It was a phone call no one ever wants to receive; the kind of call where the tone of the voice on the other end immediately signals that something has gone wrong–terribly wrong. Three simple words, “Adrienne is dead.” Just like that my world forever changed. My youngest sister had been murdered a few weeks short of her twenty-second birthday. The details so horrific that thirteen years later they still invade my dreams.
She lived with a boyfriend who, at the time, had another girlfriend. While he was out of town (he kept receipts to support his alibi) the girlfriend let herself into the apartment he shared with my sister. According to her testimony an argument ensued, a gun was pulled, there was a struggle and the gun went off. Forensic evidence told a difference story. My sister was shot in the head execution style in front of her four-month-old child. My nephew was left in the apartment as the murderer made her getaway but, not before locking the door behind herself. That detail and a phone call to the police to report a crying baby in the next apartment would be her undoing once the police traced the call’s origin to a different part of town.
My sister’s death was the beginning of an eighteen-month journey into Hell on Earth that included me losing a sibling, both parents and an uncle. A lifetime of trauma compacted into a short period of time left me treading water in the deep end of a pool of depression. I don’t remember much from that time other than barely being able to function, moving from my bed to the lounge chair next to it, standing in the shower until the water went cold. And then there were the nightmares; replays of my sister’s murder stuck on a cruel loop in my subconscious night after night after night. I avoided sleep at all costs, terrified that I’d have to watch it again. I spent days on end existing in a fog having to be reminded to eat, what time it was, what day it was. It was a dark and distant place where I was unavailable to my family, my friends and my colleagues.
That began to change only when I returned to work and my supervisors suggested that I take advantage of the employee assistance program. Ordinarily I would not have accepted the offer but, I was in pure survival mode. The mantra at the time–left foot, right foot, breathe. Like most black men I had been socialized to “take the pain,” “suck it up,” “man up.” Whatever you do, “never let them know you’re hurt.” In the film, Trading Places Eddie Murphy famously quips, “Karate Man bruise on the inside. They don’t show their weaknesses.” From a very young age we are taught not to express the full range of human emotion in spite of experiencing major physical and emotional trauma. Men in my immediate family and in the neighborhood where I grew up didn’t seek professional counseling. That was considered a sign of weakness. Instead they self-medicated often seeking relief at the bottom of a bottle, in the smoke of various drugs or in the commission of other self-destructive acts.
Some tried to pray the pain away which reminds me of a story I once heard a preacher tell. A hurricane was about to make landfall and everyone but Deacon Smith began to evacuate the area. Smith’s best friend tried to convince him to leave but to no avail. “I am going to trust in the Lord that I’ll be safe.” Hours go by and the hurricane is at full force. Deacon Smith is now waist deep in flood waters. Just when it seems he’s doomed a rescue boat pulls up. “Come on! Get in the boat!” shouts the captain. Deacon Smith again refuses and says, “I’m going to trust in the Lord that I’ll be safe.” Not too long after the boat speeds away the waters rise and now Deacon climbs to the roof of his house. Just when it looks as if he is doomed a helicopter appears and the pilot urges him to climb into the rescue basket. “Go on,” says Deacon. “I’m going to trust in the Lord to keep me safe.” Hours later his luck finally runs out and he is struck by a bolt of lightning which instantly kills him. He finds himself ascending through the clouds to Heaven’s gate where he is greeted by God. Surprisingly, he is angry with God. “God, I am a faithful servant and when everyone else fled I trusted you to keep me safe. But you abandoned me and let me die.” God replies, “Are you crazy? I didn’t abandon you. I sent your best friend, a boat and a helicopter to save you but, you wouldn’t take it. For my brothers that pray the pain away, keep in mind God made therapists too.
The employee assistance program was housed in a non-descript building on a busy street in my school district. After an elevator ride upstairs, I arrived at a door similar to every other door on the hall and was buzzed in. I was met by a receptionist that guided me to a private waiting area. Every effort was made to maintain my privacy. When the therapist was ready I was whisked into a room that was similar to every psychiatrist scene in films or on television. I took a seat, answered a few preliminary questions and the work began. What I enjoyed most was being able to speak out loud thoughts that had tormented me for the months following my sister’s murder. It was liberating not to drag them around; to unpack all the baggage and leave the contents at the session. The experience was cathartic. Slowly but, steadily I began to piece myself back together. It took a while, over a year to be exact and there were times when I grew weary of the process but, I stuck with it. I can honestly say that I am alive and able to write this because I accepted that kind offer of help over thirteen years ago.
Too many men, black men in particular, don’t trust the process when it comes to therapy and we pay a hefty price for it. I liken it to a “tune-up” for the mind; routine maintenance that gives you confidence when the road gets rough. We have no trouble seeking professional help for broken bones but, for some reason mental health remains stigmatized in our community in spite of the fact that we have the shortest life expectancy in the US. Brothers, we have wide, strong shoulders but, there comes a time when we need to unpack that heavy baggage. Yes, Karate Man may bruise on the inside but, they are bruises nonetheless. It’s time for us to talk.
A veteran educator, activist and facilitator of courageous conversations about race and equity in classrooms. He reads, he observes and he writes. Everyone has an opinion—Greg has several.