Kelechi Marie is a mental health consultant in Oakland, CA. She was 30 years old when I interviewed her on July 27th, 2016.
I was raised by a single mother—a wonderful, loving, supportive mother. My parents got divorced when I was pretty young. Like, two. She raised me with help from my grandmother. We were originally in New York, and then we ended up in Georgia so she could open a practice and all of that sort of stuff. She's a doctor.
From an early age, I almost felt like there was a black cloud over my head. I was just always kind of sad, and I also had ADHD, so I was seeing a psychiatrist early on for medication. I got used to the medication and then feelings and exploring all of that. Growing up in Georgia was really tough for me. I didn't fit in anywhere. I was like a black goth in the South, which that in itself is impossible.
Des: I know a surprising amount of black goths.
Kelechi: We should have conventions. We should all find each other, because we were probably the only one, wherever we were.
Kelechi: That's it. There can never be two black goths in the same place. There's actually some sort of rule. I don't know, I was just drawn to things that were sad because I was sad and it made sense to me.
I grew up, and I just felt like I was different, I didn't fit in anywhere. My mom, because the education system in Georgia is what it is—which is not great—she had me go to majority white schools, and so I was there. I wasn't fitting in. There was a lot of racism happening. I just didn't understand who I was supposed to be. I wanted to be closer to the kids in my neighborhood, who were black, but they didn't really accept me because they thought that I wasn't like them—because I spoke too well, or I read too many books, which actually was not a sign of not-Blackness. It's just who I was. There was a lot of Otherness, so I was just Othered to death. I frequently thought about how I could leave. I always had a Plan B.
I thought about death a lot early on, since I was little and, eventually, my grandmother came down to help raise me. My mom was doing a lot of work building her practice, being a single mother, a doctor—not easy. Grandma comes down and Grandma is like... I can't even explain her. She was like the sun. I couldn't do anything wrong, even when I was doing everything wrong. She was like, "That's okay, baby." She was just this magical creature, and I still have difficulty remembering if she was real because she was empathetic, sweet, never raised her voice. She was just very loving, and she helped raise me in the South with my mom.
When she was diagnosed with cancer and she started really getting sick and eventually died, I just didn't care anymore. I didn't really want to be alive anyways, and it was kind of like my out. I was like, "You know, Grandma's not here. Why bother?" I ended up writing or telling one of my friends. I was in 8th grade or 9th grade. I said, "You know what? I'm not gonna do this. I'm gonna kill myself," and she ended up telling the teacher, who ended up telling my mom, and I ended up going to the hospital, and the hospital was very scary. What I learned from being in the hospital was how never to be in a hospital again, which wasn't a good thing to learn, because the main thing I learned was to never tell anyone the truth. From that experience, I decided if I ever felt this way again, I wouldn't tell anyone, I would just hold it inside.
I spent many years convincing folks that I was okay. Once I left the hospital, I was like, "Oh! I'm great." I made everyone laugh. I stopped being so dark and goth. I started wearing clothes to kind of fit in more. Through this time, I was in trouble, and I went to many different schools. I was just trying to get my mom's attention. I eventually got her attention and I got on the right path, but really, "the right path" was me just squishing everything down inside and not telling anyone. So, it just grew and grew.
Eventually, I went to college and I got to create an entire new personality for myself. No one knew me. I was going to school in New York. I felt like I was where I was supposed to be, doing my major, which was journalism—I love people and stories. The one thing about journalism is that you're interviewing everyone else, so you get to be on the other side. You're safe. No one's looking at you. It's kind of this protective barrier. Everyone feels like they know you, even though they don't know you at all. So, I lived in a world where everyone thought they knew me, but I just knew them. I wasn't honest about how sad I was, or how depressed I was through that time.
I was doing well in school, and so there was happiness, but there was also still the thoughts of suicide. They stayed. They never went anywhere. They were always with me.
Before I went to college, I had a couple of attempts, but I survived them. They were quiet. I didn't really tell people. I didn't really get help for them. I just moved on. It was very secretive. You know, I'd go to college, I'd do well.
[Then], I'm working in my field, but because I'm working in a field where I'm a print journalist doing newspapers, you know where this is gonna go, 'cause newspapers.... We're moving into this age where the job that I wanted is disappearing, and the opportunities for young folks are leaving, and I'm working three jobs to just have my dream, and it's starting to get really stressful. I'm still pretending to be happy, but I'm suicidal, but I'm squishing it down, and I'm doing all of this stuff, and then I get raped.
And in that moment, it just exploded: the mask, the pretending, the lying. I was like, "I don't fucking care anymore. I don't want to live."
I was living with roommates at the time, and we weren't really getting along. Before the actual suicide attempt, I did try to get help. I talked to a therapist and said, "I'm feeling really down,"and she took me to a hospital.
At the hospital, they laughed at me. They were like, "You're so high functioning! You're fine!"
Meanwhile, they're actually showing Silence of the Lambs in the mental hospital, and I'm telling the nurses, "Do you guys think this is a real appropriate movie choice?"
Des: You cannot make that shit up!
Kelechi: You can't make that shit up!
I'm like, "Is this the appropriate movie choice for us?"
And they're just, "You're just so high functioning!"
I was like, "You know, I want to die. Doesn't mean that I can't tell you that I want to die, just because I use good words." Good words! What is that? "Because I can eloquently tell you that I want to die, you're like, "Oh, you're healthy. You're fine.""
I lived in this world where no one believed that I was sick. [The word] "sick" meaning, for me, that I just didn't want to be here. I was tired of trying to convince people.
And again, from the hospital, I was like, "Well, this was useless." Ended up, it was useless and ridiculous.
Fast-forwarding—so, I have the experience, I'm raped, and then couple days later, I attempt. It was really quick. I didn't even tell my roommates, but I left them the rent check, so they knew something was up because I had already gone to the hospital. They were kind of confused at why I had left the hospital so quickly, but I couldn't stay in the hospital because I presented too well. Even being vulnerable and open with them, they didn't know what to do with that, and what 20 year olds know what to do with that? No one knew what to do with it. I was mad that they didn't know what to do with it. They were mad that I put them in a place where they had to deal with it. So, I get it, but at the time, it just felt like I was alone. I had been honest for the first time and got shut down. It's this asking for help and not really getting it, or kind of getting it and then feeling ashamed, so [I felt] like, "Oh! I won't tell you."
I end up attempting and I survived. I called the police to get me because I was in some kind of weird half-alive, not-quite-alive state. They had to break down the door to get to me, 'cause I fell in front of it. I just wasn't all there because of how I attempted, and just remembering, in those moments, the ER, this woman saying, "What did you do to yourself?!" She was just screaming at me, like, "What did you do?!" I tell her and she just looks at me with disgust, like, "How could you do that?" I was met with a lot anger.
Any time you attempt, you first have to go to the medical hospital where they make sure everything's okay before they send you upstairs or wherever the heck the psych ward is. So, I'm back on the psych ward and I have this nurse tell me, "You know, don't let yourself get raped again."
I'm in a psych ward and I'm like, "Aww. I want to react to this. You have power over me, and you think the helpful thing is to tell me not to get raped again and blame me?"
Des: Pro tip.
Kelechi: Yeah. Furious.
She said, "Oh, they have self-defense classes now."
I'm like, "You know, you can't... This is going to make an awesome book someday. You're a horrible person." But she thought she was being helpful!
Then she was like, "I gotta go 'cause I really want to watch Obama get inaugurated," so she kinda left me in this like half-intake and then ran because it's the first black president, 'cause that's really important. That's the kind of care I received in those places.
From there, my mom intervened and got me out of there eventually. Then she's like, "You gotta come back to Georgia. I hate to tell you this." That's the last place I wanted to go, but she's like, "You're coming home. We're gonna get you some actual help."
I went home with her and I was kicking and screaming the whole way down. I didn't want to go, but that's, essentially, what saved my life. I went into a program that actually was working on me and being accountable, and trying to figure out all the things that happened and why they happened and what they meant. And actually developing a safety net, and telling the truth for the first time, and just doing the work that I needed to do. Not always using humor to get out of situations, or, "my charm," is what I called it. 'Cause I could charm people and wiggle my way out. Just trying to be accountable. Through many months of work.
I lost so many friends along the way. So many friends. People were mad. People were like, "How could you do this to me?" I know it was a lot to handle and I get it, but the people who stayed, they are my family. They get it, and I can be honest. I'm like, "Uh, things are bad." They know that when I say, "Things are bad," that that means, like, "Oh shit, things are bad. What can I do? How can I help?"
I experienced stigma for being honest, and I actually got fired from a job when I told my boss one day after I got triggered by this asshole reaching out to me every two years. The guy who attacked me tries to find ways to contact me. It was one of the times that he tried, and I told her my whole story. She sat with me and she listened and she looked at me empathetically and cared.
The next day, I overheard her say to someone, "Oh, we gotta get rid of Kelechi. She's crazy."
I knew in that moment. I was like, "No one should feel what I'm feeling right now." We are so strong to have survived this—to tell our stories, to endure things and put a message out so other people aren't alone, and they know that they're not the only ones, and they can have a community. I knew at that moment I had to get the hell out of Georgia. I mean, I always knew I had to get the hell out of Georgia, 'cause it's god awful. But I knew I had to go somewhere that was progressive, with people who would think that I had something worth saying.
I moved out to California because I wanted to work in mental health. I heard about Prop 63 funding. It's basically a tax on the millionaires that puts funding right back for people who have mental health issues. I heard about the consumer movement. I heard that people who had lived through suicide attempts, who'd had mental health issues and diagnoses and all of that, were coming together and actually advocating and saying, "This is how we should be treated. These are the things that we need," and I just thought, "That's incredible! There's a place where you can be out with your story and they're not gonna shame you? Wow, that's worth experiencing." So I was like, "Let me find a way to save money and come out here."
I told my mom after being in Georgia a little bit. I said, "You know, I really want to go to California. I think they're doing really cool stuff with mental health. I think they're really progressive."
She lived there, actually providing education for the Black Panthers' after-school programming, so she was pretty much like, "Yeah, I think you'd like it out there." She's like, "Okay! Let's do it!" We planned a trip where we drove from Georgia to California and we stopped in New Orleans and Mississippi and Texas, and drove across the entire state, and just had this mother-daughter epic trip. It was incredible.
She was kind of ushering me into this new life, and it was such a big deal for her, because when I attempted, she was terrified. For a while, she didn't want me out of her sight. She wanted to know where I was at every single moment. She was just really scared, and through all the work, she was like, "I am gonna even take you to your new destination and support you by getting you there," which was just tremendous after all the egg shells and the trust-building and trying to get re-connected. That was so hard on her, but she didn't even show it, really. She was like, "I'm here to support you, baby. What do you want? Do you want to go to California? All right, let's drive out there." And we did. And it was a pretty epic journey.
She's been completely supportive of this journey from the get-go, and we've had our challenges. I'd tell her about the negative thoughts in my head. I'd tell her about what they were saying, and she said, "They're lying to you. What are they saying?" I would tell her, and she's like, "Those are lies. You deserve to be here, you deserve to be alive. I believe in you." It was just pretty tremendous. She's huge support. I'm so lucky that I have at least one parent who understands this kinda stuff, 'cause it's not easy. Not on her, either, you know? I'm her only child.
So, that's how I ended up in California, and I ended up working in mental health, and I'm still working in mental health. I started at a community-based organization that was peer-run. Then I moved into my consulting firm doing evaluation, research, and still working with people with lived experience and hearing about what they need and what can be better for programs, but it's all tied very closely to advocacy work and mental health. I think that's part of what really keeps me going and keeps me well. There's still ups and downs. Having someone from your past constantly harass you and not being able to do anything is draining and triggering. But I find ways—through art, through music, through my karaoke, through my poetry—to live better and try to live through this.
Des: Why aren't we talking about suicide within the black community?
Kelechi: We don't have these kind of conversations in the black community. At least, I haven't had these conversations, unless I'm telling my story to someone and they'll secretly, then, when no one is looking, say, "Oh, me too," or, "My sister, but we don't talk about it." But the only way they would have ever said anything is because I said something, so outside of actually disclosing, I've never actually had these types of conversations with anyone in the black community.
I think there's many reasons, one being the churches are huge—it acts as like a huge recovery tool for many folks. If someone's in trouble or in need, or they're down on their luck, or things have been bad for them, a lot of folks go to the church, and that is where they go to recover or find hope and resiliency. Also, in the church, depending on what church you're in—but almost 100% of black churches, if I were to say a stat—suicide is a no-go. You do that and you go to hell. In one way, it's like, "Well, I don't wanna go to hell, so okay, maybe I won't do that," so it protects me. But then, in the other way, it's like we're not even gonna talk about it because it's scary, and then there goes your entire, I dunno, afterlife future. So, there's that huge stigma in the church.
Then, also, I did some research when I was doing some work with Mental Health Association of San Francisco. I interviewed some folks in the San Bernardino community and had a lot of conversations about what they were calling "blue suicide," which is where they would experience their family members or friends interacting with police officers in the hopes that the police officers would kill them. Just kind of aggravating them or getting into trouble, and—
Des: Saying, "Hi."
Kelechi: Yeah. Well, at this point, it becomes controversial, because now there's... Not even now. It's always been like this.
I covered police brutality when I was working at the Amsterdam News in Harlem. It was always there; not everyone had a camera to it. That's the only real difference: it wasn't on your Facebook feed. It wasn't on your news feed. You didn't even have a news feed. You had an actual newspaper, and depending on what newspaper you were reading, it wasn't there. Now, you can't avoid it...
They're like, "Oh, I'm feeling suicidal. I'll do a lot of drugs. I'll O.D. on drugs, or I'll just get into an interaction with cop and I'll die." That was actually a means. But if you look at that, it doesn't look [like suicide]. No one would say, "Oh, that was a suicide attempt," so you don't even capture that data as if it were an attempt, or if, actually, that person died by suicide, that's not captured. There's a lot of stories that aren't being told.
There's a lot of conversations, and they're not really geared for the black community. Black communities are used to, at least from my experience, taking care of ourselves. We didn't have the luxuries of therapy or processing—not that that would even be a really good fit for some folks, because am I going to tell my most-likely-white therapist about the struggles I have in the community? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe that's not what's going to work for me.
I think if they were gonna do [a hashtag, it should be] #SuicideSoWhite.
Des: Can we?
Kelechi: Can we? #SuicideSoWhite? Yeah. It's not a conversation being had...
It's just the stigma, the blame, the church, the "That's not how I would get help." There's so many barriers to even having that conversation. I can see why we're not having it at all.
Also, just, [sometimes I'll tell someone my story], and they're like, "Oh my god, all the things that you've been through. I don't know how you haven't," I dunno, "lit your house on fire," or whatever.
I was like, "I don't break like you. I'm stronger. It takes more to break me."
I don't break like you. At the threshold in which I'm gonna need help, it's because I'm literally on fire. Why can't we have help before that? But I'm now conditioned [to think], "Oh, well, that's just how my life's gonna be as a black woman in America," because how else could I actually survive every day if I allowed myself to break? I don't think I could, so that's kind of why I think #SuicideSoWhite.
Lisa Klein (director of the upcoming documentary feature The S Word): Did you ever think about blue suicide or suicide-by-cop, or is that just fucking weird?
Des: Bluicide. I think "blucide" works better. It's more snappy for the hashtags.
Kelechi: I had never thought about that as an option until recently. I've actually had this thought about what's going on in the world in terms of Black Lives Matter and, frankly, black people being killed by the police.
I was thinking, "What if I were to do more protesting, and what if something happened to me?"
And part of me thought, "Well, are you okay putting yourself in that danger?"
In my darkest moments, I was like, "Well, I feel a sort of guilt for the people who have died when I feel, as a black person, I've experienced suicidal thoughts, and I just wish that I could have switched places with them. Because they wanted to be here and, at that moment, I haven't wanted to be here."
I thought, "Well, what if I had been pulled over instead of Sandra Bland? She wanted to be here. She wanted to be an advocate. There was no reason for her to die."
There's no reason for any folks to die because they're black in America. But when I'm experiencing feeling suicidal and being a black person in America, all I want to do is switch places with them because I feel guilty that I'd even have a thought of feeling suicidal when they got killed. So, I've been struggling with that guilt of, "You don't always want this life, and they didn't even get to have their life." It just doesn't feel fair. It just feels real fucked up, honestly.
Kelechi: What's going on right now is a cultural trauma of the black community. The black community is facing a trauma.
All of things I would feel alone in my room—like, "Why am I crying? Why am I thinking of death? Why am I afraid of death? Why don't I want to get out of the bed?"—I am seeing across my friends' news feeds, I am seeing across my black friends texting me, "I just don't want to be alone right now." It is this outpouring of trauma, and people are actually talking about it, for once. It always felt personal but, at some point, it feels like a war and you're being attacked. It's terrifying because you don't have any weapons. You don't really have supports.
I don't know what hashtag activism is gonna do in the face of death. I am actually afraid, and a whole bunch of other people are afraid.
I went to work, and my only other black colleague and I, we went outside and we just cried. We just walked around the street and we just cried. We're usually just joking around and teasing each other. We went outside and cried together. That's not what we typically do.
You have all of this outpouring of trauma for a community that largely isn't receiving mental health services. They're not seeking them, that is true, but also they're not appropriate. The services that are here aren't actually appropriately serving the people who are intended to be served. So, you have all this trauma, and no one is serving folks. I mean, yes, we're going to healing circles. Yes, we're going to church. Yes, we have thoughts and prayers and we're crying, but what are we gonna do when it gets worse? I know what it looks like when it gets worse because I survived that.
What do we do if we're not having that conversation? It can be violent, it can be angry, it can be all the things, but there needs to be a place where people actually get the appropriate help that they need for them. I don't know, that's just how I'm experiencing it now, and it's been hard to get out of bed. It's been hard to not be afraid every time I see a police car go by. I usually am like, "Oh, how is this going to end?" Now I'm like, "Really, no, but how is it going to end?"
No one should have to be a hashtag. We're just humans, and if we're not even treated like humans, how do you think that would impact someone's mental health? It's horribly traumatic.
Des: Well, clearly, black people just aren't doing what the cops tell them to do.
Kelechi: You know, the fact that that behavioral health therapist did everything right... He even knew. He's like, "Oh, I'm a black person. I might get killed. Let me put my hands up, let me lay down, let me be as submissive and unharmful as possible." All of them were ridiculous, but that one pushed me over the edge.
I was like, "So, we can't even be disarmed and completely safe? Because my blackness is what you're afraid of. It's not anything else. You were actually afraid of that. Even laying on the ground, completely harmless." I said, "Where do we go?"
If you feel like an entire country which you helped build—
Des: Literally on your backs.
Kelechi: Literally on your back—hates you and wants you not to be alive and won't stand up for you, where do you go?
Folks have been saying, "Let's have a Brexit," like the black—
Kelechi: We're gonna take our cocoa butter, we're gonna take our dance moves, we're gonna take hip-hop, we're gonna take all the shit you've appropriated, we're gonna go back. Go back where?
Des: It's okay, just leave Drake. He's Canadian!
Kelechi: He's Canadian, we'll leave Drake.
Lisa: Leave Kendrick.
Kelechi: No, we're taking him, too! We're taking everyone back with us.
Des: Take Kanye.
Lisa: You're giving up Kanye.
Kelechi: No, we are not. You can keep Kanye and you can keep Diana Ross. Sorry, I've always felt some types of ways about her.
But where do we go? We don't actually go anywhere, or have a place.
Lisa: I had a conversation with this woman, Greta Martela, who founded the Trans Lifeline. She's a transgender woman, and we were talking, and she said, "You know, if you think about it, when you're somebody who people would prefer not to look at, or think of as invisible, or hate, or whatever, why do you think that so many people are killing themselves?" It's interesting when we're talking about #SuicideSoWhite and African Americans and I wonder, is the suicide rate gonna go up in the African American community because so many people [are being traumatized], whether it's fear, or whether it's, "The fucking world hates us and I don't even want to go outside, so I may as well die?"
Des: The CDC will tell us in 20 years.
Kelechi: I know.
Lisa: I feel like there's gonna be a statistic that's gonna come out.
Des: Well, what the fuck do statistics mean?
Kelechi: Thinking about all of this trauma, I'm sure there will be some impact of all this trauma on the black community. I don't know what that will be, but when we think about vulnerability, you have to also remember privilege. Black people don't have the privilege of being vulnerable.
I think there are some instances where being vulnerable to the point of like, "I don't even want to be here," might almost be a protective barrier. Or even the church saying you can't do something. Even though that causes folks not to talk about it, in some ways, it keeps them here because they're really afraid about the afterlife...
I don't know what all this trauma is gonna do to this community, but we're resilient as fuck. We've survived a lot of things. I don't know what surviving this is gonna look like. Especially politically, with what's going on. That, tied into the trauma? It could be even worse, depending on who's going to lead us and become the president, just to be frank. I don't know what the trauma's going to look like in the end, but I know that it's louder than I've ever seen it collectively as a community, and it's so much pain. So much pain. And people are talking about the pain. The fact that people are talking about the pain lets you know how painful it is, because people don't talk about their pain in the black community. If we're talking about it, that means it's excruciating. It's excruciating for everyone.
I don't know where that's gonna go, or where you make this pain productive. Right now, it just feels like drowning.
Des: Tell me about our expectations of strong black women.
Kelechi: Strong black women. You know, it's so funny, I did this poem called "Black Heroine," and it's just about people being addicted to black women's strength and wanting it like "heroine heroin”—play on words—like it's a drug. Black women are strong and taking care of other people, and then there's this stereotype that we're angry because we're doing all of these things and carrying everyone on our backs and all of that.
There's this also reality that a lot of folks might be raised by a single parent. I was raised by a single parent. My mom raised me, and all I saw was one parent who had her own business, doing everything by herself, then my grandmother helping, but [I was] just raised by women who were strong and had to do a lot of things to get by and make a lot choices.
There's this strong black woman's truth and myth. We're strong because we didn't have the privilege not to be strong. I didn't even know how not to be strong, so I don't actually know how to ask for help because I wasn't taught how to ask for help. Even when I do ask for help, people are like, "Oh, but you're so strong."
That's the last thing someone wants to hear is, "Oh, you got this. You're so strong."
I'm like, "But now I need not to be strong. I need to cry."
I actually told one of my friends about a difficult time I was having, and how hard it was, and she got so upset that I ended up comforting her. That is the story of my life.
She's like, "I'm sorry that happened to you. It just makes me so sad."
I was like, "C'mere,” and just like that, I get to now take care of you because you can't hold it. You can't hold the space, 'cause it's so hard.
It's so isolating, but we need to look at being strong as asking people for help—saying, "Actually, I do need you to do this for me," or, "I'm not gonna take on the world by myself." [We shouldn’t equate] strength to shutting everyone out and being alone, 'cause that's how I used to equate strength: “Oh, I got this. I don't need your help." Then people believe you. [They think], "Oh, she's got this. She doesn't need my help." Now I've conditioned everyone to not need my help, and then, again, I’m mad that no one's helping me, but I don't even know how to ask for help.
[We need to] interrupt that cycle. Ask people who are the people who are smiling and taking care of everyone. Ask those people if they need help. Those are the people who need help. The ones who are taking care of everyone else? Those are the ones who could be quietly breaking. I was quietly breaking, and I can hide in taking care of everyone else. [I can] push all my stuff back. I don't have to look at it.
That is my experience as a strong black woman. It has not served me very well. And again, we don't break like other people break. What's devastating to you is my Tuesday.
Des: I don't know why that's funny.
Kelechi: It is funny! But it's true!
Des: I want to know more about your faith.
Kelechi: My faith? My faith is interesting. I grew up in the church, but I grew up in the Episcopalian church, which is like diet Catholic. We're like, "Ehh! We're gonna say some nice and great stuff and here's a wafer, but you know, you can get divorced, and gay people are cool." That's my kinda church. I grew up in a very open, lovely church, but I had difficulties with my relationship with God because I just didn't understand how I could be so sad, and when would it stop?
I attempted more than once, but the huge one when I was 25. When I was 25, I made a promise to God before I attempted and I said, "If this doesn't work, I'm never doing this again." I really meant it because I felt like I needed to do something else. I had lost a friend who had died in an accident, and again, I had a similar feeling of feeling guilty that I was going to attempt and that he wasn't here, and wanting to trade places like, "I would happily give my life, 'cause you deserve life, 'cause you want it. You're thirsty for it, and I question if I want it." The day that I attempted, I took this lavender rose that he had given to a friend, and my friend gave it to me, so I had it from him. When I woke up the next day, after surviving, it was gone. I don't know, I felt this presence, like, "Yeah, you're not supposed to leave. You woke up. You woke up and you made a promise and you're gonna try to do everything to figure out why you don't want to be here, and also figure out a way to stay."
My spirituality is checking in with God and saying, "Oh, things are bad," and remembering that time when my hope was so small and so quiet. It was like Pandora's Box: all these other things are coming out, like lies, viciousness, anger, and hope is super tiny and this little white butterfly. Over the years, it's grown, and it's a larger voice in my head than the other ones that are saying, "You shouldn't be here." The voice of hope is like, "You have survived all these other things and it's reasonable.” It's like, "Do you really wanna go? Maybe just keep trying and all of the good things you're doing will catch up with you and you'll feel better."
That, to me, is spirituality. It's when I'm out in the wilderness and I feel calm, and when I'm in the Redwoods and I just feel this sense of safety. It's my favorite place to be. It’s so quiet, and I just can breathe and have conversations. It doesn't happen in a church. It happens on my way driving with no music. It's just a conversation, but that's one of the many things that has been keeping me well. And sane. My version of sane. Gotta be interesting.
Des: How have your suicide attempts benefited you? What positive outcomes have there been, if any?
Kelechi: Well, I guess the biggest thing was that I couldn't pretend to be happy anymore, like, "I know you said you were happy, but you tried to kill yourself, so I kinda think that you're lying." It was big, smashing this mask of, "I'm gonna make you laugh and make you look that way,” because there was kind of a spotlight on me which, at the time, did not feel good.
Also, I started to see that I really liked drama. I don't know why that was new, but after something so bad happened—the attempt, which was not actually intended to be dramatic, it was intended to get me out of this world—but after having something actually dramatic happen, I stopped trying to create drama in which I was a victim. This telenovela that I wanted to be the star of, which was interesting and [where I was] like, "Why are these things always happening to me? I don't understand!" Even though I carefully constructed things to happen. But then, when something actually bad happened, I was like, "You know, I don't actually want to do this thing anymore." It really showed me that this is not working. At all. It was like, “You're gonna have to change your entire life.”
Had I not attempted, I might actually still—I know this sounds horrible—I might still be in this spiral. 'Cause I stayed in that spiral for a really long time, like, "I don't want to be here, but I'm gonna pretend like I'm happy. I don't want to be here, but I'm gonna pretend like I'm happy. I don't want to be here, but…“ And then something just broke through, and was like, "No, you're gonna find out why you're not happy, and you're gonna do something."
It's not about happiness for me, it's about healthiness: "You're gonna get healthy." 'Cause I'm not happy all the time. Fuck. But I'm healthy, which is a huge distinction. Really different things.
Des: True story.
Des: I'm trying to formulate a question. I want you to talk about rape trauma and suicidal thoughts. How do the traumas connect?
Kelechi: I think the trauma after being raped and then the trauma from actually attempting the suicide were two separate traumas. The events were connected, but the traumas were huge things and I had to work on both of them. The PTSD from the rape was, "I'm terrified, I'm scared, I can't sleep, I have insomnia, I think someone's gonna harm me. What do I do?" Then it led to, "Well, I don't want to be here, so let me not be here." Then the [trauma from the] suicide attempt was, "Wow, you actually did this. You went this far, you tried to kill yourself, you might do it again," and the distress of having the thoughts was also connected to trauma. So there was two major traumas happening at the same time and, very much, while they overlapped, having to deal with them was really challenging.
[I went] into a lot of spaces where, when I wanted to talk about the rape—which I didn't really want to talk about, but I had to go talk about it—there's this weird, like, "I went through it worse," or there was this kind of, "Well, did you say no?" [There was] this blaming-the-victim type thing that happened, which made me think it was my fault. I felt for a really long time, like, "Well, you put yourself in the situation, so you deserved it." While I would never say that to anyone else, I said it to myself, and I believed it. I believed that I deserved it, and all these other people who'd really been raped were the real victims, and I just was stupid, and I was just getting what I deserved. It took a really long time to unwind that.
There's this idea—and I think Lifetime is really awesome for doing this, because they are perpetuators of this bullshit idea—that if you are being raped, you must act in this way: You must scream, "No!" You must fight back. You must do all those things. They don't talk about freezing as an actual reaction. If you freeze, is it still a rape? Yes, it is, but for a long time, I didn't think that it was. Anytime someone is violently attacking you in that way, that's rape. But I didn't do the checklist of things that Lifetime has approved as rape, so I didn't believe that I was raped, and that was a really bad message to carry for a very long time, 'cause I blamed myself.
I was like, "Oh, I didn't do this, I didn't do the rape kit, I didn't do all these other things, so it didn't count."
Of course it counted. It almost took my life. It took my trust from men. It took parts of me that I can't ever get back. It made me angry, but I internalized the anger to try to harm myself, as opposed to trying to protect myself and fight back. Having to unravel that and process it and actually believe that I deserved help was a huge undertaking. It took years.
Moving over to the suicide attempt. Well, the physical aftermath, the psych ward—all of those experiences were traumatic. Having someone, after you were raped and had an attempt, tell you not to get raped again—essentially blaming you in the place where you're trying to get treated for the suicide attempt, tied those things together again, like, "Oh my gosh." And like I said before, the thing that I learned was just don't tell anyone anything. Then I had to unlearn that message.
The trauma of both of those things was pretty overwhelming for a while, but I did my work, and it's hard work. It was expensive work. It took a long time. I had the privilege of having good people helping me, and advocating for what I need, but not everyone has that. Not everyone has that life, or a mom who is a doctor, who can say, "Oh, that's wrong. Baby, that was fucked up. Let me tell you what you need," and help navigate things. I know that I'm lucky that I got good help, but I know that's not the truth for everyone.
Kelechi: Recently, I was contacted by the individual who raped me. He tried to add me on Facebook, and he's tried to contact me several times over a period of seven and a half years. Actually, that means the rape happened when I was 23, now that I'm thinking about it. Every time, it's difficult. It takes me out of wherever I am. I'm terrified that he's going to find me. I'm just really scared and then, eventually, I do my therapy, do my thing, move on...
Every time he gets back in contact with me, it's really disrupting. Two years ago, he tried to contact me through Google or something, and I finally responded. I had not actually said anything in like—at this point it was 5 years—and I finally was like, "You raped me. Don't ever talk to me again. If you do, then I'm gonna get the police involved and escalate it," and so, for two years, I hadn't heard anything and I thought that I was in the clear. Just two months ago, I see him try to add me on Facebook, and it just brings up so much pain and trauma and terror, because I've blocked all of the multiple profiles that he's created. It's just been so difficult.
I decided this time, "Well, this time, I'll go to the courts. I'll go the police. I'll actually do something, 'cause I said I was going to do something, so I need to be accountable, and I need to be safe." Through a very strenuous process, I essentially find out that I can't do anything, because the harassment hasn't been consistent. It doesn't look like I'm going to be killed so, therefore, it's not enough to actually protect me.
They're like, "Gather the information as he continues to harass you."
I'm like, "By the time you get what you need, it might be too late."
That's my huge fear, and so I've been really struggling and not doing well, because I tried to actually seek help and it really didn't work. But I was honest—I told my friends, I told my mom. I was like, "This is what's going on. This is what's happening," and they've really been showing up.
They're calling me. They're like, "What are you doing now? How are you feeling? Let's check in." [They're] showing up with groceries, coming over unannounced, because they know what's happened to me before and they wanna show up. Even if I can't ask for help, they're still trying to help... They're finding creative ways of showing up, and just driving to pick me up so I don't have to cancel plans on them. They're getting stealthy. They're like, "Oh, I see you canceling. I'll pick you up!" I can't actually say no to someone who's like, "Oh, I'm outside."
I'm like, "Oh, I guess I'll put on some clothes and leave my bed and the Netflix to come outside."
That's been tremendous, to have a community to show up and say, "I'm sorry. This is fucked up. I'm sorry you're not getting the help you need. I'm just going to listen to you," and using my safety net and hoping that, even though I'm not feeling great, eventually I will. But at least I'm not lying about it, and I'm not pretending to be happy, and not sunshining through it. I'm just feeling it. So, that's where I'm at.
Des: Feel your feelings.
Kelechi: Feel your feelings, yeah. Feel 'em.
Kelechi: It's hard to talk about feeling so resilient and feeling recovered, and being like, "Look, everything's possible," when something this horrible is going on and you're feeling really down but, the truth is, that's part of the story. It's not this clean, like, "I tried to attempt [suicide], and then nothing ever happened to me again." It's like, "I tried to attempt. I looked at my stuff, I created a safety net, and now I'm falling, so I'm gonna let my safety net catch me. And I'm gonna also have to deal with a lot of crappy stuff that's happening."
It doesn't feel sunshiny and great right now. It feels horrible, and I thought about not coming [to talk with you], but me thinking about not coming was because I was thinking I needed to look a certain way, as some sort of attempt survivor who's shiny and clean and everything's great, and that's actually not what we're talking about, and that's not the truth. So, that's why I came today. 'Cause I was like, "Well, this is actually the truth. This is part of it. You're following my story, and this is the shit that's happened while we're having this conversation." That's honest because, in anyone who's attempted's life, I'm sure more shit has happened after they've attempted, and they will, like me, maybe have thoughts again that are scary. And it's like, what do you do? I'm trying to use the folks that I know and be honest about it, and do the exact opposite of what I did before, which was not tell anyone.
Des: Is suicide still an option for you?
Kelechi: I made that promise, and I plan on keeping it. It doesn't mean I don't have thoughts. I do, and I don't want it to be [an option]. I try to think of everything that I've built, and all the work that I've done, and all the lives that have touched mine or that I've touched—not as a way to feel guilty, but just to remember. I don't want it to be, and that's the only answer I can really honestly give you. I don't want it to be an option, but I'm not going to say I don't think about it, 'cause I do.
Doug Blush (producer of The S Word): Yesterday, Demi Lovato's up there at the Democratic National Convention talking about mental health. Are we bending the right way? Are we going the right way? Obviously, this is conditional on a lot of stuff. How do you feel? Is it too much of a soup right now, or are you seeing things that actually make you think things are going better?
Kelechi: I gotta tell you, I don't know that things are getting better. When someone who's famous comes out and says, "I have a mental health issue," and they're praised and applauded, I guess that's cool, but they're famous, so they have a different life. They don't experience the stigma of not getting a job because they've disclosed. They already have a fanbase of people who love them, and even if they feel isolated, they have money to hire many people to make them feel better. Not to say that their pain isn't real, but what I would like is for people—the rest of us, the everyday folks who struggle—to actually have affordable mental health services that are culturally appropriate, because it looks different for [different] folks, and that has not happened. There aren't enough people of color even serving people of color. I'm gonna be community-specific right now, but for me to find an African-American therapist, I'd have to do a lot of back-bending and dancing and finding, and then be on a real big wait list. Even so, I don't know if the school of thought that they've been trained in is what I need, 'cause I still need something different. I don't know that mental health is anywhere near where it needs to be at all. I'll be advocating for that 'til I'm not here.
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don't like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting START to 741741. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to Andy Dinsmore for providing the transcription to Kelechi's interview.
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