Okay I have a confession to make. If no one can admit this to themselves I will: I absolutely hate hearing the word “no”. Maybe it stems from my childhood experiences of always getting called last for kickball (true story), or from the fact that teachers in elementary school would tell me I had potential but wasn’t quite there yet. Maybe it comes from constantly getting rejected by my crushes or my parents refusing me to go to sleepovers when I was younger. In any case hearing the word “no” has constantly aided my rebellion in proving people wrong. I’m always finding new ways to combat doubt with hard work and productivity. Nevertheless because of my strong aversion to the word, I had to learn some hard lessons in life. The biggest is that sometimes there is no way around the word “no”. Sometimes as much as you don’t want to hear it, you have to.
I remember when my father passed away when I was fifteen. As much as I didn’t want that experience, and wanted him to return, the answer was “no”. I remember during that period of life, I started having anxiety attacks, and very uncomfortable sensations. My mother took me to a psychiatrist. After I explained the symptoms I was feeling, I recall him diagnosing me with Derealization-Depersonalization Disorder, which at the time he said was permanent. The word permanent to me, was just another word for “no”. The doctor explained to me that because of the trauma of losing my father, it had triggered an onset of symptoms that were the mind’s way of numbing pain. As much as I wanted to prove that “no” wrong, the next chapter of my life became shaped by it.
Derealization-Depersonalization Disorder or DDD, is an anxiety disorder that causes the feeling of being “out of body”. With the disorder, during episodes you disassociate constantly. There is a heightened sense of reality, where sensations often feel dream-like. For me it felt like I wasn’t all the way there. I would see myself in the mirror but it wouldn’t feel real. I would have conversations with people, and although I felt my mouth moving and heard the words coming out of it, my mind felt detached from my body. It felt like I was losing a grip on reality. It wasn’t like I was hallucinating or anything, but I just didn’t feel present. I would have moments of sensory overload, where everything around me was extremely vivid, and constantly have panic attacks because it was too much for me to process. My everyday routines became unbearable during episodes, because I felt like I was forcing myself to function. At times it was so intolerable that I would sleep in so I didn’t have to go out and interact. Although I was extremely social, I became scared to go outside because at times I feared having panic attacks in the worst public places.
I obsessively did research but soon learned that DDD is very personal and specific to an individual. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t losing a grip on reality, I was just feeling like I was living in a warped one, to keep from having panic attacks. I felt isolated.
Part of that isolation stemmed from the fact that when I tried to explain the disorder and how I was feeling to people, they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. It wasn’t something I even understood. After all DDD wasn’t something that got much public recognition. To this day I’ve still never met someone who has it or is open about it. Therefore I would just try and pretend I felt normal. Living with something that I thought was incurable took an enormous toll on my self-esteem, and the uncertainty of if I could even go through life living with DDD, drove me into a period of depression. Instead of talking about it, I didn’t want to keep seeing peoples judgmental glares.
I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t just me that wasn’t all the way there, it was our society. The stigmas surrounding mental health didn’t just make me fearful to speak about mine, but make many people afraid to speak up. My lived experience being black also added to this. In the black community it is hard for families to accept that their children can live with mental health issues. When we come to even our parents about how we are feeling, we are often misunderstood. I believe that this is mainly because anything that is viewed as weak is explicitly dismissed within our community. We as a people are already perceived as not good enough. We are told that there isn’t room for weakness. We are told we need to be the best to overcome our generational history. There is also this idea that mental health isn’t something a black person can suffer from because of what society’s archetype of someone with mental health issues looks like. This archetype is damaging to society in general. You never think a CEO could suffer from Bipolar Disorder, or that your favorite celebrity could experience depression.
Our inability to sometimes not even be able to speak within our own individual communities about mental health, causes unhealthy coping mechanisms, and silences the conversations that could very well save a life. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who tried her best to understand what I was going through, but still, she didn’t quite fully grasp the brevity. Society in general often shuns those who admit anything perceived as a flaw. Although society is getting more comfortable with having these open conversations surrounding mental health we still have further to go.
I wish someone at the peak of my disorder would have told me that nothing was wrong with me. Although I still suffer from episodes from time to time, I know how to cope with them. I no longer feel trapped, and my symptoms are not as intense. In some ways I think I cured myself better than any medication could have. I stopped making my mental health my identity. It doesn’t make me who I am nor should it. I redefined what society considered to be a weakness. I started taking the action to feel mentally healthy and no longer accepted feeling sorry for myself. I began igniting the conversations around mental health stigmas, and finding healthy ways to cope. I once again tried my best to defeat the word “no”. Only you can choose to grow from the “no’s” in life. I had to remind myself that life goes on, and people need you to move forward with it. Society needs to understand that mental health is not a defect. The more honest you are with yourself and others, the easier it becomes to exist. In the words Eleanor Roosevelt: “ No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
McKenna is a NYC native performer and creative with a BFA in Musial theater from the University of the Arts. She aims to create art that inspires vulnerability and societal change. You can catch her sparking conversations and spreading light on Instagram, exploring the city, or at your local thrift store