I constantly wonder: what happens to a black girl who is too anxious to ever feel like magic? Can she still fly? Can she still be fly, with wings that tremble?
Poet Jae Nichelle is speaking about her “friends with benefits” relationship with chronic anxiety before a full auditorium—no small feat for a woman who also confesses that same anxiety often keeps her from speaking when she wants to. But when it comes to her poetry, as she proclaims in another searing piece—this time, about the size of her lips—“God said, I gave you those lips for a reason.”
Her performance of “Friends With Benefits” has since reached more than 5 million views on Write About Now’s Facebook page and has been shared by none other than online aficionado, activist and Star Trek alum George Takei. Clearly, Nichelle’s words struck a very relatable chord.
And they should. It is estimated that 1 in 5 American adults suffer from some form of anxiety, with “stress” considered the No. 1 health problem facing African Americans, according to BlackDoctor.org. And African-American women, sitting firmly at the intersection of race and gender, are particularly vulnerable as they try to navigate both of those identities and the attendant stress of constantly trying to be the “keepers of the flame.”
As writer Adia Harris explains in the online mental health journal Ourselves Black:
For black women, it often feels as if we are perpetually waiting for the proverbial “ball to drop.” If we get a promotion we constantly worry about proving ourselves worthy of keeping the job; when in love, we hold our breath waiting for the romance to turn sour; and when our loved ones are happy and healthy, we clutch at our hearts in fear of the day when this is no longer the case. In a lot of ways, we believe we are the custodians for the harder parts of life, and we must remain hypervigilant and ready to clean up life’s “messes” that are surely on the horizon.
Beyond our mental health, anxiety is endangering us physically, too. It has been linked to obesity, hypertension and heart conditions. In my case, it manifests most often as chronic insomnia. It’s only fair to admit that I’m writing this at 4 a.m.—my unfortunate witching hour—not because I’m a “strong, black woman,” but simply because my mind refuses to let me rest.
And yes, there is therapy and meditation and medication if needed. Any or all are recommended in treating chronic anxiety. However, there’s also the fact that while 40 million Americans may experience mental health issues, only about a quarter of blacks will seek treatment of any kind. There are still stigmas and issues of access that have yet to be addressed in our communities.
But it is changing: Resources like the Association of Black Psychologists and Therapy for Black Girls are seeking to make it easier to access mental-health treatment for us and by us by creating nationwide directories of accredited professionals.
And it’s not a moment too soon; because when Jae Nichelle says that her anxiety is the longest relationship she’s ever had—and the only one she can ever count on—some of us feel like she’s strumming our pain, singing our lives. We know this tune all too well.