Tears Dry On Their Own

Earlier this year, I wrote that I intended to use this space to push forward a more open, honest and constructive dialogue about issues related to mental illness and addiction. Throughout the remainder of the year, some of my brave and beautiful friends in the organizing community will be lending me a hand with that effort. I am honored to share the first of these guest posts with you today. It was written by my fellow organizer AK, whose courage, friendship and survival have made my world a better place. 

July 23, 2011

We were driving down the road on our way to a friend’s beach house in Michigan. I could tell something was off. The way my mother was holding the steering wheel, her frequent sighs and involuntary head nods. Something had happened. She finally pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. “I have something to tell you.”

My life would never be the same.

Earlier this month, as many were looking back on the life and loss of Amy Winehouse, I was experiencing my own reflection – one of intersecting tragedies, mental health, and addiction.

My cousin and close friend Paulina was in a car crash and she died instantly. She was only a year younger than me, we had similar interests and lifestyles, and she was gone. What is even more tragic is that both of her parents had passed away when she was younger and she was adopted by my aunt, so she was not related to me by blood… but that didn’t matter.

Every few years in the summertime when I traveled to Poland to see family, Paulina was one of the only people I knew there who was my age. We would go to bars together, go dancing, hang out in the field or forest behind my aunt’s house to smoke cigarettes and drink Żubrówka (Polish vodka made with bison grass).

As if this was not a big enough tragedy to deal with, I was struggling with my own life at the same time. This was the summer I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. After a suicide attempt and nearly being forced to hospitalization by my own family, we decided to take a short vacation instead. I quit my job, left my internship at the refugee resettlement agency I worked at and went off the grid for a while to make sure I was emotionally and mentally prepared for my senior year of university that upcoming fall.

My mother decided to wait until we were away from my home, apartment, friends, and the city to give me this news. She thought it would be best if she told me about the sudden death of my cousin while we were on our way to a beach house away from the world.

Although I had many close friends and comrades from activism and social justice organizing I had been doing on my campus and elsewhere, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about my mental health issues. The few times I saw people in public they would comment about my rapid weight loss, asking me if everything was OK. I smiled and kept my bubbly, open personality on the outside- so that no one would suspect a thing. Like most young adults dealing with depression, anxiety and suicide idiation, I felt completely isolated from the world and found solace in music, writing, and solitude.

I felt overwhelemed and ridden with panic and anxiety over what seemed like mundane every-day occurrances. I could not believe that age 21 I could not hold down a job, eat a meal without bursting into tears or sit through a calm social situation with close friends without feeling like all the walls were closing in on me.

And now, in her efforts to provide me with a separateness in which to process an unthinkable loss, my mother had whisked me away from any possibility of finding a space in which to connect with others. My mental health and well being were now at stake, but I had no community to surround myself with, and no space in which to speak to the knowledge, traumas and experiences that were now tangling up in my mind like kites falling from the sky.

The vacation was completely ruined for me. I could not focus on anything but Paulina’s death. I was sweating just thinking about the last conversation I had with her; she was extremely saddened over a recent breakup with her boyfriend. I wondered if this was an accidental death or if she intended to crash her car into that tree in the early morning on her way home from the graveyard shift at the gas station in her small town.

The only comfort I found that weekend at the beach house was the music of Amy Winehouse. She had died that same day.

I always felt some sort of closeness to Amy Winehouse. I began listening to her music and observing her celebrity while I was in high school. I too, had suffered massive weight loss due to substance abuse and depression. I too, had recently come out of a tumultuous and emotionally draining relationship. I felt that my years spent in the DIY punk scene in Chicago and Northern Illinois and my time spent living in NYC gave me experience to understand the world of music, tattoos, drugs and alcohol. There was some sort of beauty in letting go of all control and getting lost in the scene. I felt that Amy Winehouse embodied a tortured soul, someone with so much beauty and talent who succumbed to worldly pleasures. At the time, I didn’t necessarily see it as a negative lifestyle. I was still learning about myself, my limits, and how I wanted to see my life progress.

I almost felt like I knew Amy better than I knew Paulina. My access to Paulina was limited by geography and finances. I couldn’t afford to fly to Poland every year. She couldn’t come to the states due to visa restrictions and lack of funds. Access to Amy was uncomplicated thanks for my mp3 device, the internet, seeing her videos on MTV each day. I could be with Amy at any time of the day. I was constantly reflecting on her lyrics, her style, her pain.

Ever since that day I have always associated Amy Winehouse, her music and her legacy to Paulina. In turn it reminded me of my own struggles with mental health, love, alcohol, and my complicated relationship with grief/ mourning.

I was never able to say a proper goodbye to Paulina. Since the funeral was held in Poland, I could not afford the plane ticket to go over there on such short notice. My family could not help me, as they had less money than I. To this day I have not stepped foot in the town Paulina and I used to spend time in. In a few days, I land in Poland, just 3 days after the anniversary of her death. I am terrified of what emotions will come up when I sit on the same stoop Paulina and I used to occupy. I fear I will see her spirit walking the same streets we used to walk. I crave to hear her loud laughter, the same way she used to laugh in the middle of the night during our talks about boys, sex, partying and the meaning of life.

The End

AK was brought to Chicago from Poland by way of being baked in a Challah loaf. Enemy of the state by age three due to starting a riot at a local shopping center by throwing a tantrum in the barbie aisle over gender inequality and the cruelty of the patriarchal government. 

AK does freelance childcare and is currently pursuing her Masters in Early
Childhood Education at UIC. Follow her on Instagram: agnieszka_ak & Twitter: Huliganjetta48

In Celebration of Assata

Protestors recite Assata's
Protestors recite Assata’s “Duty to Fight” chant as they rally for the reparations ordinance for survivors of police torture in Chicago – a battle which was won in May. (Photo: Brit Schulte)

As many of you know, today is the birthday of freedom fighter Assata Shakur. It is also notably the birthday of another freedom fighter: Ida B. Wells. Like many of you, I draw inspiration from these powerful women, and as those of you who follow my writing know, I try to carry Assata’s words with me in both my organizing and my efforts to show my community the love that it deserves.

This day holds special significance for me this year, as I have had the privilege, over the course of what has been nearly a year, of watching young Black organizers claim victories and reach new heights in their work. Working closely with some of these young people has brought me more hope and joy than I could have imagined, and I love them dearly for all that they do.

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

This is also a day when I am reflecting on my gratitude for the powerful women of color who have taught me, and who continue to teach me, how to build and how to live. To Mariame, Esther and others, I extend my love and thanks to you for helping me find a way to build forward, in spite of my anger and pain. I will always endeavor to live up to the values and wisdom you have imparted. I know the road ahead is a difficult one, but your words and your love have given me the strength to face what’s yet to come, and I love you for that.

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

I hope that those who can will join me in celebrating this day by supporting an important project that has been created in Assata’s name. Assata’s Daughters is described by its creators as a “grassroots, intergenerational collective of radical Black women who love and support each other.” Amongst other projects, this group aims to create a troupe of sorts for young Black girls, providing a sacred space in which they can learn self love and celebrate their history and their Blackness. As one of the group’s founders, my friend Page May, has said, “I believe young Black women need more spaces that center their struggles, questions, and ideas.”

As a non-black person of color, I hope that our communities both rally around efforts like this one, and learn from it, such that we might create more sacred spaces where young people from marginalized communities can connect and grow.

Assata’s Daughter’s is a beautiful and important project, and it needs your support to thrive. So I hope you will give if you can.

Jakya Hobbs, the youngest recipient of this year's Women to Celebrate award, speaks out against police brutality. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)
Jakya Hobbs, a member of Assata’s Daughters and the youngest recipient of this year’s Women to Celebrate award, speaks out against police brutality. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

In addition to making a contribution to this group, I will also celebrate Assata today by reflecting on all that she brings to our movements. I will celebrate the people who I have stood with, hand in hand, as we have echoed her words at the end of our trainings and actions. I will cherish the people in my life who take care of one another in the knowledge that Assata gave us – that we must love and protect one another. I will celebrate my friends that, like me, get out of bed in the morning with a sense of hope, even in dark times, because they know that together, we can build beyond the darkness of this system.

I will celebrate my mentors, because without them, I would not know what it means to build forward.

In closing, I will leave you a poem that’s words have been echoed many times on this page, and that’s lines are in my heart each day.

i believe in living

i believe in living.
i believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
i believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs;
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
i believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
i believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.

i believe in life.
And i have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path
i have seen the destruction of the daylight
and seen bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted

i have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
in one easy lesson.
i have walked on cut grass.
i have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indifference

i have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know anything at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.

i believe in living
i believe in birth.
i believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.

And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home to port.