The Silent Graduation: Depression & the Weight of Success


Photo by TyreeBP

I recently graduated from the University of Southern California with my master’s degree in Professional Writing. I wrote about my journey to getting accepted and the uncertainty that followed, but have been rather silent on the matter since then. Now that I’m on the other side, I feel compelled to speak publicly about my experiences through one of the most difficult times of my life. As the Facebook likes, cards, and congratulatory comments continue to roll in, I can’t help but to reflect on the pain that preceded this moment. After a few weeks of much needed rest and reflection, it is imperative that I share the side of success that no one likes to acknowledge.

In academia, and society at-large, we tend to celebrate success after the work is finished, rather than championing each other in the thick of it. Social media has become a mass highlight reel, featuring wedding announcements, baby pictures, and envy-inducing life updates. Every now and then, I see a personal post or political rant, but for the most part, my Facebook feed is nothing but a string of carefully curated social resumes.

This hyper-emphasis on the finish line and erasure of the race has created a paralyzing fear of portraying life too realistically. For example, I know people who are fighting serious internal battles who feel desperately alone. And yet, when they login to Facebook, thousands of smiling, picture-perfect faces greet them with a false sense of community. The site itself even asks, “What’s on your mind?” only expecting a surface-level answer.

As an active student leader in undergrad, I was expecting my transition into the “real world” to be a breeze. In college, I had a solid support system and way too much to do. There was no such thing as idle time. I managed to schedule every minute of my day with everything from lunch dates to movement meetings and late night study sessions. I was living the life! After graduation, I reluctantly moved back home to save money, determined to do whatever I needed to do to avoid more loans.

After spending my entire summer in fruitless negotiation meetings with the LAPD and USC Department of Public Safety, I started grad school in August and started working full-time in October as a high school College Adviser. Between going to class, commuting for 4+ hours a day, working, and balancing family life, I was exhausted, and worst of all, I was lonely. I now lived in Compton, where I knew virtually no one my age. A good number of my close friends moved across the country and we lost touch for the most part, save for Facebook. Since I wasn’t living on campus, I fell out of touch with the USC Black community that had once been my oasis. I never went out on the weekends because all my money needed to go towards tuition and gas, and to be honest, I had nowhere to go.

A few weeks into my first semester, my program announced that it was shutting down and would no longer be accepting new students. In early August, I laid in bed for a week, following the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder closely on Twitter. A few months later, my good friend, Clay York, dropped dead in New York for reasons that are still unbeknownst to me. Meanwhile at home, my ten-year old cousin moved in with us for good, granting me the little sister I stopped praying for years ago. To top it all off, my parents were going through a complicated divorce and I was just trying to keep my head above water.

Between the loss of my friend, Clay, the daily deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the police, and an increasing workload at school and on the job, I fell into a deep depression. I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the house and often slept until my back started hurting, just to wake up and obsess over all the work I wasn’t getting done. On most mornings, I would wake up in tears, praying just to get through the day without having another emotional breakdown. I stopped attending church because I couldn’t reconcile my feminist views with certain religious practices. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get over the Church’s inadequate response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is of paramount importance to me and my life’s work. Within a year, my entire support system vanished. The few friends that I did have were busy working and pursuing their dreams. In the rare occasion that they were available, I concluded that they didn’t want to hear about my problems, so I sucked it up and pretended that I was fine. Surprisingly, most people bought it.

People complimented me for losing weight, not realizing that all the stress was affecting my appetite. Strangers commended me for fighting “the good fight,” completely unaware of the emotional toll it was taking on me. I didn’t talk about my struggles openly because I was ashamed. I felt weak for not being able to handle everything that was going on. Scrolling through my timeline only made things worse as I started comparing myself to other women who seemed to be thriving in all areas of life. “If she can be a loving wife and mother to four kids while getting her PhD, surely I can work full-time, help out at home, and get through this program,” I thought. But it wasn’t that simple. It took multiple conversations with friends, and eventually a therapist, to help me realize that my feelings were real and warranted.

After silently suffering through depression and intense anxiety throughout my time in grad school, I vehemently oppose the notion that everyone has it together. Judging from my social media profiles, you would never guess that, for the last two years, I’ve spent a significant portion of my days balled up in bed or bawling my eyes out. My Instagram feed only shows what happened after I mustered up the courage to leave the house, not the amount of time and effort that it took to get there. And while my Twitter timeline features sharp critiques of the society we live in, it fails to highlight the trauma I had to witness and experience to reach these conclusions.

I resent the way that we glamorize success and gloss over struggle. By refusing to reveal the dark sides of our successes, we are all participating in a form of emotional oppression. By suggesting that we made it through the struggle unscathed—with the photo shoots to prove it—we are promoting a false sense of effortless achievement. We are suggesting that a person’s worth lies in what they accomplish, all while being dishonest about what it takes to achieve said accomplishments. I’m no longer interested in contributing to the glorified hype of my own success. For the first time in forever, I’m embracing my vulnerability in hopes that it will free me from the perfect persona I subconsciously created.

From now on, I aim to share the whole picture or nothing at all, and urge everyone to do the same. I’m looking forward to a future free from unrealistic expectations, of others and myself.

Thank you for reading. Onward!

11 responses to “The Silent Graduation: Depression & the Weight of Success

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this Makiah! I am currently going through similar struggles and needed to hear this from a fellow black woman. I feel like society isn’t too welcoming of depression, especially when it comes to black women, which leads to feelings of guilt and shame. Your words are a testament to the fact that the struggle is to embraced not hidden. Keep sharing!

  2. A friend (and fellow USC grad) shared this piece with me and it resonated. Thanks for sharing your words and experience. I hope that as I journey through graduate school, I’ll be able to share any struggles I face openly with my friends, family and community. Reading this made me want to be more open. Wishing you well!

  3. I would love to hear more about how you were able to reconcile your views of feminism and the conflicts they had with your religion as I am struggling with that same battle. Solidarity sister I loved this read.

    • To be honest, I’m still in the process of doing that. I haven’t figured it out, but I do feel much closer to God now that I have stopped viewing God as a sexist dictator. Lol I wish that I had the answers, but I really don’t. It’s tough, but I find the most peace when I go to God with my questions, rather than looking to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

  4. Makiah, Bishop Ulmer is preaching a series right now on Passing on a Generational Blessing and the first part was on Telling Your Story. So Thank You for telling your story; by doing so you are helping someone else be able to live another day and know that they can make it. Also, we all have our moments of not asking for help/support whether it be pride or being ashamed, it happens. THANK YOU for finding the courage to Tell the Truth, Your Truth. Sending you much LOVE! Elestine

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