I relate to Simone Biles more than I wish I did. And I know other Black women do too.
“We have to protect our body and our mind,” Biles said after her surprise withdrawal from the team portion of the Olympic gymnastics competition. “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
I cannot begin to imagine the enormity of what Biles is going through at this moment, given all her hard work, the abuse she’s endured, and the platform she occupies. But her words struck me deeply at a time when Black women in particular are experiencing a mental health crisis. Being resilient and strong is such a core part of Black womanhood, vulnerability can feel like failure. But Biles shows us that honoring it is the only way to win.
For the better part of the last 18 months, I was losing the fight with my own head. As my career and personal life soared, I battled a formidable adversary: severe anxiety.
I was far from alone. Though data on Black mental health are sorely lacking, a report from Johns Hopkins suggests that while people of color are as much as twice as likely to experience mental health challenges, Black women are half as likely to seek help. Even when they do, they are less likely to receive the evidence-based help they need, according to a National Library of Medicine study.
My enemy was my fight-or-flight response, the physiological reaction meant to save you if you are chased by a bear. It reared up continually. Even safe in my home, I felt as if the world might crack me in half. I knew it wasn’t logical. But boy, was it real.
When I did muster the courage to confide to friends that I was struggling, the nearly universal reaction was: “Girl, who isn’t?” And they were right. The pandemic had collectively cost them jobs, financial stability, marriages, loved ones, and their sense of security in the world. Ashamed of my griping given my comparative good fortune, I stopped speaking about it.
The resulting isolation made it all worse. That bear was always in pursuit, even as I interviewed lawmakers, covered live election returns, or just sat on my couch.
Adding to that was the pressure of being a Black woman journalist at a crucial junction for our nation, when Black people were disproportionately on the receiving end of the deadly forces of COVID-19, police violence, and institutional systemic racism.
I had just started a new position at the Globe, which would include writing for The Emancipator, a race-focused project to which I’m deeply committed. My additional work on MSNBC, NPR, and on a podcast meant that I wasn’t working from home — I was living in a nonstop newsroom, television studio, and radio booth.
The stakes felt so high. Failure was simply not an option. My determination to perform all of my jobs at peak capacity was steeled not only by the growing and increasingly vicious attacks on my profession, but also because I knew that my work — delivered with the lived experience of a Black American woman — was crucial to the conversation.
But I was broken. Finally, I came to understand that if I am not good to myself, I won’t be any good to anyone — not my editors, producers, co-workers, audience, or my family.
I sought and received help. I learned to demand and embrace the thing that is often so elusive to Black women: boundaries. My new marriage and blended family have taught me that dinnertime is for conversation, not cell phones. In the hours before I sleep, I’ve traded screens for yoga mats, books, and meditation. I unplug. I came to understand that my time and energy are precious nonrenewable resources, so I learned to say no.
Biles did the same — all under the unimaginably heavy weight of the international spotlight and the hopes of her teammates and country on her shoulders. She knew the criticism that would follow. And still she said, “No.”
July happens to be National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Biles’s courage is a lesson for us all, but I’m particularly grateful for strong affirmation of the need for Black women, with the disproportionate burdens we bear, to put our well-being first.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.