A Double Fight for Freedom
As we wind down January and prepare to enter into Black History Month, everyone will be inundated with information, pictures and stories about African-American heroes. Some will be honored for their inventions. Some will be remembered for their work in medicine. There will be a litany of those that are remembered for being the “first” something. All of the historical figures that we come to look forward to will be spoken of: Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, (now) the Obamas – they will all be a topic of conversation at some point because they led/lead incredible lives, made amazing contributions to the world at large and deserve recognition for their achievements. Chief amongst those that have and will always be celebrated is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He will be lauded for his civil rights activism. He will be recognized for galvanizing a nation and bringing global attention to the atrocities of the plight of African-Americans in the US. His awards and honors will be mentioned, and his speeches recited as a way to further immortalize him as well as further etch their meaning on the insides of hearts. Many will be talking about him as a fighter. But few, if any, will be talking about his fight with depression and anxiety. Let’s get into it.
Before recently, I had no idea that Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) suffered from depression. I had, much like many of you I’m sure, this image of him that made him a giant. He could leap tall buildings in a single bound, bring monsters to their knees and love a person into changing their mind/ideas about a thing. He was articulately inspirational in a way that made everyone stop to listen. His speeches, teachings and writings have literally changed the world. I’d see pictures of him and his family and imagine what their lives were like. Yet, even in seeing him with his family, out and about shaking hands with people, preaching in churches across the globe and as a college student on Morehouse’s campus, I still didn’t grant him humanity. I never stopped to consider what it took to be one of the men that has been chosen to make history!
When I think about my abilities when I am depressed, finding the energy to take on the government, organize rallies and marches to fight for civil rights for all of mankind is nowhere near on the list of things I can fathom doing. Depending on the level of severity of the depression, I can go to work and be pretty functional, take care of my family and do most basic tasks. But, as we know, MLK was different. And he relished that. In fact, he once said, “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted…but there are some things in our world to which men of good will must be maladjusted.” His stance was that the kind of creativity and forward thinking that was needed to end racism, poverty and war required people to be (and think) abnormally – be creatively maladjusted.
Dr. King’s bouts with depression started early in his life. He’d already attempted suicide twice by the time he was 13 years old. His depression would persist through adulthood. Some say that his depression was the root cause of his empathy and the driving force behind his passion for civil rights. The spirit of the civil rights movement that he and many other brave and noteworthy people began in 1954 lives on today. The movement of today is called social justice, but the demands and the interests are the same: the abolition of racial injustice, discrimination and disenfranchisement. And to think that he was only 26 when he began. What were you doing at the age of 26? Not to draw a parallel for comparison, but at the age when most are starting serious dating/marriage and considering buying a house, Dr. King was starting a movement (with family in tow) that would shape race relations for generations to come. That’s a lot to shoulder, and especially for someone so young. The pressure must have felt stifling.
Dr. King was only open about his depression with those that were closest to him. Perhaps he didn’t exactly call it that, as we don’t all self-diagnose. But, historians recall that “…in 1959, three years after beginning his public life, King felt depleted: ‘ What I have been doing is giving, giving, giving, and not stopping to retreat to meditate like I should – to come back. If this situation is not resolved, I will be a physical and psychological wreck…’” He understood the assignment of showing up for the world, and was simultaneously hyper aware of the toll it was taking on him as a person. About his depression, his guarding the secrecy of it was a decision he made out of fear that the disclosure of it would delegitimize him. With the negative perceptions of mental health and depression that were the order of the day in the 1950’s (and still persist today), he could not risk his opponents using his “instability” against him. So, he grinned and beared it. He, like so many of us do, put on a public face that did not always represent the private struggles he was having. He resisted assistance because he had to fight. He resisted therapy because he had to fight. He resisted the urging by those that loved him most to take time off for himself because he was selfless. He pushed through the anxiety that must have accompanied his every waking thought as he and his family were constantly being threatened with physical harm. He pushed through the fear of assassination attempts and arrests. He fought hard for our freedoms, even as he may have lost some battles for his own (mental) freedom.
Dr. King was only 39 years old when he died. Though there are still inroads to be made, lots of progress has taken place in the effort to lift the stigma of mental health – especially when it comes to men. Maybe if MLK was living and leading today, he’d be open to receiving much needed therapy to deal with his anxiety and depression. He was an amazing leader then! How much more effective could he have been had he been able to off-load some of the burdens of his life and heart with a trusted professional who only had his best interest at heart!? That way, as he was sacrificing for and taking care of us, there could be an additional person on his side to take care of the him we can’t see, and unearth (to help heal) the hurt and sadness we didn’t know was there. We all need help sometimes.
As we honor Dr. King during his month of birth, and again as we look to Black history month, we salute him as a pioneer in perseverance. We don’t encourage anyone to put themselves (or their depression/anxiety) on the back burner so that those around them can flourish. Instead, we look to his example of pushing through. He pushed with the tools that he had at his disposal then: writing, trusted friends, religion, and family. You have, at your disposal, the tool of therapy and possibly all of those other things. I believe that Dr. King really did believe in making the world a better place for future generations, but also for himself. And like him, you can want to be healthy and happy for yourself too.
Sometimes we struggle to balance life and purpose and it all becomes heavy. This can certainly lead to depression. I get it. If you are struggling with the weight of the world (and no! It doesn’t have to be a civil rights movement to be/feel important) and depression and you need help, we’re here. If you are feeling anxious and could benefit from anxiety therapy, we’re here.