Prior to COVID, I’d have all of these speaking gigs and book events all across the country; shit was sweet.
You know, way back when getting bipped-up—that’s how you say haircut in Baldamore—was normal and I used to order a clean one against-the-grain, leaving-just-enough-hair-to-brush type of fade before every event. And then a few hours later, after the bip, I’d check notes and crack open a new beater to go underneath a new black Polo t-shirt from the classic 3-pack and slide all of that on minutes before exiting my car (car or hotel room)—seconds before strolling into a venue and watching some person, some organizer, proudly read off a list my accomplishments from a customized bio that sounds better than the one on my site. And right there, at that moment, while they were still reading, I used to stop. I used to take a minute, and I used to smile. Not a wide noticeable cheesy grin, but a subtle smirk, kind of like the look white people shoot at you instead of saying, “Hello,” after you speak first.
My smirk attempts to deflate that “How in the fuck did I make it here?” ball of anxiety that bounces around inside of me as I leave my seat and bop over towards the podium to shake the introducer’s hand. And then I look at the collage of faces in the room, sometimes all Black, sometimes all white, sometimes diverse—in the MFA lounge, or in a musty high school gym, or propped up on a book store stage or at a jail in the tan-colored resource room—still wondering “Why me?” and how the many or few participants ended up here as well, eager to listen to a former crack dealer, barely out of east Baltimore’s semi-automatic era, turned author.
I wash away any remaining doubt by remembering that I’m the author of a bestseller and a professor who paid his dues. And earned this before delivering a political joke, a race joke, or a political race joke. Or before reading a passage from one of my books, more jokes, some “me” jokes, my corner store analysis on race and the “Thanks yous,” as lines form at the microphones set up for questions. There, nervous or aggressive attendees ask me about my writing process, wondering if I burn candles, wear a velvet smoking jacket and puff on a pipe while drinking Hennessey out of a champagne flute or some shit (I don’t). Sometimes they ask quirky questions about people from my books, their favorite little characters, as if it’s not nonfiction, as if those people and their trauma aren’t very real. They always (always) ask about my mental health, my PTSD and what that means to me.
In a recent Salon essay, I wrote:
“There’s no such thing as mental illness — that’s something white people subscribe to!” which was a refrain I heard so much from my family, that I used to believe it.
Dudes from my city, my block, and even those who have frequented my household witnessed and participated in people snapping, losing control, attacking strangers, banging guns at crowds, and still, mental illness was considered to be a made-up thing. Older men in their mid-to-late 30s dating girls from my 10th grade geometry class like it was normal, and mental illness wasn’t real? Stories about older killers lurking around the park, guys we needed to stay away from, said to collect bodies like baseball cards and still, mental illness was not a real thing?
After I published that essay, my email accounts, my DMs and texts flooded with people recommending and offering me therapy or appointments with their therapist and advice on how great my life would be if I played the healing game. Even the question-askers who lined up at the microphones during events were leaving business cards and coupons for their therapists. And honestly, I do think about going.
I imagine that I’d choose a Black therapist, a woman because I tend to trust women more than men and find them easier to talk to. I’d pay in cash because I’m from the therapy-is-only-for-white-people generation and according to They, “You don’t want those therapy visits on your record, people will think you are crazy!” Mind you, I don’t know who “They,” is and I never saw this record They speak of. Anyway, I’d have my cash ready and I’d definitely wear my glasses, the same way I wear them to court, or anything important really because society has historically shown favor to Black people in glasses. I’d arrive early, just so I could scope out the parking lot and see who enters and exits the building because the last thing I want is for They to see me. When the coast is clear, I’d check in, cash the receptionist out and start my session.
I imagine the therapist would ask, “So, why are you here?” and I would say something like “My wife or the system,” as they are the only two forces that could get me to attend. She would probably laugh. I wouldn’t lay on her couch or any couch in some office, even if it’s really clean, so I’d sit up straight on any chair that allowed me to see the door and check for cameras. And then I’d wait for the array of “What was your childhood like?” type of questions to come, just as they always do in the movies.
“So, this is off the record, right? And no recording or writing anything down. Ok?” I’d request.
If she agreed, I would dive into the bad days. The mom who had kids too early. The drunk, drug-addicted father. The murder I witnessed at 5, 8 and 9 and again and again. That uncle who molested that aunt and that cousin, and those family members who knew it happened and didn’t say or do anything. Family who stole video games to sell for crack money. My resentment towards all of them. My anger, my attitude, my outburst, my addictions, my block, more murder, dad in rehab, dad relapsing, dad rolling out, mom’s tears after we cracked that uncle’s head, neglect, my guns, gunplay, gun work, the overdoses, the abandoned kids, house raids, kidnaps, get-backs, failed everything and more death that would visit again and again and again.
Thinking about the loss harrows me, talking about it makes me physically ache so I would shift the conversations from my life to hers, from my past to her past, and my present—if she keeps leaning on my past. People always ask me if writing is my therapy and I say, “Yeah!” without really thinking and that quick answer is probably not true. My whole body of literary work is an accumulation of trauma I suffered, endured, created and survived; however, I’m hyper-selective, I pick and choose what trauma I want to share with my audience, meaning that I have the luxury to promote what I want to be promoted and bury what I need to be buried. That is not healing.
This therapist woman—let’s call her Mary—would see right through me. She’d know when I’m stalling, she’d know when I’m hiding and she’d probably have the perfect language needed to challenge me, to pin me down and make me really deal with my shit.
“Why do you think your mother never really hugged you? Why’d she let you leave home at such a young age?” Imaginary Mary would say, “So how did you feel when you realized your t-shirt wasn’t enough to stop your friend from bleeding out?”
And she’d skillfully force me deeper, down into that dark place, the darkest place, where I haven’t been, where secrets hide, where any and everything is always swallowed by shadows, including me. And she’d make me stay there until I found answers or solutions or reasons or until I could climb out with forgiveness, apologies, understanding and saying things like, “Mary you taught me how to give up hope for a better past! I’m healed!”
With her guidance, I could finally escape my past and fully embrace my future. And honestly, I think about going, until I don’t. My people are hurting, the people I love the most, the ones I serve and I can’t heal without them. One could argue that a person can’t really help anybody if they aren’t properly taking care of themselves, but I’d push back with the many ways in which that pain binds us, allows us to see each other, allows us to connect. Where I’m from, resilience is currency and our hardships unite us. I’d hate for Mary to take that away. And I know that me doing these events, recommending therapy and healing in a way I don’t practice makes me a poser in a way but I’m more loyal to the suffering people on my block than I am to book fans. I can only win when we all win, and right now, we are losing.
And when COVID dies and the book talks resume, I’ll still be offering that detached smirk and honestly won’t plan on working on me until after a considerable amount of my people are able to play the healing game too.