I have been struggling with depression for over 20 years. I went through this phase during my senior year of high school where I just stopped showing up to one of my classes – no reason. I wasn’t skipping to smoke weed or have sex (too prude) or any of that. I was just skipping and sitting in the bathtub, clothed. I told my therapist Jami this and he was like, “Um, that’s depression.”
I almost didn’t graduate because of that. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to. The only reason I graduated was because I was president of my class. At that time, I didn’t have an answer for it. It was just a shrug moment. No one sought to get me counseling for that. It wasn’t until college that I’d entered a crisis phase.
I’d just finished my freshman year and transferred to another school. The summer leading into my second year and that fall semester, it was like I was hit by a freight train of depression. I remember a professor for a summer course chasing me down asking me if everything was okay because my work ethic had plummeted – and thus began my relationship with professors checking up on me because they figured something was off. I’d joke around, but I wasn’t there. That year, I was skeletal.
The first mental health professional I ever saw was a man named Dr. Alex L. Pieterse. Presently, he serves as the director of doctoral training at the University at Albany, where he conducts “research on health-related outcomes associated with the experience of racism, antiracism advocacy, race-related aspects of counseling psychology training and the impact of self-awareness on the psychotherapy process.”
This all makes total sense, because when I would go to Pieterse’s office, all we’d talk about was existing in our Black skin. He was a Black South African raised in Australia. It wasn’t until 2021 that I realized this man partly saved my life during that rough time.
At the time, the University of Maryland, College Park was unforgivably white in how it thought and acted, and who it accepted. It was easy for a minority student who was going through some personal issues to fall between the cracks. I didn’t have the Black infrastructure I had at Temple University where dudes in my hall would be like, “Dave, you aight?”
At UMD, I was like a ghost, just wandering the university until I was indeed that: An academic ghost, academically removed after a joking academic performance, out in the world without a roadmap, the pain of everyone graduating around me, lying to people about my situation, which shoved me deeper. Nothing to show, nothing to answer for.
I worked a series of odd jobs – dear God, so many. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom that I was like, “I need to try something else out here.” That’s where Dr. Donald B. Vogel came into play. He was a psychiatrist based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Every time I drive past that building, I think of his mid-’70s chic office. During our first meeting, while I was sharing my story, he interrupted me.
“So why are you acting like a little shit?”
He also prescribed me medication – medication I take to this day. Without that prescription of Wellbutrin, I assure you, I would not have graduated from college. I took that and suddenly I had a concern for my day. The tasks ahead didn’t appear insurmountable. But that’s my brief story.
The life, the world – they throw curve balls. It’s now 2021, Biden was able to make it into the White House, and yet, we are still locked down in a pandemic. There’s only so much more people can take.
I spoke to Dr. Julie Lopez, founder and chief strategist of Dupont Circle-based, trauma-informed mental health center Viva Center, about what she’s seen people go through during this moment.
“If you’re in an environment that’s super stressful and the environment isn’t changing, there’s only so much you can do on an individual level if it’s a societal, organizational or environmental problem,” she says.
Lopez mentions how her office and others were seeing individuals who, prior to the pandemic, had already done a lot of personal work.
“When you’ve worked through something, you have tolerance for something because you’ve got the tools. Your system’s better able to adapt. We’re seeing a lot of symptoms exacerbated because of the environment people are in – the losses, the grief, the loss of connection. We’re social beings by nature.”
Basically, folks are slipping. Even comedian John Mulaney is back in rehab for alcohol and cocaine after years of being sober. He did an interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” last December where he was quite vocal about the need to stay active for his sanity.
One thing that has remained present throughout all of my dark moments is writing. There’s relief and sometimes power in throwing your thoughts onto a page.
Alina Liao, owner of D.C.-based Zenit Journals, knows this all too well. Zenit Journals encourages people to “take care of their wellness daily by making customized journals.” Individuals can purchase a journal with a design that speaks to them and pick a layout with a prompt that is meaningful to them, and then get to writing. It’s proven therapeutic, especially during these times.
“One person told me it’s journaling that has helped them clear the constant chatter they have in their minds by putting it down on paper,” Liao says. “Others have said, ‘It [helps] me get more in tune with myself. It’s like, ‘Oh, I understand what I want and what I need to feel better, to feel good.”
Liao herself is no stranger to journaling. It was her therapist a couple of years ago who encouraged her to journal.
“There’s something about writing what’s in my head on paper that is soothing, because I can vent,” she notes. “And writing for me slows me down versus typing or talking. It has a calming effect in the moment, when I just need to get shit off my chest. I gain these nuggets of insight into my own self: Where am I? What am I thinking? And as I gain that self-awareness, it’s made it easier for me to make changes I want to make in my life.”
Amen. This moment’s not going away. It continues to test, and not everyone has writing. But people need something. As my 84-year-old aunt told me the other day, people need something “inner” to get them through the moment – whatever that looks like. As long as it’s healthy, cling to it. It might save your life.
I know it saved mine.
Learn more about Dr. Julie Lopez and the Viva Center at www.vivapartnership.com and on Instagram @vivacenterdc. Go to www.zenitjournals.com for more on Alina Liao’s journals and follow
them on Instagram @zenitjournals.
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