'I Thought Depression Was a White People Disease': a Conversation with Depressed While Black

The creator of the #DepressedWhileBlack Twitter account on the specific challenges she faces at the intersection of depression and blackness.

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Mar 15 2018, 7:21pm

Illustrations by Joel Benjamin

I first encountered the #DepressedWhileBlack Twitter account through her brave, real, and sometimes painfully-funny tweets like “I honestly feel I’m the most depressed mental health advocate ever” and “A suicide attempt costs thousands of dollars. Like, it is so expensive.” and “Don’t know if I can go back to not having a black therapist. Nothing like talking about how fine Nas is during therapy.”

Later I learned that the account belonged to DC area-journalist Imade Nibokun, and that Depressed While Black is a much larger project: an online community and in-progress book that explores race, religion, and romance—all within the context of living with depression.

What I love about Nibokun’s writing is not only her sardonic humor, but her refusal to define healing as a linear journey. She provides trenchant commentary on self-improvement concepts like “overcoming depression” and “self-care” that are so pervasive in contemporary media narratives around mental illness.

I talked with Nibokun about humor, the “persona” of depression, other people’s perceptions, as well as the specific challenges she faces at the intersection of depression and blackness.

VICE: What is the significance of the “while” in “depressed while black”? In your experience, how do these two facets of identity intersect, relate, influence one another? What about in terms of social perception?
Imade Nibokun: Great question. “While” to me represents two experiences that are ongoing. Depressed While Black is not a story about a black person who “overcame” depression because my condition is very much chronic.

“While” also means that these two experiences of blackness and depression do intersect and feed off each other. Some of my worst depression episodes have been triggered by unemployment, and African-Americans experience unemployment at much higher rates than white people. Then when you combine the cultural and financial mental health barriers that are unique to African-Americans, you truly have a depression journey that is distinct from other racial groups.

Even looking within, my original perspective of depression was through the lens of stereotypical blackness. I thought depression was a white people disease when I was diagnosed with clinical depression at 25. My mom raised me to believe that white people are weaker than black folks due to the oppression we faced for hundreds of years. I think that was her coping mechanism to help me feel that I’m not inferior to white people. But embracing our humanity as black people is where I get my power. The more I learn about black people, and how we actually pioneered mental health treatment in Egypt, the more I became open to help and advocated for treatment that was black-centered and black-affirming. It’s like the more I love myself as a black person, the better I respond to mental illness.

It sounds like self-acceptance, and acceptance of mental illness as something that doesn’t “magically disappear forever,” is an integral part of how you manage your depression. What are some tangible ways you express that acceptance, and—as you say—that love for yourself, both as a person and specifically as a black person?
Seeking a black woman therapist was a big one. It’s so easy to fall into a cycle with a “just good enough” therapist where you end up with them out of laziness and not out of actually wanting to go to therapy. It just gets tiring when a non-black therapist keeps responding with, “Wow, that must be really hard” when I talk about the challenges of being a black woman. I appreciate the empathy but I need more than that. So now, having a black woman therapist is huge. I can reach out to her in times of emergency and I know she knows how urgent my situation is.

We both use humor in our Twitter feeds to convey the experiences of living with depression. What would you say to people who say we are romanticizing, sensationalizing, or making light of the topic?
Depression humor is the best humor. It really is. There’s a reason why so many comedians deal with depression. We have a lens into the human condition that most non-mentally ill people do not have.

When I attempted the first time in 2015, my mom and brother sat me down to talk about it. I was told that my brother and sister thought my Depressed While Black blog encouraged people to attempt suicide because I shared my struggles with suicidal thoughts. I felt I was ganged up on, so I didn’t have the time to properly arrange my thoughts.

But I would say now, where do you want us to go? Do you want us to not tell you that we’re struggling with depression and hide our issues? Do you want to be the family member that says, “I didn’t know” at our funeral? Because for so many of us, speaking about our mental health is the difference between life and death. We are fighting to live and our humor is a way to inch towards life. Punishing people for being honest about their mental illness can actually make the mental illness worse, so let’s just chill out, OK?

I identify with your experience with your mom, and the cultural myth as coping mechanism. My mom always said Jews weren’t alcoholics. But I’m 100% a Jew and 100% an alcoholic and addict (in recovery). It was easier for her when I was falling down the stairs drunk at Thanksgiving—but not identifying as having a problem—than when I said “I’m an alcoholic” when I started recovering. She also expressed a lot of shame when my So Sad Today book came out. She still hates that it exists, which hurts. How are things with your mom in her acceptance of your depression? Is there anything you feel you’ve maybe taught her about perceived strength and weakness?
My mom is getting better. She offers to pay for some of my expensive therapy sessions, which is huge. Sometimes she does a wonderful job listening and offering childhood memories that help me put the pieces together of how I’ve been dealing with depression for a very long time. It’s very easy to assume you don’t deal with depression when that’s all you know. So it helps when my mom brings up memories of when I was actually dealing with depression as a child. She’s also great with pep talks as well.

She does have to make up for a lot of ground. She raised me in an environment where God “fixed” everything immediately. If something is wrong, you pray about it and then testify that God fixed it that Sunday. The struggle in between is difficult for her to understand without implying I’m doing something wrong. So I think she doesn’t fully understand open-ended illnesses. Everything has to have a sudden resolution. There are moments when I just want to give up and never talk to her about depression again. She’ll say that prayer worked for her, as if there’s something wrong with me. It’s an up and down relationship.

My mom came of age during the Black Power [movement] in the late 60s and 1970s. There is literally a Black Power fist on her college yearbook. She could have a full conversation with a wall about how she was the first person to wear an afro in her high school. I would make a joke that when I was growing up, she would point to random objects and say a black man invented it first, but a white man stole it.

I think she was reacting to the librarian who told her she didn’t expect black children to get a library card as a child. I think she was reacting to how much her blackness was suppressed and maligned, even by her own family members growing up. So liberation for her was projecting black people as perfect, and invulnerable to mental illness.

So “I’m fine” as protection. How did you first discover the pioneering of mental health treatment in Egypt and how did it make you feel? Are there any resources on that you recommend for people who might want to explore that heritage?
I learned when I was at Columbia, getting an MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing. I was writing Depressed While Black—it was a thesis then—and I wanted to include historical facts that undermined the stereotypical beliefs I had that only white people go to therapy. This was around 2013 when I first committed to sharing my story.

When I studied healers like Imhotep as well as post-colonial practitioners like Dr. Thomas Lambo and Franz Fanon, I felt I finally knew the pioneers who normalized my advocacy.

As influential as black people are all over the world, I just couldn’t understand how the contributions of Africans were omitted from Andrew Solomon’s pivotal “Noonday Demons” book. That really bothered me. He discussed the history of Western mental health medicine, but it felt like a small portion of the overall picture. And this is what we often do in mental health discussions. We often begin at the middle, but not at the beginning, and we leave black heroes out of the conversation.

I’m shifting to a mentality where I want to stop discussing blackness as a mental health problem. We pathologize blackness in the way we exchangeably refer to blackness and stigma. But blackness existed well before stigma that is informed and structured by white supremacy. Blackness isn’t just “praying it away” or not going to the doctor. We are doctors, therapists, and peer group counselors as well.

I was introduced to Depressed While Black through Twitter, but I now know that it’s only one piece of a much larger project. When you are booking speaking gigs, or writing professionally, do you ever feel self-conscious or like you have to “present” yourself a certain way in light of the topic? Sometimes, when people meet me, they are disappointed that I’m actually a big and frequent smiler. It’s as though there is a perception that depression is a monolithic identity, as though depressed people aren’t supposed to laugh. Professionally, I feel an extra need to “prove” that I “can keep it together.” Like, “Don’t worry, it’s OK to work with me, I’ll be functional! Look how functional I am! Professional as fuck!” This is probably less about the people I interact with and more about my own desire to people-please, and fear of not being enough, but I’m always aware of it.
So, I was invited to this event where all the full-time mental health advocates were going to share their thoughts. And one of them tells me, “You’re a mascot.” As in, mental health advocates are treated as mascots. I was so naive and just happy to be there, so I didn’t fully understand what he was saying until later.

But essentially, it’s expected of us to either perform depression, or perform overcoming depression. And that’s being a mascot. It’s unfair to people like us who are simply trying to find healthy ways to manage our condition. It is not our responsibility to fulfill who you think we should be.

We are living in an age now where everyone expects a TED Talk. I’m a writer, so I love the three-act structure, but our messy lives do not fit an exposition, climax, and resolution. If I say I’m having a really hard time on Twitter, it doesn’t mean the next day I’ll talk about the self-care I did and how I feel better. My life doesn’t work that way.

Additionally, I’m a black woman. And it’s expected of us to have an attitude and be difficult to work with. As a response, I’ve gone way over the top in smiling all the time, especially while sharing information that some would deem unpleasant. It’s like a tic at this point. I smiled through my entire video for BET about being suicidal! It’s a mess.

At the end of the day, depression is not a personality. My natural personality is to be super silly and smiley, so if I’m well enough to be who I naturally am, I’m going to enjoy every moment.

I think people who engage with us on a professional level do need to be aware that we are not motivational speakers. I experience the other side where people assume I have it more together than I actually do. I can get assigned a project without anyone asking how I’m doing or if I have the bandwidth to fulfill the assignment. Like HOW SWAY? I’m having a meltdown on Twitter right now. It’s like I want to be respected as a professional, but also as a person who has special needs.

God, you are brilliant. I affirm and echo that dichotomy between the expectation of performing depression, or performing overcoming depression. That has been my experience to a T. Also, fuck a TED Talk. In terms of other people’s perceptions, I wanted to also ask you about the church, which appears in your Twitter as something of a superego or judge that has been internalized. Do you currently have a spiritual practice? Have you found any solace in religion or spirituality in terms of mental health?
The black church, more specifically the Church of God In Christ, the Pentecostal denomination I grew up in, most taught me how to judge people. So you’re spot on in saying that my black church influence appears in my Twitter life as a judge. When depression combines with my judgmental background, I go through this dumpster fire where I constantly judge myself and feel I’m not good enough.

My spiritual practice is on low battery to be honest. There are no words to describe how spiritually ashy I am right now. I just got out the hospital, a.k.a “the hotel.” I feel like the depressed state I’m in right now is the new normal and all hopes of getting that “Yes” from God is gone. At least for now. I constantly feel there’s a barrier between myself and God, as well as other Christians who offer the false hope that my depression will magically go away with extroverted spirituality. It’s so tiring. Top that off with feeling like I’ve outgrown my Christian friends due to a variety of disappointments and evolutions, and well, a spiritual dumpster fire is my home right now.

The only solace I find in spirituality right now is the scripture, “Jesus wept.” As in Jesus saw that Lazarus was dead, Jesus knew that Lazarus will eventually be OK, but Jesus was moved and allowed himself to feel grief—depression if you will—of Lazarus’s friends and family. I find solace that God knows how hard this is for someone to suffer while feeling like the solution exists, but is so far away.

I answered this question in the most depressing way imaginable. But I warned you guys. I’m not a motivational speaker. If you want hopeful optimism, watch a TED Talk or Oprah.

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