It’s 4:38 a.m. One to three times a week, I am awakened by a man yelling outside my window. While my first reaction is to yell back, “Please be quiet!” I stop myself. Why does he yell in the middle of the night? As I listen more closely, I can hear him say, “Leave me alone, you are not real.” This time, I really stop and think. This could be my brother.
I am not a medical professional, but several things are clear to me about the man who yells outside my window. He is a man of color, a senior citizen, experiencing homelessness and combating mental illness. Two things this man has in common with my brother is that they are both men of color living with mental illness.
In 2016, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that one in six adults in the United States lives with a mental illness. In comparison to their White counterparts, communities of color have less access to mental health services, and when they do receive care, the quality is poorer.
In academic settings, I am guilty of people assuming I am an only child because it is rare that I discuss having a brother or his condition. My brother lives with bipolar disorder, which is a mood disorder that causes an individual to experience extreme changes in emotion from mania to depression, which can result in debilitation or death. These are the difficult topics we choose not to reveal as academics as we sit with half-cracked smiles, meeting with students and having conversations with colleagues. We go through the motions as if nothing is wrong, but in reality, we are hurting inside.
A week before my dissertation proposal defense at UCLA, my brother’s illness hit an all-time high in which we almost lost him forever. It was probably the most difficult time my family and I had experienced with my brother.
During this time, I met with one of my committee members to discuss my situation. He asked me, “Do you love your brother?” I responded, “Of course!” Then he asked, “How much do you love yourself?” To that, I had no response. He told me, “You cannot compromise yourself or your health.”
It was time for self-reflection.
Living in another state away from my family to attend graduate school, I had to seriously ask myself: “How as a woman of color will I maintain self-care – while coping with a family member living with a mental illness – and navigate academia?”
As a graduate student, I turned to counseling and psychological services on campus. I found a support group for women of color facilitated by a mental health professional. It was there that I realized that I was not alone – several other participants had loved ones with bipolar disorder. We shared stories, tears, laughs, but most importantly a space to heal.
Self-care and healing have manifested in different ways for me. As a junior scholar, self-care is my number one priority, and it is not easy. I have to work at it every day. I have a therapist I see biweekly to release my thoughts and feelings. I find ways to exercise, whether that means going to the gym or walking up a flight of stairs rather than taking the elevator. I find time to enjoy things I love such as cooking, being a foodie and reading trashy novels. I have sister scholars across the nation who pick up my phone calls to cry, laugh and love.
However, my biggest form of support is myself. I write letters to myself documenting my tragedies, triumphs and coping mechanisms that work. I give them to friends who mail them to me randomly, and when I receive them they serve as my check-ins. Today, I can say I love myself and I am healthy.
Yesterday, as I walked the two blocks to campus, I saw the man who yells outside my window. Instead of ignoring him, I stopped and asked if he needed anything. He asked for a cup of coffee, and as we drank our coffee he offered his name. Michael. Michael and my brother are the unsung heroes of today because their moments of darkness are reminders that there is beauty even in the dark.
Whether you are student, faculty or staff, there is always consistent stress and pressure to meet the next deadline or phase to advance in academia. We must stop and take care of ourselves, because it is not worth sacrificing our physical or mental health. It is okay to break the silence that creeps into our everyday lives inside academia, because to be healthy means we are the best possible version of ourselves.
The simplest question you can ask is, “How much do I love myself?”
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia