The summer after my freshman year of college, I decided it was time for me to read everything I could get my hands on in order to become a respectable black intellectual. At Barnes & Noble, I grabbed the only book by bell hooks in stock in the “African-American Interests” section—Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem. “I have found myself saying again and again that mental health is the revolutionary antiracist frontier African Americans must collectively explore,” hooks wrote. She touched on issues of self-hatred, depression, addiction, and emotional well-being. I promptly decided it was one of the most important books I had ever read. Whatever was hurting black people, I wanted to fight. But I soon forgot about the book. I knew people who were in prison; I didn’t know anyone who was depressed.
And that included myself. Starting when I was 16, I had occasional panic attacks. Even so, I failed to connect Rock My Soul to anything in my experience. I saw in hooks’s words something plaguing black communities, not me. My panic attacks were frightening, but whenever they struck, I told myself they were nothing to worry about. After all, I was, by now, a college student. Emotionally stable. Perfectly sane.
Three years later, Rock My Soul became newly relevant. It had always been difficult for me to maintain interest in school, but I had done enough to get by. Now I was finding it harder to pretend. At some point in senior year, I stopped showing up.
I was the editor in chief of our student paper, and my work there was the only thing that got me out of bed on the days when I wanted to sleep until 4, 5, or 6 pm. Often, I would return home and open up a bottle of cheap vodka that I had started keeping around. I didn’t drink in earnest until I was 21—not because I was a stickler for legality, but because I was scared that getting drunk meant losing control. By the beginning of 2008, I had abandoned that fear and would drink that ice-cold vodka more days than not.
Every day, I was lying to people. Responding to a “How are you?” with “I’m fine” was enough to satisfy most people. The more I lied, the more I wanted to believe the lie—and the less I could. Every time I said I was fine, I saw myself dying. Sometimes I saw myself intentionally crashing my car. Sometimes I saw myself jumping from a tall building, frightened and free, feeling the wind beneath me.
I reached a point where I wanted to talk, but I’d pushed away the people it was hard to lie to. I stopped answering my mother’s phone calls. The vodka in my freezer stopped being helpful.
I had never smoked weed before. But the less comfort drinking brought me, the more curious I became. The first time I tried it, it didn’t have much of an effect. The second time, I wanted to make sure I felt it. So I inhaled sharply. Moments later, I noticed that something was off in the middle of my chest. Soon, there was tingling in my left arm. I couldn’t get enough air. In desperation, I asked my roommate Justin to take me to the hospital. As I panicked, sticking my head out of his car window like a dog wagging its tongue, Justin tried to reassure me. At the hospital, the doctor asked me if I’d done anything unusual that evening. “I smoked weed for the first time,” I said. “I guess you learned your lesson, right?” he asked. “Yeah,” I managed. Then the doctor left, the nurses dismissed me, and Justin drove me home.