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"Meri Danquah has written an important and moving memoir. She describes beautifully her experiences with depression and provides a unique and compelling account of her life. Willow Weep for Me is not only a lovely book, it is a powerful one."
—DR. KAY REDFIELD JAMISON
Author of An Unquiet Mind
"SEDUCTIVE, LYRICAL, DESCRIPTIVE PROSE . . . Miss Danquah and the other black women, whose lives she charts in her book, have decided they can't wait to be rescued. . . . They have embraced each other and begun to seek healing. . . . Willow Weep for Me is a powerful lens."
"A very important text. Danquah has shed light on a serious problem within the African American community. Her memoir might just save a few lives."
—E. ETHELBERT MILLER
Director, African American Resource Center,
THERE ARE ALWAYS fresh flowers and plants in my house. When they begin to die it is a sure sign that I, too, am beginning to wither. The window shades are never closed. Sunshine must always be visible. The bedroom is littered with no less than four alarm clocks. None display the same time. Some are as little as fifteen minutes ahead, others as much as one hour. Each night I set the clocks for a wake-up time of 6:00 AM. Rarely am I out of bed before 7:30 AM. Mornings have always been difficult.
For most of my life I have nurtured a consistent, low-grade melancholy; I have been addicted to despair. Because of my habitual tardiness, an eighth-grade teacher once scrawled these words of advice in my yearbook: Once you learn to wake up in the morning, life will be a breeze.
Though I have attended college in many places and at many times, I do not yet hold a degree. I have worked as a word processor, secretary, file clerk, waitress, arts administrator, phone sex operator, and creative writing instructor. I am often working-class broke. I am also a single mother. Life, for me, has hardly been "a breeze."
The majority of my days begin like this:
Barely awake, I head for the bathroom, stare into the mirror until I can identify the person staring back. There are still those mornings when my image seems foreign to me, when I move through my house like an intruder, fumbling over furniture and walking into walls, trying to avoid the temptation to crouch inside a corner and just zone out. "It gets better." I promise myself as I make my way into the living room, "This day will get better. It has to."
Having sworn off most chemical mood-altering substances, I choose music over coffee and cigarettes. Music eases my depressed mood. I have come to rely on one song as my morning prayer. I sit and listen to the words, allow them to reach out, like hands, and lift me to a more sacred state of consciousness. They affirm life as something worth living despite this pain I sometimes carry.
To open my eyes and wake up alive in the world
To open my eyes and finally arrive in the world
With its beauty and its cruelty
With its heartbreak and its joy
With it constantly giving birth to life and to forces that destroy
And the infinite power of change
Alive in the world
Music and motion are the two things that can immediately touch the hurt inside of me. I can't begin to count the number of times I have circled Los Angeles in my car, traveling from one freeway onto the next without any particular destination, the tape player blasting tunes, my mouth open wide enough to scream lyrics.
There was a time when at any given moment I would abandon my bed, my lover, my apartment, to literally drive away the depression. The slow, gentle rhythm of automobiles, trains, and buses surrounds and soothes me, like an infant that is being cradled into calmness. But being a mother has changed the ways in which I mother myself. No matter how deep the despair or urgent the need to flee, I can't abandon my daughter. Nor can I drape her sleeping body in thick blankets, toss her over my shoulder like some runaway's sack and take her with me. She relies on my presence, my ability to cope.
Emotionally and physically taxing, the responsibilities of parenting are overwhelming for even the most stable people. Imagine them for someone with a history of depression stretching as far as a late-afternoon shadow. The daily tasks--bathing, ironing clothes, dressing, braiding hair, making breakfast, preparing lunch, school drop-offs and pick-ups--require every bit of what little get-up-and-go I have. However, they define my day. These responsibilities help me move past the temptation to rationalize myself right back into bed. Most times.
Afternoons and early evenings are usually my best and most productive times, when I am able to concentrate and focus without fatigue or anxiety. Sleep plays a major role in my efforts to maintain a balanced mood. I have found that too much is as disruptive as not enough. Late evenings, like mornings, take a harsh toll. I vacillate from insomnia to hypersomnia, from not being able to get a wink of rest to over-sleeping and constantly feeling drugged with exhaustion.
We have all, to some degree, experienced days of depression. Days when nothing is going our way, when even the most trivial events can trigger tears, when all we want to do is crawl into a hole and ask "Why me?" For most people, these are isolated occurrences. When the day ends, so too does the sadness. But for some, such as myself, the depression doesn't lift at the end of the day or disappear when others try to cheer us up. These feelings of helplessness and desperation worsen and grow into a full-blown clinical depression. And when depression reaches clinical proportions, it is truly an illness, not a character flaw or an insignificant bout with the blues that an individual can "snap out of" at will.
Our reality often comes to us in fragments. From 1989 to 1994, I experienced several episodes of major depression. I prolonged the pain with silence, mostly because I was afraid--of being misunderstood or ostracized, of losing friends, of losing respect. Unless it has touched your life, depression can be a difficult disease to understand. I certainly would have never thought to consider myself a depressive. Clinical depression simply did not exist within the realm of my possibilities; or, for that matter, within the realm of possibilities for any of the black women in my world.
The illusion of strength has been and continues to be of major significance to me as a black woman. The one myth that I have had to endure my entire life is that of my supposed birthright to strength. Black women are supposed to be strong--caretakers, nurturers, healers of other people--any of the twelve dozen variations of Mammy. Emotional hardship is supposed to be built into the structure of our lives. It went along with the territory of being both black and female in a society that completely undervalues the lives of black people and regards all women as second-class citizens. It seemed that suffering, for a black woman, was part of the package.
Or so I thought.
Not so long ago, a friend invited me to a dinner party. I was standing with a small group of people deeply immersed in conversation. I was the only person of color in the group. My thoughts drifted from the conversation. To pull me back into the discussion, my friend asked about my writing. An older, heavily perfumed woman standing with us wanted to know what I was writing.
"A book about black women and depression," my friend volunteered.
"Black women and depression?" the woman threw out sarcastically. "Isn't that kinda redundant?" The people standing around us exchanged abrasive chuckles.
"Don't get me wrong," the woman continued, taking a sip of her cocktail. There wasn't a hint of apology in her voice. "It's just that when black women start going on Prozac, you know the whole world is falling apart." I was instantly filled with outrage, anger, and hurt.
"When black women start going on Prozac, their whole world has already fallen apart. They're just trying to piece it back together," I said. Months later, I am still unable to shake the echo of that woman's comments. I have replayed the scene a thousand times in my mind, each time giving what I felt was a more fitting, stinging reply. Ironically, I do understand the reasons for her comment.
Stereotypes and cliches about mental illness are as pervasive as those about race. I have noticed that the mental illness that affects white men is often characterized, if not glamorized, as a sign of genius, a burden of cerebral superiority, artistic eccentricity--as if their depression is somehow heroic. White women who suffer from mental illness are depicted as idle, spoiled, or just plain hysterical. Black men are demonized and pathologized. Black women with psychological problems are certainly not seen as geniuses; we are generally not labeled "hysterical" or "eccentric" or even "pathological." When a black woman suffers from a mental disorder, the overwhelming opinion is that she is weak. And weakness in black women is intolerable.
There is a poem by E. Ethelbert Miller that always comes to mind when I think of how hard it sometimes is for black women to be seen as vulnerable and emotionally complex. It is simply titled "Billie Holiday":
sometimes the deaf
hear better than the blind
when they first
heard her sing
were only attracted
to the flower in her hair
Sadly, it is not only white people who are unable to see beyond the ornamentation that is placed on black women's lives. I have had conversations about my depression with black people--both men and women--that were similar to the one I had with the white woman at the dinner party. I've frequently been told things like: "Girl, you've been hanging out with too many white folk"; "What do you have to be depressed about? If our people could make it through slavery, we can make it through anything"; "Take your troubles to Jesus, not no damn psychiatrist."
When there aren't dismissive questions, patronizing statements, or ludicrous suggestions, there is silence. As if there are no acceptable ways, no appropriate words to begin a dialogue about this illness. And, given the oppressive nature of the existing language surrounding depression, perhaps for black people there really aren't any. You've heard descriptions of depression before: A black hole; an enveloping darkness; a dismal existence through which no light shines; the black dog; darkness, and more darkness. But what does darkness mean to me, a woman who has spent her life surrounded by it? The darkness of my skin; the darkness of my friends and family. I have never been afraid of the dark. It poses no harm to me. What is the color of my depression?
Depression offers layers, textures, noises. At times depression is as flimsy as a feather, barely penetrating the surface of my life, hovering like a slight halo of pessimism. Other times it comes on gradually like a common cold or a storm, each day presenting new signals and symptoms until finally I am drowning in it. Most times, in its most superficial and seductive sense, it is rich and enticing. A field of velvet waiting to embrace me. It is loud and dizzying, inviting the tenors and screeching sopranos of thoughts, unrelenting sadness, and the sense of impending doom. Depression is all of these things to me--but darkness, it is not.
Posted December 29, 2003
Ms. Danquah's candor and sincerity about an illness that no one seems to understand was both frightening and encouraging. It was frightening because she reminded me of all the things I have tried to hide from friends and family over the years during my depressive episodes and encouraging because I now know that I am not alone with these feelings of dispair and pain. I have set myself on a journey of self awareness that, like the author, I hope will help me manage my emotions and moods and more importantly those circumastances that triggor the 'sad' moods. Reading the book and taking in her explanation of how she is healing gives me renewed hope that I too can be sucessessful at living with this disorder. A great read. Written very eloquently. I think we as African Americans, maybe more than any other race, choose to live in denial in hopes that we won't have to face our fears...I advise all of us to seek the truth and to address, with the Lord's help, what ever challenges we find head on. It is the only way we can truely conquer our demons.
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Posted March 7, 2003