Black Excellence

I Escaped The Hood, But Not Mental Illness

“You can’t go to school ‘cuz the Holy Ghost says bad things will happen!”

Sayings like this are the reason I didn’t go to school until I was 11. But paranoid schizophrenia was to blame, not my mother. In my earliest memories of her, I remember a very warm, pretty, simple woman who had been brought up in the South. She was so Southern, in fact, she told me she’d kill me if I ever married a white woman. So I did. The marriage didn’t last long, but I’m still alive. My mom is not. Although I’m grateful for some of the things my mother passed on to me, I’m pretty upset that illness runs in our bloodline: I’m bipolar.

I grew up on the Southside of Chicago, in an area known as Bronzeville. This is where such hated projects as The Robert Taylor Homes were. Being black Baptists, like almost every other person residing in our neck of the ghetto, prayer and God came before everything, even common sense. This is partly why I had to gain most of my common sense after I escaped the ‘Hood. Before my departure, I would have believed almost anything had it come through the mouth of my mother from “Up Above.”

Over the years, I’ve started noticing how much I try not to think or act a certain way due to an odd similarity to something my ill mother did. I’ve got this very persistent paranoia about how many ways one can die while walking too close to buildings. I’ve seen, in my mind, frying pans fly from windows and splay open my skull. If it’s raining I usually have to force myself to endure my fear long enough to get underneath awnings. Then I remember that blazing-hot metal can breach whatever polymer most awnings are made of, so I press on until I’m at my destination. I don’t eat anything unless I wash my hands at least twice. I never put my hands in my mouth, ever. And I have an uncanny aversion to airborne germs, which is why I go to the hospital for anything greater than a persistent hiccup. I went to the hospital about 12 times last month.

Conspiracy theories are entirely out of the question, too. No queries over who was behind JFK’s death, or whether or not The Civil War was a plot concocted by the Red and Blue Lodge Masons fill my head for very long. I tend to stay away from subjects such as these because of the possibility I will be consumed by that black-hole called obsession. And at the back of my mind, I always consider, and dread, becoming what my mother became—a tortured soul with hallucinations of monsters in light bulbs and delusions of demonic shrieks emanating from wallpaper.

One thing that sort of compounds my situation is the fact that I also have anxiety. Who in this city doesn’t have anxiety, right? Someone once told me that everybody in the five boroughs suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That would be something if it were true. But the actual issue is simple: anxiety makes me feel crazy. If I must also deal with my own thoughts about how I’m rapidly spiraling into the Mr. Hyde I’m destined to become, well, let’s just say I have lots of reasons to mistrust myself.

There are times, quite honestly, when I cannot stand being inside my own brain and body. These are the times late at night when I’m ambling to a destination and I feel the shivers when no one is behind me. Sometimes I feel the shots that kill me ripping through my T-shirt. The cold sweat across my chest becomes the blood from the bullet wound. I somehow send myself back to the ghetto I knew as a child, and that gang that tried to recruit me takes out revenge for turning down their invitation to join. Then I blink and realize my imagination is greater than my reality.

I’ve heard that most young people fear time is not on their side and that Death is soon to consume them. I’m more afraid that time will see me babbling to no one and nothing—I’ll be near Times Square holding a sign foretelling the Apocalypse. Let’s hope not.

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.