What One Friendship Can Teach You About Mental Health for Women of Color
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors. This article was originally published on An Injustice! via Medium.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde
It happens to the best of us: the dreaded “falling out.” From giggling over inside jokes every day to drifting further apart every day — it happens, and it’s never easy. But what do you do when mental health threatens everything? What happens when friendship is interrupted by the repercussions of severe depression, and how — if at all — can you put the pieces back together?
Prioritizing our well-being, especially in the midst of a global pandemic and an overdue reckoning with racial injustice, are powerful and essentialacts of resistance — especially in a world that was never designed for Black, Indigenous, and women of color (BIWOC) to thrive. It’s also easy, however, to feel like you’re alone in your struggle to find peace and healing. So today, in the midst of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Mental Health Awareness Month, we decided to share our own personal experiences with mental health.
Our stories below cover a moment in 2016 when our friendship almost crumbled under the weight of depression. We hope our stories will embolden more BIPOC women to seek out help when they need it—and to always place their well-being first.
In 2016, I’d just returned from a year-long solo trip around the world — and found my most personal and meaningful relationships in shambles.
My then-boyfriend (now husband) of five years and I were at a crossroads and trying to mend the deep strain on our relationship. With a potential break-up looming in the background, I did what many tend to do in situations of great stress: I threw myself into work. I “coped” by shifting my focus to new projects, and utilizing the inspiration I gained from my travels.
One of those projects was a social impact company — now known as InfluenceHers. The plan was to start it with one of my best friends, Lindsey. She’d spent time with me in Kenya, volunteered alongside me, and had conversations with me about the problematic (read: all white) images of social impact travel and philanthropy around the world. She’d witnessed firsthand my joy in giving back and had a similar interest in creating a safe space for women of color. I was so immensely excited at the idea that I’d be co-founding and creating the company of my dreams with her.
But soon, something began to change. Someone Lindsey loved deeply passed away — and it opened up a dark side in her that I didn’t, in that moment, quite understand. Lindsey was diagnosed with clinical depression and asked to step aside from our project in order to work on her mental health. She asked for some time alone. She withdrew, not just from me, but from everything she and I used to love. The bright person I had met was losing her light, and couldn’t find a way to let me in. It hurt — a lot.
I’m good at “coping,” though, so that’s what I did. I kept moving forward, by traveling, reading, working — anything but facing the raw and painful emotions that arise after a rift with your best friend. But as time went on, and as Lindsey grappled with her own demons, I became curious about my own mental health. And as Lindsey opened up to me again and began to address the generational trauma that she inherited from her Korean immigrant family, I began to reflect on my own story. I soon realized that I, too, was suffering from the weight of historical and generational trauma — though, as a Black woman, my trauma looked entirely and fundamentally different.
I learned that my constant “coping” with difficulties and suppressing them in unhealthy ways were defense mechanisms I picked up at a very young age. I always thought that the answer to any hardship was “being strong.” I’d seen my mom, dad, grandparents, siblings, cousins — all of us, really — grapple with the repercussions and history of systemic racism by simply suppressing our emotions. In a world where Black people are vilified for our melanin and hair, I saw Black people cope. In a world where the most crucial resources and capital are held back from our communities, I saw Black people cope. And in a world where we can be systematically killed and discarded with no justice, and no acknowledgment of our humanity — I saw Black people cope. Sometimes, it was all my family had: the ability to cope — to just “smile and take it.”
But coping only takes you so far. And as Lindsey went through her own moment of reckoning with a painful past, I realized all the brokenness I’d seen around me as a child and young adult — the substance abuse my relatives experienced, the nervous breakdowns and outbursts — were desperate attempts to address deeper issues. Like many Black communities in the United States, mine didn’t enjoy the tools, funding, or resources required to help people address and treat their mental health. All too often, my family and friends turned to anything else to numb the pain.
Lindsey and I were able to reconnect and rebuild our friendship — and so much of it was due to our honest conversations about mental health. When she was ready, she let me in, and told me about the trauma that had haunted her since childhood, and how taking time for herself, along with regular visits to a therapist and psychiatrist, helped her regain a desire to live another day. Her fight with severe depression inspired me to finally explore the idea of therapy and to find ways to heal my own hurt instead of turning to “quick fix” defense mechanisms. And so began my own, ongoing journey toward healing — toward finding a way to thrive in a system that continues to attack and brutalize Black people’s very existence.
I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for me to heal at all, especially when our personal and collective wounds of racial injustice and oppression are constantly being reopened. But the alternative to healing is standing still — and I’m simply not willing to do that. I’ve learned to see healing not as a destination, but as a journey. And while our experiences are so vastly different, I’m grateful to have Lindsey here with me, to remind me that my health comes second to none.
Our friendship has reminded me of an essential fact, proven time and time again through history: though our circumstances as Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous women are different, we can still commit to showing up for each other and helping each other heal. That’s the kind of radical behavior the powers-that-be don’t want to see from us — and exactly the kind of behavior that will change the status quo.
When Brittany and I met, there was instant chemistry. Our shared passions drew us to each other, as well as our joyful, playful energy. We were always the happy ones in the group. Even now, we’re the ones who tend to plan events and bring our friends together. We have the biggest smiles, and we both tend to throw our heads back toward the sky when we laugh — almost like we’re laughing with the clouds. Both of us thrive when we see other people happy — so naturally, in our happiest days, we thrived off of each other’s energy and created a beautiful friendship.
But humans are complex — and I’ve learned, over time, that it’s not realistic or natural to be “positive” or “happy” all the time. Like many people, however, I refused to acknowledge any emotion that wasn’t positive. I pushed any pain away and didn’t notice as little cracks began to form on the surface of my happy, smiley exterior.
Like Britt, I’d learned to “cope” with hardship in unhealthy ways. Unlike Britt, I did not, as a Korean American woman, experience the particularly brutal and violent form of systemic racism directed toward Black people across the globe. My own “coping” mechanisms came from growing up in an immigrant family and community — an experience defined by the bitterness of poverty; ever-present vestiges of a brutal history of colonization; and a broken understanding of the “American Dream.” They came from the confusion of feeling not quite American, yet not quite Korean, like a visitor from another dimension, lost in a constant state of limbo. To be “strong” was to suppress all negative or unproductive emotions, and to simply carry on — despite everything my family and I went through. There was so much shame and guilt in the people closest to me, and I carried that with me into my formative years, and into adulthood.
When I lost someone important to me, something inside me broke down. It all came out — the guilt, the anger, the hopelessness. In time, I decided to see a therapist — and eventually, on her recommendation, a psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and placed on anti-depressants. I decided to take some time for myself to rest and heal — and partially, to protect others from my inner turmoil.
Through the process of facing my mental health, I learned to see my relationships in a whole new light. When I spoke honestly about my experience, I saw who genuinely cared. I noticed who gave me plenty of space to grieve and process my emotions — and who, on the other hand, demanded attention and energy from me, even when I was unable to care for myself. I noticed who told me “I’m here for you when you’re ready, even if I don’t understand exactly what you’re going through” — and who incessantly fed me misguided pseudoscience on how simply “being positive” would somehow heal my condition. I noticed when friends like Brittany did their research, and committed to supporting me in ways they knew would be helpful.
When Britt and I reconnected, we spoke about how reckoning with my roots helped me understand my behavior, motivations, and thoughts — and therefore put me on the path toward healing. And though she had a wildly different upbringing, she realized, too, that acknowledging, confronting, and working to dismantle the historical and generational traumas in her life could help her grow and heal. We reconnected and learned that we could thrive not only on each other’s happiness — but also on each other’s stories of redemption, forgiveness, and growth.
Years later, in this current moment in history, I am doing my best to be there for Britt in the way she’s been there for me, as she endures the chaos and stress of living in a world governed by white supremacy and anti-Blackness. As an Asian-American woman, I’ve learned that showing up for Brittany means showing up in solidarity, period — by donating to and supporting causes and organizations that declare her life matters, and by co-conspiring in creating a system that supports equity and dignity for all Black lives.
I can’t claim to understand Britt’s experience as a Black woman, in the same way she can’t claim to understand mine as a Korean woman. But when we hold space for each other, respect and acknowledge our lived experiences, and commit to fighting alongside each other, Brittany and I heal — and become part of a larger, historical movement.
Our friendship is simply one example — a microcosm of what happens when mental disorders affect our ability to connect, heal, and grow as women of color. And as non-White women navigating a world built on the backs of BIPOC for the benefit of White lives, it’s unrealistic to believe that we are completely unaffected by some form of deep, mental trauma.
Our friendship is also an example of the newfound joy and purpose that can be attained when we reach out for help, and when we have open and honest conversations about our traumas. The point isn’t that Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous communities share common experiences — because often, we don’t. Different forms of oppression lead to different struggles with mental health, and it’s imperative that we gain access to and create mental health resources that can address our specific, lived realities. If our story has moved you, here are just three sources that helped us start and continue our journey toward healing — and where you can start to probe and prioritize your own wellness and mental health:
The Cosmos — A community for Asian women to share emotional support and mental health resources.
People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project — A community art project by mental health activist Dior Vargas that highlights the stories of Black, Indigenous, and people of color who suffer mental health issues — in an effort to confront stigmas, and help us understand that we are not alone.
A collective acknowledgment of our roots, even if and when they prove to be wildly different—is what leads to shared action and purpose. It’s how we build coalitions to address systemic racism, how we’ll grow our communities, and how we’ll find the friends who stay by our side — even through the unforgiving ebb and flow of history.
About the Authors: Brittany Grey is a social entrepreneur, wellness advocate, and founder of InfluenceHers, a social impact platform that empowers women of color with opportunities to give back to their communities—and connect more deeply with themselves. Through travel, volunteerism, and advocacy, Brittany hopes to inspire more women of color to influence positive change in the world.
Lindsey Yoo is a Korean American writer, storyteller, and anti-racism advocate. She’s launching Share The Salt, a quarterly publication celebrating and highlighting the creative pursuits of people of color.
Featured Image via Brittany Grey and Lindsey Yoo
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