I didn’t think it would be me–hanging on by a thread, struggling to wake up every day, overwhelmed and traumatized by my thoughts for days at a time– but it was, and as the years passed, my condition grew a mind of its own.
I was around 14 years old when the question, “Am I depressed?” appeared in my mind. At 14, I didn’t have the vocabulary and knowledge to understand exactly what I was feeling or where these emotions stemmed from. Now that I’m older, I realize my subconscious was preparing me for the worst to come. By age 16 (junior year of high school) I was living the reality that my 14-year-old self predicted just two years prior.
At the time, my parents were married, but as any couple, they were experiencing their share of marital conflict. Our home went from peaceful and comfortable to dreary and silent–don’t get me started on holidays. Even as a child, I could see the unspoken resentment between them and how their understanding of healthy love collided. In addition, they were growing to be different people with different perspectives of life so staying together just wasn’t an option.
On September 15, 2015, I received the text that changed everything:
“Hey lil mama, I moved out. I’ll come to get you in the morning for breakfast.” – Love, Dad.
What the heck?! I was furious, heartbroken, worried, and just plain-ole scared of what home was going to look like now without my dad present. The separation felt like a betrayal to a teenage girl that found peace and happiness in her family unit. The feeling of home no longer existed in my mind and–for some reason–I no longer felt safe in my body. I spent fourteen (14) or more hours at school per day to escape the downward spiral that I knew would eventually hit me. I threw myself deeper into extra-curricular activities, stayed focused on my grades, and took on the responsibility of raising myself.
I never told them this, but I felt like I lost my parents that day as my world flipped upside down. I didn’t want my emotions to become a burden or make my parents feel guilty for choosing the peace that (I knew) they deserved, so, I kept my head down as much as I could and acted as if it didn’t bother me. At sixteen (16), I made it my responsibility to keep myself focused in school and gift my parents the luxury of not having to worry about their daughter–because that was the least I could do, right?
I used every excuse to avoid going home during the week and stay out on weekends. Practices ended between 7:00 PM and 1:00 AM during the week, and I hung out with friends on the weekends. Surprisingly though, my grades did not suffer.
How did I do it? How did I manage to stay an A-student, maintain a social life, nurture my physical body through exercise and diet, and not go stir crazy with all that was going on at home? I was overworking my body & mind and had no clue.
I graduated as Valedictorian in 2017, with a smile on my face as I basked in my last real moments as a teenager. It was surreal standing on that stage in front of family, friends, and peers who had worked just as hard as I. In those last moments, I felt proud of my hard work and how I dragged myself across the finish line—alone.
“Real-life, here we come.”
Chile, I was not prepared!!!!
I started college at The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill one (1) month after my high school graduation, in an early-start program called Summer Bridge. Let’s just say I spent six (6) weeks with pillows full of tears trying to adjust to my new life as a first-generation college student, a new girlfriend, and a young adult. As new challenges arose, the relationship with myself shifted. I went from coping through constant activity to having zero outlets. By the start of the fall semester, I was already burned out and couldn’t remember the last time I was truly happy.
Freshman year the pressure continued to increase and jogging became my escape. One (1) foot after the other, I’d jog from one end of campus to the others trying to stop my mind from racing. All of those voices that looped in my head, repeating, “Go home, you don’t belong here,” or, “Transfer, you won’t make it here,” or, “Just give up already, you know you want to,” was just fear waiting to take over my life.
What did I fear? Being a black woman on a predominantly-white campus? Being in my first “mature relationship” and navigating the hurdles of that union? Letting my family down? Losing myself to school, love, and mental illness? Ugh, the thoughts never stopped!
My nightly tears held more sorrow than appreciation. Pain filled the room as tears poured from my eyes and stained my cheeks; everything felt undeniably heavy. The sense of hopelessness that consumed my body and tainted my mind was horrendous. I remember wailing until my face became raw to the touch and my eyes swelled shut. Depression would whisper, “Let go,” as my spirit (and spirit guides) would yell, “NOT YET!!!” They screamed my saving grace and cheered me on for years until I was able to cheer for myself again.
Alcohol was my confidant, comforter, and escape.
Sophomore year, managing my mental health looked like miniature cocktails on weekdays after homework–to “keep it cute”–and tequila or whiskey shots on weekends. This phase lasted for two (2) years. Now that I think about it, the majority of students were using alcohol to temporarily escape from insomnia, endless reading assignments, and killer exams!
COVID-19 saved my life and that’s terrifying to admit aloud.
By the start of senior year, the world had been shut down for about four (4) months and my college education had transitioned to being completely virtual. When the world shut down and everything, including school, came to a pause, I could finally breathe again. I needed a break from the world of fake smiles for corporate liking, sleepless nights, memorization, microaggressions, campus protests, and threats from local citizens that never seemed to end. I needed to take the mask off.
The “great pause” prompted, what felt like, a shedding. I shed years of unresolved trauma, resentment, and confusion that lived so loudly in my psyche. The “great pause” made space for me to just exist. For the first time ever, I’d been given a chance to sit still and just be. Well, after all those years of distraction, never-ending work, and unhealthy coping mechanisms, reality caught up to me. It wasn’t pretty either.
My brain felt like it broke in half: I was unable to focus for more than five minutes at a time. Speaking became more difficult as I struggled to connect my thoughts and form sentences. My health embarrassingly deteriorated. I walked around in aching pain. My thoughts would decapitate me. I’d gained over one hundred (100) pounds (lbs) during college. On top of that, I no longer recognized myself in the mirror.
I couldn’t take the dysfunction any longer! August of 2020, I made a promise to myself to heal and prioritize my health. I accepted a part-time job, lightened up my class load, and scheduled every health appointment I could. Slowly, but surely, I began to see progress. A few months into treatment, I experienced a spiritual awakening that completely changed my outlook on life. That’s when the real healing began.
I’m not sharing about my spiritual journey to influence anyone or deem one healing mechanism better than the other. I’m just sharing what worked for me.
Like many people who start a spiritual journey, I relied heavily on meditation. The practice forced me to be still to acknowledge where I’d been, where I was, and where I wanted to go. The more I practiced, the calmer I became and the better I handled disruption of peace. I paired meditation with prayer, exercise, and self-love activities. Around December of 2020, I began shadow work and therapy.
Shadow-work is a deep introspective practice that is used to reveal unconscious parts of ourselves, also known as our shadows, that we intentionally or unintentionally avoid. The sole purpose of shadow-work is to become more whole.
My spiritual journey allowed me to feel every inch of my soul and silence the noise in my head. Instead of blaming everyone else for what I felt, I looked inside and took accountability for allowing my condition to become severe. The more I self-reflected, the more my shame turned into gratitude and my pain made space for peace.
Now, one year after taking my mental health seriously and eight years after it all began, I can finally say, “I faced depression and am stronger for it.”
During the woeful nights of my healing journey, I rediscovered my undying passion for poetry and writing. As a form of therapy, I used the power of writing to tell my gospel truth. Here’s a piece I wrote during a time where I felt lost and unsure if I’d actually beat depression:
Mind of Me
Written by Tierra Winstead
Foot tapping, I wonder if I’m the only one that feels subordinate to her own heart coordinates.
I wonder if the hope I get from cinema and old shows will silence the screams;
This is how I escape now: using TV screens, film scenes, and late-night screams on the balcony.
Here and there my mind goes roaming: I stare into the air, searching
For answers known, unknown in the depths of existence.
Arduous, but necessary.
“I accept my emotions”–the ugly, the doubtful, the good, the scary.
While these golden years should gleam so carefree,
Poking and prying, my thoughts act as thieves trying to uncover the beast hidden inside of me.
Will my purpose in life wait for me?
Or will good things pass by while depression steals my joy internally?
I wonder if I’ll ever smile again and mean that shit?
Will anxiety continue to shake every bone in my body, in my soul, in my grip?
I don’t want sympathy, just genuine understanding from someone that’s been in my shoes.
Ever felt like you’ve got the world to lose?
We’re told to let go of the past, live in the present, and stress not about the future.
I pull my hair out while tears fall and make bruises in my sleep, I am my own abuser.
They don’t prepare you for the questions a Bachelor’s Degree can’t answer:
Like why do thoughts intrude harsher than cancer?
Or how self-accountability can feel like a rope with no anchor?
Or why do palm-people try to rip through me like paper?
Or how to handle the hooded protesters that March across campus with no favor?
My spine trembles until my backaches,
Eyes cry until I have a headache,
During the day, I’d rather sleep than be awake.
Honestly, if I’d known, I would have just left it all behind like I planned to in the first place.
But the pressure of getting my family out of the hood seemed like a bigger case.
Every day, I go insane but find purpose in everything,
In alignment now and strapped for justice,
I’ll sing when freedom rings.
Feel free to check out a poem I performed for UNC Shuford graduation and follow me on all social platforms (search ‘Tierra Winstead’) for future content.
That is my story–well, an overview of it. As much as I’d like to think I’m healed and whole, I’m aware that depression is a lifelong battle and at any moment I could be pulled back into the pits of it if I’m not careful. To those that are fighting battles in their minds, living on autopilot, or feeling anything less than at home within yourself, I see you. I see you and you are not alone.
Tierra Winstead was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. Growing up, Tierra was fascinated with the Arts; so much so that she participated in several dance groups, musical theatre, spoken word events, and filmed two documentaries before the age of nineteen (19). Her interests led her to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Management & Society with a focus on Entrepreneurship from The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in May of 2022. Since graduation, Tierra has worked to help aspiring entrepreneurs launch their business, works full-time at SAS Software, and is working toward a career as a full-time creative. In her recent writings, Tierra advocates for mental health and the power of self-reflection.