It was December 3, 2016. I was in Miami at Art Basel, standing next to my best friend at the W Hotel, trying to process how my grandmother passed away just hours earlier. We both rather wrongfully thought that by attending an Art Basel event, we would somehow be pulled from the realization that our grandma (my best friend was extremely close to her too) was now gone. We both left that party in tears.
I had a really long stretch of no significant losses in my life, most having ended by my high school years. It wasn’t until that date that a string of consecutive life-altering deaths would soon follow. I didn’t know the proper way to grieve losing my grandma, especially when I was thousands of miles away from home. My mother urged me to stay in Florida and not venture back to New Jersey until the following day.
As I sat on the airplane that next morning, I was confused and a little scared. Before that moment, I never had my mental state jostled like that as an adult. Sure, breakups sucked and so did layoffs, but death was something I was not prepared to comprehend, even at the age of 37. I was terrified of going home to face reality. I felt guilty that I left when her health was hanging in the balance. I didn’t know how to return home without getting to see my grandma and tell her all about my trip that was cut short by her death. Then I felt something creeping into my mind and slowly picking away at my spirit, a debilitating sadness that was smothering me in a way I had never experienced before. So I opened up my laptop and distracted myself with a 2016 year-end writing piece that I shocked my editor with by still delivering on deadline. That strange feeling soon dissipated.
Fast forward to June 20, 2017. I’m standing in front of my mirror modeling a t-shirt that was given to me at Harvard University when Prodigy and I spoke there in 2016 for the release of Commissary Kitchen. I texted P: “Did you ever rock this t-shirt?” and sent him a photo of it. No response. He always responds. About an hour later, I get a phone call from my friend. “Go on Instagram to Nas’s page,” she says. “I think Prodigy died.” And he did. I paced around my apartment in tears as half of the hip-hop community blew up my phone, asking me to confirm that my friend and writing partner succumbed to sickle cell anemia. That familiar, sad, feeling returned. I was asked to write a piece on Prodigy for Billboard, so in the midst of that fog, I sat at my desk and wrote. Then I wrote some more. Once again, that feeling faded.
May 20, 2018. My mother is rushed to the hospital, starting her nine-month battle with cancer. That ended on February 21, 2019. It was during this time that I found some clarity surrounding my mental health. Anxiety, situational depression — a few things were going on that I’m still grappling with as I continue to grieve the loss of my mother. When her health began to decline, I was in the midst of writing my first solo book. The bouts of depression and severe anxiety were exacerbated by stress, and my only source of solace was opening my laptop and writing. I was meeting a deadline but was also saving myself from a mental breakdown. I learned that technique on that plane ride from Florida to New Jersey two years prior.
Maintaining mental health is a marathon — not a sprint — with a series of obstacles thrown your way as you continue to run. I never understood what “trigger warning” meant until now. I wish a sign with those words would flash before I approach any hospital while driving or before any commercial about new cancer treatments. I also never understood what “self-care” meant. I always thought it was an excuse to eat a cupcake or something equally high in calories after a rough day. Now I know it means allowing myself five minutes to laugh at a meme before 20 minutes of crying or taking another trip to Miami without thinking someone else is going to leave me while I’m away.
But my greatest self-care tool is my pen. Writing’s the thing I can do that somehow takes my mind away from everything while simultaneously submersing me directly into my own emotions. Only through writing am I an outsider and see things more clearly than when I’m trying to experience them all in real time. Hell, I was supposed to deliver this piece two weeks from now, but opened up my laptop and blurted these words because I was having that kind of a day. People say they often bury themselves in their work when they’re in the throes of experiencing a loss — and at first, that’s what I was doing since writing is my profession — but somehow it transformed into that thing I do to achieve my balance of escapism and realism. We can’t live on both sides of the spectrum forever. With full-blown escapism, you eventually turn delusional. And with full-blown realism, you surrender to every dark moment you can think of and become reclusive. Writing allows me to visit both destinations without forwarding my mail there.
I cope with pain through my writing, but for you, it can be something else. The key is to find what that is and to keep it in your back pocket. Pull it out every time you need to. Maybe it’s gardening, painting, dancing, water aerobics, whatever. Just have a thing. We all need one. Our minds, our bodies, our spirits need one. It’s the ultimate form of self-care. No cupcake necessary.