World Suicide Prevention Day

cw: discussion of suicide, suicidality

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day.

I have complicated feelings about how we discuss suicide.

We often talk about suicidality in terms of universals – suicide is always the wrong choice, staying is always the right choice.

We talk about suicide as passing the pain on to someone else. As a failure.

There are exceptions to this, of course, and I’m grateful for them.

This is so hard to talk about, to write about, to engage in meaningful conversation about. It is so hard to say, “I am passively suicidal a lot of the time,” because there is not often space for those conversations. This is something I hear from community members regularly. This is something I have experienced myself.

It’s hard to say, “I am actively suicidal but I don’t want to follow through on it, help me stay here,” because even though that is exactly what lots of folks want to say, we have not done a good job, as a culture, of setting up robust supports for people in that situation *or* for their supporters. We don’t talk about how to put a safety plan in place. We don’t have the supports in place to make those plans effective, a lot of the time! We don’t have support for the supporters, we don’t have support for people who have been down that hole and clawed their way back up. This is a common topic of discussion, but it’s worth saying again – we provide support only to those people who are exactly the right amount of suffering or vulnerable. Not before, not after, and often, not during. That’s bullshit.

And it is nearly impossible to say, “I am actively suicidal and I am ready to go, but I want to say goodbye and leave on my own terms,” because we have absolutely no available scripts for this. And because we do not hold any space for that to be a valid choice.

If you are suicidal and you want to stay, I want you to stay. And there are so many other folks who also want you to stay. There are distress lines, including text-based distress lines, and there is sliding scale counselling available, and even though our system is entirely lacking, you’re not completely alone. If you want to figure out how to make a safety plan, my own personal experience is that having someone to talk it through with is helpful. What are the signs that tell you it’s time to go to the hospital? When will you know it’s time to put the plan into action? Who is on your safety team, and what strategies are in place to make sure the whole team is supported? These are tough questions to answer in isolation.

If you are suicidal and it’s no big deal because it’s been that way for a long time, I see you and I see what you’re going through. You are getting through these days despite that little whisper in your ear, and that is amazing. If you want to talk about what that’s like, and strengthen your connection to the skills that are keeping you going despite it, I’m here.

I trust your judgement.

You know what you need, you know what you can handle. You know what you’ve been through, and what you want for yourself.

I trust you.

If you have friends or family who are suicidal, that can be so hard. If you’ve been asked to be part of someone’s safety plan, it can be difficult to know what that means, or how to act. If you want help figuring that out, let me know.

If you’ve lost someone to suicide, or if you’ve survived an attempt, that pain is so real. I’m sorry.

It’s World Suicide Prevention Day, and I wish we had more language to talk about this. I wish we had more space for people to talk about this. I wish we had better ways to engage with the topic, ways that are less blaming, less judging, less pathologizing, less silencing.

Until we have that, all we have is each other.

We can be gentle with each other.

We can be compassionate with each other.

We can hold space for each other.

We can trust each other.

(If you want to read more of my thoughts on this topic, this earlier post is available.)

A note on suicidality

Three Variations on a Conversation: cis- and heteronormativity in medical settings – guest post

Three Variations on a Conversation: cis- and heteronormativity in medical settings – guest post

Image description: A head-and-shoulders portrait of Beatrice in a formal dress with brunette hair in an up-do. The portrait is by Lorna Dancey photography.

This is a guest post by Beatrice Aucoin. Beatrice is a breast cancer survivor and queer writer originally from Cape Breton. She makes her home in downtown Calgary with her wife, Brett Bergie; their son, Sam; and their cat, Tom. You can find both Beatrice and Tom on instagram.

This post is part of the Feminism from the Margins series.

“And Brett, he works at?” the doctor asks.

I somehow don’t groan. Not this again, I think. It feels like every conversation I have with a new medical professional joining my breast cancer team reaches this same point. I’ve written on the intake forms who Brett is to me, but it’s always glossed over until I say it out loud. Maybe one day my life won’t feel like I’m always coming out against being assumed straight with a cis partner.

“She,” I say.

“Oh yes, I can see ‘chief’ as part of the job title–“ she begins, having misheard me.

“Brett’s a woman, my wife,” I blurt out. “She’s trans.”

The psychiatrist looks up at me from where he’s furiously scribbling notes.

He’s just asked me how long my husband and I have been married.

“My apologies,” he says.

There’s an awkward pause between us.

“It’s okay,” he says.

Why would I think it’s not okay? I don’t need anyone’s reassurance that my marriage is okay for existing.

“I’m gay and been with my husband for 20 years,” he continues.

Then why would he use a gendered term and assume my partner is of the opposite sex? The answer pops into my mind as quickly as I’ve thought of the question: paradigms of straightness and everyone being cis are so engrained in medical culture that even a gay psychiatrist assumes that my cis female self has a cis male partner.

“That’s awesome,” I tell him on his own marriage. It is awesome, and we LGBTQ2+ folx need to hear that being ourselves is awesome. We live in a world where so many people tell us we are wrong for existing. It was only a few months ago outside of our own home that someone told Brett and me, “That’s disgusting,” for holding hands.

“Brett and I have been married for 12 years,” I say proudly.

After I establish that Brett is a woman and my wife and the person I’m speaking to apologizes to me for getting Brett’s gender wrong, we come the second point in this conversation. I have a son named Sam, and medical professionals always seem to need to know how exactly he came to be in the world. Knowing whether or not I’ve had a biological child is important to discussing my overall health and does affect understanding what went into me ending up with breast cancer at 36. But except for genetics counselling, I don’t know the relevance of essentially being asked who my baby daddy is. Maybe during one of these appointments if I don’t feel too agitated at having to come out yet again, I’ll feel comfortable enough to ask.

The genetics counsellor is looking with confusion at me. She spends much of her working life putting people into family trees that are coded in strict cisgender binaries. Squares are for men; circles are for women. I have just listened to her give a cisnormative lecture with a bunch of other people who are here for breast cancer genetic testing. My skin crawled the whole time because I worried I wouldn’t be safe coming out, and I ended up being paired afterward for a private consultation with the genetics counsellor who gave the lecture. My family blows up the circles and squares of the family tree. The genetics counsellor’s frown tells me she thinks I’ve filled out my family tree chart incorrectly.

“So how…” she begins.

“Is Brett the other biological parent?” the psychiatrist asks. (I happily note that he doesn’t use a gendered term here.)

“Is Sam adopted, or did you give birth to him?” the doctor asks.

“Brett is Sam’s biological father,” I tell all three of them. “She goes by dad with Sam and uses feminine nouns and pronouns, otherwise.”

I would like to be able to tell you that this medical coming-out conversation gets easier with time, but it doesn’t. Nor are these the only times I’ve had this conversation; these are just three recent examples of it. I get asked over and over to explain me and my family.

One day, I hope medical professionals think to use gender neutral terms in discussing a patient’s family and let patients decide from there whether to use gendered language or not. But until then, I’ll be having variations on this conversation. The more I have to explain how my family doesn’t fit with someone else’s preconceived notions of how a family is, the more emotionally exhausted I am.

Further reading:

Beatrice and I both had trouble finding further reading on this topic, because although it is an issue that comes up more frequently than folks realize, it’s not yet one that been written about extensively. I hope that will change!

For now, here are some links:

This post is part of the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on (approximately) the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, let us know!

Also check out the other posts in the series:

Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist and workshop facilitator in Calgary, Alberta. You can work with them in person or via Skype. They specialize in supporting queer, trans, polyamorous, disabled, and trauma-enhanced communities and individuals, and they are also available for businesses and organizations who want to become more inclusive. Email to get in touch!

A note on suicidality

CW: suicide

Friends, there’s a lot of discussion of suicide happening online right now.

Take care of yourselves.


Give yourself permission to not engage, if that’s what you need.

Give yourself permission to engage, if that’s what you need.

As is often the case, the discussion of suicide ends up being so individualized – framed as something internal to the person experiencing suicidality, something to be fixed within them. (Within us, for those of us who have been or are dealing with suicidality.)

There are other ways to talk about this issue.

There are ways to talk about this in non-individualizing and non-pathologizing ways – despair as a response to injustice, as a response to trauma, as a response to social and cultural context.

Individual therapy does not fix systemic oppression.

Systemic oppression is not an individual problem – experiencing the effects of systemic oppression is not an internal failing.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t resist the influence of suicidality in our lives, or that we can’t support each other in resisting it.

I absolutely agree that we need better access to better therapy (and by that I mean many things, not least of which is access to trans therapists, therapists of colour, queer therapists, Indigenous therapists, *peer* support systems – not only so that there is culturally sensitive therapy available *but also* so that marginalized and oppressed communities can see pathways into healing roles for themselves – the fact that marginalized communities are often framed as always accessing help and never offering help, always the “client” and never the “expert”, is a further injustice).

I agree that we need better healthcare, that we need to include mental health in our healthcare coverage and discussion.

I agree that “if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, storebought is fine.”

I agree that if you need help, reach out.

But I *do not* agree that this is primarily a problem of individuals.

I think this is a systemic problem.

It is a structural problem.

It is a response to injustice, and we will not solve it by placing the responsibility on the individuals who are experiencing the problem.

If you are suicidal, and you want to talk about it in ways that contextualize and externalize rather than individualize and internalize, know that you’re not alone.

The way the individualizing narrative can grate… that’s not just in your head.

And if you are part of the communities that have already been dealing with suicides and suicidality – Indigenous folks, trans folks, queer folks, disabled folks, poor folks – and it hurts to see the conversation flare up when privileged folks experience suicidality in a way that just doesn’t happen when your folks deal with it… that’s not just in your head, either. It is an injustice.

These conversations are hard, and there is so much fear and grief embedded in them. But we can have these conversations. We can talk about these issues in ways that don’t shift the burden onto individuals, in ways that help us strengthen our connections to each other and to our own stories of resistance and resilience.

We can respond to this problem in ways that reach towards collective liberation.

Resources and further reading:

Metanoia’s If You’re Suicidal, Read This First

Eponis : Sinope’s Everything is Awful and I am Not Okay: Questions to Ask Before Giving Up

Locate a crisis line near you

Loree Stout’s Talking about the ‘suicidal thoughts’: Towards an alternative framework (this is an academic paper, link is to the PDF, but it is readable and gives an idea of a narrative therapy approach to suicidality)

Navigating access to care

Navigating access to care

Image description: A close-up of the lilacs in my front yard, covered in rain, with the light grey sky behind them.

As a note, I’m going to be posting more often on the blog! I’m shifting my social media presence and will be doing less personal posting and more of my work here. So keep your eye here and on the Patreon. I may also be starting an email list, so if that sounds appealing to you, let me know!

And if the topic of this post interests you, the upcoming Self-Care Salon: Justice and Access to Support is the place to be! The event will be held at Loft 112 in the East Village, from 1-3 pm, on June 3. The cost is $50, and sliding scale is always available.

This morning, I sat in front of my window with the grey skies above and the rain falling. It was lovely.

I’m thinking about how many of us have to try and survive within hostile systems and environments.

How many fat folks have to go to doctors who are steeped in fatphobic prejudice, have to deal with antagonism from the medical system that is meant to help them, and have to advocate for themselves… but not too loudly, not too assertively, or they risk being written off as belligerent and non-compliant. (Especially if they were women or femmes. *Especially* if they are women or femmes of colour.)

How many folks living in poverty have to deal with support systems that vilify, pathologize, and stigmatize them. Have to debase themselves to receive access to food, to shelter, to any kind of medical or mental health support.

How many racialized folks have to deal with racism in their medical and mental health support professionals, have to educate and advocate for themselves but never too much, never too loudly, or risk being seen as “angry.”

How many trans folks have to deal with gatekeeping by professionals meant to help them access transition support, and stigma and pathologization by professionals meant to help them access other support. How advocating for yourself becomes so much harder when you are trans and also racialized, or trans and also fat, or trans and also poor (which is true for far too many), or trans and neurodivergent (despite the high correlation between autism and gender creativity!).

How so many folks stand at multiple points of marginalization, and how few professionals and experts also stand there.

(There are some, and there will be more. Support and love to all the professionals who came from poverty, who are fat, who are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour, who are trans, who are queer, who are disabled – you’re so needed, and you make such a difference!)

I am thinking about all this power that exists in dynamics that are meant to be supportive, how it ends up being hurtful. Harmful.

How that can leave us scared, hopeless, isolated.

If you’re dealing with a system, a professional, an institution, or some other brick wall today – take a deep breath.

What you feel is valid.

If you feel angry at the injustice, that is valid.

If you feel hopeless, that is valid.

If you feel scared, that is valid.

I do not have any easy answers for how to navigate these systems, how to work within harmful frameworks, how to get through. It’s so hard. The more I read about it, the more I work with people who have *not* received the help they needed from professionals who had more privilege, or from systems and institutions that were not justice-oriented, the more I realize how pervasive and persuasive this problem is. The way it makes us doubt ourselves. The way it shuts us up, keeps us quiet and compliant, and how that is a valid survival strategy.

Breathe, friends.

If you have to go into that office and you know you’re going to face yet more racism, ableism, transantagonism… keep breathing. Find something to hold onto – some thread of whatever it is. Hope, or anger, or coffee with a friend tomorrow.

If you’re heading into that appointment and you know you need something that the doctor or social worker or banker or lawyer or whoever else has the power to withhold, and you’re scared, that makes so much sense.

It *is* unjust.

It *is* unfair.

It *is* hurtful, harmful, violent.

But you are good. You are good enough. You are enough.

Just like you are.

You are just the right you.

There is nothing wrong with you, just because you don’t fit into the box assigned to you.

Take a breath.

Do what you need to do to get through.

You’re doing a good job.

Further reading:

  • Stigma in Practice: Barriers to Health for Fat Women in Frontiers in Psychology
    • “In our experience, for fat people, it doesn’t matter if you are bad with a “fatty” disease, or if you are in “good metabolic health” (but NOT FOR LONG, according to several medical professionals), the discrimination, humiliation, and stigma, from health care providers is the same. The fact that we, and every fat person we know, have experienced this fat stigma, no matter what their health status, is an indictment on the health care profession. Health care providers, public health policy makers, and institutions of health such as hospitals have substantial work to do if they exist to treat all patients, and improve the quality of life for all patients, rather than deterring and deferring appropriate health care and reducing quality of life through fat stigma, shame, and eventual patient avoidance of health care providers.”
  • ‘Trans broken arm syndrome’ and the way our health system fails trans people at the Daily Dot
    • “Not a single medical school in the United States has a curriculum devoted to LGBT health issues, much less transgender health issues. Green said the only existing courses that do focus on LGBT health needs are electives taught by students, and it’s not exactly something the medical school leadership wants to change.” (It is important to note that this article is a few years old, and WPATH itself has been critiqued in favour of ICATH – Informed Consent for Access to Trans Healthcare. This article at Slate covers some of the issues.)
  • Why I Left my White Therapist at Vice
    • “Being on the receiving end of the defensive anger of white fragility from someone who I had not only trusted to be a professional care provider with the ethics and background to deal with my needs, but with whom I had also shared some of my most vulnerable thoughts and feelings, means that I am loath to seek out therapy moving forward. To be blunt, I felt exploited. This is something that no individual, and in particular no one opening themselves up for healing, should ever have to endure. But sadly, it’s not uncommon.”
I Will Not Be Thrown Away: guest post

I Will Not Be Thrown Away: guest post

Image description: A black and white photo of the back of a Black woman’s head in a head wrap. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.

This is a guest post by Mel Vee.

Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.

This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.

Content note for rape, sexual assault, descriptions of misogynoir.

I learned from an early age that my body was not my own.

My Black body was created to be of service to anyone who showed up and demanded it. This Black body, the only home I have on this speck of stardust navigating the cosmos, was as foreign and alien to me as those distant galaxies.

Why should it have been any other way? I received the message clearly that my body was a means through which others could actualize their own wants and desires. My body was not a safe nor joyous place; not a place to be treasured and tended to gently. My body was a vessel – to serve others, for men’s desires, and for birthing children, but never for me.

My education in the precarity and disposability of the Black female body began at home with the women in my family. Their necessarily strong, beautiful black bodies were always in service to others. Most of the women in my family were and are never still.

One aunt, whom I love dearly, always comes to mind. As far back as I can remember, she was always in motion, toiling away for others. She toiled in her home, at her work as a nurse’s aide and in her church. She did it all. Raised a family, held down a career, opened her home to countless unwanted and discarded people in the community and never spoke a word about her struggles to anyone. No one ever questioned what toll this constant availability and service would wreak on her body and mind.

Her pace continued unabated for the entirety of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years until one day, the inevitable happened. She snapped, culminating in a one month stay in a psychiatric ward. People whispered about what might be the culprit for her decline without ever approaching the truth, that she was used up until she had nothing more to offer.

Barely a few months of marginal concern went by before things returned to “normal”. The unceasing demands, the perpetual toil and the complete disregard for her well-being until her health completely failed and simply never returned. She now spends much of her time bedridden. I feel blessed when I receive a message from her because it means her pain eased up just enough to manage a text. My aunt, once a pillar of our family, reduced to sending texts during a brief respite from her unending pain.

Her body bears the cost of continual and unceasing labour for people who took and took and left her an empty shell. Her body is racked with osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and she constantly struggles to maintain a healthy weight. I am certain some will attribute this to the inevitable ravages of age, but I know in my bones biology is only one part of the narrative.

Her body fought back in the only way available, it shut down. My aunt toiled for years without rest for others. Everyone around her demanded more and she gave more. When her health declined, all the people who had taken from her vanished, without a trace. I wish I could say my aunt is an isolated case, but this is the fate of many women in my family. Our bodies, time and energy are used up until there is nothing left and few, if any, stick around to pick up the pieces. My aunt cautions me continually about her fate and encourages me to take care of myself. It is a grim reminder that I take to heart.

What is most grotesque about the situation of my aunt and so many women like her is how normalized this is; how people expect the Black female body to be at service and at the ready.

Our bodies are not meant to be lovingly inhabited by ourselves. The roots of these expectations are deep, undoubtedly tracing their history to chattel slavery where our bodies were literally not our own. How do you love a body that was never meant for you to enjoy; a body that was historically regarded as property and in contemporary times is a reminder of your presumed inferiority?

My own body bears the scars of the precarity and disposability of the Black female body. My left arm is scarred from my wrist up to near my shoulder. All of these wounds are self-inflicted. Even after a decade of being free from self-harming behaviour, my scars are still visible. I wear them openly as an act of defiance, to hold a mirror up to a society whose violence I internalized and enacted upon myself.

I had no shape, no words for the anger and hatred I felt for being born in a Black female body; a body people regarded as valuable only so far as it could serve. I lashed out against a world which continually shows its brutal and naked contempt for me and people who look like me. I lashed out against the one person I knew had no recourse. Myself. I lashed out because rage is all I could muster. Someone had to be punished for the wound of being a Black girl in a society drenched in anti-Black racism and misogynoir.

In the process of addressing trauma and healing in my life, it has become evident that my internalized misogynoir had caused me to disassociate and distance myself from my body. I became an unwilling occupant in a body that others had treated with the utmost contempt; culminating in rape, sexual assault and violence. I sought to protect myself emotionally in the way traumatized people do, by distancing myself emotionally from the source of pain, my brown and despised body; a body that was valuable only to the extent it could serve.

I am now undergoing the painful but enriching process of coming home to my body; the process of reclaiming a body others have treated with contempt and disrespect. I am now learning to inhabit my body and treat it with love, respect and dignity. I am learning slowly to prioritize the needs and desires of my body. I am learning that my body is worthy of fighting for and keeping alive.

I am coming home now to this brown body after 28 years. I am coming home to this brown body which has been the site of so much grief and violence. I am coming home to this brown body where I laugh, love, fight, move, dance and sing. I am coming home to this brown body, imperfections and all. I am coming home to the only body that will carry me until I die.

I am reclaiming my body in defiance of a society that regards brown bodies with violence.

I am reclaiming my body in honour of all the Black women who no longer can.

I am reclaiming my body so others know it is possible.

I am coming home to my brown body, in the only home I will ever know in this beautiful and sometimes terrifying cosmos.

I am finally coming home.

This post is the final piece in the third contribution to the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!

Also check out the other posts in the series:

Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health: guest post

Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health: guest post

Image description: A close up of bright greenery with an out of focus cityscape in the background. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.

This is a guest post by Mel Vee.

Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.

This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.

Content note for racial violence, intimate partner violence, suicidality, graphic description of self-harm.

I learned from a young age that I was valued less than others. My brown skin, femaleness, queerness, working class family, speech impediment and quiet, thoughtful nature, mistaken for mental slowness, marked me for hardship and struggle. No one told me in those exact words, but no one needed to – that much was obvious.

My mother was the first person to impart this lesson and spell it out for me but she did so from a place of love. “NEVER EVER follow those white kids around; think they’re better than you! Don’t believe them, they are not better or worse than you. They are human, same as us. But they will think they are high and mighty because they’re white,” she warned us.

She was specifically referring to my cousin, who hung around the playground and in class desperately following white kids around for their coveted friendship. It is a painful memory to reflect on now. My cousin with her dark brown skin, boxer braids and almond eyes following around blonde and brown haired, blue and green-eyed girls with impossibly straight hair and pale white skin.

They were the epitome of beauty, goodness and wholesomeness and my cousin desperately wanted to be beautiful and good and whole like them. She followed them around like a shadow. They often shooed her away, cussed her, threw things at her and even made fun of her. One time she came home to her mother in tears after one of the white girls spat on her and called her darkie; tar baby. My mom was quiet, but her knowing eyes said, ‘See, this is what I warned you about.’

Looking back, I cannot blame my cousin for wanting to distance herself from her blackness. All I learned about Black people in school was that we were slaves. Our history began with slavery and ended with Martin Luther King Jr (bear in mind this was taught in a Canadian school – hello Black Loyalists!). The only Black person I remember seeing in an elementary school textbook was a hunched over Black woman, obviously enslaved or a sharecropper, with a filthy black and white handkerchief on her head, glaring into the camera from a cotton field. That was it. We had no history prior to enslavement; there was no mention of Africa prior to European colonialism, the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, current and global Black independence struggles and the connection to diasporic Blacks or even Black people during enslavement who resisted, taught, created art or invented.

Our history was reduced to this picture of a tough-looking, stooped over woman with a mean glare.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my mom was doing her best to shield us from a tide of white supremacy which would seek or simply by design devalue the lives of her children – which taught and continues to teach that we were nothing more than the descendants of enslaved people who contributed little to history; that we were less than Europeans and non-Black People of Colour. Our skins marked us as inferiors. Her efforts in hindsight were commendable, given the impossible nature of the task. I remember she blasted Peter Tosh’s African as her primary act of Black affirmation and pride regularly. Her favorite lyrics were:

Don’t care where you come from
As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African

She would belt out, “As long as you’re a Black man, you’re an African,” much to my chagrin. In spite of her efforts to instill in us a sense of pride in our Black heritage, her African diasporic consciousness was no match for the cruel reality of the white people around us, who viewed us as novelties at best or troublesome inferiors at worst; nor the pervasiveness of white supremacy in public and private institutions and in social life.

As a result, I had few friends during my formative years. I followed my mother’s stern warning but I couldn’t help but feel a pang of regret when I saw my cousins, who she chided years ago for following white kids around, now had the cool (read white) kids as friends. I realized though that my mother’s words rang true; nearly any Black kid I noticed hanging around with white kids in my junior high and high school would be following along behind them, like a shadow.

The Black kid in the social group always hung out precariously around the edges, as though they never truly belonged. Thankfully once I entered junior high school, we were no longer the only Black family in the neighborhood, but the dynamics remained unchanged. There was an implied subtext of the Black kids being other than or merely tolerated.

The Black kid in the group also always served a chillingly particular purpose – the comedian. If the Black kid was not providing amusement, they were swiftly ostracized as I was. As a nerdy, smart, quiet and thoughtful sort not accustomed to serving up guffaws, I had no purpose to the majority of the white kids around me (with the exception of my small, racially diverse band of merry misfits). Not only did I not entertain the white kids around me, I was also a threat to them academically and intellectually, as I was always at or near the top of my classes in those years.

A Black kid with a brain who refused to debase herself for the entertainment of whites? That was completely intolerable and I suffered the social price. Black kids were allowed to hang out with the white kids, so long as they knew their place.

In spite of myself, loneliness crept in when my merry band of misfits and I parted ways for high school. For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone. Since I stubbornly refused to sacrifice my stellar grades for the cheap compensation of male attention (which I cared for little as a budding queer), I watched from the sidelines as the white girls who were former friends and acquaintances begin to reach those adolescent milestones and I remained stubbornly inexperienced. Although I sensed a budding attraction to women, I couldn’t shake the sting of being spurned by the mostly white boys around me. My brown skin, chemically relaxed hair (which was never silky straight like the other girls), thin frame and nearly non-existent breasts marked me painfully as the other. The few black boys and boys of other races worshiped the white girls – I was non-existent to them. I had not yet met any queer people or girls who liked girls. I was awkward, out of place and alone.

Unsurprisingly, my mental health deteriorated.

Accustomed as I had become to spending the afternoons alone in my bedroom after finishing my homework, on one particular day I sat down on the floor in silence and stared at my arms. I had already begun self-harming by then as a way to express the rage I felt towards myself and my circumstances but something inside of me snapped.

The last thing I recall thinking that day was how much I hated my brown skin.

It always got in the way; it made me different.

I did not remember how I got the razor but before I knew it, I had a huge slash on my left inner forearm. It was the deepest cut I had ever inflicted on myself. I did not recall wanting to cut that deeply, but in the fury of my self-loathing I simply had no control. I panicked. I had always heard we were the same colour underneath but now seeing the white flesh beneath the brown skin was too much. I became nauseous, and in my panic I did something uncharacteristic of myself – I got help. My mom freaked out when she saw; she didn’t know whether to cry or scold or pray. Instead, she called my aunt who was a nurse’s aide at the time. They both kept talking to each other while my aunt did her best to stitch me up. They both spoke as if I was not there:

“Why would she do something like this?”
“The poor dear…”
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”

My aunt, finally coming to her senses, said there was no way they were taking me to the hospital.

“They’ll take her away. There’s no way we are going to the hospital.” And that was that. My mother and aunt knew instinctively getting social services involved would be ruinous to the family. My mom and aunt didn’t bet their and my collective well-being on the charity of social services, a fate we had so far escaped.

Unfortunately for me, the lack of intervention (partly due to that understandable resistance) contributed to further decline. The situation grew more dire as I became involved in an abusive, tumultuous relationship with a white girl who exploited my mental health struggles for her personal gain. She was the first person to ever express any interest in me sexually and I was hooked.

Due to her erratic and abusive behaviour, I became estranged from my family for a few months and opted to live with her and a friend of mine where I deteriorated even further. I learned intimately the extent to which a white person would weaponize their race against mine to exploit and cause destruction. My partner continually called services on me, which led to a trip in the back of a police cruiser. Calling the police on a mentally ill Black person can lead to violence and death – I cannot stress this enough. It is an extremely hateful and vile thing to do. Yet when she was confronted about her despicable and nakedly abusive behaviour by various people, the white girl waterworks began and that was the end of the conversation.

Of course, she was well aware of my struggles with race and with mental health – it was why she singled me out of the crowd for her predatory behaviour. Yet it never ceased to astound me how a person who claimed to love me could also attack with such racist vitriol or stay silent when others did. But instead of being furious at her blatant racism, I began to loathe myself and my race more intensely. Not wanting to be victimized further, my desire to identify with the oppressor grew stronger in a mistaken bid to become the abuser instead of the abused.

When that relationship reached its terrifying conclusion, I was thrust into the world of mental health professionals. The mental health professionals I encountered were exclusively white. I never encountered a single mental health care professional of Colour. The mental health professionals I met with expressed puzzlement at my suffering. By appearances, I was raised in an intact family (I did not disclose the volatility of my home life and my father’s explosive rages and violent outbursts), had stellar grades, played sports, worked part time and volunteered regularly.

I never told a single health care professional the real reason I began self-harming – I hated myself. I hated my brown skin, African features and curly hair. I now cursed my dear mother, who so tenderly attempted to prepare me to live in this racist society, for not being white. I was so close to being white and she was the reason I wasn’t. She received specific vitriol for the then-perceived mortal sin of being Black. I internalized the rampant and unabashed racism of the people around me and it was quite literally killing me.

I planned to end this post on some highfalutin note about how considering the impact of race and systemic inequity on mental health is a moral imperative blah blah.

But I believe that would be too simple of an end. That much is obvious.

Instead, I want to stress the importance and deep implications of the fact that the mental health of racialized people in a white supremacist society is not only simply complicated and impacted by race, but rather that being racialized itself can be a cause of mental health trauma.

This is the controversial part.

I am not a psychologist nor do I claim any expertise in the area. However, my lived experience speaks for itself. How does a queer, young, working class Black woman talk to an aging heterosexual middle or upper class white man about her most vulnerable life struggles? How can you possibly be vulnerable with someone who may have no frame of reference for your life experiences or worse may become hostile at the suggestion that race could be a factor in mental illness?

Though I did find understanding mental health practitioners in time, I never discussed race with them. Yet it was and still is vital for my mental health to be able to talk about what was actually near and dear to my heart – the complex stresses of my life being devalued based on who I am and navigating through the compounded effect of trauma on marginalization.

This is the key message that is missing desperately from the mental health conversation. Most people do not know that I have struggled with my mental health for a reason. The mental health profession as a whole is not equipped to deal with race in a way that is clinically significant to racialized people. I believe this is why I am becoming more candid about my mental health struggles – I want people to understand how psychologically scarring racism can be and how redressing justice can be powerful for improving one’s mental health.

I want to end with a thank you to my mother for her ceaseless efforts to affirm our Black heritage and instill racial pride.

This post is part of the third in the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!

Also check out the other posts in the series:

Further reading on racial trauma, and mental health among Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour