Shelly, A Strong Black Woman
Sometimes surviving isn’t enough. On my sister’s birthday I honor her and shine a light on mental health issues.
If we all were being honest with ourselves, we saw this coming. It was like reading a predictable novel with all the foreshadowing an author could muster, yet we still weren’t prepared for the ending. We were not prepared. But how could we be?
Shelly, my eldest sister, died by suicide a year ago — just two days shy of her 50th birthday. She was everyone’s rock. And unfortunately none of us could be the same for her. From a very young age she would strap our entire immediate family on her back — including our parents — and trudge through the muddy and rising waters of our family trauma. She sacrificed herself to save us all — her five siblings, our parents and ultimately her three children. She did this while forgoing any personal healing that she needed to survive. Everyone else’s survival and well being seemed to take precedence. So, she took blow after blow, without falling down. Like a valiant war hero. She definitely was a hero in my book.
Imagine that. How utterly exhausting! She did all of this while maintaining some semblance of a normal disposition. She loved and supported her children fiercely. She raised them well, despite the incredible odds stacked against her. She attained very hard-earned and well-deserved academic and career success. She beat the odds by light years! Betting on Shelly was a win for anyone willing to do so. She proved so many myths and stereotypes wrong!
So, the last 10 years of her life she spent battling mental health illness should not have come as a surprise to us. The suicide attempts and finally her death by suicide should not have surprised us. The years of neglected personal healing had caught up to her. Maybe we thought she was “so strong” and would be able to win this battle like the many others she’d fought throughout her life.
So often in the black community girls are taught by the women in their lives — their mothers, Aunties, Grandmothers — to be “strong” and to power through some of the tough moments in life no matter the pain. You can’t show “them” your pain. It’s a survival mechanism passed down knowingly or unknowingly. My Aunt constantly reinforced the mantra “strong, independent black woman.” That’s who she was raising me to become. It was a noble character that I thought I could be. Like Auntie. Like Shelly. But in reality, it was nothing to live up to.
I admired Shelly for having these traits, but witnessing her struggles at the end of her life, made it clear to me that it is impossible to maintain. A couple of years ago she confided in me about some of her struggles and how hard it was to share this with our family. She began to have such disdain for the constant sentiment, albeit well intentioned “But you’re so strong Shelly.” She didn’t feel strong and being constantly told she was didn’t help.
Mental health illnesses, unlike cancers, don’t have predictable symptoms or lifespan estimations upon a terminal diagnosis.
In many ways I feel like I failed my sister. Why didn’t I try harder to help get her healthy? To strap her on my back and get her through the storms of her life.
“I wish I had cancer.”
Those were the heartbreaking five words my sister typed to me one day. She later explained her feelings of frustration when it came to explaining her mental health issues with loved ones. Mental health illnesses, unlike cancers, don’t have predictable symptoms or lifespan estimations upon a terminal diagnosis. This makes it even harder for an outsider to understand.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.
Yet, mental health or emotional disorders are often viewed as temporary and something that a person can just will themselves to overcome. Particularly in the black community, the approach often taken is to “pray it away” or maybe even to tap into our long line of ancestral strength to overcome it somehow. Like our people have done throughout history. Right?
That misconception and a long list of biases and disparities become barriers to care and even insufficient care. My sister tried really hard to be her best self. She saw an assortment of specialists and participated in various treatment styles from natural to pharmaceutical to experimental. She was at her wit’s end and the worst I’ve seen her that last month of her life. And we all felt helpless for the most part. So, with her 50th birthday approaching, my family was planning to surprise Shelly with a 50th birthday dinner to show her how much she was loved and supported — but we were too late.
I’m not sure that gesture would have changed much of anything, because her self deprecating inner dialogue and pain was something none of us could even fathom. She had lost hope.
Everyone looked up to Shelly — peers and elders alike. She always seemed so wise beyond her years. I spoke to a childhood friend of my sister’s who described how she just always wanted to be around Shelly when they were kids. She’d get jealous when other friends would take up time with Shelly and she had to share her. They were 11. She had a magnetism about her.
I felt that way too. Sometimes when I’m dealing with a tough moment with my young child or my career, I think about how Shelly would have handled it or what advice she may have given me. She had a wisdom that seemed divinely given. She was resourceful, intelligent, and driven. Shelly was everyone’s “go-to” when they were making a major life decision or simply needing advice.
In one of my earliest memories of my sister, I was about 10 years old visiting my 25 year old sister — who already was a mother of three and caring for two of my siblings. She was so gorgeous and sophisticated! I remember sitting and watching her on the other side of a full length mirror as she got ready for a night out with friends. I watched closely as she pulled on sheer black pantyhose, glided the maroon colored lipstick on her lips and finally slid on some fly heels. I remember thinking I hope I can be like her when I’m 25. Spoiler alert! I was nothing close to her level of maturity and sophistication at 25. I may never be! My sister had lived a full life by the age of 25, a life I could never imagine surviving.
So, in her honor I pledge to dedicate the rest of my life to spreading awareness that even strong black women can struggle with mental illness. They need help. They need hope. By sharing stories and resources, we can light up the darkness and chip away at the stigma and misconceptions about mental illness. Many of us are suffering in silence and we don’t have to.
If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of suicide, call 800–273–TALK(8255) for 24/7 free and confidential emotional support. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of over 150 local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They provide local care and resources with national standards and best practices.