“Growing up, mental health was simply not discussed,” Terrie says. “I don’t think it was discussed in many families, especially African-American families in the 1950s.
My ancestors have a legacy of pain and secrets, lies and trauma. They survived by internalizing everything. In the days of slavery, they had to wear a mask and act like everything was fine. If they didn’t, the slave master would punish them. But internalizing pain doesn’t make it go away. It just manifests in other ways.”
On the Fast Track
With a master’s in social work from Columbia, Terrie began her career as a clinical social worker. But it hurt to listen to people’s problems all day. She was like a sponge, absorbing their pain. She couldn’t do it.
With no experience, Terrie decided to launch her own public relations firm. In 1988, the Terrie Williams Agency began offering communications and coaching services to clients. If she could get one big-name client, she knew could make a name for herself.
“When I asked God to bless me with my first client, I didn’t actually expect Him to send me Eddie Murphy,” she says. “My second client was Miles Davis! From the beginning, though, the pressure was enormous.”
Success at a Price
At night, Terrie crawled home, utterly wiped out. When she wasn’t working, she was sleeping, trying desperately to recharge.
“As my agency grew, I became so overwhelmed by the length of my to-do list that I could barely get out of bed. Even with my training as a social worker, I didn’t recognize what was going on with me. I had begun a downward spiral that would end in a nearly paralyzing depression. Some mornings, I’d be on the floor in tears and an hour later, I’d be at work.”
Then in 2004, Terrie sunk to the depths of despair. In public, she remained the professional. But inside, she was dying. “I would just lie in my bed, curled in a fetal position with the blankets over my head. I wouldn’t answer the phone. I had hit bottom and was unable to function. My close friends got me to a therapist who finally gave my problem a name: Clinical Depression. I felt such relief to know that something was actually wrong with me, that it wasn’t all in my head. There was a name for it and it could be fixed. For the first time in a long time, I had hope.”
The Road Back
“I wasn’t totally committed with my first therapist, so I would cancel my appointments at the last minute,” Terrie says. “I was prescribed a few different antidepressants, which I took sporadically. I was still running from myself and self-medicating with work and food. Then, I began seeing a new therapist. One day, in frustration, she just called me out. “Is work really more important to you than being whole and healthy?’ she asked. For some reason, her words really hit home for me.
“Even though it took time to find a therapist I felt comfortable with, I tell people it’s like shopping for a pair of shoes. You don’t always find the perfect pair right away. Now, I am very committed to therapy. I also found a medication that works for me. I’m exercising with a personal trainer. I’m working on improving my eating habits. Sometimes, I’ll still eat cookies and sabotage myself instead of trying to figure out what’s going on inside. But I pay attention to how I’m feeling now. I try not to lie to myself and let things fester. I’m learning to recognize anger and disappointment and other triggers that could send me into a depression. Lack of sleep is a big one. But having too many things on my plate can be a trigger, too. None of this is easy, but it’s necessary for me to stay well.”
The Uniqueness of the African-American Experience
Terrie believes that the African-American experience with depression is unique.
“We’d rather admit we have a relative in jail or on drugs than admit that we have depression, Terrie says. “We also tend to be a faith-based people. So, if we’re depressed, you know, we must lack faith or else it’s the devil.”
“Many black folks have a general distrust of the medical establishment,” Terrie adds, citing the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Black Man. “Even today, there are so many disparities in healthcare,” Terrie adds. “So, I think many of us are resistant to the medical establishment in general and inclined to shun medical treatment, even if we’re hurting.”
More recently, Terrie wrote Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting (Scribner 2008), which takes an in-depth look at mental health issues, depression in particular.
“By writing this book, I am sounding an alarm for the black community. We desperately need a safe space to speak about our feelings and emotions. When I speak to audiences about my experience, it’s as if the floodgates have opened. I’ve had women share their stories of rape and sexual abuse. I’ve received countless letters from men in prison. They’re spending their lives behind bars for violent acts that could have been avoided had their depression been recognized and treated. When we open up and share our stories, we never know which little detail might resonate with someone else and save their life.”
Terrie launched the Stay Strong Foundation, a national movement to support, educate, and inspire African-American youth, and the Healing Starts with Us, a grassroots online campaign to encourage dialogue for those with emotional distress.
“This disease has been passed on from generation to generation,” Terrie says. “The black community is in crisis. The healing has to start somewhere. When we open up about our lives, we find that we’re not standing on that ledge alone. We’re surrounded by hundreds of others. That ledge is so crowded, the concrete is cracking! But there is help and there is hope. We’ve got to talk about it.”
To learn more, visit http://healingstartswithus.net/.