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Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting

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Black people are dying everywhere we turn, in the faces we see and the headlines we read, and we feel emotional pain, but we don't know how to tackle it—it's time to recognize it and work through our trauma.

Terrie had made it: she had launched her own public relations company with such clients as Eddie Murphy and Johnnie Cochran. Yet she was in constant pain, waking up in terror, overeating in search of relief. For thirty years she kept on her game face of success, exhausting herself daily to satisfy her clients' needs while neglecting her own. When she finally collapsed, she had no clue what was wrong or if there was a way out.

She learned her problem had a name—depression—and that many suffered from it, limping through their days, hiding their hurt. As she healed, her mission became clear: break the silence of this crippling taboo and help those who suffer, especially in the black community.

Black Pain identifies emotional pain—which uniquely and profoundly affects the black experience—as the root of lashing out through desperate acts of crime, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, workaholism, and addiction to shopping, gambling, and sex. Few realize these destructive acts are symptoms of our inner sorrow.

In Black Pain, Terrie has inspired the famous and the ordinary to speak out and mental health professionals to offer solutions. The book is a mirror turned on you. Do you see yourself and your loved ones here? Do the descriptions of how the pain looks, feels, and sounds seem far too familiar? Now you can do something about it. The help the community needs is here: a clear explanation of our troubles and a guide to finding relief through faith, therapy, diet, and exercise, as well as through building a supportive network and eliminating toxic people.

Black Pain encourages us to face the truth about the issue that plunges our spirits into darkness, so that we can step into the healing light. You are not on the ledge alone.

ISBN-13: 9780743298834

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: 01-06-2009

Pages: 368

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Terrie M. Williams is a licensed clinical social worker with a BA in psychology and sociology from Brandeis University and an MS in social work from Columbia University. She is the author of Black Pain and The Odyssey of KP2. She is the founder of the Terrie Williams Agency and has served as public relations adviser to clients such as Janet Jackson, Russell Simmons, the NBA, the NFL, and many corporations. Her Stay Strong Foundation is dedicated to youth advocacy and mentoring. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Not Killing Us Softly

I'm Coming Out, I Want the World to Know It's not just what we say, but what we don't say...

In June 2005 I wrote an article about my depression for Essence magazine. I was not prepared for the reaction it generated. I received over 10,000 letters, over half of them from people "coming out" for the first time about their pain and depression. Complete strangers wrote to me because I was the safest person they could share with. Not friends, not family members, but me -- someone they didn't know! I also wasn't prepared for the intensity of my frustration as I came to understand how many Black women and men are suffering silently.

The folks who wrote to me were scared -- some of them terrified -- to breathe a word to anyone; they were paralyzed by the fear that no one would understand or accept them. Their fear was echoed in conversation upon conversation I had while traveling across the country giving talks about how we are doing -- about waking up in pain each day -- to audiences that ranged from CEOs to regular churchgoers. After my talks, person after person would come to me to confide that they, too, were "going through it."

Sometimes I would come home from these trips totally drained in my heart and soul, having heard stories like the one I heard from a man whose two sisters are home suffering from major depression. He can't talk about it, nor can his family, even though he's a respected physician and his brother is a well-regarded man of the cloth!

If I'm honest with myself, and with you, the fact is that I'm more like these folks than I care to admit. If then Essence editor in chief Diane Weathers hadn't sensed what I was going through and asked me to write the piece, I don't know how much longer it would have taken before I really told someone I was depressed -- or if I would ever have told anyone before the point where there was no hiding it anymore.

In fact, my mom, dad, and sister didn't know what I was going through until I mailed them a draft of the article and wrote a kind of offhand note saying, "I wanted you to see this before it came out." I didn't even ask for their responses!

My mom called immediately. "I'm so sad you didn't feel like you could come to me. Maybe there was something I could have done!" And my sister told me that she, too, had been through the fire. But I was so used to handling things on my own that I believed telling them would only make them worry. I knew I wasn't suicidal, even though I was dying on the inside. The pain I feel is so hard to talk about that my closest family still hears more about it when I'm in front of large groups than one-on-one.

These days I use my visibility to talk about pain and how we mask it. Every time I step up to the microphone I "out" myself as someone in pain. I do it because I know that by sharing my story, my fragility, insecurity, frailty, and woundedness, I liberate someone else to do the same.

Sometimes the liberation comes through humor. In the months after the Essence piece came out, people would see me at events and shyly come over to me. I knew they wanted to mention the article and talk about depression, but didn't know how, so I would break the ice. "I can tell you read the Essence article," I would say. "Don't worry. I took my medication today. Everything's okay -- and you don't have to whisper the word 'depression'!" That little bit of humor, that easy laugh, was usually all it took to open the gates to honest talk about something we think is shameful. And I'm telling you, there is not one among us who has not been touched by this!

This book is as much about identifying depression as it is about the power of testimony. Some of the people whose stories are in this book were willing to bare their souls for the record, in the name of a cause bigger than themselves -- and that includes some of the most well-known names here. Others were willing and even eager to share their stories, but feared that giving their names could jeopardize their livelihoods or hurt their families, especially their young children; these are not famous people and I have respected their requests for anonymity because I believe their stories are the most valuable thing they have to offer. Finally, I have drawn on magazine and television interviews from a handful of famous people who have spoken publicly about their struggles with depression.

More important than anything else is that the thousands of people who have communicated with me about this in person, in writing, or on the phone have broken the silence that makes depression so lethal. In the passages below Set Shakur, Mama DeBarge, Joyce Walker Joseph, and Diane Weathers come out to me about their depression.


If you ever danced or sang along to the infectious music of the DeBarge family, you can thank Etterlene "Mama" DeBarge for bringing all those gifted artists into our world. Sadly, her marriage to their father was nothing like the sweet music her children made. A jealous, controlling man, he kept "Mama" pregnant for most of fifteen years -- pregnant, lonely, and depressed. She shared with me a chilling excerpt from her forthcoming memoir:

I lived every day in my own personal hell. I had noticed myself becoming more reclusive and despondent, and I spent every waking moment paranoid and afraid. I very rarely had visitors, and at one point I had even stopped answering the phone. The telephone was a luxury that I had learned to do without after my husband accused me of "talking to another man on the phone." It was actually a wrong number, and I had made the mistake of answering. It's a funny thing, depression; it's the only intangible thing I know of that can actually cause very real, very tangible changes in a person. The burden and the pain of my life weighed me down like a wet woolen blanket. I willed myself through every day by repeating to myself over and over again, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, and I would make it at least one more day.

"Mama" made it through many days, and helped bring her children to realize their gifts and share them, but how much richer would all their lives have been if only she had been able to get the help she needed when she needed it most?

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, as well as the founder and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. This is what he told me about powerful Black men and depression:

African-American leaders in particular face tremendous obstacles rising to the top, and even greater challenges staying there. We are the face of the struggle and are expected to always show strength, grit, determination, and confidence, when the burden of depression is doing everything it can to pull us back down. It is time that we all talk about our depression, and fight with the same vigor we bring to the fight for racial justice. We must reveal the darker moments and show, despite the pain that tries to bring us down, we realize that seeking treatment, talking through our pain, and taking the mask off our helplessness will not only make us stronger, but will allow others to appreciate the fact that depression touches us all. But we can fight back, and we can win.

His words were much on my mind as I talked with two other powerful Black men, Carl Anthony Foreman and Bill Lynch, about their own pain.

Carl Anthony Foreman, the sixty-two-year-old powerhouse real estate mogul and owner of radio properties, was diagnosed only four years ago as suffering from bipolar disorder. For most of his life he experienced mood swings, at times feeling like he could conquer the world and buying up tons of property. At other times he felt bone weary, unable to talk, staying in bed in a darkened room for two to three days at a time.

Despite the range of his achievements his depression led him to move away from his wife and three sons when his youngest was fifteen years old. Although he supported them and lived nearby, when he sent the family on vacation, he couldn't go with them.

In some ways Carl's resources buffered him because he didn't have to go to a regular "job" every day. He would call his office at 3:00 a.m. "so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone." Then he'd leave a message that he wouldn't be in the office for a day or two so nobody would call and he could stay home alone, in silence. He wouldn't answer his phone. He would respond to voice mails in the middle of the night so he didn't have to talk to people. This strategy also gave him the advantages of surprise and respect, since people assumed he was working 24/7.

For a while he tried Zoloft and Lexapro, but they had side effects that, for him, were worse than the symptoms. "Chemical imbalance in our brains is no different than any other affliction we might have in our bodies. It's just that when it happens to the brain, it affects how you act and how you communicate."

Diagnosis late in life was a blessing and now Carl manages his depression by putting less stress on himself and not overworking. He attends fewer events, not stretching himself so thin, and does much of his business by phone. He also calls his therapist when he starts to feel overwhelmed. He's been coming out about his depression person by person, and each time he does, it's a little more liberating.

Sekyiwa (Set) Shakur is a thirty-one-year-old high-powered fashion designer and sister of the late Tupac Shakur. She's a warm and open spirit, someone who is clear about who she is and who she's becoming. She's also a woman who uses her own pain and challenges to help others. At twenty-three she began mentoring girls at the YWCA, because she feels it's important for young people to "hear us speak our truth, so that they know healing is possible."

She remembers always being uncomfortable in her own skin. Often she felt angry and would argue endlessly with anyone around her. She describes the feeling in her body "like a tornado." "When I opened my eyes in the morning I'd wish the sun wasn't up. And I often felt like I was outside of myself. At times it got to the point where I felt suicidal." Her family always referred to her as "Crazy Set" because she always spoke her truth. As we talk she tells me something I've heard many times: "All I really wanted was somebody to hold me." So many women have told me that they wish someone in their circle could have recognized their pain and comforted them. Instead her pain took the form of sex addiction and addiction to diet pills. She knew she needed real help when she found herself in a dark, suicidal place. "I was at a point where I didn't even think God would be upset with me. But then one day I saw God and my two brothers turn their back on me. The vision was so powerful I knew they didn't want me with them. I knew I had to keep living."

When we speak about Tupac she tells me that "in his music he often spoke of feeling crazy and alone. I wish he could have lived to hear others speak about their pain so he could have realized that he wasn't alone. As for me, it was such a relief when I was finally diagnosed. I wasn't just a 'bitch' or 'crazy,' there was a reason for all these painful feelings. I'm not crazy, I have a chemical imbalance!"

These days Set takes better care of herself. "I monitor my triggers -- lust and vanity drop me to my core, and so does the stress of overwork." She knows what she needs to do to stay sane, and once or twice a week takes some time for herself. She also nourishes her spirit by traveling as much as she can. "And I take antidepressants to control my depression and stabilize my mood."


I've known political strategist Bill Lynch for years. A longtime mentor, he has been the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, helped get David Dinkins elected, and then served as his deputy mayor. An interesting fact that few people know is the role Bill played with New York Times bestseller The Covenant with Black America, edited by the amazing Tavis Smiley. Published by the small but mighty Third World Press, the book's demand grew way beyond initial expectations. In order to get the book on shelves Bill reached out to his close friend Len Riggio, chairman of Barnes and Noble, to help it find greater distribution streams. The result was the first time a small Black press made it to the New York Times bestseller list, and it was due in large part to Bill's caring intervention. What he does behind the scenes literally transforms lives! But Bill is, above all, a man who is unafraid of his feelings, a man I have seen weep openly in the face of human pain. He comes from humble beginnings and has stayed humble even as he wields tremendous political power. That quality is the thing that everyone who knows him treasures most in him. He is a man who lives his calling, to use his influence to help individuals and organizations achieve their highest goals, and that's what gives him his depth and capacity to feel. In recent years Bill had renal failure and needed a kidney donor to live. His son was a match and volunteered. As a parent it was very hard for Bill to see his son jeopardize his own life to save him. Surgery of any kind always bears a risk for the person who needs to have it, but needing to endanger his son's life in any way left him feeling helpless and depressed. These are feelings he's still working with and through, but that have made him even more compassionate.

Joyce Walker Joseph's pictures used to cover my walls when I was growing up. At nineteen, she had her first photo spread in a major magazine for a "Black Is Beautiful" article. In 1969, a year later, she was considered the top Black model in the industry. But her success had a dark side. At the height of her career she was also deeply depressed. For starters, her father didn't consider girls worth much of anything; her mother didn't have a much higher opinion. "My parents didn't think I was living up to my potential, so I didn't have their support. They told me I couldn't sing, they never came to see me on the Broadway stage, they kept saying I was wasting my education, and that I was just having fun. They had no idea how hard I worked or what I was going through. They weren't big fans of mine and at one point we were estranged, and during that time I was alone and got into destructive relationships."

Joyce entered the modeling industry so young, she had little choice but to grow up in the public eye. "It was a strain because it conflicted with my private life. I became addicted to drugs, but no one knew. I smiled for the cameras, but inside I was dying." Low self-esteem from her family's rejection, compounded by the isolation of a racist industry, led her to spiral downward.

"I found myself more alone and lonely on modeling shoots, always the odd Black girl with the Afro from Queens, who didn't fit in with the jet-setting cliques. The man I married was not there for me, physically or emotionally. We soon divorced, but I got into other relationships with men who kept me working in an industry that talked down to me. They also introduced me to drugs that they said would make me feel better, 'make everything all right.' I was too naïve to recognize their actions as manipulative and controlling. No one understood my pain and depression. My parents thought I was just being moody; I was a success, what did I have to be depressed about? My childhood friends put up a catty, jealous wall when I reached out to them. To the outsider, I had everything; to me on the inside, I had nothing -- no love, no companionship, no meaning. I continued to numb my body with drugs and alcohol until I was trapped in a dark place where suicide and death seemed like the only light. If this was the best of life, I wanted no part of it."

Joyce's journey of self-healing wasn't short, and it wasn't easy. "There were no sister-circles of support in those days. And you know how talking to a counselor or a shrink was seen as a stigma to Black folks, as a sign of personal weakness. I was held out to be strong, a role model." So what did she do that brought her to the truly strong place she's at today?

"I got healthy by being still and reaching deep inside for my connection with God. I wrote in my diaries, I meditated and prayed daily. I changed my career direction and entered Rutgers law school. I found a life partner and created a beautiful family. I sought out a female therapist, who was a good listener and sounding board. I cofounded a creative arts and leadership training program for Harlem teens. Giving to children, my own and forty others, has turned out to be the greatest gift I could give myself."

Diane Weathers is a veteran writer and editor. She is also, as I've said, the woman responsible for my coming out about my depression in the pages of Essence after hearing me speak about it on C-Span. She shared with me this story of her own depression:

Nights I could handle. I fell asleep easily, and sleep allowed me to forget. But my mornings were unmanageable. To wake up each morning was to remember once again that the world by which I defined myself was no more. Soon after opening my eyes, the crying bouts would start and I'd sit alone for hours, weeping and mourning my losses.

During one six-month period in 2005, my marriage ended, I was asked to resign as editor in chief of Essence, and my daughter was threatening to run away.

My spirit was shattered. I began to believe I must have been getting everything wrong. I feared I was cursed with some flaw that made me unfit as a wife, a mother, a magazine professional.

My recovery has come in baby steps, and it is ongoing. The first smart thing I did was e-mail a couple of dozen friends and people in my network, letting them know what a hard time I was having handling the sudden upheavals in my life. In the subject line I typed in the word "help," and I asked for their friendship, love, and suggestions for coping. I had written too many stories on the tragic lives of men and women who kept their personal suffering private. I long ago decided that if ever I found myself adrift at sea and drowning, I'd never be too proud to ask for a lifeboat. At this point in my life, I felt I needed an entire flotilla.

My next step was counseling. Initially, all I could do was sit on my therapist's couch and cry. Finally, I asked for antidepressants. Medication quickly helped quell the crying jags so that I could better tend to the business of my life. After a few months, I felt strong enough to sort out the mess still crowding my plate, without meds and without falling to pieces.

I am grateful that my therapist encouraged me to make meditation a daily practice. She helped me discover that my chaotic thinking and inability to focus on the present had become part of my problem. I still marvel at how simply sitting still each morning for thirty minutes, concentrating on my breathing, helps clear my mind of the debris left over from all my yesterdays. Letting go of the mental clutter lets me think and see more clearly and this helps me live more skillfully.

This probably won't be the last time that I come down with a blues that brings me to my knees. I can be hypersensitive to the disappointments, dashed expectations, and losses that come with life. I hope that next time around I'll be able to handle it better and if not, just handle it as best I can. And if I can't handle it on my own, may I never be too full of false pride that I can't reach out and ask the universe for help.

Even mental health professionals aren't immune. Take Derek S. Hopson, a well-known psychologist who previously shared his therapeutic practice and work as an author with his ex-wife. After eighteen years together, despite sharing so much, they divorced. At one point, Derek couldn't seem to get his life or practice back on track. He began to avoid friends, to suffer from a sense of failure, and to feel a loss of pleasure in the research that had always been a primary joy in his work. Like for me, being a therapist didn't help him diagnose or treat his own depression. It wasn't until about his fifth visit to his own therapist, reconnecting with family, close friends, and receiving loving support from his new wife, Flora Allen-Hopson, that it became apparent he might be suffering from symptoms of depression.

And then there's the long legacy of secrets and lies in the Black family. Since slavery, Black families have felt the need to cover up a million things they thought shameful, starting with the fact that so many of us were born out of wedlock or as the result of rape. The true tragedy lies not in hard truths but in the shame that keeps generations of family members unable to talk about their pain and find comfort with one another.

Rande Thompson was a classical pianist and Columbia University graduate. His talents were amazing, but he spent a great deal of time alone and had only a handful of friends. After years of erratic behavior, of disappearing and resurfacing, he called two of his closest friends to tell them he was in the hospital. He had full-blown AIDS. His friends were stunned. They hadn't known he was gay, either. It turns out that he had led a shame-based double life for years, and that the denial of his sexuality mirrored his denial of being HIV positive. Ashamed of being gay, he could never come out and find a stable long-term partnership that would nourish his soul; instead, he had hundreds of anonymous partners and rarely engaged in safe sex. The depression brought on by his sexual shame drove him to a compulsion that cost him his life.

Joan Cartons is one of the warmest people I know. Petite and stylishly dressed, she always has a smile on her face. But she was only willing to share this story with me on the condition that I change her name. "Last year I attempted suicide. My daughters don't know, and I don't think they're ready to hear the story."

It happened to Joan very recently, but her pain started a long time ago. "My mother used to send poison pen letters. They were so cruel I think she may have had borderline personality disorder. I would call my sister and say, 'I got a poison pen letter today.' She succeeded in pitting us siblings against each other. One on one we're okay, but as a group we're a nightmare."

Joan felt that the distance she kept between her mother and herself in adulthood would be enough to insulate her against her mother's toxic ways, but you know what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men..."When my mother became ill, I swore I wouldn't be the one to take her in because I knew it wouldn't be healthy for me. But I ended up taking her in for two months. I was in debt and under stress about my daughter's education, so as a mother, daughter, friend, and sister, I was being pulled in too many directions."

One day it all became too much. "I came home, sat down at the computer, and suddenly started crying. I ran outside because I couldn't breathe. My husband ran out after me, and my daughter brought a paper bag for me to breathe into. At 2:00 a.m. when everyone was asleep I went back to the desk and started writing about my feelings. I printed it, packed my bag, and decided I would kill myself."

This wasn't the first time Joan had had suicidal thoughts, but every other time she was aware of them, and felt a little crazy for having them. She had understood those thoughts, correctly, as a warning sign, as a cry for help, but this time was different -- this was not a cry for help.

"The next morning I cleaned the house and took my mother to the doctor. My husband came home and read the letter on my desk, and he called, crying, saying 'Please don't do it!' In the middle of my talking with him the hospital fire alarm went off, so I had to take my mother out. My husband called my sister, she sent her son to the hospital, and he just missed me -- I even saw him driving in. I dropped my mother off at home and drove to hotels until I found a room, ordered prime rib and baked potato, took out wine and pills, and spread out pictures of my husband and kids. It was the first time I had felt painless in a long time. I watched Oprah, and in between bites I would pop handfuls of pills."

Her husband and nephew drove all over town looking for her, stopping at every hotel they saw because her husband knew from things she had said that she would check into a hotel. He finally saw her car at one hotel and had to call the police to find out where Joan was and get into the room.

"I was awakened by police shaking me and slapping me, and I passed back out. I saw my husband in the corner crying. He saved my life, because I had taken enough pills to kill myself. I was hospitalized for seventy-two hours, and then moved to a 'crisis home' for a week."

But recovery was not smooth or easy. "At the beginning I told my husband I was sorry he found me. He took six months off, because he was always worried about me. My therapist said it was a scary suicide because of how calm I felt.

"From a year ago March, up until January '07, I really had a lot of good days and bad days. In January I woke up and decided that I needed to try to help me as much as I could. It's like an alcoholic; you have to take it one day at a time. When I try to take on more than one day I can fall into a depression, because it's overwhelming to think too far ahead. I'm learning to say no. I need adequate sleep or I get depressed. And I've started exercising for my mental health. Now I have more energy and take my meds.

"I've learned that part of why I get depressed is that I have a lot of negative self-talk in my head and I diminish myself all the time. I think things like, 'I'm a bad mother, wife, friend,' even though people compliment me on being a good mother, et cetera, but when I'm depressed I can't feel any of that."

"Passing for Normal" at Work

The other day I was reading a study by the National Institute of Mental Health and I stopped short on this sentence: "Poor functioning while at work accounted for more lost days than absenteeism." That means those days when we're not effective at our jobs happen more often, and add up to more lost productivity, than days when we're not there at all! The study went on to say that some workers lose upwards of twenty-seven workdays a year this way. On top of this, they estimated that over 6 percent of workers in this country have major depression -- in dollars and cents, that translates into $36.6 billion lost to depression every year!

So many of us are "walking wounded" in the workforce, yet most of us deal with it by putting the game face on tighter, afraid to let anyone see what deep pain we're in. I can't even count how many times I've done my job perfectly on the outside while on the inside I felt like I was falling apart. And so many men and women tell me they feel the exact same way day after day, week after week. That means thousands and thousands of people are sitting at their desks not working. Not working for themselves and not working for their employer. Now, if you ask me, that's a lot of waste -- waste of human potential, and waste of corporate resources.

Listen to what Judge Nina Hickson, former chief juvenile judge of Fulton County Juvenile Court in Atlanta, who has struggled with clinical depression, has to say on the subject.

Although I had been in and out of counseling during my early adult life, when my counselor told me that she thought I needed to go to a psychiatrist because I seemed to be stuck, I resisted. She thought I might benefit from medication, but I was really afraid that it might cause me to be "a zombie," so I tried a variety of alternatives, including hypnosis. These alternatives would work for a little while, but eventually I would get in a rut. It took the intervention of my mother and my best friend from college to get me to a psychiatrist for an assessment and, eventually, a prescription for an antidepressant. At the time I was angry about the intervention, but I am eternally grateful to both of them for loving me enough to make me stop running from the help I needed.

My treatment initially consisted of 20 mg of Prozac a day and therapy once a week. After a few months the therapy was reduced to twice a month; after a few years, the antidepressant dosage was increased to 40 mg, which is normal because the body gets used to a certain dosage. Sometimes I increased my therapy sessions to