I attempted suicide. I was young, in love, and in over my head. I distinctly remember wanting everything to stop. That night I learned three things. I learned that my boyfriend wasn’t willing to sit around and watch me die. Literally, he wasn’t willing to. He wrestled one of the two bottles of pills from my hand, called my father, and left our apartment hoping for the best. I also learned that one bottle of over the counter sleeping pills isn’t enough to kill you. Most importantly, I learned that educated black women don’t kill themselves.
The ride to the hospital was a trippy one. As my mother drove trees, street lights, and utility poles intertwined amidst pulsating skies streaked with orange, amber, and blue. It was as if Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are” had come to life, mixed with a tinge of The Beatles
Once I arrived and the doctor evaluated me, he was slightly amused by my state. It wasn’t so much that I willfully overdosed, that was nothing a cup of activated charcoal couldn’t cure. It was my sensible blackness that caught him off guard. There I was; a big, brown, twenty-something technical writer with a degree from the priciest private school in the state. “We don’t see this often,” he said. And at that moment I knew, if I ever tried it again I better get it right.
I never tried it again. Actually, I went back to my day to day as if it never happened. My boyfriend never asked me about it, my mother didn’t ask me about it, my father doesn’t know to this day. Even though I had a history of depression dating back to high school, and had been in family therapy since age 12, I didn’t start seeing a therapist regularly until about four years after my suicide attempt.
More than a decade has passed, a decade that has included heartbreak, job loss, disappointment, rejection, discrimination, and illness. And with all those things, things that many people endure in their lifetime, I still never tried it again. But I think about it. To be honest, I think about it all the time.
According to the internet the ER doctor was right. The suicide rate among African-American women is the lowest of any group, three suicides per 100,000. Last year The Grio reported that Veterans Affairs officials were interested in recreating elements of black female culture in an attempt to quell the rising rate of veteran suicides. Apparently black women, the least important people on the planet, are so balanced, mentally tough, and well-adjusted that we just may be the key to saving the most important people on earth—white men.
I have a great group of “sista-friends,” members of my black girl posse who are resilient, inspiring, and make mean cocktails. I love them to pieces, but none of them know my story. They don’t know I attempted suicide, or that I’ve battled depression for two decades. They don’t know that I’ve taken Paxil, Lamictal, Effexor, and Cymbalta. And they don’t know that I fantasize wistfully about wading out into a lake, submerging myself, and never resurfacing. They don’t know because black women don’t talk about that shit, and black women don’t talk about that shit because we think we can’t.
In our quest for survival in a world that objectifies and ignores us, mocks and ridicules us, degrades, disregards, and dehumanizes us; we’ve perfected the affectation of imperviousness. Brilliant and necessary at its onset, the long-term effect of the myth of the “strong black woman” is crippling, debilitating, and as monolithic and damaging as every other stereotype hung on our backs. Strong black women don’t need comfort, they don’t need support, and they don’t need aid. They don’t need husbands, their children don’t need fathers, they don’t need partners, providers, or reprieve.
I don’t fault black women for bearing this load, and continuing to carry it even when we know we shouldn’t. I do, however, fault the people who encourage us to maintain the facade. People who use our strength and perceived invincibility as a reason to do us further harm—keeping black women at the margins and on the brink. I blame black men who use it as an excuse for why they won’t love and protect us. I blame white media for idealizing it in their limited depictions of us.
My white girls know my story. My white girls, who have admitted to being on Zoloft and Prozac for years, and commiserate with me about bingeing, and starving, and crying for weeks at a time. White girls are allowed to be frail and frightened, they are vulnerable, valuable, worth saving, and they know it. They are free to talk about what ails them without fear of judgment or reprisal because, of course, white girls matter.
Karyn Washington was a strong black woman. She was also young, brilliant, beautiful, and brimming with bright ideas. I didn’t know Karyn, but as a fellow writer and blogger, I empathize with her greatly. Often writers write because we can’t stop thinking. Factor in depression, and all that thinking is a recipe for disaster.
Karyn struggled with her self-esteem and self-worth for the same reasons that many black women do; she didn’t see her worth reflected in the world around her. She didn’t see it in her media, she didn’t feel it in her relationships, so she set out to do something about it. Karyn succeeded in life. She made more people aware of her plight, and the plight of other brown-skinned women and girls who weren’t getting what they needed. Karyn also succeeded in death by demonstrating that even as a strong black woman, when you’re not getting what you need, all the beauty, brilliance, and bright ideas in the world can’t save you.
It’s presumptuous of me to say, but I probably could have saved Karyn that day. I could have told her that she was too young to do something so permanent. I could have told her that as much as she needed to see her mother, her mother didn’t need to see her yet. I could have told her that it gets better, and that better doesn’t last, but it lasts long enough for you to be glad you lived to see it. I could have told her to go outside and find somebody, anybody, the first person who appears to have time on their hands. Find somebody and talk to them until the urge subsides.
Upon learning of Karyn’s death I was briefly inconsolable. I was awash with grief and understanding; I was crushed but also relieved. I realize now that when Karyn Washington, in all her sensible blackness, killed herself she killed me too. Reading about her death was no different than if I were reading about my own, it was as if she sacrificed herself so I didn’t have to.
Now, as we memorialize Karyn Washington, I suggest we memorialize the myth of the strong black woman and begin to define less rigid, more realistic, mental and emotional paradigms for women of color—paradigms that allow weakness and strength to coexist without conflict. It’s a long overdue discussion that needs to be had, not just behind closed doors among sisters and friends, but in public spaces and in print and broadcast media the way Karyn would have wanted.
Karyn Washington lived and died with a purpose, and women of all colors who struggle with depression owe it to Karyn to carry her message beyond her blog. It pains me that I (that we) could not save Karyn Washington, because unbeknownst to Karyn she probably saved me.