Nothing felt more suffocating than the weight of everybody’s expectations on my shoulders
I was a fantastic liar. The best kind, actually. So good in fact, that I didn’t realize I was lying to myself until I hit rock bottom. After I had my son, I made a conscious decision to be the best and most successful person that I could be, but for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to prove people wrong. I heard what was said about me. I felt the judgement. I felt the condescension and the assumption that I would turn out to be just another statistic. Another Black, teen mom who would be on her second baby in a year or two. So I did all that I could to dispel the naysayers and doubters. I excelled in school, I found great success competing with my speech team (although speech was 100% for me), I landed a scholarship that helped propel my exposure, and I chose a major in engineering that would elicit great career prospects and stability. I was doing everything right. My acceptance into a university to obtain my bachelor’s degree in engineering solidified my validation. I had made it. I did what people thought I couldn’t do and I was proud and I was praised. But I wasn’t prepared.
When I transferred to university, I found a second home with like-minded, minority engineering students. Socially, I was fine. But academically, financially, emotionally; I was drowning. The rigor of my courses were overwhelming. The sacrifices that came with being a single mother of a toddler and a full-time student rendered me incompetent at times, at least, that’s what it felt like. And with the added stress of trying to provide financial stability on a part-time, college job budget, I was slowly coming undone. From the outside looking in, you might not have ever noticed. I had to remain strong. I had to show people that I was still making it. From having my scholarship organization make a feature video about my success, to my family and friends praising me, or to having other students referred to me so that I could to speak to them and motivate them — the last thing I could do was tell people that I was struggling to keep it together. And to be honest, struggling was foreign to me. I had never had such difficulty in school before. So it was hard for me to comprehend what was happening, let alone admit that I needed help.
Everything finally came to a head when I was forced to step down from a leadership position in my engineering organization that I genuinely loved. It was understandable — I wasn’t making the grades I should have been. But the removal of my leadership position had adverse effects on my academics. If you’ll recall, I stated earlier that I was doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons. When I lost my leadership position, I lost my motivation. I lost my purpose for wanting to excel. My motivations were embedded in other people’s perceptions of me. They were intertwined with this incessant desire to keep up the image: this triumphant success story — the single mother who’s a full-time engineering student, part-time worker of two jobs, active member in extracurricular activities, superhuman. All I ever wanted to do was make people proud of me. And in that moment, all I felt was disappointment. I felt like I had let everyone down. I felt like a failure. Every feeling of inadequacy and every bit of stress that I allowed to build up over the years came rushing towards me. I was defeated. The weight of everybody’s expectations, or rather my distorted perception of their expectations of me, was crashing down on my shoulders and I fell.
I fell hard and I fell quickly. I tried to keep up a brave face as much as I could. But eventually, I began to remove myself from virtually all normal, daily activities. I became a recluse. I let my classes go, which I was actually doing well in. I failed two classes that semester — one for just not showing up to the final. I tried to use that winter break to rejuvenate myself and get my head back in the game for the spring semester, but it was no use. Soon, I found it difficult just to get out of bed, even to take my son to school. He started missing a considerable amount of days. When I managed to get him to school, I would go back home, get in my bed, and sleep until it was time to get him. I lost my appetite. The only times I ate were at night, because that’s when I was finally able to muster up the energy to leave my room. I drank heavily, almost daily. I felt everything and nothing at the same time. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t find the words to describe how I was feeling. So I didn’t say anything. For a long time my family, friends, and even my boyfriend, who I spoke to daily, had no idea what was going on. The only person to witness what was going on was my 6-year old son who, in many ways, began to take care of me. He would check in on me, bring me food, and make me laugh (when I could). He would make himself breakfast, sometimes dinner. He would comfort me. He would make me feel whole, even if it was only for an hour or so. And although his actions were incredibly sweet, they made me feel worse. I felt like an incompetent mother. I felt unworthy to be his mother. I felt like a hindrance to his life. I felt like the personification of void itself — not being of any value to his life, to mine, or to those around me.
I would sit in my room for hours, trapped in my own mind. I would think of all the things I wanted to do — all of the things I needed to do. I would look at the utter chaos that was my home and envision how much nicer it would look if I could just clean it. I would look out the window and imagine how good it would feel to step outside and feel the sun on my skin. I would look at the hope in my child’s eyes when he saw me leave my room. The hope that maybe I would come play with him, or at least sit next to him on the couch. And I would see the disappointment in his sunken posture when he realized I was just grabbing another beer. I could feel my hair becoming knotted and matted from neglect and I would smile at just the thought of how nice it would feel to wash it and twist it. Then I would become disgusted because I couldn’t bring myself to do any of the things that I imagined doing. My body, weighed down by the self-deprecating, bottomless mind of an unaware depressed woman, couldn’t move; no matter how much I begged it to.
When this way of living got to a point where I could no longer ignore it, I finally told my family and boyfriend. They were completely shocked. They wondered why I hadn’t told them sooner. I couldn’t answer that question. All I could say was, “I’m telling you now and I need your help.” They were incredibly supportive. They started checking in on me more often — making sure that my son was going to school and making sure that I was OK. I didn’t know it at the time, but taking that small, yet incredibly difficult step, would eventually help me when I needed it the most — when I attempted to take my own life.