While I was close to my mom growing up, my father was emotionally absent and only seemed happy when he was highly intoxicated. Like a ghost, he came and went. I only saw him briefly before he left for work and after he came home, or during the weekends as he binge drank in the living room. Then I’d see him the next week, when he repeated the cycle.
As I grew older, I learned that my father had suffered a lot and was a product of his environment. He was abused as a kid, mostly by his father. Both of his parents died young from drug overdoses.
Realizing My Father Needed Help
When my father drank, he became a different person and could turn spiteful, mean, and abusive in the blink of an eye. He often fought with my mother and was verbally abusive to my older sister and me, or simply ignored me.
One night when I was around 12, my parents fought while my sister and I stayed in our separate rooms, trying to drown out the sounds of screaming, hitting, and thrown objects. The next morning, my mom, dad, and sister were all cuddling in my parents’ bed, waiting for me to join them.
As I stood there in confusion, my father excused himself to get something from the kitchen. When he was out of the room, I said, “I thought we were all mad at him?”
My mom and sister shared a scoff and an eye roll as my mother said, “Oh, come on, that was so long ago!”
“That was yesterday,” I said, as I started to feel like I was the only one who noticed a recurring problem.
While I knew, deep down, that my father tried his best to be a decent person, his issues triumphed over his attempts to change his ways. He sometimes went a day without drinking, and my mother and sister praised him for it, but the next day he’d be back at it. I soon realized he wouldn’t be able to quit unless he got professional help.
Worry and Anxiety Become My New Normal
Around this time, my mother was diagnosed with epilepsy. She had frequent seizures and the rest of us were constantly on eggshells trying to make sure she was OK. Sleepless nights staying awake to look after her became my normal.
During these nights, my father was frequently out, binge drinking. Not only was taking care of my mother in his absence stressful, but worrying about his well-being on top of that made me severely anxious. I grew restless and tired, unable to eat, sleep, or breathe properly until he came home. Sometimes, he was out until the early hours of the morning, and at other times he was out for days at a time.
When I first told my mother that I was anxious about my dad’s long absences, she coldly told me, “Well, don’t worry about it. I’m not worried.” That was her go-to, to tell me not to worry solely because she wasn’t. While I knew that she resented my father because he’d rather “choose a bottle over us,” she didn’t understand that I was overwhelmed, and I didn’t have the proper language to explain.
My mother grew up with an abusive mother and an alcoholic father. She handled her pain by harboring it all and was, unintentionally, putting my sister and me through the same things she experienced as a child.
I Ask for Help
A month or two after my mom was diagnosed with epilepsy, I saw a commercial for mental health awareness, which featured signs indicating that one might need therapy. I had all the signs —hypervigilance, irritability, restlessness, insomnia, and fatigue. After seeing the commercial, I told my mom, “I want to go to therapy.”
Her face filled with shock and fear, then tears. She said that she didn’t want me to be fed random pills and “turn crazy,” which she would then have to explain to the extended family. But despite her adverse reaction, the following night, my mother made an appointment with a doctor who could refer me to a therapist. I felt excited that my anxiety would finally be fixed.
But in the following days, my aunt came to visit and I overheard them making jokes about my uncle with bipolar disorder needing therapy. I felt betrayed, as if she was indirectly talking about me. I couldn’t understand how she could have such a negative view about someone in therapy when her own daughter needed the same kind of support.
The following week, we arrived at the doctor’s appointment. Minutes before the doctor entered the room, I told my mother I no longer wanted to go to therapy. I didn’t want my relatives to speak negatively about me like they did about my uncle. I didn’t want to be another problem in my family and another thing for her to worry about. My mom didn’t question me, but I wish she had.
That same year, my father was fired from his long-time job and his drinking became worse. One night, he was so drunk that, as we crossed paths in the hallway and I tried to acknowledge him, he accidentally stumbled into me (I think he was trying to hug me) and burned his cigarette on my arm. I tried to get him off of me until he snapped out of it and stumbled away. While he later apologized, I was furious. His emotional abuse was now turning physical, and although I knew he hadn’t burned me on purpose, I started feeling unsafe within my own home.
I started telling my mother when he went on drunk binges while she was away at work, but she often ignored my pleas for help. My sister told me to shut up and stop stressing my mom out. My father told me to stop telling on him.
During drunken rages, he often told me that I was the reason our family was falling apart and that, maybe if I had never been born, everybody would be happier. He made me feel like I was the root of everyone’s problems.
Whether it was my dad’s drinking, my mom’s epilepsy, or my anxiety, my family thought it was better for us to pretend that everything was OK than face our issues. Doing so would have required my parents to face the problems that stemmed from their own childhoods.
Relapse, Rage, and COVID-19
A few years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, my father left for an alcoholism rehabilitation program and my sister, who was 23, moved out. My father seemed motivated at first to step toward a better and brighter future for all of us, but he couldn’t stay clean. After continuous relapses, he left the program mid-way to live with another woman. My parents broke up and he halfheartedly reached out to me (only on occasion) until I cut off contact with him. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic began.
During quarantine, my mom and I were stuck at home together. Growing up, even though there were sometimes conflicts between us, she provided my only sense of normalcy. We made good memories out of simply hanging out together, and I hoped we would have a good time with just the two of us.
Instead, her epilepsy became more difficult to manage and the added stress of the pandemic, along with the absence of my father and sister, caused her mental health to decline. She held onto so much anger toward my father and started taking it out on me.
She yelled at me for the smallest things, like leaving food out or forgetting to take out the trash, and then called me sensitive and dramatic. My sheer presence seemed to annoy her. She grew paranoid and often appeared to be detached from the present moment. Her mood swung erratically from furious to seemingly calm.
I became severely depressed, though I didn’t know that was what I was experiencing since, in my household, the word “depression” was only meant for “crazy people.” I stayed in my room and slept all day, barely ate, and didn’t do basic necessities like getting up to do my hair, which became matted.
When my mother sat down with me to cut out the chunks of my hair that I was unable to brush, she snapped at me, “You sit in bed all day, pretending like you’re depressed. You’re acting crazy.” There was a cold edge to her voice, like she was talking to somebody on the street, not her daughter. It was the first time my mother spoke to me in such an icy and demeaning way. So much so that it made me question our relationship.
Did she ever really like me? Is this how she secretly felt about me this whole time? While I was unsure if her words were said out of pure anger, I felt as though the only person I depended on in the entire world had betrayed me.
I learned to be in constant fight, flight, or freeze mode around her. I overanalyzed everything I did or said in anticipation of her reaction, and calculated my responses accordingly. Regardless, we had frequent verbal arguments and, for the first time, she hit and bullied me. She threatened me, threw objects at my face, and left me with bruises. When other relatives were present, they either made fun or flat out ignored what was happening.
Anytime I spoke up to them about my mother’s erratic behavior, and my concerns that my life was actually at risk, they told me things like: “You’re fine,” “Your mother is not gonna hurt you,” “It’s not that serious,” and “Your mother has been through a lot.” I could acknowledge that my mother was overwhelmed, mentally unwell, and struggling with epilepsy. At the same time, I came to feel as though, if I didn’t put myself first and separate from my mother and the problems that surrounded her, I’d end up losing myself completely.
Between her and my father, I knew they meant well. But, even if they got better, it wouldn’t take away from the trauma I experienced.
Although I felt alone at the time, I’ve since learned that many Black families are just like mine; both skeptical of mental illness as a legitimate disease, and skeptical of the healthcare system that is supposed to provide help for it.
In fact, an April 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on mental health trends during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that, despite being almost 12% more likely than their White counterparts to report experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, Black Americans were 31% less likely to have been prescribed medication or received counseling or therapy for mental health.
I Take Out My Pent Up Pain on Myself
Long reprimanded for showing emotional distress, which I know now was a normal reaction to abuse, I started harboring everything inside.
When I was about 16, I started self-harming as a way to cope with being unable to verbalize my concerns. If I couldn’t express myself in a healthy manner, then the only thing to do with all of my pent-up frustration was to take it out on myself.
My family had ignored my anxiety, and now they acted as if they didn’t see the scars or bruises on my body. Part of me felt as though my behavior was normal by our warped standards, even as it scared me. I had witnessed my father harm his body by drinking, and my mother harm her body by overworking herself, so what made my actions different?
I didn’t want to die; I just wanted the pain to stop. I believed that all of my family’s problems were my fault. My father’s words, blaming me, haunted me, and I became convinced that my existence itself was a problem.
But as months went on, I slowly became tired of using my body as a punching bag. I asked myself, How many times will I inflict pain on myself before I feel OK, or feel as though everything isn’t my fault? When I couldn’t come up with an answer, I knew I had to take measures to stop.
I was exhausted by the thought that I would be plagued by the trauma inflicted on me for the remainder of my life. I often asked myself, “Why do I have to get help because of what others have put me through?” I knew my coping mechanisms were unhealthy, but it felt unfair to be burdened with the task of finding better methods to find peace. However, I knew that if I pretended that I wasn’t hurting inside, the same way my parents did, just like them, I would never get better.
Determined to Break an Intergenerational Cycle
I couldn’t keep internalizing the blame for my pain and the pain around me. I didn’t want to be another statistic, another Black person not seeking clinical help for anxiety or depression because I was afraid to be seen as crazy. A 2013 study published in Nursing Research, on Black Americans’ attitudes towards mental illness, coping behaviors, and related stigma, showed that participants were “very concerned about stigma associated with mental illness and [showed] low endorsement of psychological openness [to acknowledging mental health problems].”
And so, I decided to seek therapy. (My editor at YouthComm helped me find a free therapist that I like. See below for resources to help you find someone.)
I also realized that, if I decide to have children without getting and giving myself the care that I need to heal, I would continue this generational cycle of trauma.
I also reflected on my own life and my parents’, how our childhoods mirrored each other in some of the saddest ways as they unknowingly passed their trauma onto me. I didn’t want my life to be overtaken by unhealthy coping mechanisms like my father, or to ignore my pain until it caught up with me like my mother. I don’t want to let the weight of my inheritance stop me from experiencing a full life as I grow into more of an adult. Because, even while they are my parents, I am not a direct reflection of them, their pasts or their misbeliefs. I am my own person.
Therapy can be expensive, and the healthcare system can be confusing and difficult to navigate. But there are places teens can get affordable or free mental health help. If you are feeling bad, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of the following services.
Offers financial assistance to Black women and girls seeking therapy.
So often the stigma surrounding mental health issues and therapy prevents Black women from taking the step of seeing a therapist. This space was developed to present mental health topics in a way that feels more accessible and relevant. Therapy for Black Girls features a podcast, blog, online community space, and a referral tool to find a therapist in your area.
General Mental Health Resources for Teens
Text WELL to 65173 or call 1-888-NYC-WELL 24/7 to connect with a counselor through the city’s WELL program. They’ll listen to you and suggest resources where you can find ongoing mental health support. The service is confidential and free, aside from the standard messaging rates your phone provider might charge. You can also chat with a counselor on their website.
If you are between 12 and 24, you can access mental health counseling at this NYC-based nonprofit youth center by becoming a member. Even if you are uninsured and unable to pay, you will still be provided care.
1. When asking about therapy, how could the writer’s family have better supported her? What response do you think the writer needed to hear?
2. The writer opens up about the intergenerational cycle of children in her family experiencing abuse, not being able to reach out for support, and later passing that abuse onto their children. What does the writer think she must do in order to end this cycle?
3. When mental health resources are available, what does the writer name as a deterrent for many young, Black girls to reach out for them? What advice would you give someone who needed support?