The Pressure to Be Everything but Myself
by Dempris Gasque
I still remember like it was yesterday. Days, weeks and even months of praying to my maker for the most opportune time for life to leave my body. I’d spent all my adolescence feeling so lost and broken. The expectations and burdens of my African American ancestors were placed upon my shoulders like a badge of honor, costing me my peace of mind.
No innocent child fully understands that they may inherit a genetic predisposition to an illness, but I knew early on that my inheritance was depression and anxiety. No matter where I went, I was always pulled aside and told to be everything but myself. Not too loud, too masculine, too black, too ethnic, etc. But I’ve never really understood why people have such a low tolerance for other worldviews and why race divides and separates groups of people rather than bringing them together and finding beauty in our uniqueness.
If I was with family, I was too proper or acting “white,” and yet, if I was with fellow students, I was just a country Black boy from South Carolina who didn’t come from wealth or a two-parent household. I remember even self-sabotaging so that I would not feel ostracized or bullied. I was always an honor student, but I began to purposely do horribly on assignments or tests to fit in with my peers and not feel alienated after being identified as a teacher’s pet.
Having felt these conflicts kept me up at night, sometimes for days on hand. I began to sneak out at night and wander the streets until I was sleepy enough to go straight to bed, silencing the voices in my head that kept doubting me, telling me I’d never be good enough or accepted — whether for being a minority or for being attracted to the same sex. My Christian family would never understand or even respect my views, and God knows I’d prayed and begged for the attraction to be taken away from me, but that day never came.
It all came to a head when I was in Summer camp in 2012. One day, I was staring out the window, overcome and obsessed with the need to take my own life. I remember getting ready to brace myself almost in a daze, unable to control myself and sift through life any longer. As soon as I prepared to do it, the most beautiful thing happened. Every door in the university dorm on my floor opened, and a sea of people that I felt so alienated from suddenly interrupted my attempt to take my life. Looking back, I am extremely grateful that they did.
I recently shared my mental health journey in a mental health anthology, “There is No Health Without Mental Health Anthology: Men & Mental Health...Let's Talk About IT!!” I never thought I’d allow myself to echo such pain and truth, but my mentor and publisher Venessa Abrams taught me the power that owning one’s story has.
This holiday season, and the COVID-19 isolation, has reminded me that I am strong, tenacious and blessed. I have a NAMI family that deeply cares as I strive to heal wounds within myself and my household. Typically, I dread holidays because of the pressure to be perfect in the eyes of family, but this year, I will just sip some hot chocolate and sit outside under a blanket to remind myself that I am still breathing.