Executive Tells Personal Story of 'Black Pain'

Public relations executive Terrie Williams was having days where she wasn't quite herself when she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Williams explains her struggles and the stigmas attached to depression, chronicled in her new book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: Almost a hundred and 40 years ago this week, former slaves gained the right to vote. We'll talk about the 15th Amendment to the U.S. constitution.

But first, you feel in your gut that something's wrong. You're not quite yourself. We've all had those days. But then for some people, it gets worse -so bad you don't want to leave the house or even get out of bed.

Terrie Williams, a very successful public relations executive who's represented some of the top names in entertainment, had those feelings. But she didn't want to admit it. She dragged herself through her days, no matter how bad she felt. Terrie, the founder of the Terrie Williams Agency, wasn't suffering from super woman syndrome. She was clinically depressed. And when she looked into this condition, she found out she was not alone. In fact, a community is in crisis. It shocked her enough to want to share her story. She joined me last week in Washington to talk about her new book, "Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting." Terrie told me how she discovered she was suffering from depression.

Ms. TERRIE WILLIAMS (Founder, Terrie Williams Agency): One day, I remember waking up and thinking something is not right about this. But I still didn't know what to do. I was - I kind of ignored the symptoms until, you know, it reached a point where I was not in communication with anybody for a few days, and friends came knocking on the door to really kind of rescue me.

I was never suicidal, but there were so many days, Michel, that I just didn't want to be here. And the truth of the matter is, I think there's so many people who are - they wear the mask when we walk out, you know, we're walking around, passing for normal, dying inside. And that's actually what I learned when I later heard the inner voice tell me that I had to share my testimony, and I shared it with Essence and literally received over 10,000 letters and e-mails from people all across the country, and in different parts of the world as well, just saying, best friends don't know. Family members don't know, but they told me. This said to me that we don't know how to start the conversation.

MARTIN: You know what I find interesting, though, Terrie, is that, you know, people call you a - they don't just call you a public relations adviser, they call you a counselor. You know, you're one of these people who kind of helps people out of their stuff.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah.

MARTIN: In addition to that, you're trained as a clinical social worker…

Ms. WILLIAMS: Right.

MARTIN: …before you entered the public relations field. So I'm wondering why it is you think you never reached out for help until it got that bad.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Because of my background as a social worker, yes, I - I'm supposed to know what the symptoms are. But when you're in the throes of it, you just don't know anymore. And it's as if nothing occurs to you. You're just in this profound funk and never taking care of Terrie. I was last on my to-do list.

MARTIN: I noticed that you go out of your way to say in the book that depression affects all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But you wrote your book specifically for people of color wanting to focus on the issue of African-Americans suffering from depression. Why is that?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, there are over 250,000 books on depression in general. None of them really speak to the unique experience that African-Americans have in this country. To be African-American in this country is to know what oppression is. And so what I felt was the newspaper headlines scream out at us every single day. Black people are taking other black people out. And so I saw a community that was literally dying, in crisis, and didn't know why. We had named it. We don't know what our pain looks like. We don't know what it feels like. We don't know what it sounds like, because everybody's walking around with the face. And so you think that people are fine when they really aren't.

MARTIN: Is it your view that some of the things that, you know, we read about in the paper, like the level of black on black violence, particularly between youths and a lot of young men, is actually depression playing itself out?

Ms. WILLIAMS: That's exactly what it is. Pain is a fact of life. It's how you manage it that helps you to move forward in your lives. We are a people -during times of slavery, we had to suppress all emotions in order to get through that. And that may have worked for that time, but it doesn't work anymore. The reality is, all of us inherit the pain of our parents. That's how we're shaped every day, by their talents, as well as their pains. And no matter how loving and well intentioned the parents are, they bring their anger and their rage to how we grow up.

And so, if you never have an opportunity to talk about it, you grow into adulthood. There are every day slights that you experience that you never process, so it sits inside of you. And so when you can't deal with it, you either self-medicate through drugs, alcohol, food, very promiscuous sex, unprotected sex, in bed with someone different every day. We gamble, we shop when we don't have any money, and we work 24/7, running away from our pain, and we hurt and we kill each other.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with Terrie Williams about her new book, "Black Pain: It Only Looks Like We're Not Hurting."

There are those who would argue, though, that this is a society in which everybody talks about everything. You know, people put their business out on the street, you know, all day long. There are all these reality shows where people are putting their business out on the street. And, of course, you know, Oprah Winfrey who is, of course, a marvelous and successful figure for many people, very open about some of the challenges in here life. So I'm asking you, some people would look at that and say, well, what are you talking about, Terrie? People put their - everybody talks about everything.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think that we're a people - we don't believe in airing our dirty laundry. I also think that because we are a very religious and faith-based people, often - we often feel the only thing we need to do is pray, and that we're, in fact, betraying God if we do anything else. The other thing is we have a basic mistrust of the medical establishment that stems from back in the day, that famous Tuskegee experiment where black men who had syphilis were given placebos and they died. And also, there's such a taboo in our community. We would rather tell someone that we are on drugs or in jail before we will mention mental illness, whereas many of my white counterparts will tell you that they can't make said meeting because they're going to their therapist. We don't do that.

MARTIN: Well, let's get back to you. Once you realized what was happening to you - I mean, first you have to deal with the fact that you were in so much pain, but then you had to deal with the fact that you had an illness to manage. How did you deal with that? That must have been pretty scary.

Ms. WILLIAMS: A really good question. I will tell you first that once the psychiatrist said you're clinically depressed, I was, like, thank you, God. This has a name to it, and what I know is it's treatable. I had to work through two or three medications before I could find the one what worked for me - I'm actually still on 30 milligrams of Lexapro right now - so that I could stabilize and be clear-headed enough to go through the talk therapy phase. And then I began to work with a trainer, because what I know is I'm not going to the gym. So I had to then have a mechanism in place where this guy, Harry, would come to me, and I couldn't escape him.

MARTIN: Harry must be very impressive.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And then I had…

MARTIN: You couldn't talk your way out of Harry. Harry must be something else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: And, you know, I would try to cancel, and he would still be there. And then I started to work on diet. And then I had to work through a period of time where I would cancel appointments with my therapist because - why? Oh, there was a more important event that I needed to go to. And the therapist that I'm working with right now said to me one day, let me see if I understand this - in her gentle way. It's more important for you to go to these events and be a fraction of who you want to be than to commit to coming here every week and making yourself whole. And she just stopped me in my tracks. I was, like, oh.

MARTIN: Which me brings me to a question. You were able to persuade a number of public people - at one point, people who are not well known to the public - to talk about their stories. I'm just wondering how you did this, and what benefit do you think that has?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, my God. You know, there's a phenomenon called helping while hurting and leading while bleeding. You are empowered when you tell your own story, because there's no question in my mind that as soon as you speak, hundreds of people will come to you and say thank you. And so ultimately, people got that it was for the greater good to fall down on the sword and share their stories. But it was still very - I can't even begin to tell you, I really - it was hell getting this done.

MARTIN: But I have to ask this question about - because this book is focused on the African-American experience. I think a lot African-Americans already believe that the larger community sees that community as dysfunctional, anyway, for whatever reason, just sort of beset by pathologies and just not functional. And I just wonder, a lot of the people whom you spoke to are the cream of the crop, people who are at the top of their game. And I just wonder if there's ever any fear that if people at the top of their game are in so much pain, what message does it send to people who aren't there yet?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I wanted this book to reach the young brother or sister who is on the streets, who is gang-banging, all the way up to, as you said, those of us who are most accomplished. The thing is to say to people who are accomplished and who do have means that you have a responsibility to reach back into the community and provide exposure for those who don't have any, because they're our worst nightmare without any real guidance or direction. And together, depression and pain is a great equalizer. And so I move through this country talking, to people of all walks of life about what to do, how to pull yourself up that when you see people on the street who look down and who look dejected - a word, a smile. How you doing? You know, you look tired today. And just to break that person's moment, that somebody notices me and gave me a word of encouragement just when I needed it.

MARTIN: Terrie Williams is the owner of the Terrie Williams Agency. She's the author of ""Black Pain: It Only Look Like We're Not Hurting." It's available on most major bookstores. You can find more out about Terrie at our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore. She was kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington. Terrie, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you. I'm grateful for the opportunity.

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It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting

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