From Dying to Thriving: One Black Man’s Journey to Wellness

Willie-Jackson

Willie Jackson is a media executive, technologist, and entrepreneur. He’s the founder and publisher of Abernathy, and the tech lead of Seth Godin’s altMBA program.


“A place to spend my quiet nights, time to unwind
So much pressure in this life of mine, I cry at times
I once contemplated suicide, and woulda tried
But when I held that 9, all I could see was my momma’s eyes
No one knows my struggle, they only see the trouble
Not knowin it’s hard to carry on when no one loves you
Picture me inside the misery of poverty
No man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived”

—2Pac, Thugz Mansion

I’ve done a lot of things in my short time on earth that I’m proud of. I’ve worked with my heroes, supported people who mean the world to me, and shipped projects that have touched the lives of a lot of important folks. My professional bio suggests that I’m successful and accomplished, and many of my business partners and collaborators over the years would echo this notion.

But out of everything I’ve accomplished, what I’m most proud of is that I’ve learned to be kind to myself.

I’ve learned to destigmatize the need for healing in my life, and to have compassion for myself. This shows up in subtle and profound ways; my humor is no longer self-deprecating, I’m careful not to be so hard on myself, and my self-image has improved substantially. An unexpected benefit is that I’m now able to extend much more compassion and kindness to others.

For many black folks and historically marginalized people, 2016 in particular was an incredibly difficult year. And for many of us, especially in the black community, the hardest part is what we don’t share with others. I’m talking about the dark thoughts we think, and the feelings we experience in our quiet moments. What’s particularly hard to reconcile is the fact that publicly, we don’t often seem to be struggling. I ended 2016 rocketing towards success with a fabulous tailwind, but that is most definitely not how it started.

Now I get it

The first article we published when we launched was entitled The Sad State of Depression in the Black Community. It remains one of our most popular pieces to date, and for nearly two years we’ve been beating the drum of emotional and mental health in the black community. I’m proud of that.

But the importance of this conversation and the need for healing came from what felt like a fight to the death with my own anxiety and depression. It’s hard to pinpoint when it first began (I’ve got some ideas), but I found myself feeling tortured and alone on the mountain of shame. The most terrifying part of this ordeal was that no one knew I was suffering. The shame was unbearable and everything hurt, but I was functioning more or less “normally” in society.

During this time, I felt like the walls were closing in on me, and things only improved when I started talking about how I was feeling; not just hinting at being in a funk or sharing with those close to me that I was working on being kinder to myself. I had to enthusiastically raise my hand and say, I am not okay. I fought feelings of selfishness and smallness (everyone’s fighting a hard battle, why would I burden anyone with this?) and removed the footholds of shame I had granted in my life.

I refused to continue suffering in silence. I demanded more of and for myself, and practiced loving myself enough to say that I needed help. And let me tell you, crying in front of colleagues and mentors sounds a lot worse than it really is. It can be freeing. It was for me. My public tears healed private wounds.

I know what it’s like to weep silently in my room without being able to put my finger on the pain, and I know what it’s like to put on a smile before going out into the world. I know what it’s like to respond to “how are you?” with deflections that mask the pain and confusion.

I also know what it’s like to feel like anxiety might rip me limb from limb. And I know what it’s like to hide from responsibilities and projects and friends because of the shame. My struggles with mental and emotional health over the years, I’m now realizing, have cost me relationships and opportunities and time I’ll never get back.

The familiarity of failure

One of the ways trauma shows up in our lives is through personal and professional self-sabotage—an addiction to failure. We see this in family members who can’t stay out of jail, friends who go from one abusive relationship to the next, and lovers who would rather destroy an otherwise successful relationship than be vulnerable.

The reason we feel addicted to the cycle of failure and unhealthy habits is because it’s what’s familiar to us. We know how to deal with dysfunction and pain, yet many of us don’t know how to deal with success. And so the heartbreaking cycle of New Year’s Resolutions like “never again” breakups and “never again” hangovers and “never again” decisions made on lonely nights festers like an untreated wound, causing us to hate ourselves. I broke this cycle in my life by speaking up about how I was feeling, and by putting daily habits in place to help me to get my footing.

I’m the product of a two-parent household, private school education, and tremendous opportunity. Not understanding the role that trauma (transmitted through the blood) plays created some tension for me. I didn’t live a life of oppression and discrimination and hardship, so success should’ve come easy, right?

Wrong.

I’m the grandson of sharecroppers, and the son of a man who grew up on a farm in the segregated south. Black folks are not prone to communicating our pain and discomfort, and so a culture of dysfunction is perpetuated in our communities and lives. Dr. Joy DeGruy labels it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome in her important book on the topic:

While African Americans managed to emerge from chattel slavery and the oppressive decades that followed with great strength and resiliency, they did not emerge unscathed. Slavery produced centuries of physical, psychological, and spiritual injury.

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, lays the groundwork for understanding how the past has influenced the present, and opens up discussion for how we can use the strengths we have gained to heal.

This body of research explains why many of us feel the way we feel, and why a particular pattern of dysfunction feels endemic to our communities. These are the echoes of chattel slavery, and we’re exhibiting trauma responses and maladjustment to our toxic environments.

Silver lining

The good news is that healing and restoration is available to us, and there are many resources for us to learn and to grow and get help. We are not broken. We are whole people surviving in a broken system that was not designed for our success.

The scar tissue disfiguring America’s history is comprised of systematic plunder, oppression, genocide, and dehumanization. We can’t change that. But what we can do is allow this legacy to evoke compassion for our fellow marginalized and indigenous countrymen, and most of all, for ourselves. Because if we can heal ourselves, we can heal our country, and if we can heal our country, we might just heal the world.

I’m under no illusions about the likeliness of this outcome in my lifetime or the next thousand lifetimes, but this is the hope to which I cling. Instead of quietly incubating these ideas and building out resources when everything feels perfect and ready, I’m going to take you all along this journey. This isn’t a purely academic exercise, either. What I’m also saying is this: reach out if you’re struggling. I’m not a therapist, but I know some folks who are. And I’ve got your back.

Next week I’ll share the process by which I’ve made progress on my journey, and the daily practice I use to remain resilient.

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