when you’re the only well behaved kid in the whole class
Cykeem White & Alexander Dominguez
M16 Eagle Nebula
Credit: Stefan S, Astrobin
"Not queer like gay. Queer like, escaping definition. Queer like some sort of fluidity and limitlessness at once. Queer like a freedom too strange to be conquered. Queer like the fearlessness to imagine what love can look like…and pursue it."
west indian depression: my mother, my depression, our struggle.
My mother grew up on a farm in Guyana, while I was born in New York to parents who were trying to give me the world. The roots of our sadness are not the same. This has been an obstacle as we try to form a healthier bond and so I’ve been trying to dissect the idea of us being Sad Brown Girls together.
I had always been a quiet, but intense kid. I was passionate and eager, especially in school. My mother glowed when she told family, “Alana is doing very well! She just won a Woman’s History Month Contest/joined the student government/placed into the advanced class.” This was at the beginning of the New York Department of Education’s obsession with advanced placement and rigorous testing. It was all so novel and made me feel special. I was happy, I investigated life with vigor, I won awards, I made my mother happy.
Around age 10 or 11, I lost that part of me. I always felt so heavy. I remember sitting in my room staring at old letters my friends had written to me and feeling like I was searching for something to pull me back in. I had difficulties falling asleep, I would lay awake for hours listening to my house creak. When I did sleep, I never wanted to get out of bed again. I would survey the seemingly insurmountable life ahead of me and feel exhausted. I persevered in school but the accolades stopped coming in. My mother seemed increasingly frustrated with my inability to get out of bed, or the way I had started to dress. I felt confined and sluggish in my Limited Too wardrobe, so everything I wore was baggy and three sizes too big. It’s not an exciting thing to describe. I was just depressed, I had lost interest in every aspect of my life.
Around 15, I became increasingly desperate. It was time to start thinking about college and everyone around me was going at life a hundred percent. There were kids starting their own businesses, riding horses, meeting local politicians, building robots. And there I would be, in my room, staring at my ceiling for hours because I had just failed another math test.
I was sure that if I returned to the quiet contentment of my youth, everything would be better. If I could relearn how to be happy, I could take the time to dress nicely, study harder, access my potential again, and then my mother would be proud of me. This chain of reasoning haunted me to the point of paralysis. I refused to get out of bed. I stopped going to school. I stopped getting perfect attendance awards. I would muster up all the strength I could for the fight I would have with my mother in the morning. “I’m not going to school. I feel sick. I’m depressed.” I would lie there, thinking about all the ways I could fail my life. My mother would suck her teeth. “You’re not depressed you’re just lazy.” Happiness and productivity had melded together in my head. I didn’t know how to have one without the other.
I thought my mother was cold. A machine incapable of realizing it was miserable. But one day, after another fight about going to school, she came to my room to check on me. She stood in my doorway, like a vampire who couldn’t cross my threshold. She started in with the usual, how it was illegal to miss a certain number of days of school, how I could get her in trouble. Then her face contorted, her accent grew thick, and in her voice I could tell she was choking back tears. “I can’t believe this. My father never let me go to school and now here I am in America begging my own daughter to get out of bed.”
In that moment, I remembered several things about my mother. First, that she was human. Second, that her life was amazing. My mother was beautiful, smart enough to skip several grades, and a star athlete. Her mother had died when she was young, so she had always been partially dedicated to taking care of her father. Where is the room for sadness when you are now expected to care for your family? How do you confront that sadness without disturbing the community that helped you through your mother’s death? When my mother was offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Guyana, her father refused to let her go. He said college was no place for a woman. When she decided to have a family, my father insisted she quit her job to stay home. She has never had time to be sad because people always depended on her. I led such a sheltered life in America that I never understood the ways she depended on me. The older I get, the more intimate our talks grow, and the more I see how important it is to her that I create structures of support out of all her sacrifices. I like to think of her as a Sad Brown Girl instead of some Strong Brown Woman/Machine because the former acknowledges that she is a human who has struggled for everything she has. She reminds me that I don’t need to be happy to be productive, or rather, to cultivate a better world for myself.
I wish I could say that recognizing this is all it took for me to get better, but learning how to stay hungry while sad takes time. Up until recently, I resented my parents for not taking me to a therapist. I was angry and hostile towards them. I liked to target my father especially because he could easily ignore my life by busying himself with work. I would flippantly talk about my desire to kill myself to watch him giggle nervously. When I joined higher education, I found that many of my new white friends had seen doctors or were on medication and I was jealous.
I never considered that my parents were wary of receiving health care in this country. Back in Guyana it was rare to see doctors. It was often expensive in both money and time. In America, my parents had always been extremely careful about the doctors they visit. I remember my father complaining about waiting two hours at a doctor’s office, while other patients who came in later were seen before him. There were several instances where doctors overcharged my parents and only returned the money when legal action was taken. When I was younger, my family was poor, but my father was always assertive and informed about his resources. I wonder: what about families who don’t have the same access or knowledge? Entering the medical world would be even harder for them. What about families who are not fluent in English? Families with no health insurance? Undocumented families?
I also never considered my friends’ experiences with doctors. Most of my friends are like me: immigrants or children of immigrants not fully assimilated into American culture. Access to health care often comes up when we speak about mental illness in our own families. Some have been to therapists and often overwhelmingly found them to be unpleasant, patronizing, and ultimately racist people who did little to make them feel better. What happens when your therapist’s biases affect their diagnosis? How do you open up to a man who says you “probably couldn’t afford him anyway?” How do you trust a system that doesn’t seem to consider you human?
I don’t mention these things to dismiss mental health care in America. It’s not an avenue I have personally investigated, but I’m sure it’s been helpful to many people. However, a friend of mine (an older white man) is fond of recommending therapy to me and insinuating that I need to somehow “break free” of my parents strict and backwards rules. I reject any attempts to assimilate my story into the narrative of the primitive brown immigrant and the mighty white progressive. I acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns people of color and immigrants will have with the American health care system, especially when it comes to something as sensitive as mental health.
What I am trying to articulate is how the rejection of happiness helped me to become a stronger person. I don’t mean that I’ve given up on happiness, just that it is no longer the sole marker of success in my life. If I could go back in time, the one thing I would tell myself is to stop prioritizing happiness as the source of productivity. There are so many other reasons to get out of bed in the morning. I’ve started to embrace the idea of the Sad Brown Girl because it allows me to acknowledge my sadness and the way its connections to sexism, racism, and colonialism. To me, my mother is the ultimate Sad Brown Girl, who gave up so much to be here in America, cultivating love, wealth, and opportunity for me. Sad Brown Girls persist outside of Western-centric ideas of happiness for something bigger and hopefully more fulfilling. We’re not servants, but we are visionaries.
(photo credit: from Karen Miranda-Rivadeneira’s “Other Things I” series)
v great read for the coaltion by alana-maraj lots of luv
Get all the fuckin way outta here wit this shit Dawg.
So my man, brother, or friends gotta get took out because a durag mean he a thug and up to no good but nah white folks is different. With them it’s fashion. It’s a “Chanel Urban Tie Cap”.
Fuuuuuuuck this shit we really need to get the fuck together and start supporting and having our money in our own communities cuz they living fucking large off of us and I’m so irritated right now fuck lol
Please y’all support Ya people they can’t profit like they been doing if we not giving them no money
Huachocolpa Mine, Peru