This is the story of how I lost my voice.
In 2013 my mother began showing signs of dementia. A short time later, one of my closest friends, Toya Watts, fell ill and was diagnosed with colon cancer.
I was devastated by both these illnesses. I didn’t want to believe my mother was rapidly losing her sense of self and I believed with every fiber of my being that Toya would beat cancer. She didn’t. Despite her incredible will she died. Despite my mother’s desire to hold on to herself, she began to deteriorate. She’s still alive, but doesn’t remember most people or things and doesn’t always know who I am, especially since I am just a far away voice on the phone.
The day before my friend died I had called my father because mentally I was not doing well. I was in denial that watching her die, while taking turns caring for her with her friends and family, had taken its toll. I was severely depressed and isolated. Since she’d fell ill I’d stopped going out and socializing. It didn’t feel right to party or date when my friend was dying. I would only go to work, go home or go to her house to help out. I was miserable that the dark thoughts that have plagued me off and on since my mid-20s had returned. My father talked me down, as he’d done before and got me back centered. Then, the next day I got the call that Toya was on her last breaths and I had hurry to the hospital to say goodbye. She wasn’t even conscious when I got to the hospital room and she no longer looked like the vibrant, vivacious, funny, passionate woman I’d known. I hate remembering how she looked when she died, especially when I remember how much she wanted to live. Her brother told me to say something to her because she could still hear, but I couldn’t find words. All I could think was how unfair this all was. She was in her late 40s when she was diagnosed. She didn’t even make it to 50. Cancer had robbed her of her young life.
All I could say was “I’m so mad at you right now,” in a sing-songy pathetic, tiny voice. But I wasn’t mad at her. I was mad at cancer. I wanted to make a joke because it was all so absurd, like when she first got sick and started losing weight and I would make her laugh by saying this diet she was on was too extreme. I wanted to make her laugh in the face of imminent death. But I wasn’t capable of being funny. All could think, “This is such bullshit.”
Cancer is such bullshit. Why did she have to die? We were supposed to get to be old ladies together. And I wasn’t alone in this. This was the thought of pretty much every one of her friends and sorority sisters (how she loved Delta). And I couldn’t make any sense in her death. It’s not like it made anything better. It seemed to only make things worse – to make problems more glaring and obvious, to leave giant person-shaped holes in our soul that she once filled. People would tell me she was in a better place and wasn’t in pain anymore and I, like a petulant child, just wanted to stamp my foot and scream. “She didn’t want to go to a better place. She wanted to stay here with all of us!” She wasn’t ready to go. Or, if for some reason she made peace in those moments when her life was ending and finally accepted it and let go, I wasn’t ready to let her go. No one was.
It’s somewhat easier for me to write about Toya than my mother. While Toya was my running buddy from 2009 until her death, my mother is my mother. She gave birth to me. She loved me before I even knew myself. She protected me and fed me and defended me and nurtured me and brought me up to be the woman I am today. She is, second-to-none, one half of the dynamic duo that has loomed heavily over my life. Her only rival is my father, who she has been married to for more than 40 years.
He was the first person she started to forget.
How you forget someone you live with and spend nearly all your time with, who you have known for more than 40 years and have three children with, I do not know. But that’s what dementia does. It takes all your memories and slowly erases them, as if they were never there, but it doesn’t take them completely or right away, it moves slowly, stealing a thought, stealing a moment here and there, until it’s all holes and hallucinations.
My mother and I were a team and dementia took that from us. We were close and could talk on the phone for hours. We never truly tired of one another. We would build up each other’s egos and love each other with a ferocity and now we have a relationship where she sometimes had no idea of who I am, where she can only stay on the phone for a few minutes, where she’s lost herself and wants to hide from everyone. She is still fighting for control, which makes it hard and uncomfortable to watch at times. She hoards things and desperately tries to control her surroundings. Like my friend who died of cancer, my mother is not at peace with having dementia. She is fighting it, and like my friend who had cancer, she is losing. And I can’t/won’t watch it happen. I hide in Washington, D.C., while my father and sisters struggle with her in St. Louis, unable to accept or deal, crying to myself over the reality that I have to mourn my mother while she’s still living.
Again, all I think is, “This is such bullshit.” Dementia is such bullshit. Why did this have to happen to my mother? No one else in her family has it. She has relatives as old and as sharp as can be. Old, but quick witted. Old, but still themselves. I thought she would get to be one of them. I had accepted years ago that my mother would one day get sick and die, but I thought she’d have a heart attack in her sleep from her weakened heart valves, not lose her mind. I wasn’t prepared for that emotionally. Not that I was prepared for being without my mother, but I could accept a heart attack for a woman who’d made it past 65 and had always had some health problems.
Talking. I’d always loved talking. I liked the sound of my own voice, my own ideas. I thought best when I thought out loud. I could come up with so many different things. Writing, my chosen profession, was really just talking on paper or on a computer screen. I write exactly like I talk. I used to never get nervous about talking because I felt so confident about it. I didn’t need to prep before speeches or going on radio or TV. I didn’t need to write out thoughts. The words would just come magically tumbling out – funny words, meaningful words, pithy words, blunt words. I had a reputation for them and felt good about it.
I thought nothing could ever stop my words. I’d survived crappy relationships, a divorce, severe depression and a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, hospitalizations and job loss and not once did I lose my gift of gab. But my friend dying and my mother’s diagnosis did what nothing else had been able to do. It broke me. And I lived in my brokenness for two years, trying to reassemble myself when I was missing huge parts, parts that I needed to function. Parts that I need to talk.
I didn’t realize how serious the loss of my voice was until I was on Roland Martin’s show, News One Now, last August, sitting on a panel. We were discussing Bill Cosby. Ordinarily, I would have a lot to say. Time was winding down on the panel and Roland came to me and I had absolutely nothing to say. For the first time ever I produced dead air on live television. I searched for an idea, a joke, an opinion and came back empty. I played it off as best I could, but it was then I knew something was terribly wrong. I wasn’t well. I wasn’t myself. That I was losing myself and watching that loss happen on television.
I wondered if maybe it was my medication. I’d been on a higher dose of mood stabilizer because my anxiety attacks had become debilitating. They’d been out of control, going back as far as January or February, when I couldn’t bring myself to go to the gym or leave the house, not because it was cold, but because I was afraid. I managed to get a new job, a job I like, with The Root, and couldn’t bring myself most days to go into the office, I was so anxious. Any time I had to go out of town for work, or just down the street for work, I was filled with dread. I would freak out for days in the lead up to leaving the house.
I knew what I had to do. I had to fight it by forcing myself out of my comfort zone. I had to start going into the office. I had to start riding public transportation again. I had to start going to events and engaging with people. So that’s what I did. I would make myself go out, but the desire to be invisible wouldn’t go away. I still didn’t have anything to talk about. I didn’t have anything to say. All I could think was “This is some bullshit. Not talking.”
I did things I thought I would like, things I used to like. I took trips to LA and Miami. I hung out with famous people and socialites and all it made me want to do was dig deeper into my shell. I was embarrassed to exist. I became terribly self-conscious and self-critical, so much so that it zapped whatever fun there was out of everything. I couldn’t stop beating up on myself. I would bring up old business, things that happened five, six years ago and beat up myself anew over it. I would find flaws and pick at them, admonish and berate myself, abuse myself because I don’t like it when I make mistakes and like all human beings, I’ve made plenty. All the more to viciously beat myself over. I’d go so far and so deep in my greatest misses, that I couldn’t see my successes. They were rendered meaningless.
And in it all there would be silence where there used to be sound. I had nothing to say. Nothing about anything or anyone. I didn’t feel shy. I felt mute. I felt like I had to be mute because I was desperately trying to hold in the one thing I did want to talk about.
The only thing I wanted to talk about. How sad I am.
But who wants to hear that, all day everyday? Who wanted to hear about how my grief continued to choke at me? How it was so easy for me to start crying at any given time. How my paranoia and fear of death had worsened and how the only thing that stopped my anxiety was forcing myself to leave my home and engage with the world by going to work everyday in an office instead of working from home.
So I figured anxiety out. But how do I resolve all the things blocking my creativity, the things that used to make me great? How do I get my voice back? How do I learn to love again and feel light-hearted and free? How do I move beyond the pall of grief? How do I find solace and comfort? The main person who used to comfort me was my mother. My place of solace was in her arms. My friend gave me so much of my joy. We were each others champions and I wanted so much for her. The unfairness of the world embittered me, made me apathetic, robbed me of hope.
Then, in November I started seeing a therapist.
I’ve been in therapy off and on for years. Since at least 2001. This new therapist was elderly, but with age comes a wealth of experience. Right off the bat he said I “looked” like I was on medication. This was not a dig on medication – he knew as someone with Bipolar Type II I needed to be on something in order to maintain stability – but he worried that my issue was more of a medication issue than one that could be treated through talk therapy.
“I don’t want to focus on symptoms that may be caused by medication.”
So he encouraged me to see my psychiatrist.
I don’t have the best luck with psychiatrists. I’ve literally had one good one out of dozens of terrible ones throughout the years. I don’t know what it is about the profession that seems to attract people who don’t actually want to talk to you and just want to usher you in and out in 15 minutes or less with a handful of pills that may or may not work. It’s almost as if they don’t even want to help people at times. I’ve had psychiatrists argue me down that I needed more of something that was making me worse. I’ve had then deny me things that have worked in the past because they “knew better.” I’ve had doctors who’ve disregarded some of my symptoms altogether. Like, no one has ever agreed to treat a possible attention deficit disorder I may have. I’ve been screened for it and show signs of it, but no one seems to want to talk to me about it when I bring that up so I just stopped trying with that one since it was always the least of my myriad of mental problems.
I made an appointment to see my current psychiatrist who turned around and cancelled on me and never called to reschedule. Because I’m a sick person who doesn’t always make the best decisions, I let a few more months go by in misery before trying again. My therapist kept worrying that I had a medication issue, I kept agreeing, but I wouldn’t make the appointment. I would tell my friend Yesha about what I was going through emotionally and she’d ask if I’d seen the doctor yet and I’d always say I was about to, but I still wouldn’t make the appointment.
I hit some very low points in my desperation during those months without seeing the doctor. I feared death and dying along and clung myself to old ideas and old ways of thinking that was clearly the bipolar talking, not me. Threw myself into my work, threw myself at people, and hoped to find some kind of salvation, some kind of meaning. But it all rang hollow because I was doing it for all the wrong reasons.
Finally, after an especially bad day of beating up on myself for an incident that happened six years ago I realized that my depression, which started out as a natural thing about my mom and best friend, had turned into a chemical imbalance that my broken brain couldn’t correct and it was making me act stupidly. I made the appointment, saw a nurse practitioner, told her the whole story of losing my voice, of having a much more upbeat personality die on me, and how I no longer felt like myself. For whatever reason, she was a lot easier to reason with. She put me back on a pair of medications I’d been trying to get back on for three years, but no doctor would give them to me because they had all these “ideas” of what would work better. Within days of going back on my old regimen I started feeling better. The fog began to lift. Writing became easier. I started having ideas and opinions again. The talking was still slightly off, but that might take longer to get back than I expected. Still, I felt “normal” again, which was all I really wanted.
Now, looking back, it seems a shame that I had to spend three years on bad medication while also being in mourning for my best friend and mother. The mourning couldn’t be avoided. I had to go through it. But I didn’t have to suffer the rest of it. I put my life at risk and was needlessly in psychological pain simply because I was too exhausted to fight with my doctors to get put back on medication that worked. That because I wanted them to be right (and they were so convinced of their rightness), I put up with medication I knew wouldn’t work on me. Feeling good now I look back and it just makes me wonder why it took so long. I was suffering just to be suffering. I could have mourned with a clearer head. I could have been stronger person. I could have been me.
All I ever want to be is just me. Not sick me. Or sad me. But me, the real me, that makes sense. That feels whole. That feels complete.
I feel better now and I won’t take it for granted. Being Bipolar is a life long struggle. I know there will be a point when I will be sad again. But for now I just want to enjoy the sun on my face and be around my friends.
It’s what my friend Toya would have wanted. It’s what my mom would want if she still could articulate it. Just because I lost them, they didn’t want me to lose myself too.
They’d want me to keep going. They’d want me to try.
So I’m still here. I’m still fighting. I’m still me.