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Today's episode marks the opening of Season 10. I couldn't be more excited to begin a fresh season of new episodes with you all. I wanted to again thank everyone who has donated to the Patreon summer fundraising campaign. Today is the last formal pitch I'll make for contributions. So if you haven't donated already and you like to help support this fundraising effort, go to patriae on dotcom happening to become an ongoing supporter at whatever level works best for you. That's patrie on dotcom happening.
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And so then you try to take off your skin to try to get rid of this voice and it goes all the way down to the bone, to the skeleton. You know, you're just walking is a skeleton, realizing that that that voice is like a part of who you are that you can't get rid of.
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I spent a lot of my youth being sad and confused, confused because I recognize that my household was different from my friends or the people that I went to school with. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. We lived with my mom and my sisters, dad and my grandmother, but we were very, very poor. Very early on, I went to a Catholic private school for a long time. It was the kind of place where you have to buy your outfits like their special outfits you have to wear.
I would always have my pants would be too short because my mom couldn't afford the, like, large pants because I was the tallest person in school for a really long time. I remember not feeling comfortable getting close to people because they weren't super wealthy, but they were doing OK, whereas my family was constantly sort of like struggling for rent month to month, struggling for food and those sorts of things. And so I grew up with a lot of guilt surrounding like wealth and especially in the black community.
There wasn't a lot of money growing up. I never met my father when my mom got pregnant. She was actually in college, she dropped out of college because she got pregnant and the second she let him know, he just vanished. My half sister, she is seven years younger than me. Her father has been in my life as far back as I can remember since I was maybe two or three. My my sister's father was pretty abusive. My mom's life was surrounded him.
My mom used to work for Nabisco at the factory. And so she would work late nights or 11:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning. Very often I wouldn't see her that often because she worked late hours. I would be in school when she was home. My sister was that basically like monopolized her time. And so if she was at home, she was doing something with him and saw everything that she did outside of work was with him. And I think a lot of that was to protect me because he was super abusive.
And so the more time she spent with them, the last time he would spend angry about her not being there, the less time he would spend being angry at me for basically nothing. I'm not entirely sure about all of the the moments of abuse in my youth because I suffered PTSD from that time, and so there are large chunks of my memory that are just blank because in order for me to survive, my brain would not shut down. I'm in survival mode.
And so the memories just aren't all clear. I do have very specific memories of my mother being physically abused, being beaten. I had specific memories of of me being beaten by my sister's father. And in particular, one memory that stands out to me is around, I want to say third grade, fourth grade. Maybe my grandmother was living with us and I remember it being a late, late night. I was not good at math and my grandmother was trying to help me.
She couldn't help me. And so she kept going downstairs to my mom saying, like, come upstairs and help your son with his homework. Any time my mom would come up, my sister's dad would come up and say, no, you need to be downstairs like I'm eating dinner. You need to spend time with me. After about an hour that my grandmother went downstairs and got into an altercation with my sister's father that ended with like a screaming match with my my sister's dad threatening to punch my grandmother.
At some point the police were called and the police listened to my sister's dad's story, listened to my grandmother's story, and the police said, well, somebody has to leave. They looked at my mom and told her she had to make a decision, and I remember my mom making the decision that my grandmother, who had lived with us for many, many years, had to move out. One thing that I remember very distinctly is a time in which was maybe nine or 10 where I was actually old enough to fight back to sort of defend myself and my mom was being beaten.
And I remember grabbing my baseball bat like a metal baseball bat and I slapped him over the head with this baseball bat. And I remember him sort of turning to me and saying, You want to fight, little man. I remember him chasing me up the stairs like my mom had run up to a room. She'd like to sit in the room. And I just remember this intense fear because there was this adult who was much larger than me who was like charging at me, but also the anger in his eyes as he stared me down, because I believe that was the first moment in my life where I actually stood up to him and when he realized he couldn't continue that abuse in the same way.
My sister's dad was a big fan of having people over. It was the kind of household where, like on Halloween, he would turn off all the lights because he didn't want anyone to come to our house. And people knocked on the door to open the door. You get like kids and I throw things at kids.
And so I just I just remember being confused and sad and lonely a lot as a child. And so I progressively became isolated because it was embarrassing to be the kid at school who had high water pants because his mom couldn't afford pants the right size to be the kid at school who couldn't talk about whatever TV show because his family didn't have cable. I began to isolate and make excuses and not go hang out with them because I just I just felt like I was completely different from everyone and that no one understood me or what my household was like.
I spent a lot of time inside, like a lot of time inside in my room not interacting, people like I would go to school, come home, stay in my room. Once I learned how to read, I was a reader. My grandmother actually got me hooked on phonics. That's how I learned how to read. Once I had learned how to read and started writing, it was like many, many hours, just like in the room, sort of writing stories, playing with Legos, things like that.
In middle school, I noticed the economic disparity between myself and other students, my friends in middle school, their parents had cars, they had computers, they had they could take vacations, which are things that I didn't do as a child, like my mom didn't have a car. And so when I was younger, I think it was more a financial issue where I looked around and saw other people having things that I didn't have, but I didn't think much about it in terms of race.
It really wasn't until high school that I started to think about how race affected my life because I moved from this middle school that was mixed, where most of my friends were actually white to high school in the middle of the city where there was one white person at our high school. Suddenly, there were other kids around me who didn't take vacations, who didn't have computers, who didn't have cars, by that point we had moved to the city and we lived across the bridge from Jackson, which is a ghetto.
I was suddenly surrounded by lots of really poor black people. We had a metal detector and the high school where you go to the front door. We had security guards, lots of kids. So drugs to make money. It was a pretty violent place. In that environment, I think all of us were most of us were coming from families where survival was the main focus and my high school, quite a number of the girls in my high school had babies trying to figure out how to take care of families was what's more important and a lot of cases.
But I think for me, the awareness of race came in that when I was in middle school, the friends that I did have, we developed a lot of those relationships around things like video games, things like anime, Pokemon cards, magic, the gathering of those sorts of activities. And when I moved to the city, to my high school, that was not like you were a nerd. If you talked about any of that shit, that was grounds for an ass whupping.
Everyone in my high school had their hair braided or people had dreadlocks, all of the girls had their hair done up and really fancy like amazing, like braided buns, and they had colored hair and weave. And it was really amazing to be a part of. And I actually because of that, I started getting my hair braided. I eventually got dreadlocks for that cultural aspect was something that I did feel connected to. Not only was I suddenly surrounded by people that look like me, but that there was an active culture, black culture that I had not been participating in up to that point.
The isolation that I had mentioned move from sort of isolation at home to isolation in school and never went to lunch, I never ate lunch.
I would just go to the library. I would find the corner that was furthest away from everybody. And I would come to the library for lunch and just read and write. The further I went into high school, the the less I wanted to be around people when I was around people, I would have panic attacks, like I wouldn't know what to say. And I think I felt a lot of shame. And that's for me how I remember internalizing that that depression as it started, as this need to be as far away from people as possible and only feeling safety when I was in a library in the corner.
At that point, we had moved out of the apartment with my sister's dad, and so I lived in a duplex with my mom, my sister, my uncle. It was a two bedroom duplex. And so I shared a bedroom with my mom, my grandmother and my sister. My uncle slept downstairs on the couch. In this duplex that we lived in, it was not the cleanest neighborhood and so we had lots of roaches and we we had rats and so often at night I would go downstairs for a drink of water and walk down the stairs and turn to the couch.
And you could just see, like, these glowing eyes, like in the dark, and they would just be rats sort of land up on the couch, like above my uncle. When I would go to school, very often I would be in class. The class would be disrupted because there would be roaches running around the floor. And I knew that I probably and in some cases absolutely knew that I was bringing them to school from my home. And so there was a few shame because I was bringing roaches and rats into the school.
Nobody knew it was me, but I felt the same to get on the bus. I felt the same to sit in a classroom. I felt the that I had to go between classes to the bathroom and shake out my clothes to make sure I didn't have, like, bugs in my clothes. But I also felt ashamed that I couldn't invite friends to my house because my bedroom was also my grandmother's and my mother's and my sisters. I remember in high school, I had a history teacher who had said at one point that he played guitar and he said if anyone wants to learn how to play guitar, I'll teach you after school.
I managed to find a guitar and I would come and he would teach me and he would say, look, the important thing is to practice, right? And so I would go home and try to practice. But obviously, if my bedroom is also my grandmother from my sister's room, my mother's room, there's no room for me to practice. And ultimately, that history teacher came to me one day and said, I feel like you're wasting my time.
I feel like you're not trying, like I don't want to do these lessons anymore. I didn't know how to explain to him that I was trying, but that I had these life circumstances that prevented me from being able to practice as much as he might one. That might have been around the time when I really started to think of my depression as depression, the isolation turns into something emotional that I could I could actually like name and pinpoint in my body, because the few things that I try to do for solace I wasn't able to do.
I think when I was nine or 10, I started seeing a therapist and the therapist had been prescribing me antidepressants this entire time. All of them were white therapists. We didn't talk much about my life or how that was affected. It was just sort of generally how are you feeling? Take this medication. And these medications obviously have side effects. And so in high school, there were moments of impotence. There were extreme migraines from the medication. The medications made my depression even worse.
And in some cases, I became psychotic because of all of the medications. Also around the middle of high school started to lose my hair, and so I was really insecure and so I would wear our all black back then. And so I would try to cover up as much of my body as possible because I was having these effects like I was in high school losing my hair before I turned 18. I came from a family that that was Baptist, very Christian.
They believe that God can sort of solve all of your problems. I remember when I would go to my family and talk about my depression. Everyone basically told me that I was depressed, that depression wasn't real, that I was just working too hard and I was exhausted from working too hard. I knew that what I experienced was more than sadness, and I also recognize it in a lot of my family members, but that refusal to talk about it made it difficult for me to really understand it.
You don't feel good about yourself. You don't know what's wrong. You know something's wrong, but you don't know what's wrong. And so relationships, romantic relationships were very difficult for me because I wasn't a positive person, because I didn't feel good about myself or anything else in life. It's the opposite of being charming in every possible way. It's like a deep, deep psychic exhaustion. Particularly at night, it would feel as though someone would come up behind me and they would put their hands on my shoulders and they would just push down into my shoulders.
And so it was this extreme feeling of heaviness. And most of my life, that's what it felt like. It feels like someone is like literally just standing or pressing down on my shoulders this invisible weight that I can't get off. The thing that was my release that helped me was writing, reading and writing and then making art, and those were the things that I was good at. I wasn't thinking about what am I going to do for a career?
I was thinking, what is the thing that I can do with my life that's going to bring me some kind of relief? And I just followed that because I didn't know what else to do. Writing for me, it was the one thing that helped me get it out of my body, I think a lot of depression is the sort of psychic energy that courses through the body, and you have to find a way to get rid of it or it just destroys you.
And so writing for me was a way to get that out. Eventually developed into this this thing that I followed as a life path, because I realized that I could take what I was feeling and put it out into the world, and eventually I realized that I am not the only person going through what I'm going through, that it was possible to have these sort of conversations with people that you might never meet via writing. I started talking to my guidance counselor, thinking about college, but also we developed this relationship where I would just come in between classes and sort of talk to her and I was number two in my class.
And eventually I opened up to her about my home life. One day she just said, have you ever thought of leaving? And I said, no, like, I'm not old enough. Like, I can't. What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go? And she said, Well, you know, my husband and I have this house and we have an extra room and we've done it before for students like you can just come live with us.
I went home and sort of told my family and they laughed it off and said, you know, no one's going to let you come live with them. What are you thinking? Where your family. A couple of weeks later, on a Saturday, she just showed up with her husband in a truck and I brought a couple of things with me and I just left. I left my family behind. I was working during that time to help my family pay bills, pay rent, etc.
, my family, as much as they had sort of blew me off, that they they cared and that it hurt them for me to leave them. And so I felt this guilt leaving my family behind, but also living with my guidance counselor and her husband. Her husband was very much interested in having me there, but having me there as a part of their family. And so he would encourage me to come and have dinner with them versus having dinner in my room alone.
He would encourage me to come and play cards with them instead of being in my room alone all the time. Over time, they began to have arguments about me being there because I think my guidance counselor wanted to give me that space and her husband very much had this idea that if I'm going to live in their house, I'm going to be a part of their family, which makes sense. I felt like I was tearing a family apart that was giving me the space to live.
And I had also ruined my own family. I felt pretty hopeless and homeless, and I just felt like I was ruining the lives of, like everyone who cared about me or everyone who was trying to help me. I understand now that I'm much older than in the black community, like depression is not a thing that's talked about, it's not discussed. Black people are strong. And so we can't be depressed. We can't be sad. Like if we are, we just look around and we go, oh, God gave us life.
We're doing good and we just keep going. I think it's really hard in general as a black person to ask for help and specifically to say, like, I'm having a mental health crisis and I need help. That's like giving up, I guess. It started with self mutilation. It started with me occasionally stabbing myself on purpose with the pencil, getting a knife and like cutting my arm. I was at a point where I just it's not that I didn't want to be here is that the pain was so intense that I didn't know of any other way to deal with it than to not be here.
Everyone in my life would be better off if I wasn't here. They were a couple of times where I tried to hang myself in the bedroom with my guidance counselor s. After a couple failed attempts to hang myself, I said to my therapist, this is what happened and I don't I don't know what to do. Like, I can't continue to live this way. And he said, well, we can send you to this treatment center for a couple of weeks.
And I remember calling her and explaining the situation and she said, no, you're not going anywhere. You're not depressed. The doctor is just saying that to get money out of you and your family like they're trying to trick you, like you're not depressed at all, you should just come back home. Everything's fine. I just said, you know, I feel like I need this, like I don't know if I can continue living. They had an ambulance come get me, and they took me to a treatment center.
My family had to come and visit me and I had to sort of explain everything that was happening, and it was very clear to me that no one understood why I was there. No one believed that my depression was real. My mom and my grandmother would come and visit me eventually my grandmother stopped because it was too difficult for her, and then I had a childhood friend come to visit me. And I guess he thought it was kind of a joke like he made he made jokes about me being in a straitjacket, which is not how it was at that treatment center.
He kind of like, laughed it off a lot. And I found out later that he told some peers and some some other people in my life that he arrived and that these big burly men showed up and that I was in a straitjacket and they put them in a separate room. And that kind of experience that you see on TV and in movies, when you think of people who are, quote unquote crazy, no one in my life understood what depression was or what I was going through at all.
During that time, since I wasn't working, I wasn't helping my family pay rent, they were being evicted so I couldn't go home. And so I called up my guidance counselor and her husband told her that I was depressed. And since I had a suicide attempt, that it meant that I was unsafe to be around them and that he was worried for his safety. And so I could go back to. Eventually, when I did leave the treatment center, I ended up having to go to a group home for a number of months because there was nowhere else for me to go.
At the end of high school, I was salutatorian and the valedictorian salutatorian gave a speech at the graduation and I had decided, based on what I had gone through, that I wanted to really talk about mental health for us as black students and what our future looked like. I wanted the rest of my graduating class to know what I had been through. I knew that it could be relative to their experiences, and I wanted to give some sense of hope to them.
And by saying it out loud, hopefully give myself also some sense of hope. So I had written the speech that was about overcoming and I had to show it to the principal and she read it and came to me and said, no, you can't give this speech. She basically wrote a speech for me and said, this is what you're going to say, this is how you're going to present yourself. So I got on stage and read this, the scripted speech for everyone at graduation, which was incredibly difficult for me to do because it was a lie.
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Listeners get 10 percent off plus free shipping on their first color kit. With code happening. That's code happening. So I started college and it was a rough experience, everyone else in those classes came from a background where it seemed like they had financial emotional support. Again, sort of running theme in my life is shame. Most of college with me like looking around at things and realizing how much I didn't know how much my family didn't know, and then feeling overwhelmed by this tidal wave of information that people thought that I was already supposed to know.
I remember taking my first poetry class and the professor and I becoming really close friends, and his name is Gary and he he would invite me to his office and I met one of my best friends, Jordan, there. I think once or twice a week, Jordan, I would go to his office, we'd all have coffee, they bring cookies and we just sit and write and talk about poems. And that was really helpful for me. And they started to talk about grad school.
I don't know what it was and eventually decided, I guess I'll do this, not understanding what it meant. So I applied to grad school and I remember getting into grad school and I came home and my mom had the envelope on the table. She read it. She looked at me and she started laughing and I said, Why are you laughing? And she said, Well, you got into Arizona State, but like, you can't go. We don't have a way to get you there.
It's on the other side of the country. Like, we don't have money to send you. You can't go to the school. After talking to my my family about it, I decided that I was going to tell them no, that I couldn't I couldn't do grad school. I went and told one of my poetry professors, Greg Donovan and Elizabeth Hodges, who is my nonfiction professor, told them my decision and Greg pushed an envelope across the table and in the envelope was nine hundred dollars or so in cash.
MapQuest directions printed MapQuest directions from my home in Richmond to Arizona. And they had worked out somehow all the details of the hotels stops in between. And basically they said the hotels paid for, this is your gas money. You can't stay here. You're not supposed to be here. Put whatever you can in your car and just go. I got in my car, drove a week across the country, having never left Virginia going to a place that I'd never been to, a part of the country where I'd looked around and saw nobody that looked like me to go study something that I I felt like I barely understood.
As I was sort of coming in to myself as a writer, it was difficult to take these things into a classroom because to move into the space where I eventually was writing my first book and writing about instances that happened to me that involved my mom and abuse that involved my sister, that involved my uncle. Having these conversations with other students who are all white and knowing that they didn't understand or couldn't comprehend a lot of these experiences. There were some people who I think recognized that I was going through something, they did what they could.
I don't know how much they could understand or how much they could offer to help. The depression, by the time that I got to graduate school, was was so persistent that it felt like a presence inside of my body, it kind of felt like you hear someone over your shoulder telling you how horrible you are and you look over your shoulder. There's no one there. But you keep hearing this whispering and you know that you're trying to do everything you can.
You know that you're exercising, you're meditating, you're taking the medication, you're eating healthy, you're doing yoga, you're doing all these things. And you still hear this voice saying, but it's not enough in your terrible. Eventually, it's like you realize, oh, this is coming from inside of me. And so then you try to take off your skin to try to get rid of this voice and it goes all the way down to the bone, to the skeleton.
You know, you just walking as a skeleton, realizing that that that voice is like a part of who you are that you can't get rid of. There was maybe like a two year period where if I was driving on the freeway, sometimes I would just put my foot on the gas and just close my eyes and take my hands off the wheel and just count to ten, hoping that the car would crash and that would be it. And I wouldn't have to deal with feeling this way anymore.
By the time I had gotten to grad school, I had tried like all the medications I tried Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Prozac, Trazodone, Remora, and I even tried Seroquel, which is an antipsychotic. So it wasn't even what I needed and nothing worked. I remember taking Seroquel one day in my bedroom and then I just blacked out. And when I came to, I was riding in my car down the wrong side of the freeway. You're in your body and you're having this experience of like low self-esteem, sometimes of psychosis, of low energy, of insomnia, of just feeling like shit no matter what goes right in your life.
And you go to the doctor and you say something is wrong and they tell you, yeah, you're just depressed. This medicine didn't work. Let's try another one. This medicine didn't work. Let's try another one. And eventually they told me I had treatment resistant depression, which is this loosely defined thing that basically means that no medicine works. And so I said, what's the answer? And the answer is more medicine. Eventually you start to feel crazy.
There was an extreme amount of paranoia to the degree where I begin to feel like my life was a movie, that every person who interacted with me, every person who helped me, every person who spoke to me, every person who bumped into me on the street, that they were all a part of this big cast. And I was like the focal point of the show and that everyone, whenever they like, left my line of sight would go back stage and watch the show and laugh at me.
Let's see how bad we can make it for Dexter. How do you explain that to someone? I decided after my Masters to to go get a Ph.D. and the Depression followed me and there was a similar experience to my master's degree, even though I got into a PhD program, even though at this point I have a book of poems published, still feeling like I don't like I don't deserve any of it, but also feeling like some kind of fraud and that people have this view of me that is not actually who I am.
At some point in grad school, I am really close to someone who works in the grad school, spent holidays with her and her husband, which is pretty close. And one semester after I have a really tough teaching semester, she says, well, next semester you can you can work for me.
I have been also through this entire experience from elementary school up to a program having intense insomnia, where most days I am, I get two or three hours of sleep a night. And if I don't have to be somewhere, I like sleep to the day. If I show up to do this job for this person and I am exhausted. Obviously, my work reflected that. And so she said, hey, Dexter, and I said, Yeah, and she said, Are you dyslexic?
And I was like, no, because I'm not. And she said, oh, well, you know, you got these numbers wrong. And I'm just, like, worried about it. I had talked to her about the Depression and I talked to her about the insomnia. So she knew. We had a conversation where she told me she felt as though I was taking advantage of her and she knew a little bit about my life and how people have helped me out.
And she told me you're just one of those people who always needs help, like you're never going to be able to do anything for yourself. And so I remember going home, I had I would have been pretty, pretty deep in my depression. I remember going home that night, just taking as many pills as I could find and things just went black. I was pretty sure I killed myself and I woke up and I woke up feeling like I had been run over by a truck.
And I walked out into the living room and my roommate said, hey, man, where have you been? And I said what? He said, I haven't seen you in three days. Just been out for three days. I called up my friend Jordan from undergrad and we escaped and Jordan took one look at me and said, like, you don't look well, she contacted another friend in our program. And that friend came over and I said to them, like, I need to go to a hospital.
I need to, like, actually have somebody like check me out. And so that was the second time in my life that I admitted myself to a treatment center. This woman was a doctor, showed up and she said, you know, I looked at your file and I think you'd be great to go to this other other ward where we actually do like functional therapy, like this consistent therapy and activities throughout the day and throughout the week. And she said to me, I think you're a good candidate because I sense that you have a lot of anger and I can help you with that.
And I said, I'm super interesting and going to this other ward and seeing your resources. But I'm not here because I'm angry. I'm here because I'm safe. And she said, no, you're angry. I can tell. I've read your file. And so I go to this other ward and it becomes just a constant battle between me and her over the reason that I'm there. She insists that I'm angry. She starts by asking you, who are you angry at?
And I remember other people going up and saying, like, Oh, I'm angry with myself, you know, I'm angry with my sister. And she would just say, no, you're angry at your dad and you would take all your anger and you would throw this ball towards this wall. And I remember watching people who started off by saying they were angry with themselves, just break down and start crying. I'm angry at my dad. And like, it was very upsetting for me to watch.
And I remember one week she called me up to go and do it. And I said, I'm not I'm not doing that. And I and I said, well, because I'm not here for anger. I'm here because I'm sad. Like, I feel very uncomfortable with the fact that you as a white woman have all of these people of color here at this treatment center. And you're telling everyone that they're angry at their dad as a black man who is not angry.
It makes me angry that I tell you this is the reason I'm here. I'm hurting and I'm sad. And your response is no, you must be angry. She basically told me, like, I'm a doctor and I've been here doing this for thirty five years, and I said, well, I find it unfortunate if you've been doing this for thirty five years and you haven't changed your practices based on the people coming in, it hasn't become apparent to you that not everybody is here because they're angry and specifically not everyone's here because they're angry with their father.
Maybe some people have other things going on. Maybe sadness is a real thing that needs to be addressed.
And eventually she stopped asking me to participate in any of these any of these activities. It was a strange experience to have all of these white doctors, again in my life not listening and just assuming that they knew what was wrong, that they knew what the answer was. It's a pretty deep, systemic problem, like people talk about systemic racism in the police, like everything about the United States has systemic race implications built into it. And so I was looking around like realizing this in this moment in the psych ward, realizing, like how it was affecting me being at this private college where all of my students were white, sitting there watching, like how doctors interact with me because I was a black man, honestly just contributed to my depression because I just felt this like absolute hopelessness.
I was like, there's no way that I'm ever going to feel better. Like bottom of the bottom, like as far down as you can go. I felt like, oh, this is this is it. This is my life. I'm going to feel this way forever. When I was in the hospital preparing to go and I was telling the nurses that I was suicidal. My friend is there and the nurse asked me if I have attempted suicide before, and I said yes, and then she asked me to go through in detail every one of those instances.
And so I'm sitting there with my friend next to me, and I hadn't described all of them out loud to anybody ever. And I remember my friend Sarah just reaching over and grabbing my hand, just saying it's OK. She didn't necessarily know the background of all the things that led up to it, but just her being there and saying, like, it's OK, we're not going anywhere. We're not going to judge you for any of this is one of the few moments in my life where I thought, OK.
If I can find people like this in my life, then I can keep going. So I get out of the treatment center and I was doing some teaching and I met someone and started a relationship, and I remember talking to my my girlfriend about my struggles with depression in my life for a really long time, like weeks, talking about it and then talking to her about all the different things that I tried. And one day she had asked me if I had heard of ayahuasca.
And she mentioned that she was really into interested in plant medicine and had a friend who was potentially training to be a shaman and that he was setting up the sort of medicine plant based medicine where we wanted to bring together a group of people of color to take this medicine. I didn't know much about ayahuasca at the time, but since I felt as though I was out of options at that point, I began to look into it. But I decided that I was going to go take this journey because I felt like I had tried literally everything else and didn't know what else to do besides try this plant medicine that had the possibility of changing everything for me.
IOSCO is this plant medicine that comes from the ayahuasca vine. It's been used in South America and Peru, other parts of the world for over a thousand years. It's a very ceremonial experience and it induces a psychedelic experience. But it's it's very different from what I think we in America understand as a psychedelic experience. It's nothing like taking mushrooms. It's nothing like taking acid. It's in no way recreational. But it's the ayahuasca vine. And I believe Choucoune leaves that are very specifically put together and compounded into at.
You gather as a group, there's a lot of preparation involved. There are a lot of prayers involved. There's a lot of talking through your reasons for being there, what it is you want out of the experience of the ayahuasca.
You have to go on with the with an intention.
In my case, I wanted to begin to discover what was causing my depression and insomnia. And taking the ayahuasca to believe that you're opening up a gateway to the spirits, to ancestors, to the vine itself. Because I'm not a scientist and I'm not a shaman. I don't know that anything that I could say could actually convey what the IOC experience is like, partially because it's so different for every person. And each experience, even with the same person, is so different as much as you can go in with no expectations.
I like scoured the Internet and read threads about ayahuasca, some of them really powerful. I had also read about experiences where people took ayahuasca and felt nothing.
It was kind of scary going into this, not knowing if it was going to do anything at all.
The people who come to ayahuasca are also often called to ayahuasca. It's not just a matter of you saying, like, I want to go out and do this with someone. I think there are parts of your life that that really pull you towards the situation in which you are drawn to it at a certain point in your life and that you have to be ready and prepared to receive it. We sat around a group, you go around the room and everybody sort of speaks very briefly about why they're there, what it is that they're working on, what their intentions are, and there are very specific prayers that are done.
And then one by one, we were called up to drink this tea. And you drink the tea and you fit for maybe forty five minutes to an hour and nothing happening, feeling like, oh, maybe this isn't going to work. One of the common things that happens to people who take ayahuasca is physical purging, so they're vomiting. And so I'm sitting in the dark listening. The shaman and her assistants are playing these these songs, these really, really ancient songs that are supposed to help bring spirits into the room, help move the ayahuasca around in your body.
After forty five minutes or so, you just hear people retching. It starts with one person. And then it's like this chorus of people who are who are retching and eventually vomiting. And then all of a sudden I just started yawning. We're sitting in the dark, but suddenly in the house. And I'm looking out the window of this house and the house is shaking and I have the sense that there's something outside trying to get in to the house.
And then I see this giant, I cross the window and it's it's rainbow colored and it just looks at me and it is completely aware and completely intelligent and it looks at me through the window and then it just sort of move past. And immediately after it moves past, I have this sense of some presence walking up behind me, putting its hands onto my shoulders. And then it's as if someone is rifling through a record of just old records, just flipping through the crates.
And suddenly I'm seeing these flashes of moments in my life, people in my life that I had not thought about in a long time or had completely forgotten about things that I didn't recognize, that maybe I had even blacked out through the trauma. Just these images, these people, these faces being flooded to. And it feels as though this presence, who has its hands on my shoulders, has moved down into my body, into my spine and the house is still shaking.
It definitely feels like they are literally like hands in my butt, like there's a warmness around the skin on my back, but then also on the inside, there's this pressure that actually feels like someone is like taking their hands and squeezing my spine. And each time they squeeze, I have like a random part of my body, which is like twitch almost as if someone is, like pulling different nerve endings in your body, like your puppet. And they're like forcing different things to happen.
A little concerning at first when you don't know what's happening in your uncontrollable twitching, like it feels like maybe you're about to have a seizure, like you're not sure. And at a certain point, you just sort of give in to it and say, I guess this is a part of my experience. And it's a little bit terrifying. But I think that's also a part of the journey of learning to trust the spirits, do whatever it is that they need to do in your body.
Eventually, I hear a voice telling me to go outside, and so I follow this presence, which is still sort of next to me with his hands in my back. We step outside and I look up and there are just these magical, like, otherworldly creatures. There's a giant like what looks like a giant turtle with these huge legs, these long legs.
And it's just walking by and they're completely ignoring me. And I try to look up at the presence next to me. And every time I try to look up, there's like a very light wind that blows my head back down as if I'm not supposed to see who's guiding me, because that's not the important part. And so I'm watching these creatures sort of walk by me, completely oblivious to me, like they're aware of me, but they don't care and the sky grows dark and there are all these clouds in the clouds part.
And this huge creature that I can only describe is looking like the world, like the universe's largest tapeworm. It just leans down out of these clouds. And when it opens its mouth, its mouth doesn't have teeth instead of teeth where there would be teeth there just thousands and thousands of hands and then reaches down and it grabs me and it pulls me into its mouth. And it's almost like I'm like being crouched, surfed into this dark mouth. That was the first and really the only moment during that experience where I felt fear, where I thought to myself, I don't know what I've taken.
I think I'm about to die. So after this happens, I'm just sitting in in a dark room again for a really long time, just sort of feeling this presence, doing this work in my back there, like cracking things that aren't bones, like I can feel parts of my muscles releasing that I didn't even know could be released like tension that I had carried for years. Just slowly being released and occasionally in the background, I can hear the shaman and her assistants just sort of singing and chanting around me.
I saw this image of an and I'm watching this aunt for climb and climb and climb, and then it's a camera on that. I realize that the aunt is climbing on an elephant, zooms out more and the elephant is walking on this gigantic boulder. And I realize that the ant doesn't know about the elephant. The elephant doesn't know about the ant or the boulder. And there was a strange moment, this dual moment of realizing how little we, as people understand about our place in the universe, about who we are, about what we are, about how we exist.
But there's also this dull moment for me of grief and thinking about where I came from and my depression because I had always thought of my depression was mine. I thought it was something that I did, something that I carried with me that I caused maybe in a past life or something. And so as I'm watching this and in this elephant in this boulder, I hear this voice telling me the depression that you're carrying is not yours. It's ancient. It's way older than you.
It belonged to your mother. It belonged to your grandmother. It belonged to your grandfather. I'm carrying trauma from the area that I grew up in in Richmond, one of the capitals of the Confederacy, the weight of what that means to slavery all the way back generations beyond. And I just start weeping. So throughout this whole process, I'm still just yawning and I can still hear people around me sort of vomiting into their buckets, and I actually am really concerned that something is wrong with me because I'm not I'm not vomiting.
I end up after this night's session talking to the shaman about it and she tells me that not everyone vomits and that the medicine and mother ayahuasca affects everyone differently based on what your needs are. Some people will need to purge things physically from their body, but in my case, the yarning and the weeping are a different kind of purging. So at the end of the first session, generally, everyone is sort of done with their dream for the night, you're self-aware, you can get up, you can move around and things go relatively back to normal.
I discovered for me that my journey was much longer than everyone else's. And so I went back to the room that we were in with my girlfriend and she wanted to talk. And I I was still really deep in the journey. And I had to just sort of tell her, like, I just need to lay here. The next day we wake up and we have a sharing circle where everyone comes back together and we we discuss what happened during our journey, where we think we learn from it and what we might want to pursue for the second night's journey.
So the first night was described to me by the shaman is being sort of an introductory night where the medicine becomes familiar with you and your body and your needs and you become familiar with the medicine and what it can do, how it can age. So the second that I didn't I didn't know what to expect, except that it would probably be way different from the first night. So the second night I take the first of and I'm sitting and it's the same thing, after about forty five minutes, I hear everyone around me vomiting.
There's the singing. I'm just sitting in the dark, sitting in the dark. And after about an hour and a half, I feel that presence again come up in its hands, go into my back, I'm just sitting in the dark letting it happen. I can hear footsteps and I can feel multiple like spirits moving around behind me. But I can't turn to look. Whenever I try to turn to look, there's that breeze again that just blows my head back around.
After a really long time of sitting and this happening, this bright light, like a state light comes on and there was a stage on the stage as the back half of a Zeppelin and the Zeppelin has all these, like pipes coming out of it. Pipes are tied with cloth and there's just steam everywhere. The pipes are shaking. Everything's sort of out of control. This presence leans down on my right side next to my ears and fills your upstairs pipes with that.
And the moment I hear that, it's like every pore in my body just opened up as if I were like an underwater volcano and there was this huge hissing and there's this release of pressure and all of the stress, all of this pain that I have been carrying for like years of my life. I literally I felt it just stream out of me. I felt my shoulders go down. I wasn't tensing any of my muscles, and it's the first time in my life that I've ever felt that kind of piece in my body.
One of the spirits takes me out of this room and we walk to the top of this cliff and I am overlooking the world that's just land and trees, birds, and I'm just overcome with this immense sadness. I think I've always been hyper aware of human suffering, but that was a moment where I felt everything all at once. In a way, I think I have tried to compartmentalize the pain, but I was overwhelmed by the amount of pain.
And it wasn't just mine. It wasn't just the ancestral pain. It was the sort of this huge human suffering of all beings that I felt all at once. I was basically told by the spirit that this is their job. This is what they do, they go around trying to help as many people as possible to heal in order to deal with the amount of pain there is in the universe, but that there is a way, a path to that healing.
I also received the message then that this was not a one and done situation for me, that the journey of ayahuasca was something that I was supposed to continue for the rest of my life, the healing that I received from this moment that was going to take it out into the world. This relief of the grief that I was carrying mixed with this awareness of human suffering, I think that my place in this world is to try as much as possible to let people know who are suffering, that there are avenues outside of the ones given to them.
You know, we don't all have to take pills, but to also know that there is some degree of peace that comes in conversation that comes with being a part of the collective and in sharing our stories collectively. Going back home, I noticed over the course of the next few days that I felt a lot more psychological relief, I felt myself having more positive thoughts. My self-esteem was way higher, like I had for the first time. I was experiencing confidence.
I was experiencing what it was like to touch happiness, which is something I had previously told my therapist. I don't know what happiness is. I don't know what it feels like. And suddenly I find myself just in the middle of the day, like smiling, not hunching my shoulders, eating food and being able to actually taste the food. Suddenly I was waking up at seven a.m. on the dot every morning. It was as if there was there was an internal clock.
And I really believe that the ayahuasca set reset my circadian rhythm. And so as the sun went down, it was like there was a clock in my body and the alarm went off and said, oh, the light's going away. That means it's time to rest. After years of not being able to sleep, I had this alarm in my body that said, hey, time to go to sleep. I had this immense amount of energy that I had never had before, and with the first ayahuasca that manifested literally is just energy that I needed to get out of my body.
And so I would wake up and I would eat breakfast and then I would just go out in the neighborhood and I would walk for two hours every morning just to get this energy out of my body. Like, I would just walk. I would call people, I would call my mom and talk to her. I would call my friends and talk to them and to want to talk to people. That was another big shift is the sort of isolation that I have had earlier in my life disappeared.
I felt more in line with the planet and I also felt more in line with other human beings for the first time in my life. At least for the first month afterwards, there would also be these strange moments where I felt as though I was seeing between realities, like I partially was still in my journey and partially was present in the world that we live in. The Ayahuasca didn't get rid of my depression. The way that I often think about it is if you have an orange like a nice big orange with like super thick skin, when you peel it, that thick skin comes off.
You still have all these sort of frothy, like white bits that stick to the orange. My depression was this thick skin wrapped around me and the Ayahuasca was able to peel it. And they're still these bits of it that stick to me that I have to negotiate. But now that the thick skin has been pulled, I have some flexibility in how to move to my life that I didn't have before. Like, I felt lighter, but occasionally there would be this sort of heaviness that would come down just a little bit, but it wouldn't touch my shoulders, but I could still feel it as a presence in the room.
After I had the experience of recognizing that my depression was the sort of generational trauma, I was talking to a friend about the experience of doing ayahuasca and that that particular moment. And she said, have you ever looked into epigenetics? And I had not. And so I started doing research into epigenetics. And in people who are descendants of slavery and descendants of the Holocaust, they can see trauma like DNA trauma passed between generations, which manifests itself as depression, anxiety and birth defects, et cetera, et cetera.
This was incredibly new. And actually the research about epigenetics had just started to come out that same year that I had done that ayahuasca journey. For me to have this this Atterberry journey where all of these lifelong struggles are coming together and being presented to me as this thing by spirits that has existed long before me and has been passed down through my ancestors, to come out of that experience with no context and discover the science at the very same time, had also discovered evidence of this in the DNA was a really incredible moment for me, and it was probably one of the most validating experiences of my life.
So the interesting thing about ayahuasca is that it's not a magical cure. You don't just take it in all of your problems go away. It's a spiritual practice. And so you have to continue dying properly and meditating and really reflecting on what the spirits brought to you that you can use in your daily life. You eventually slowly begin to revert back to yourself. The Depression did come back, not as strong as it had been before, but it did come back, the insomnia came back and I was able to this time pay attention to it in a way that I hadn't before.
The insomnia in particular was an issue and would feel like someone was coming up and sitting on my shoulders keeping me awake. I had already known at the end of the first ayahuasca, I had been given the message that this was a long journey and there was something that I had just begun and that I was supposed to continue. And so I had done a few other sessions after the first one. My third session with a different chairman, I sat down and talked to the chairman about this night, the experience of having this presence on my shoulders and my insomnia.
Someone said to me, well, it could be two things. One of two things. Either it is an ancestor who has been following you and is trying to tell you something and you either can't hear or you can't quite make out what they're trying to tell you, in which case you need to sit with them and figure out what they're saying or some kind of a demon that is attached to you that you need to get rid of. And so I go again to do the sit.
The first night that I that I have the medicine I remember looking up in the room is dark. I can sort of see silhouettes of other people and on the floor there are thousands of, like, glowing snakes. And they're all sort of writhing and moving towards me. And they snap together into this this, Wolf, whose body is just made of rattling snakes. And it's just looking at me. And it's terrifying because I'm thinking maybe this is the demon that's been attached to me.
And so I look to my left and when I look back, the wolf is like nose to nose with me and it just last down next to me. And so for the rest of the night, for the rest of that journey, when I would look over this, Wolf, made of these writhing, glowing snakes would just be sitting right next to me. That was the first night we do the circle afterwards, the next morning, and we do another another sit and I find myself on a ship and I'm being guided to the ship by Spirit.
We go down in the ship and there are these huge open room with all of these floating sand blocks. Before we even go down into the room, I can just feel this intense, overwhelming pain and grief as I walk through this room. The same black sort of shift out of the way. I'm crying. And with each black, I sort of feel connected to someone in my life. Like I feel a very specific pain. That is my mom's pain, my sister's pain, grandmother's pain, and then ancestors who I didn't know.
And this goes on for a while. And we get to the end of this room and in the very corner of the room, on the right corner, I've been down and there is a spider web. And I look at this spider web and the spider web has like hundreds of eyes and they're all looking at me and the spirit tells me that I need to blow on the spider web. I am completely in my journey and unaware of what's happening around me at the time, but I do hear the shaman say there's something in the room that needs to be let out of the room.
And I guess he gets up and he opens the door around that time. I blow on the spider web and it erupts into green flames and it starts hissing and there's the smoke and the smoke flares up into the air, it flies around the room and then it flies out the front door and the summit shuts the door. I don't feel my insomnia after that, the presence that was floating above me, that was super heavy, that's still present sometimes, but the nightly presence that would come and they put its hands on my shoulders and keep me awake.
It's just gone and has been since then. I found myself sort of, again, sort of filled with this immense amount of energy, feeling more present in my body, being able to like feel textures and touch things. But it was like it was an extended version of that. The energy was very focused and like certain to my body's a very specific way. It was energy that I could actually use and control. So at the end of the first I of the Depression was still sort of floating above me and I could feel this pressure in the air.
I knew it was there since the third. I said it can't reach me in the way that it used to. I very rarely feel overwhelmed and incapacitated by my depression in a way that I used to. I still feel it. I still get sad. I still have some days where it's hard to do things, but it feels more like campaigning that's traveling with me as opposed to something that is stalking me and that is intentionally trying to harm me.
For me, it felt like my depression very much took hold of my body for most of my life, like the Depression was in charge of my body, of the things that I did, of the things that I thought, things that I said. And now it feels more like the Depression is a passenger. And as much as I would like to say, get out of my car, like, I don't think that that's possible. I think it's very much a part of who I am.
And I've begun to accept that as long as I have some semblance of control over some semblance of understanding that we're sharing this body. But I'm always the one who's guiding the ship, so to speak. Who was this DEXA that wakes up at 5:00 a.m. every morning? What does he do? Who is a sex addict feels even slightly confident in his abilities and his intelligence. That's been an ongoing journey for me. It's almost like in some ways going through puberty again, like growing in ways that you're not used to that feel very strange to you, but not having any control over.
Before all of the Oscar, my dissertation was on trauma without me knowing that it was generational trauma. I was looking at the trauma of the IBO, who were a group of slaves who were brought here, who have this belief that when they die, they leave their physical bodies, they turn into crows and they fly back across the ocean to Africa. And there's lots of different stories about Africans who who believe they were able to fly. In particular, I was focused on how spirituality was sort of pulled from these stories.
I was fascinated by this idea of of a kind of spiritual genocide that happens when you bring people so far away from their home, they have this belief that they can fly and then you denigrate them and you tell them that that that's just a story, that it's not true. The slaves had to believe that they could get back home to be reincarnated, but if we present that as a story, if America says that's all it is, the spiritual part of it is not true, then all those people just die.
There's no chance for them to be reincarnated because they can't make it back home. With events like the murder of George Floyd and Rachel Brooks and Brianna Taylor, like all these black people getting killed, the focus is and should be rightly on how we stop these things from happening. My research is really interested in how we got here because you can't fix it if you don't know how you got to where you are. And I think that that is reflective of my experience with ayahuasca, we're looking at the economic fallout right now.
We're looking at the educational fallout right now. But with the ayahuasca revealed to me and what I think also the pandemic is revealing to all of us is that there's also a spiritual crisis that is occurring right now. And for me and my ayahuasca journey being told by the spirits that the things that I have been carrying, the trauma that I've been carrying, the depression, the insomnia, that it's not just something that's within me. The trauma that was inflicted upon slaves is actually still in the DNA of black people today.
I was talking to my therapist about one of the themes in my life being safety, I have never felt safe. And that means obviously being outside because of police. Mean obviously walking around in the neighborhood and seeing white people across the street. But that also means in the educational system, that also means in a medical system. That also means at every job that I go to, the therapist that I have now is great. It was very difficult to find her.
It took me many, many years. And she's the first black therapist that I've ever had. How are black people supposed to get to a situation where they are economically close to equal if we don't even have the proper resources to help heal ourselves? The problem is all of it is the entire like people say, oh, it's just a bad apple, the whole orchard is rotten. And I don't know at that point if you can fix it without burning the orchard down, finding fertile land, replanting seeds and starting from scratch.
There is a sort of spiritual burning that happens when you do ayahuasca. The shaman, the first time I did it said, you know, you all need to be prepared and understand that a part of you is going to die when you do this. And I completely understand that now, the sort of shedding of that to become a new person. The idea of taking ayahuasca is burning down, burning down the path makes sense because you're coming in contact with your past trauma, you're coming in contact with your ancestors.
That is important if we're ever going to move forward. It's difficult to see how we get there on a large scale in mass. In an ideal world, if you run for public office, if you want to be a president, if you want to be a senator or a governor, I think you should have to go through. And after a couple of them, specifically, if you want to be president with a shaman, I think the awareness that it gives you, the self-awareness, but also the awareness of the suffering of other people, the awareness of our place as people in a universe.
I think that we would have a whole different world if we required that kind of education in order to achieve the status of a president or world leader. At the end of the second night of my first two, I ask if it was an experience. I was taken to the top of a hill and I looked out over this hill like grass everywhere. And I had this overwhelming feeling of like sadness and pain. I was sort of absorbing at least a small amount of like universal suffering.
And the spirit was sort of standing there with me. And I understood then for me, oh, this is just the beginning for me. I didn't I didn't at all feel like I did. The Alaska overcame this thing. This is the end of my journey. I'm good. I had this overwhelming sense of this is just the very start. And this is something that I'm supposed to continue with this work. From my experience with ayahuasca, it's a mistake to sort of assume that you have any idea of what's going to happen.
And so I don't know what that work is going to be. So this has been such a such a strange year. I didn't think I would graduate in the middle of a pandemic as a result of the pandemic, I have lots of friends who are who are instructors, teachers, adjuncts at universities who are being let go of their jobs. And I feel really fortunate that I was able to land a residential faculty position at a community college that I'll be starting in the fall, which is superior to get a contract position coming right out of the Ph.D., but especially in a moment in the middle of a pandemic where where schools are like cutting back teachers.
I feel very, very fortunate to be here.
That being that used to always be on my shoulders, the negativity that that being would sort of whisper into my my psyche is something that I'm having to reprogram after the ayahuasca. And with the help of therapy, I'm able to stop and reprogram those things. And so I get up every morning. I go to the bathroom when I take my shower and I look in the mirror and I have to look myself in the eye and say, you are beautiful, you are talented, you are confident.
And I don't always believe those things. But for me, that's something that ayahuasca has allowed me to do that I wasn't able to do before.
And it's just giving me this overwhelming sense of pride and where I came from. Particularly with my my mother, even though my family still doesn't believe in depression, she said to me multiple times, I don't know what happened when you went out to take your medicine ayahuasca, but you different. I don't need her to know what happened, I just need her to know that I'm different and I just need her to feel the positive energy that I now have enough of to give to other people.
And that's good enough for me. Today's episode featured Dexter L. Boothe Dexter is the author of the poetry collection Scratching the Ghost from Graywolf Press, which won the 2012 Cave Canham Poetry Prize, as well as the chapbook Rapsody from etchings, press books. Poems have been included in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2015, The Burden of Light Poems on Illness and Loss, The Golden Shovel Anthology Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks and Furious Flower Seeding The Future of African-American Poetry. He is a professor in the Ashland University MFA program and a residential faculty member at Paradise Valley Community College, where he teaches poetry and English composition.
You can find out more about Dexter, his writing and teaching by following him on Instagram at Dexter underscore to underscore omelets or on Facebook or Twitter, you can find his books Scratching the Ghost and Rhapsody on Bookshop Dog Amazon or wherever books are sold.
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Thank you for listening. Until next time. Stay tuned. Now.