Content note: This piece contains depiction of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and trauma.
The first time I watched blood spill from my wrist, I was 12 years old. All these years later, I can’t remember the exact catalyst that made me start cutting, but I do remember my life at home: toxic and helpless from many different angles.
I would not call myself a happy child or teenager and, as with many matters of mental health and emotional instability in the black community, I dealt with it by sweeping it under the rug.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, the African American population is 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems compared with the general population.
The black community, especially black descendants of American chattel slavery, is still focused on surviving and assimilating — not on thriving and dealing with feelings and emotions. Black Americans continue to face the residual effects of slavery and the Jim Crow era, systematic and generational poverty, and modern-day racism and microaggressions.
It’s instilled in us a need to be strong, independent, and resilient. We’re the least likely to seek out therapeutic services, opting instead to ignore any issues or pray them away.
The same year I began cutting, I moved in with my father and his second wife, Janice, after a routine weekend visit. My father sat me down one day and began asking me hypothetical questions about moving in with him. “You’ll have your own room, “ he said.
At the time my mother was pregnant with my brother and we were living in a one-bedroom apartment. The idea of my own space was alluring.
“Sure,” I replied, not really considering that the idea might not be hypothetical at all. Satisfied with my answer, my father let me loose to go watch TV with my stepsister.
A few days later I was informed that I would not be returning to my mom, who wasn’t in the headspace or the position to provide. I’m sure this decision was made with love and the best intentions to give me a better life. Lots of promises were made around having a much better living situation, so I had high hopes.
It would soon become a year of growing rage, sadness, and strained relationships.
Janice didn’t like me. She would turn the most mundane of situations into a battleground and stomp around like a tyrant if her daughter and I didn’t clean the house well enough. She’d do it for whatever reason, really. Several times Janice went off on a tangent of sorts about how I had my father “wrapped around my finger.”
To make matters worse, she stole my diary and began playing a mentally taxing game of cat and mouse with the entries. A few times a week I’d wake up and find a folded piece of paper under my pillow, in the pocket of my winter coat, or crumpled up at the bottom of my shoe.
Because I had no one to talk to and no place to go, my anxiety shot through the roof. I felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair and the feeling that I wasn’t safe in what was supposed to be my home.
As cliché as it sounds, cutting myself gave me a sense of relief and power. It was something I had control over, and it provided me with a real, tangible distraction from everything I was dealing with.
However, that spring, my mother discovered the half-healed marks on my arms and, after a heart-to-heart, alerted my father and stepmother. It was decided that I would start therapy, so every 2 weeks I went to talk to some Jewish man after school.
What I do know is that no one took it seriously — my father even went so far as to mock the therapist after one family session. My parents’ resistance to psychological forms of self-care sent me the message that I shouldn’t take it seriously, either.
I continued going, on and off, when things got really bad, throughout my teenage years — while still cutting myself.
During this time, exasperated “pep talks” ensued. My stepmother informed me, in an annoyed tone, “The TV say this cutting stuff is some mess white girls usually do.” Instead of leaning into creating a less toxic and healthier home environment, she treated me like a nuisance whose issues would go away if only I stopped hanging around so many white girls and listening to so much Tori Amos.
I continued to cut until I was about 19, after which I traded razor blades for other forms of self-harm like sex with emotionally unavailable men and women, booze, and weed. I likely subconsciously sought out unhealthy, familiar environments and situations that mirrored the feelings I’d always known.
I put up with a lot that I shouldn’t have, surrounded myself with tons of shitty people, wound up in many compromising positions, and toyed with the idea of suicide more than a few times.
A few years ago, when my mental health issues were hitting a peak again, I decided to seek out therapy once more. I’d been out of therapy for a couple of years, and despite my best effort, trying to get better on my own was slowly killing me.
Most of my therapists had been white men or women, and while I’d gotten along with a few, I hadn’t always felt like they understood me or my cultural background as much as I would have liked. Dealing with depression and anxiety is difficult enough without having to explain certain cultural things to an outsider during my healing process.
So, on a friend’s recommendation, I started taking online sessions with a black female mental health counselor based in Memphis.
Having a black therapist has helped me let down my guard more easily. At times, I’ve found it easier to have certain conversations about race, discrimination, and other issues specific to my identity as a black American woman that I’m not sure someone without a similar background would understand.
This time around wasn’t just different because of the similarities my therapist and I share. I wasn’t simply going through the motions like I did in my teens.
Though I didn’t feel safe growing up, my therapist helped me realize that those days are long gone and that the unhealthy coping mechanisms I took up to deal should be a thing of the past too.
As a child, I was never taught to protect myself or to have good positive energy around me. So as an adult, I’m playing catch-up in some ways, and that’s OK.
My mental health journey hasn’t been an easy one, but with the help of therapy, medication, and boundaries, I’m committed to taking care of myself and doing what’s necessary to be the happiest and healthiest me I can be.
Niesha Davis is a writer currently living in Thailand. Bylines include: Glamour, The Huffington Post, Women’s Health, Everyday Health, Bust, Bitch, and many other publications.