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Finding Light in the Darkness of Depression

By Terrie M. Williams, Author of BLACK PAIN: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting

When I collapsed in a mental and emotional breakdown that left me paralyzed, unable to get out of bed to face the next three days, I had no idea what I was experiencing and didn’t know there was a way out.  All I knew was that the light of day was unbearable, having to do anything more than lie there in the dark was more than I could handle, and seeing or speaking to anyone was something I just couldn’t bring myself to do.  I needed help, but I didn’t know what kind.

This happened to me in 2005, the result of a nine-month build-up of sadness, anxiety, and stress that finally overwhelmed me to the point of complete shut down.  But out of that darkness came the light that saved my life.  I was practically carried to a psychotherapist and diagnosed with clinical depression—something that never clicked in my mind as something I had. 

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Through treatment, which included talk therapy with my therapist, I reflected on my life and remembered feeling—as early as my college years—as though something just wasn’t quite right.  For more than 30 years, until my problem managed to sink me into despair, I carried on a phenomenally successful career as a public relations entrepreneur, author, and mentor. Like so many who limp their way through each day, I was very good at pretending everything was fine.  The truth was I was dying inside the whole time with no clue what was wrong with me.  The moment my therapist named it (depression), my life changed forever.  I was relieved. I had hope that I could be helped, and I also knew that if I was feeling this way, there had to be others also in pain, only no one I knew was talking about it. My goal is to change that.

After my breakdown, I shared my experience in an Essence magazine article.  The result was an avalanche of response letters from thousands who revealed—many for the first time—that they also struggle with deep emotional pain, but don’t know what to do.  The Black community’s silence about depression is usually wrapped in a thick layer of stigma, shame, and lack of access to mental health care.  While mental and emotional disorders affect people of all backgrounds, there are unique factors that contribute to and intensify the way Blacks experience them.  Surviving our legacy of slavery, racism, disenfranchisement, and the daily challenges of being Black in America without engaging in the therapies that would help us break the cycle of pain by processing, working through, and moving beyond our internal struggles have rendered us, myself included, unable to openly express or handle our issues very well.

We generally don’t know what our pain looks, feels, and sounds like, and so we cope with it through behavior that harms ourselves or others.  We self-medicate with drug and alcohol abuse, violence, crime, sexual promiscuity, eating disorders, excessive gambling, shopping, or working, but we don’t talk about what’s going on inside.  I wrote BLACK PAIN: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting to open up the conversation so people will see that they are not on the ledge alone, that they do not have to suffer in silence, and to guide them toward solutions for their problem.  Building awareness, a major part of the important work being done by NAMI, is key to moving to the next step, which is taking action and transforming lives.

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BLACK PAIN is filled with the heart-wrenching, personal stories of celebrities and everyday people who battle mental and emotional pain.  It also offers information, resources, and encouragement for individuals to break the chain of pain and get help.  This is my personal mission, my calling, and my opportunity to make a profound difference. I believe in our community’s ability to move forward in healing.  It’s time.

Terrie Williams appears in the PBS documentary, DEPRESSION: Out of the Shadows, premiering Wednesday, May 21 at 9:00 p.m. (ET). Check local PBS station listings. Immediately following the premiere, NAMI medical director Ken Duckworth will discuss depression as part of a panel of experts moderated by broadcast journalist Jane Pauley on TAKE ONE STEP: Caring for Depression, with Jane Pauley. Click here for more information.


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