on this issue and make no demands for change. I would go as far as to say it’s not even on their radar or list of priorities. Narratives and dialogue on mental health in our communities is driven and dominated mostly by white advocates. Those of us who live with mental illness and choose to face the stigma within our community and society at large often aren’t given the same platforms and amplification as white advocates. Our outrage and concern for other issues drown out suicide prevention and mental health awareness. Campaigns and efforts are not targeted at us, in OB offices we don’t see our faces on pamphlets on PPD or other perinatal mood disorders, and our doctors rarely screen us effectively for it. Medicaid provisions often keep our single mothers from being able to get adequate treatment and access to resources on the mental health front. (I speak from experience)
All of this…has me angry. Has me raging on the inside, and pushes me to do more with the space I have here. As a woman and mother of color with bipolar disorder who has survived PPD, I look at you, your daughter, and what happened, and the role mental illness might or might not have played in this, and I rage and I feel a responsibility. To your memory and most importantly to your daughter who witnessed such horrific violence that day, I feel an obligation to do more, say more, fight for better within our community. Others can rage and decry the actions of the police if that’s what they feel is most important. Speaking from experience I can say that law enforcement officials are not adequately trained on how to respond to situations when a possibly mentally ill person is involved. But I will rage and decry the lack of education and honest dialogue about mental illness on a national level and within our own community. I will rage and push for you so that your daughter and other women of color get educated and aren’t ashamed to get help. I will rage against the “strong black woman” archetype that keeps so many of us from acknowledging we need help and treatment on this front. I will speak up, I will fight, I will advocate for you so that your death will not have been in vain.
I will do this because I know, Miriam, what it’s like to be touched by madness and struggle to survive in its death grip. I will do this because your story and your death have shown me that its past time we rise up, get real, and take responsibility for our mental health….and take action. I will step up Miriam. I will continue to speak in the vacuum until our stories and experiences with mental illness are heard and taken seriously instead of dismissed or trivialized.
I’m so sorry we lost you. I’m so sorry you lost yourself. I’m so sorry your daughter will no longer have you. I’m sorry we couldn’t do better by you both. But know that now? We will.