Monday, March 12, 2007

Rasheeda’s Blues: Black Women and Anxiety

have we gone crazy? I can’t hear anythin /but the maddening screams & the soft strains of death/ & you promised me/ you promised me … somebody/anybody/sing a black girl’s song/ bring her out/to know herself/to know you/but sing her rhythms/carin/struggle/hard times/sing her song of life/she’s been dead so long/closed in silence so long/she doesn’t know the sound/of her own voice/her infinite beauty/she’s half-notes scattered/without rhythm/no tune/sing her sighs/sing the song of her possibilities/sing a righteous gospel/let her be born/let her be born…

-Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf

My first anxiety attack struck in April 2001. I was the editor of a radio trade magazine, and was wrapping up a phone interview with Luther Vandross. Any other time, I would have been thrilled to chat with the legendary crooner, who had recently released an album on J Records, but I couldn’t shake the free-floating dread that taunted me during our conversation.

The minute I hung up the phone, pain flooded my chest and my left arm went numb. Believing I was in the throes of a massive coronary, I grabbed my keys, told the startled receptionist that I had a doctor’s appointment, and fled the building. Once I arrived at my doctor’s office, where I did not have an appointment, I informed the nurse that I was having a heart attack. I was promptly given an EKG, which read 151 beats per minute. The average resting heart rate for women is 75 bpm. My doctor went into her bag of tricks to calm the palpitations – massaging my carotid artery and telling me to exhale forcefully with my mouth closed. Nothing worked. My traitorous heart raced on. After 20 minutes, the paramedics were called, and I was given another EKG. When the reading showed my heart rate was still around 150, an EMT said, “Let’s take her for a ride.”

Hearing those fateful words, I knew I was going gently into that good night. My body felt preternaturally cold and my palms were turning blue. As I sucked oxygen on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, I thought about all the writing projects I’d left undone, how, at 30, I didn’t have a will, my family was 3,000 miles away, and my apartment wasn’t even clean.

At the hospital, I was given a blood test and a third EKG. For two hours, I nervously awaited the results, trying to decide how I would react upon hearing that I had a terminal illness. Finally, the grim-faced ER physician, a dead ringer for Bela Lugosi, appeared at my bedside. He delivered this shocking prognosis: there was nothing medically wrong with me. Further, he seemed miffed that I was even admitted to the emergency room. The doctor handed me a small medicine cup of Valium, along with the admonition to learn how to “calm myself.” I was offended by his insinuation that I had some sort of mental issues. Any fool could see that my heart had been beating twice the normal rate for no apparent reason.

When I visited my doctor the next day and relayed the ER physician’s diagnosis, she surprised me by agreeing with him. Apparently, Bela had notified her that my emergency room EKG was far below 150 bpm. My physician explained that I was probably suffering from anxiety, and wrote a prescription for Zoloft. Surely, she jested. My name wasn’t Becky and I didn’t live in Beverly Hills. I didn’t know any black chicks on medication, and I wasn’t going to start the dysfunctional diva revolution. I kept the hateful prescription in my purse for two weeks before tearing it up and feeding it to the wind.

Over the next few months, it felt like my brain was unraveling. Each week found me driving to the emergency room – to either sit in my car and cry, or stagger all the way to the front desk. I just needed someone to assure me that I wasn’t dying – at least not that day. I had to rotate hospitals so I wouldn’t become familiar to the ER staff. I went to seven different hospitals in seven different cities. Yet, I refused to believe that my issue was a psychological one. I was working 10- to 11-hour days with tight deadlines, writing screenplays at night, going to two or three industry parties a week, and living on Slurpees, potato chips and veggie fried rice. I was convinced that I was just supremely stressed.

One night a major panic attack struck while I was getting ready for yet another entertainment gala. I was reclining on my couch listening to Les Nubians as I waited for my painted toenails to dry. Suddenly, my left arm dropped to my side, like it was filled with wet sand. When I stood up, my legs buckled, as if boneless. On top of having a heart attack, I was certain that I had developed a neurological disorder, like Multiple Sclerosis. I just knew I’d have to dial 911 with my tongue.

I called my neighbor, who was accompanying me to the party, and begged her to sit with me until the paramedics arrived. They knocked five minutes later, puzzled, I’m sure, by the sight of the fully dressed club diva stretched out on her chaise lounge, and the chic friend checking her pulse. After asking the usual questions – age, history of heart disease in the family, smoker, high cholesterol – the younger paramedic said it sounded like I was having a panic attack, but there was no way to be 100 percent sure unless I was examined at the hospital. “Go to your party,” his partner chimed in. I took his advice.

After that night, I finally admitted to myself that I might have some mental health issues. But I refused to be a victim; I decided to get proactive about my “condition.” I searched the shelves at the organic market for alternatives to medication. I couldn’t bring myself to buy the popular St. John’s Wort, because suburban chicks had co-opted it, and I didn’t want to align myself with a “white woman’s disease.” I settled for Valerian, an herbal remedy for anxiety. At home, I would surf the net for hours, trying to find more information about my disorder. I was discouraged by the accounts that I read on panic attack message boards. Suzy suffered from anxiety for a decade and couldn’t leave her bedroom. Bob had been taking Prozac and Xanax for years and still felt melancholy. Those boards weren’t relatable or empowering; it was a cyber dumping ground for the neurotic.

I was searching for community and kinship. I wanted to hear about Rasheeda’s blues. I needed to know if other black women – their fortitude as legendary as Samson’s locks – were driving themselves to the emergency room, or were overwhelmed with a constant fear of dying, and how they coped. The lack of information, resources and even statistics about sisters suffering from anxiety was frustrating.

My time spent on the Internet did more harm than good. I became hypersuggestible. If anyone casually mentioned a disease or illness – even one common to children or the elderly – I would read about those symptoms for hours, trying to self-diagnose. According to my research, I had seven major ailments: lupus, MS, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, leukemia, ovarian cancer and Alzheimer’s – all at the same time.

My social life was in shambles. I didn’t feel safe anywhere but on my denim couch. To paraphrase Ntozake Shange, my universe was becoming one room long. If I did go out with friends, I had to know the proximity of the club or restaurant to the hospital. It wasn’t that I was afraid of people. I was afraid that I would faint or die in front of them, and they would laugh at me. I didn’t want to become a spectacle.

Only a few friends were privy to my pain. I was too ashamed to admit that I was wrestling with something that I could not handle – smart, successful and superfly as I thought I was. One day while attempting to go to the grocery store, I got as far as the garage when tremors coursed through my body. I ran back into my apartment and threw myself on the floor. As if summoned by my sobs, my mother called. I was in the practice of scaling my meltdowns way back during our conversations because she lived on the opposite coast, and I didn’t want to worry her. But that day, I could no longer hold back the hysteria. “Mom, my chest is always hurting and I’m so afraid I’m going to die!” I said, through tears. Her reaction surprised me. I have only seen my mother cry twice in my life, and I expected her to tell me to suck it up and quit acting like a drama queen. Instead, she said quietly, “Nikki, when you hurt, I hurt. When you’re in pain, I’m in pain.” With those words, I felt like a burden had been lifted. I didn’t have to labor under the façade of being strong all the time. Although I was slowly developing a support system, the perceived stigma associated with anxiety wouldn’t allow me to seek professional help.

June found me fired from my job. That day, I returned to my apartment with my personal effects, changed clothes, and immediately felt like I was being smothered. I had been living with adult onset asthma for three years, but was convinced that it was in remission. Scrambling for the inhaler I kept in my purse, I inhaled greedily. To my horror, my breathing worsened. I took another drag, and almost passed out. The irony! All this time, I feared dying of a heart attack, and my asthma, which had been under control, was about to take me out.

I called the paramedics then raced to my balcony, gulping in the smoggy morning air as I waited for them. The fire department is three blocks from my apartment, and even now when I hear their sirens wailing in the distance, I think they’re coming for me. When the two medics and two firemen knocked on my door, I was barefoot and sucking on the white Albuterol canister for dear life. I sat at my dining room table as the men held a mini confab about what to do with me. Obviously, the attack wasn’t life-threatening, because I was able to talk to them. Yet, asthma-related deaths were on the rise, and the medics weren’t taking any chances. It was time to go for another ride. When I heard that announcement, I started to cry. I was 30 years old, and I felt like a 3-year-old. I couldn’t manage my own life. Adding credence to my feelings of helplessness, one EMT rummaged in my bedroom closet and brought out a pair of bummy sneakers, which he stuffed my feet into.

I spent two hours at the hospital undergoing oxygen, nebulizer treatments and observation from the ER doctor. Five or six interns paraded through the room, scrutinizing me as if I had a fascinating deformity. I called *Tyrone to pick me up, a guy I dated off and on for two years, and hadn’t talked to in months. He was my last resort because everyone else was at work or auditions, and I didn’t have money for a cab.

“You look homeless,” Tyrone said, pulling up to the emergency room parking lot. I turned my head to hide my hurt. He didn’t know how true his words were. Even though I’d lived in L.A. for three years at that point, I still felt like a nomad. I had on dirty sneakers with no socks, and a shirt I only wore to clean my apartment. In another setting, someone would have been pressing wrinkled dollar bills into my hand.

Tyrone drops me off at my apartment and I call unemployment. I am eligible for a $450 check every two weeks. My medical benefits expire at the end of the month, so I go to another doctor while I am still covered. She doesn’t regard me as a bothersome nut, the way I feel my previous physician had. I trust her with my tears. She listens while I talk about my fears, and loads me down with sample packets of the antidepressant Effexor. She also writes a prescription for Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication. I decide to get that filled while I can still afford it. I won’t use the medicine, though. I plan to keep it in my purse as an amulet against the next attack.

I don’t have to wait long. A few weeks later, my friend Darnell, who lives in San Diego, wants to get together for lunch and a movie at Ontario Mall, which is 45 to 50 minutes from my apartment in North Hollywood. Darnell is like my brother, and I can’t flake on him. I will be brave. I decide to hang out with him and then spend the night with my girlfriend Raina in Riverside, a half-hour drive from Ontario. During the journey, I am proud of myself for only getting off at one exit that boasts a hospital – in West Covina. I make it to the theater, but 20 minutes into the film, I feel a familiar roiling in my chest and numbness in my left arm. Leaning over to Darnell, I say, “I’m having a heart attack. I’m going to go sit in my car.” Darnell looks at me in disbelief, but gentleman that he is, won’t allow me to leave alone.

Out in the parking lot, I flag down a cop, and ask for directions to the nearest hospital. When I learn that it’s a few exits away, I tell Darnell that I will try to sit through the movie again. Maybe it’s the nearness of the emergency room, or the sunlight, but I feel safe. Another 30 minutes into the film, and my body starts trembling violently. I shift anxiously in my seat, index finger glued to my carotid artery. The palpitations are so loud, I know that everyone in the darkened theater can hear them, like Poe’s “Telltale Heart.” My gaze pleads with Darnell. “I’m going to the emergency room,” I announce softly. “Remind me never to go the movies with you again,” he says, half-jokingly.

Darnell drives me to the hospital. He sits with me in the courtyard as I check and re-check my heart rate, and try to explain the anxiety that has taken over my life. Grabbing my hand, he places two of my fingers on his pulse. He wants me to understand that everyone’s heart beats fast sometimes. Everyone gets anxious, he seems to say. It’s no reason to go to the emergency room, and certainly no reason to bolt from The Mummy Returns. I’ve heard this argument before, especially from my male friends. Weakly, I concede. I can handle this.

We drive back to the mall and have lunch. I try to ignore the fluttering under my left breast, the wings of a small bird in panic. If I give in to the urge to run out of the restaurant, Darnell will never speak to me again. Mercifully, lunch is over. We hug, give air kisses, and I’m on the road to Riverside. I am in the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack, and I’m trapped in traffic on the 10 Freeway, miles from any safety zone. I have never ridden out an attack before, because it can only mean a fierce explosion in my chest, and then sudden blackness. I am screaming in my head. I white-knuckle the steering wheel so I don’t swerve into oncoming cars or crash into the mountains like I want to. I feel like I am teetering on the precipice of madness.

One mile from Raina’s house, I see a gift from God: HOSPITAL NEXT EXIT. Has the sign been there all this time? I never noticed it before. Or rather, I never needed to notice it. I pull up to Raina’s driveway, jump from my car and collapse in her doorway. “You look malnourished,” she says in alarm, “like you have organ failure.”

Yes, that’s it! Not anxiety; organ failure. That explains everything – the weakness, the tremors, the heart palpitations, the weight loss. I am down to 118 pounds, and for the first time in my life, friends are telling me to gain weight. I ask Raina to drive me to the hospital. Her boys are three and eight, and she loads them into the car with us. When I walk through the emergency room doors, I realize it’s a county hospital. The wait seems interminable, as mothers pace the floor with their snotty-nosed babies, and languid toddlers curl in scratched plastic chairs. I look out the door at my girlfriend sitting in the car with her two young children. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t keep running.

When we return to Raina’s house, her mother is home. Lily is like my surrogate mom, and over herbal tea, I confess everything to her. She nods patiently, not judging, but understanding. Then she drops a bombshell – she is an anxiety survivor. I am stunned by this revelation. This fabulous, strong black woman – a business owner, living in a plush house – felt like she was losing her mind?

Lily tosses me a lifeline: a book called The Anxiety Disease by David Sheehan. I read all about the fight-or-flight response my body is going through at the onset of an attack, which is why I feel so relieved when I’m on the run. Sheehan also breaks down the spells that anxiety sufferers experience, like jelly legs, a lump in the throat called globus hystericus, palpitations and obsessions and compulsions. Most of all, I realize it’s not my fault that I have anxiety. I’m not going crazy, and I’m not going to die. That night, I take my first Xanax.

It’s been nearly six years since that first anxiety attack. Although I might have a spell every now and then, I haven’t driven myself to the emergency room in months. I wish I could say years, but I’d be lying. I started taking Effexor the summer of 2001, along with Xanax, and six months later, weaned myself off all antidepressants. At the time, I thought medication was a crutch that made me feel weak and needy.

Black women are socialized to be strong, so strong sometimes, that if we can’t get out of bed, or we can’t stop crying, or we feel that our lives are spiraling out of control, we’re afraid to speak up for fear of backlash. White women like Rosie O’Donnell and Brooke Shields go public with their depression, but sisters suffer in silence. According to a study conducted by the Black Women’s Health Imperative, 60 percent of black women have symptoms of depression. In California, I’ve met more women of color who are on medication or in therapy or who have considered suicide. To those who believe mental health issues are endemic to Hollywood hotties, my East Coast sisters would beg to differ. Rasheedas from Harlem to Hotlanta also battle the blues.

I’ve learned to embrace my inner dysfunctional diva, and get her help when she needs it. There is recovery not only in antidepressants, and therapy and prayer, but also in naming one’s pain. Instead of stigmatizing our mental health issues, we need to talk about them, blog about them, broadcast them from the rooftops (without jumping). As bell hooks says, “Healing takes place within us as we speak the truth of our lives.”

This is my testimony: I should have lost my mind, but like Miss Celie from The Color Purple, I’m still here. I hope more women will understand that, to paraphrase bell, asking for help is not a symptom of weakness; it’s a sign of empowerment. If sisters start finding their voices, Rasheeda can sing a new song.

*Names have been changed to respect privacy.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Water, Weaves and Womanist Woes

“She hath more hair than wit.”
--William Shakespeare
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”

is your hair still political
tell me
when it starts to burn
--Audre Lorde

Recently, a white friend and I were discussing racial stereotypes, and she mentioned one about black folks hating to swim. “I don’t know about that one,” I said. “I can wade just as well as anybody else. My hair, on the other hand, has issues with water.”

This stereotype, like most, embodies a kernel of truth. When I was a freshman in high school, I had to take swimming for a semester. While Kate, Beth and Kristy were frolicking in the pool, I was watching by the water’s edge. I loved swimming, but hated wearing a latex cap. It made my already big head look extraterrestrial, and further enforced the notion that I was “different.” Rob, a cute Italian kid with a crooked nose (whom I was secretly crushing on), shined a spotlight on my discomfort. “Why don’t you get in the water?” he asked. “Is it because your hair will get really messed up, and it will take a really long time to fix?” My blonde and brunette classmates glanced at me with pitying smiles, as if I had a hair handicap.

Most black women with chemically processed or straightened hair struggle with The Water Issue. Rain, perspiration, even steam from a cup of herbal tea can derail the “every two weeks” maintenance schedule. At age ten, I underwent the black girl's rite of passage - a home kiddie perm – and with few exceptions, have been wearing my hair straightened since then. As a woman who likes to consider herself conscious, I’m constantly reminded that straight hair connotes conformity with European standards of beauty. bell hooks believes that since sisters have such a variety of natural hair choices available (dreads, ‘fros, locks, etc), straight hair should be worn only in times of emergency. “Practically speaking, a lot of black women learned to prefer straightened hair, to see it as better because it took less time,” hooks says. “Is this another ‘survival strategy’ carried over into contemporary black life that is no longer needed?" But more on hair politics later.

The Water Issue has me in the midst of a coif crisis. In January, I took my first Bikram yoga class and loved it. Despite the nausea and headaches I suffered from doing asanas in a room heated to 105 degrees, my body was getting a much-needed detox. I wasn’t too worried about the copious amount of sweat that Bikram produces because I had a hair appointment the following day. However, if I decided to do “hot yoga” on a regular basis – which I had been seriously considering – what in the world would I do with my ‘do?

Black women have to get creative with ours. We don’t wear hairstyles; we perform them. Maybe this is why so many sisters skip the gym in favor of the salon. Any woman who has ever spent upwards of three hours in a beauty shop, to be fried, dyed, and laid to the side, looks askance at any activity that would mess up her mane. Hair as performance art aside, I know that I need to exercise, to break a sweat for at least 30 minutes each day. To combat The Water Issue, I’ve been weighing three options:

1. To Weave or Not to Weave?
Even though I went as long as I could without “selling out,” I got my first weave when I moved to California in 1996. A woman named Angel, who boasted Toni Braxton and Janet Jackson as clients – performed the three-hour process in the basement of her South Central home. I had fourteen inches of some poor Indonesian woman’s tresses sewn into my real hair (discreetly braided underneath), and I was grinning in the mirror as if I’d just discovered the next best thing to the hot comb. I was instantly in love.

Weaves are back with a vengeance – longer, bolder, bulkier. Sisters sport them with pride, like neo-Afros in search of a revolution. Although I might have my stylist glue in a track or two for “special occasions,” wearing someone else’s hair presents a whole nother set of enigmas for me. For one, long hair is still privileged in our society, as evidenced by cover girls Beyoncé and Tyra, and the video vixens who populate your garden-variety rap video. Although I don't want to buy (no pun intended) into this mindset, I can’t deny the “benefits” I received with extensions hanging down to my bra strap: Men open doors for you and zip across three lanes of traffic on the 405 to holler. Once when I was idling at a stoplight, two Latinos pulled up next to my car. The passenger leaned out and told me my hair was beautiful. I wonder if he’d have the same sentiments about my real hair.

I can’t knock another sister’s hustle, but a weave – and her silky cousin, the lacefront wig -- represents an escapist fantasy for me, a Third World Rapunzel locked in an ivory tower. Some purists might argue that the straightened, highlighted tresses I now sport are also escapist and as ideologically removed from my nationalist beliefs as bleaching cream. This brings me to my second hairstyle option.

2. The Braid-y Bunch
I must admit, The Water Issue became a non-issue when my hair was safely ensconced in cornrows or twists. I could fulfill my tribal obligations and walk in the rain at the same time. When I vacationed in Hawaii a few summers ago, I even surfed.

The downside of wearing braids: I hate the way I look. My forehead feels naked and lonely with cornrows, and I get lost in the synthetic jungle of individual braids. On a purely superficial level: I get less play from the brothers. On one dating Web site where I posted pictures taken of me in Oahu, one man commented that I was “incredibly average” with braided hair. Not that his words should be taken to heart, but that’s exactly how I see myself. I don’t feel an affinity toward the Motherland when my hair is braided. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, braids are more functional than familial, a trendy token of nationalism, like green, black and red medallions and kente cloth.

At the most, I could wear braids for a month to jumpstart my exercise regimen, but they don’t represent the real me. That leaves my third and final option.

3. Shorn Again
At age 11, I spent the entire summer indoors. The reason? A botched relaxer caused my hair to shed in clumps. Being the pragmatist that she is, my mother cut off all but an inch of my hair and gave me a jheri curl. June, July and August were wasted behind my screen door, as I moped about wearing a plastic cap like an extra from Car Wash. When school started in the fall, my classmates taunted me for looking like a boy, and I swore I’d never wear my hair short again.

Never say never. The fab 90s found divas like Jada Pinkett rocking cropped, texturized ‘dos, and showing the world that short is sexy. I did my part in the style revolution, albeit with a cute Halle Berryesque cut. Although I was still clinging to the straight texture like a badge of honor, I had to give myself props for finally parting with my shoulder-length tresses.

Cutting my hair off, and letting it grow out naturally, is a style option I have toyed with for a long time for several reasons. One, it symbolizes rebirth and renewal. It also connects me to an enlightened body of womanist warriors whom I admire and whose footsteps I strive to walk in, among them Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, and Ntozake Shange – all of whom wear natural styles.

As India.Arie sings, I am not my hair. I shouldn’t be my hair, but I am my hair. The more I try to untangle myself from my tresses, the more they become interwoven into my identity. So what if I keep an umbrella in the back seat of my car in southern California where it never rains? So what if I have to spend three hours at home wetsetting, mousseing, manipulating, braiding and unbraiding my hair to evoke a “natural” style? So what if some white women “pet” me whenever I rock a new look, and ask how often I wash my hair? I wouldn’t trade in my naps for the world.

This is the option I have chosen to combat The Water Issue: Grudgingly, I will wrap my pressed hair in two scarves, like I’m on my way to do day work, and go hit the StairMaster. The scarf does a sufficient job of protecting the ends of my hair, but my roots always get damp. As a result, I’ll be walking around with two different textures until my next appointment. I haven’t decided what I’ll do about Bikram, though. No amount of head wrapping will prevent pressed hair from morphing into a baby Afro in the sauna that is hot yoga. I guess I will have to create my own style. Yogi Hair. Yes, I’ll definitely have to look into that.