I was still in high school when ESSENCE magazine published an article by its then-editor Linda Villarosa and her mother, Clara Villarosa. “Coming Out” told the story of Linda’s revelation and acceptance of her lesbian identity — from her perspective and from her mother’s perspective. This story stayed with me because it was the first time I heard about “the closet.” Although new to me at the time, “the closet” is a common metaphor for describing the ways that lesbians and gays hide or deny their sexualities from the wider world around them. In the article, Linda Villarosa writes, “I tried to straddle both worlds, happy with my lover and pretending to be accepting of my new life, but secretly scared and insecure . . . I was passing but always petrified that someone would uncover my secret.”
As a teenager, I could not have named why I found this article so compelling, or why I related so closely to Linda’s description of “the closet.” But I was living in a closet of my own. I knew how it felt to be happy and free in some contexts, and terrified and alone, in others. I’d known this feeling for most of my life. I have lived with long and terrible depressions since I was a teenager. And this was my secret.
I was convinced that even if I looked happy and successful on the outside, that if people dug just a little deeper, they would find a river of sadness flowing just below the surface of my skin. I worked hard to keep people from touching me below my joyful epidermis. At times this took all the energy I could muster. Other times, it was easier because I actually felt happy. I received such affirmation for my professional successes and my effervescent personality that I came to believe that this was the part of me that people loved. The only part of me that people loved. If people knew who I really was, how sad I really was, they would not love me. I wanted to be loved, so I had to hide. Inside a closet of my own.
For years, I lacked a language for my condition. The constant moving associated with my education and employment meant that I was rarely in the same place for long: I had new doctors, new friends and a new community every couple of years. Few people knew me long enough to see the deep sorrow and the long bursts of energy and productivity that produced my resume. Few people knew me well enough to see this. I did not let them. And like a river with a shoddily made dam, my condition leaked through the gaping holes in my life. And those with eyes to see – usually lovers and friends who were therapists – began to ask me about the depression. “What depression?” I replied.
I never admitted my deep constant levels of pain until I was raped. Therapy and research taught me that I was responding to the trauma of rape. I owned the suffering and the healing process. I became an activist against sexual violence, hiding the fact that I had nightmares and tears long before I was raped . . . and long after. Two significant suicidal episodes, medication and hospitalization did not remove the shame I felt about living with what my doctors would name as “bipolar II.” And yet, as Audre Lorde wrote so poignantly, “my silences had not protected me.” Depression is a part of my life whether I tell anyone or not; whether I hide or not.
I’m terrified. I am afraid of the being called “crazy.” I am an academic. I make my living off of my mind, and my mind can play deathly tricks on me. I am a minister. I tell people that God loves them and wants the best for them. The truth is that depression can make you question everything – especially whether or not God loves you. I am a sister, daughter, cousin, niece, lover, colleague, friend and other-mother. Will these people still love me when they learn that I’ve been lying to them about who I am and how I feel? The fact that I’ve spoken out against sexual violence for almost 15 years does not make this any easier. Rape was a discrete event that someone else did to me. Living with levels of debilitating sadness comes from inside of me. I can’t name a beginning or an end. It is with me. I am mortally afraid of talking about this.
Yet I will. Because I know what it’s like to search for metaphors, stories and narratives to give voice to what seems so wordless inside. I’ve read newsletters, blogs, memoirs and textbooks looking for someone to describe how this feels. And for what it’s like to be faithful in the midst of these feelings.
I met Linda Villarosa in 2006 when I invited her to speak at a conference on black women, mental health and faith at Bennett College for Women. I told her that I remembered her 1991 article. I told her how it spoke to me. I told her about my closet. During that conference, I came out. Huddling away from the spring rains in the historic chapel, the audience heard me say that I lived with a depressive condition. I did not fall through the floor. No one threw tomatoes at me. I did not die.
I am not alone. I have a quiet community of friends who live with different types of clinical depressions. Dispersed around the country and generally unknown to one another, we discovered our bond only when one of us let it slip in intimate conversation. Now, we know from the first “hello” if something is wrong. We sit and lose time together. We check in on one another. We talk about medication, exercise and sunshine. We know when to become officially worried.
So I’m ranting and writing for us. And for people who know us and love us. Because, as Linda wrote in her article, “The closet is dark and lonely and not someplace I plan to hide away.”