They never saw me.
Maybe it was because I was too quiet. Or too young. The baby brother vying for the attention that he could never seem to win from those he loved, admired and looked up to. For that baby brother, since the time he was a baby, nothing seemed to be fair.
It started early – in my life and in the morning – so early that the memories exist in my mind as if behind a veil of mist. That was the way it seemed to me, at that age between toddler and child, when I wandered into the living room on feet that compelled me forward as if I were in a dream. Police officers were in my home and my parents sat at opposite ends of the room, flushed with anger and in distress. There had been a fight. There were no winners. And despite the discord, the silence of a fractured marriage was palpable. It’s amazing how extraordinarily quiet misery can be. Maybe that’s because misery likes to hide itself in the dark.
Soon after that night the baby brother and his two older ones were being jettisoned, removed and taken out of that home, hopefully to find safety, by a mother who had had enough. And safety they found in a shelter for women trying to escape. With just $20 in her pocket and the clothes on our backs, I’m not sure my mother had a plan for herself and her three boys. And because of this some may say my mother was brave, but I’ve come to learn that bravery is sometimes just dressed-up desperation with a good result. In that desperation my mother found a way out and soon we were moving again, out of the shelter and to “the projects.”
And for a brief moment in time, the four of us had found stability.
But with a mostly absent father, two much older brothers and a mother who was trying so hard to advance the financial fortunes of her single-parented family, it was easy for the baby brother to get lost in shuffle. There simply was not enough space for him, his huge imagination, his deep sensitivity, his unwavering curiosity and his desire to perform. Instead, baby-bro was relegated to tag-along duty and family mascot. And in true mascot fashion, there was no space for my voice to be heard.
They never saw me, over there in the corner, drawing the fantasies imagined in my head, acting out the stories I was dying to tell to an audience that never seemed to assemble.
Unseen. Unheard. Alone.
That must have been how my mother felt as well with three kids, her family back home in Jamaica, few friends and an ex-husband who would seek to endanger our safety. How confusing it was for me to have one parent doing her best to protect the safety of our family while the other parent was intentionally trying to sabotage it. With that came an unexpected and sudden move across the city two weeks before I was to start Grade 9. Boom! Stability gone.
That’s when things really started going downhill. It all happened so fast.
Mother suicidal. Oldest brother away to school. Other brother partying away his sorrows and his fears. Me, left alone, spending my days at school and my evenings in a cold basement, immersing myself in fantasy worlds created by video games, novels and movies. Mother getting worse – hearing voices, inventing conspiracy theories, not eating, losing weight. Dying.
The spotlight squarely centred on my ailing mother, there was no room on stage for anyone or anything else. Baby bro, still desperate for attention, resigned himself to the backseat of his own family life, in the shadows. Mummy was who we had to think about. Mummy was who we had to save.
And we did. Right before it was too late. At an emaciated 85 pounds, we were able to get our mother some help.
Two months in the hospital is what it took for her to learn to eat solid foods again, for the pills to kick in, for the voices to go away. I was happy my mother was getting help, but at 16 years old, I became largely responsible for her care and aiding her recovery. I told nobody of the situation at home and made the decision to not have friends as my life did not seem at all possible to explain to others. I kept records of my emotions, my thoughts, my struggles in raps that nobody ever heard and nobody ever saw. Baby bro, alone in a basement, scribbling the hidden world in his head into second-hand notebooks, unheard and unseen.
At school, they just characterized me as quiet, stoic even, but I was hopelessly sad, frequently wanting to end my life and absolutely frozen by the terror of what my life had become.
Instability was my normal. Loneliness became safety. I desired nothing more than to be invisible, to disappear.
So that’s what I did.
From high school, to university and beyond, I did my best to remain voiceless, to remain unseen, because that is where I found comfort. The world, unpredictable and cold, was too dangerous for me to engage in. I barely spoke. I dressed in monochrome. I stood to the side or to the back of whatever room I was in. I only left the house, or my room, if necessary.
Then I almost took my own life. Thank God my now somewhat healthy mother, likely due to her own experience, snuck a glimpse of what I was going through. She implored me to get help. I listened, not because I wanted help but because I was scared to die.
My therapist changed everything for me.
Finally, I had the privilege of being seen in that small office at North York General Hospital. Finally, someone wanted to listen. Finally, it seemed like someone cared. My therapist and I, we did the work together. Then when my therapist deemed me well enough to release back into the wild, I did the work on my own. Countless hours of self-work and daily investment into my health and my recovery. I had lost years of my life to depression, panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. Eight years of lost socio-emotional development was hard to recover from. There was so much sorrow and pain in that past that I chose to hide it. I chose to pretend that it didn’t exist. Those eight years belonged to a different Asante, one who I was still ashamed to let anybody know. I was doing “better” now so I didn’t want anyone to know I had ever struggled.
But then an opportunity arose. I was asked to get on stage and tell my story. I wanted to say no but was not yet assertive enough for that. So I said yes. In front of several hundred high school students I told my story for the first time. And how quickly everything changed.
That first talk went so well that I was asked to speak at other schools, in front of other students. Soon the talks became invitations to all manner of things – conferences, research teams, advisory groups, jobs. All of a sudden my experiences, the worst parts of my life, the parts that I was ashamed of and would wish to hide and remain invisible forever, all of a sudden these things were no longer my shame but my power.
People wanted to see me! That quiet kid who resigned himself to being invisible, who embraced being unseen, well, that kid was now up front and centre stage.
That kid was travelling around the city, the country and the world to tell his story. That kid had articles written for him and about him. That kid was interviewed on radio and on camera to share his wisdom, knowledge and experience with others. That kid and his story finally had value!
As I sit here, giving you the short version of the epic that has been my life, it’s absolutely miraculous to reflect on my life, to know that I have given two TEDx talks and have been identified as a CAMH 150 Difference Maker, one of the top 150 mental health influencers in Canada. I never thought that my life would lead me to the places I have had the pleasure of going. I never thought I would be happy. But I am.
Throughout this journey, I realized that while the world may be harsh, that it may give you darkness, it is possible to emerge from those hardships. It is possible to be healthy. It is possible to rebuild something broken to be better than whole. As I write this short version of my story and as you read it, I want to conjure up the spirit of a younger version of myself, the kid who so desperately wanted a voice, to not be invisible. Now they see me.
And now it all makes sense. I guess that’s because you gotta go through the darkness before you can step into the spotlight.
See me now.
– Asante Haughton