Love, Life Stories

The Black community told me to stay quiet about what really happened to my grandmother

My family refused to recognize that my grandmother had committed suicide, because mental health problems are a "White People Thing."

Your Grandmother is in the hospital. She broke into the medicine cabinet behind the nurses’ station at her nursing home, stole some Tylenol, and took too many. It isn’t looking well.”

My seventeen-year-old body went completely numb; perhaps to try in a futile effort to keep myself from feeling the shock of the words my Aunt spoke softly into the phone on the night of November 19, 2006, just a little after 2 am.

For years, my maternal Grandmother struggled with a history of depression, alcoholism, bipolar disorder, BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), a severe addiction to pain pills, and a laundry list of other untreated, unacknowledged, or outright denied (both from self and from those around her) emotional and mental health issues.

Despite my family’s valiant efforts to disguise/deny this fact from my younger sister and me, I’d always felt there something slightly amiss in my family’s explanation of the events surrounding my Grandmother’s sudden rush to the hospital that night, or even why, from my earliest age, my Grandmother and I were so similar and close in ways that wouldn’t become clearer to me until I became an adult.

I noticed my Grandmother's erratic behavior as early as five-years-old. Click To Tweet

The chasms between “noticing” something, “recognizing” something, “understanding” something, and “accepting” something are wide as they are vast and deep, and there’s usually a process needed before you’re allowed to cross each one.

I noticed my Grandmother’s erratic behavior as early as five-years-old; I just couldn’t understand it, and because my family was so tight-lipped about what was going on, I had skipped right on ahead to the accepting and normalizing it phase.

Aside from the fact that the floor of my Grandmother’s bedroom remained perpetually covered in crushed beer cans (and if you squinted just hard enough, there was a carpet that would make a cameo once or twice a year), there were unexplained “hospital visits” that lasted longer with every one, and rapidly accelerated from two or three times a year, to four or five times every couple of months.

The source of her sorrows and pain, at least, up until that point in her life, had everything to do with loss: the loss of her sister to Alzheimer’s and lung cancer; the loss of her brother to lung cancer, and finally, the loss of her cherished husband to testicular cancer.

My Grandfather was everything to her.

They met at an early age, and later went on to accomplish the incredible feat of owning and maintaining one of Chicago’s first Black-run businesses, while heavily participating in the Civil Rights Movement and raising my mother, uncle, and aunt to be just as involved.

Their grocery store was a pillar of hope for up and coming Black generations in an era of racism, segregation, hatred, and dreams abandoned to fear.

My less-than-able-bodied Grandmother tried her damnedest to raise my sister and I. Click To Tweet

Along with my Grandfather’s passing, she had to cope with the loss of our south side apartment (my childhood home), and my Mother’s rapidly declining health beginning in her early fifties.

My less-than-able-bodied Grandmother tried her damnedest to raise my younger sister and I (we were around ten and eleven, respectively) with the extreme difficulty that came with the territory and stress of being well into her eighties.

She then had to endure the breaking and scattering of our little family of four, eventually (and very reluctantly) moving into the assisted living facility that shared a parking lot with my mother’s nursing home just a stone’s throw away.

And yet, as I spoke to my aunt that night, none of it connected with me. It wasn’t denial; at the time, I was unaware that there was even a problem. It was more like I didn’t (and wouldn’t until just a couple of short years ago) recognize and understand that there was a rhyme and reason for my Grandmother’s patterns.

It wasn't denial; at the time, I was unaware that there was even a problem. Click To Tweet

It was “normal,” and good fucking luck trying to get Black families to openly address mental health, or even outright admit it’s a thing because mental illness has always been seen strictly a White People Thing.

I can even understand that line of thinking to a certain extent, though it took me a very long while to grasp: it’s a hardship, surviving in America, then and now, as Black.

The hardest of all? Surviving in America as a Black Woman.

Life is already hard enough; mental illness was “easier” (and paradoxically, “safer”) to ignore because then, you became a “Black Woman with Mental and Emotional Health” issues, and royally screwed thanks to systematic racism, so the knee-jerk responses to that from other Black People, then and as is now, is: Shut up and get the hell over whatever is making you sad, because you’re not white and don’t have the luxury of addressing mental illness without being fucking lobotomized,” just like how Driving While Black will get you thirteen warning shots in your back at close range, as opposed to a friendly warning and a ticket the way white people receive. 

Good fucking luck trying to get Black families to openly address mental health. Click To Tweet

After telling my younger sister about our Grandmother being rushed to the hospital, it was time to play the waiting game in the only way I knew how: Prayer. Utterly convinced Jesus had my back on this one, I went to sleep that night completely believing that, if my Grandmother – a fearless, resilient, and strong Mississippi-born woman who marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. King could do all of that, then a few pills weren’t much cause for concern.

Four hours later, my father had to shoulder the burden of telling us she was dead.

She was ninety-three years old.

And for a long time, I lost my faith. I had prayed so hard. And I wouldn’t be writing this very piece ten years later that I realized God had, in fact, answered my prayers: He knew she was drowning in a level of despair and loneliness those of us around her could neither fathom, nor care, to understand.

He helped her. He saved her. He put her to rest at last.

And it’s enough comfort to envision my Grandfather greeting her with the same smile and ‘Princely’ charm she fell in love with as he welcomed her Home.

She was finally at peace.

But for years, I had been led to believe that the cause of death had been listed as an “accidental overdose” on prescription-brand Tylenol.

And for a long time, I lost my faith. I had prayed so hard. Click To Tweet

It wasn’t until two years ago, when finally, I came to understand (and entirely on my own) a few bitter truths that my family kept from me (with well-meaning, but still dangerously misplaced intentions). I might have never had the experiences that caused me to finally bridge the gap between recognizing, understanding, and accepting what truly happened: My Grandmother committed suicide.

She didn’t rush three floors down to the unstaffed nurse’s station (hell, she could barely walk), “break into the medicine cabinet” in an addiction-fueled gallivant, and “take too many” Tylenol 3’s.

Sure, she was heavily addicted and yes, she certainly had taken “too many” Tylenol that night; but it wasn’t behind any nurse’s station in an unlocked medicine cabinet.

It was in her room. On her counter. Right where we left it for her during our last visit to the nursing home.

Tylenol that we (my mother, my sister and I, and anyone else my Grandmother could bribe/emotionally guilt/manipulate into) constantly smuggled into the nursing home for her because she was “always in so much pain” and it just “broke (her) heart” that we let (her) suffer.”

Because I was the closest to her, and always had been, the task eventually fell solely to me. I was an enabler at fourteen or fifteen before I even knew what an enabler was.

My Grandmother’s suicide set off a chain reaction of events in my life that might have been easily avoided, had the adults around me not been so eager to deny there was anything wrong with me, to the point of my being silenced, shamed, guilted, stigmatized, and punished for having the audacity to try and speak up countless time about what I had known since early childhood: something was very, very wrong with me. 

Now, it's time to slay the shame and silence surrounding mental health and suicide. Click To Tweet

We as Black Women (and Black People in general) are more than proud to own up to slaying everything from music, fashion, advances in the fields of science, medicine, and even the Olympics, and everything else in between.

Now, it’s time to slay the shame and silence surrounding mental health and suicide; because nothing screams louder than the silence we have no choice but to listen to until it’s far too late.

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Jacqueline-Elizabeth Cottrell

Jacqueline-Elizabeth Cottrell

Chicago-born and raised Androgynous AltModel and Pokemon Master, Jacqueline-Elizabeth (AKA Kurosune Suicide / JaxJax Attaxx of the SuicideGirls, and Cosplay Deviants) developed a lifelong love of reading and writing at ages two and three, scored her first big writing gig as Nerdy But Flirty's first, Black writer, and was later recruited by the Jace Hall Show (now TwinGalaxiesLive!) as also not only their first Black writer, but their first female one as well. Her interests include watching anime, cosplaying, modeling, reading manga, gaming, 420 shenanigans, surfing, increasing her number of tattoos, rainy days in bed journaling, and writing about hentai for Jamie Broadnax's site, BlackGirlNerds.com

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