Depression and Black Men: Why We Won’t Cry

 

“The large number of trauma cases we see in urban areas involving Black males, in large part, stem from the hopelessness and helplessness that is depression.  Treating these cases require not just surgery on the body, but surgery on the soul.”

-Dr. Angela Neal-Barrett, “Soothe Your Nerves”

 “After a while, it’s not acting when you have to suppress your feelings.  Everyone has feelings, but there are some people who have trained themselves over time not to be crying and doing all kinds of shit.  When someone else would cry, we replace those feelings with anxiety and get angry instead.”

-50 Cent, Hip Hop Artist & Entrepreneur

My Dear Readers,

Let me start this week’s blog entry with the definition of an apology. To many, an apology is a debt that one individual recognizes that they owe to someone else.  However, given my emphasis on self-oriented psychology, I prefer to work with a definition that validates self-awareness.

I define an apology as:

  • A heartfelt gift that I extend to those that I have offended or confused by my words and/or actions.
  • An acceptance of responsibility and acknowledgment of remorse for actions I have taken that resulted in the injury of another.
  • A gift, like any other, that can be accepted or rejected. Its acceptance or rejection does not increase or diminish the injury.

Recently, one of my patients stormed into session stating that a previous blog posting had caused conflict, confusion, and contradiction in his own clinical work.  Initially, I was somewhat shocked and immediately became defensive.  Me?  He must be mistaken.

However, after reviewing the blog posting, it was clear to me that he was correct.  Not only had I injured him in the clinical journey he was taking, I had inadvertently injured myself as well.  In the blog “Stopping the Reflections of Complex Trauma,” (3.28.16), to reinforce a point about men and tears, I had quoted words from a song by The Temptations called “I Wish It Would Rain:”

 “Everyone knows that a man ain’t supposed to cry.

But listen, I got to cry, cause crying eases the pain.”

The patient, whom I will call Alvin, (not his real name) is an African-American male in his late twenties.  In his younger days, he was considered to be “hard”, and “street,” and as a result, could not show emotion, for fear of being considered “soft,” as evoked by this passage from Kahlil Gibran:

“Many of us spend our whole life lives running from feelings with the mistaken belief that you cannot bear the pain.  But you have already borne the pain.  What you have not done is feel all you are beyond that pain.”

-Kahlil Gibran

In the Temptations quote I used, Al tells me that he initially focused on the first line: “Everyone knows that a man ain’t supposed to cry.”  However, Al is not able to come to terms with the second line, and that’s where the traumatic injury begins: “But listen, I got to cry, cause crying eases the pain.” 

The traumatic injury in this case arises from the negative feelings Al has experienced in his life that is now being reinforced by what I call “the trifecta,” conflict, confusion, and contradiction.  In this case, the trifecta expresses itself in the form of an expectation of how a man, specifically a black man, must present himself on the streets.

As communicators, we tend to make the mistake of denying responsibility for causing injuries when another person brings them to our attention.  It is important to understand that depending upon the severity of its impact, the injury may become a permanent fixture within the psychological self-experience of the person affected.

Where the Trifecta refers to negative experiences, The Triad, in contrast, serves as a healthy response that brings balance to difficult situations.  The Triad is commitment, clarification, and compassion.

Removing the person from the environment where they were injured does not remove the environment, or the injury, that lives within.  This is the case with Al. He is no longer the hardcore gangster he once was. Today, Al resides in a Puget Sound suburb, commuting every day by ferry to the corporate world in downtown Seattle.

An outsider looking in would no doubt believe that Al has “arrived,” and that he is “living the good life.”  He’s married, he has a family, and he’s a homeowner—what could be the problem? The issue is that Al is stuck.  He is holding on the environment he left behind.  As a child, a family member repeatedly sexually assaulted him.  Following that, at the age of twelve, he joined a gang.

Since then, Al has been in and out of the system.  He has been involved in shootings, and has watched his friends die and go to prison, all memories that continue to stay with him.

Still, Al refuses to admit to, or even face the abuse he suffered head on. He refuses to touch the psychological self and grieve the loss of friends who have died or the individuals he has harmed.  Al’s way to deal with all he is bears is to deny that it ever happened.

The key to healing these wounds, whether Al believes it or not, is the willingness to openly cry.   So what’s the big deal?  Just let it flow, right?

Clarification 

The “big deal” is that Al, like many black men, are born into communities that function as “closed systems.”  Such communities are isolated and not economically sustainable.  Furthermore, its members are particularly susceptible to psychological wounds arising from the experience of complex trauma.  Al’s tendency to minimize and deny his traumatic experiences and the impact they have had on him is a behavior he has learned within his community in yet another effort to ignore the existence of an unacceptable truth or emotion.

In order to heal, Al must acknowledge both the truths of his repeated rapes and his complex trauma. However, this would require him to honor his feelings and the fact that he as a man, has feelings that can lead to tears—two things that he obviously has shame about. It is a widely held belief that a “real man” would never be so weak as to cry as an expression of emotion.

 Commitment

 In therapy, Al acknowledged that the image he continues to maintain is crumbling.  His desire to separate from his emotions had created a wall of silence with his children and discord in the marriage.  In addition, as a means to ease his pain, he had begun consuming alcohol more frequently.

Al wanted the “easy way out.”  He wanted to resolve his individual, family and marital problems without embracing his own pain.  In doing so, he sacrifices his psychological self to bring harmony to his family—and the harmony he brings, if any, is fleeting at best.

It was only in making that commitment to healing his psychological self that Al was able to begin to accept the reality and the impact of the traumatic experiences he suffered on his life.

Compassion

Al was able to utilize the therapy environment to create a safe secure space to embrace his emotions and in doing so, allow his tears to flow.   In doing so, he was able to let go of the black male taboo of holding onto his silence.  He was able to recognize that his silence reinforced his shame, which led to more silence.  It was through his compassion for his psychological self that Al was able to embrace the biggest obstacle of his trauma—the closely held belief that only he, and no other men, suffer from traumatic injury.

Concluding Words

In Greek mythology, the story of the phoenix describes a bird with brightly colored plumage that dies in a fire of its own making only to rise again from the ashes.  In Al’s case,  Al is the phoenix who has endured trauma experiences for two decades, constantly dying as he holds to the teachings of a “closed system.”  With the work he has done to achieve clarification on the issue, the commitment he has made to the self, and the compassion that is within that commitment, Al now has an opportunity to rise once more and seek a different life as he continues the journey of self-discovery.

I began this article by the extending of an apology to the readership and myself.  To Al and others, my intentions in using the song of the Temptations were to support a position taken in the blog.   Although no harm was intended, traumatic injury did result.

The journey of self-discovery can be about learning.  In doing so, as one walks, one gains in wisdom.  To do so, black men young and old facing similar obstacles must make the ultimate choice of living in fear or living with fear.  The error here is in the belief that we can ignore the traumas that have been inflicted on us and hide from our pain.

Once burned, we learned.  If we do not learn we only assure ourselves that we will b burned again and again and again until…we learn.

  Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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