My night terrors started the night after I witnessed people leaping to their deaths a couple blocks away from my school. I was standing across the street. The day was September 11, 2001.
I was depressed for several years following that but did not truly know why. By all accounts, I felt that I had adjusted and overcome the trauma of that day. I was still my spunky self but there was an underlying darkness within me. If I wasn’t doing something with my friends that brought me extreme joy or at school, I simply preferred sleep and solitude to anything else. I told myself I was fine. I didn’t understand depression or trauma because in my world it never applied to me. All I knew about depression was what I saw in commercials—actors in their 40’s sitting on their sofas in their bathrobes staring into space. To me depression was something that hit you at forty, or after divorce and defaulted mortgage payments, and it almost always resulted in sitting in your bathrobe. But me? A young African girl living in Harlem? Not a likely face of this affliction.
A couple of years after that incident my mother’s apartment building burned down during Thanksgiving weekend. I lived there most of the time after my parents separated. I went back to school on a Monday like it was nothing. I didn't talk to very many people about it. I was really cool with my English teacher whose wife gave me some hand-me-downs, but that’s as far as it went. I’ve always felt uneasy about the prospect of welcoming pity and blatant sympathy, both of which still make me uncomfortable to this day. Maybe this was a problem? After the fire, we moved into a shelter in West Harlem. It was only about a mile north of where our apartment building once was and we stayed there until we found a permanent home. My father lived three miles south near Central Park West on the upper west side of Manhattan. Bouncing from a shelter to my dad’s place was like living in two different worlds, but my life always consisted of these sorts of paradoxes. But having this sort of vantage point and view of life worked to broaden my perspective and, in many ways, worked to my advantage.
In all fairness, the shelter wasn't all that bad. It wasn’t a big room with a bunch of bunk beds. We had a small two-bedroom unit and we were really cool with the security guard. I was fine…I felt fine. At that point, I had grown accustomed to the night terrors and relaxed by taking long walks through Harlem. Harlem was always very comforting to me. My mom had a harder time. She was in constant emotional pain, stressed out, and things never seemed to get easier. During this time, my aunt, Miriam, returned to the City after marrying and moving to Maryland. She was sick and came back to New York to be closer to us. She was hospitalized a few blocks away at Harlem hospital. Miriam was very special to me. She was about ten years older so she was more like a big sister, and my mom raised her like a daughter. They were the only family they had here when they left Africa. Miriam lost her battle with cancer eight months later. While her death was the biggest heartbreak I’d experienced, I only cried once for her and that was it. It wasn’t until many years later that I allowed myself to feel the pain of her loss. I didn’t talk about it much, and to this day I am unable to look at any photos of her. I realized I really wasn’t fine, but family came to visit that summer and I was able to get my mind off of it without having to face my emotions.
The following summer my father had a stroke. It changed his way of life significantly and ushered in a completely new way of life for both of us. He lost a lot of his independence, which was very much a definitive trait of his. My parents were never on good terms, but it was good to see my mom not only show compassion for him during that time but offer help. Up until that point their relationship was contentious, to say the least—no communication and lots of negativity. So seeing them interact with kindness was a big moment for me. It was surreal and restored me faith. Above all, it fostered a profound level of respect for my mother. I eventually went to live with him for a couple years after to look after him. I always loved being around him because he was so intelligent and informed. He was really into art and politics. He had a huge antique African art collection and his background as a diplomat gave him a wealth of cultural knowledge that he shared with me. He was elegant. He passed away in October 2013. One of my biggest regrets is not spending more time with him. We had so many conversations over the years, but I feel like I would have benefitted more from. . . more. I now talk to him through my prayers, but he can’t answer me. I’m coping with it but there are painful moments when I’m reminded that I will never have a real conversation with him ever again.
Growing up, emotions were never anything that I valued or acknowledged. To be honest, I’m still fairly stoic. I know my mom loves me, and so did my dad; but both raised me in a cultural environment that did not embrace discussing mental pain or emotions. I found it so strange that a culture, which readily welcomed spirituality and had beliefs and ideologies that were so profound and unique, could so little regard for and ignorance of these very vital issues. I learned when I was very young to tuck away my emotions and became very uncomfortable with emotional displays. I also viewed them as weakness. I always needed a practical explanation of why I felt a certain way and believed that crying or allowing myself to wallow in sorrow was a waste of time. Despite my emotional detachment, I retained my sensitivity, empathy, and compassion. I have always cared about people and want to help, but felt doing something and offering tangible help made more sense.
I went through a period of intense confusion, sadness, and feeling lost. I was afraid of feeling the pain that I avoided and had buried throughout my short life. I was afraid it would catch up and drown me in sorrow and pain. I ran, and ran from it for years, but learned one harsh truth: Running from pain holds you back in life . . . literally. You have to face that pain and trauma of your past to grow and truly move on. You were assigned that pain and trauma by whatever divine force you believe in and you are meant to go through it. You need to come to terms with the pain so you can reemerge and transform. You get over it by going through it.
I’ve healed a great deal by ‘going there’ with myself. Being real. I’ve learned to let myself cry— to others, to cry alone, to pray, and I’m making an effort to hold my emotional and spiritual self in the highest possible regard. I also attribute herbal medicine, fasting, hot yoga, a pescatarian diet, supplements, cardio, and constant introspection to my healing process. I practice identifying my behavior while searching for the emotional root. I matter, therefore my pain matters. I also learned that there isn’t much use in keeping your struggles secret. Emotional release and talking about my past helped me to make several breakthroughs and I realized something very important. Whatever it is you’re going through or are facing, there is someone else somewhere with the exact same problem. I don’t have night terrors anymore and I don’t feel depressed out of the blue like I used to, but I also know this is an ongoing process and I must always stay on top of it. These days, I’ve learned the value of listening to my friends and apply more of an emotional intelligence.
There is no cure for your life or your past. Take the opportunity to explore your feelings and experiences, and find ways of healing the pain instead of just filing them away in some internal vault makes all the difference—even if it’s just baby steps.