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February 15th, 2012
10:46 AM ET

Opinion: Terrie Williams: We need to stop masking our pain

Editor's Note: Terrie M. Williams is the author of "Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting" and the co-founder of The Stay Strong Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter @terriewilliams.

By Terrie M. Williams, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Another one of our greats has fallen. It was only a week ago that I was moved to put pen to paper about the suicide of Don Cornelius. Now it’s Whitney Houston. This was a slow suicide, but a suicide nonetheless. We won’t know for weeks whether it was accidental, on purpose or even related to drugs at all.  But it almost doesn't matter, because most of us saw this coming.

Sure, we hoped, prayed, and thought she was going to make it through – that the years of drug and alcohol abuse, the destructive marriage, the waning career, and an increasingly impaired voice weren’t going to break our beloved soul princess. We just knew that our unbelievably gifted church girl from Jersey with the noble music pedigree was going to be alright. She was our gift to the global stage. Our Barbra Streisand. We wanted so desperately to believe her when she said in the 2009 Oprah interview that God, her family, a couple of stints in rehab, and divorcing Bobby had helped her make it through the fire and on to the other side. But in May of last year, after a world tour that garnered poor performances and vicious reviews, she voluntarily entered an outpatient program for drug and alcohol treatment. We knew then that everything was not well.

Now we want someone to blame – the enabling entourage, the music industry, the tabloids, and, indeed, Whitney herself. Why would someone with so many riches – model good looks, a voice from the heavens that made her millions, a beautiful daughter, and a loving family throw it all away just to get high? Was her constitution that weak? Why couldn’t she just snap out it? We’d seen so many other talented entertainers, like Samuel L. Jackson and Mary J. Blige, battle their demons and, seemingly, win.

I asked psychotherapist friend, Mary Pender Greene, her thoughts on Whitney’s inability to overcome her struggles even though she clearly had a strong faith in God, a loving family, and, in fact, she did seek treatment. She said, “It is clear in the end that she could not, had not repaired her damaged self, reconciled her feelings toward her failed relationship, confronted her dependency issues, or accepted that her voice had suffered. It also appears that being involved in an unhealthy relationship helped to cause her to lose her sense of self, her personal power and her footing, all of which helped to further weaken her self-esteem.”

As one who has been there and is still there, I second that emotion. The relationship we have with ourselves is the most important one we will ever have. If it is strong, it can help buffer you from the outside influences and the kind of pressure that caused Whitney to fall. Personal pain obviously caused Whitney to be her own worst enemy. I strongly believe that a consistent relationship with a therapist would have allowed her to have a different ending.

At some point all of us may encounter that one thing, person or event that breaks us into separate pieces; and the life we built or least portrayed can’t keep going without the other part being self-medicated. That self-medication can come in the form of drugs (illegal or prescription) or alcohol. It can be engaging in inappropriate relationships, risky sexual behavior, overeating, gambling, working, and violence. These are all symptoms, that, yes, need to be treated, but don’t get at the heart of the problem – undiagnosed and untreated depression. It is the devil that gets a hold of your soul and your spirit and proceeds to wreak havoc on you, the victim. And those of us whose loved ones are going through this are often at a loss about what to do either because we don’t know, want to respect that person’s privacy, or because we are eating off of that person’s wellness and look the other way. Yes, a strong belief in God can save you. But for some of us, God can only save a piece and we need to do more than pray.

In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, long-time friend Robyn Crawford commented that “[Whitney] shared the fruits, and she changed a lot of lives. The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me — she fed everybody. Deep down inside that's what made her tired.”

And so, Whitney continued to wear the mask - that façade of wellness under extreme pressure that allowed her to keep giving to the world, but not enough to herself. It caused her journey to end much too soon. It has left a daughter without her mother, a mother without her child, and the world without an amazing talent. I would argue that it didn’t have to be and I can’t help but wonder: who is next? How many more have to fall before we begin to really address our own pain and our collective communities’ pain in healthy ways?

I treasure my weekly talk therapy sessions-they are my lifeline. It is an opportunity for me to speak my pain, my struggles, my gains and losses with a professional who is trained to hear what my family and friends and can’t. I have learned to let the tears flow, to slow down, to seek professional help and to look for healthy ways to put my pieces back together – through exercise, proper nutrition, planned downtime– and by surrounding myself with people not afraid to pull my coattails when they see something is wrong.

Noted author Asha Bandele, recently and profoundly said, “But even as we know, too often we don't ask why. We don't pull that person close; settle in for long night's journey back into day. It doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to suffer by ourselves and we don't have to sit by feeling helpless perhaps, whispering... wondering but never really walking into full engagement with that person who we so love and would be devastated to lose.”

I leave you with one of my favorite verses from the famed Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem, We Wear the Mask. It is the last verse and it is cautionary.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.

Opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Terrie M. Williams.

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Filed under: Black in America • Health • Race • What we think
soundoff (272 Responses)
  1. drlindagalloway

    Terrie, well said and insightful. Whitney's passing hurts because we all wanted so desperately for her to make it. Keep beating the drum, Terrie. Hopefully, someone will hear the message. Very proud of you, my CUSSW, Sister!

    February 19, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  2. DrA

    Thank you Ms. Williams for such moving words. I hope that your expressing the benefits of your weekly talk therapy with a mental health professional will help our communities of color know that support is ok.

    February 18, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arthur Gage

      Not just communities of color, but let all people know that support is OK.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Gail

    We ALL wear the mask. a now deceased friend told me money can't buy everything, but it can buy a lot of freedom – from a lot of things, it can provide choice.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. tom gasparoli

    This was really quite beautiful, shrewd and sad. Loving yourself ain't easy, but it's imperative. Thank you for the powerful thoughts, Terrie.

    February 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Who?

    Another singer on drugs and poor life decisions...why does she create a media frenzy with her death? she was not even that good...WTH?

    February 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • LynneG

      You are an idiot! I'm guessing you must be in your 20's and never listened to Whitney. If you knew anything about music at all you would know that she was one of the greatest singers of this century. Don't comment on things you know nothing about!!

      February 16, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Tom

    She's probably having a Hell of a time with Rick James now.

    February 16, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. cnn fan

    Masking the pain is the best description I have ever read. Whether physical or mental, rich or poor, famous or unknown, there are many who try to mask their pain in many ways destructive to their health

    February 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Albro

    I'm not sure where this "making our pain" came from. Personally I've been listening to your pain for over 50 years, and for most of it, I've been told I'm personally responsible for your pain. When do we get to the part where you begin dealing with "your pain" yourselves, instead of making the grand coast-to-coast display of how you're MASKING your pain?????

    February 16, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cucarracha

      Absolutely right on!

      February 16, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      what do you mean? Who is telling you that you are personally responsible for someones pain? Could you please better explain what you mean?

      February 18, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Betsy

    While I agree with you wholeheartedly in theory, not all of us who are in pain are able to spend an hour every week with a therapist. Some of us don't have have the means as you clearly do. Tell the woman who doesn't have her own vehicle and every move being monitored by her abusive husband to just go talk to a therapist. Tell the 70 year old woman who is being physically or mentally abused by her adult child to just go talk to a therapist. I could go on and on about situations where counseling is not possible and thereby show you why people self-medicate. I've been there. And probably still am there and just don't realize it.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Numyorangay

      god bless you Betsy. You are not alone.

      February 16, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jordan

    Whitney houston was a drug addict, plain and simple. And of Course, the media plays this up, Sublimating negative perceptions of black people thru the driving of this story into the ground.

    And of course, they play DOWN the fact that antidepressants DONT WORK and are detrimental to your brain in the long term. You wanna feel happy, ask your doctor for a medical marijuana consent card. If he says no, ask him why. Bet he cant give you a valid reason.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nadine

      Maybe, maybe not. But no one has reported any anti=depressives in Ms. Houston's rooms. The only drug reported was Xanax, which is anti-anxiety drug, like the benzos (eg, Valium, Ativan.) As for the anti-depressives not working, I'm not sure where you have come up with that. Are they a perfect cure? Not for most folks. But a life-saver for many. They gave me the ability to function after my husband's diagnosis with a fatal illness, so I personally disagree most strongly.

      February 16, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. TanyaB

    This article, while well-written, was jammed with pop-psych BS. Whitney Houston was one of the most beautiful women in the world and a gorgeous singer. BUT she self-destructed and it is no one's fault but her own. Trying to find a deeper meaning in the death of a crackhead is useless.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • pat carr

      Sure let's toss away more lives just because simple minded thinking like yours.

      February 16, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
      • William

        You know, I watch the news media and read commments, and listen to comments of many people. I like to Observe the world especially in situations like this. I just have one question: Whatever happened to compassion? Why dont we help build eachother up instead of break eachother down? Can we be real and honest about somethings? WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES. Our mistakes have consequences. cant we just understand this?

        February 18, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. LWZRGHT

    I know who to blame. Whitney. A musician/celebrity ODs on drugs. Are we really that surprised?

    February 16, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Santex

    The Christian dilemma is this: You must totally trust in the Lord. That means I am third. God is first, everybody else is second and I am third. When that order is broken so is the life. It is deceptively easy to say "I give my all to the Lord." It is extraordinarily difficult to not try and keep personal control.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Cannotbelievethewhining

    I cannot believe how many humans refuse to accept the regular ups and downs of life without needing medication to cope. Do we all have our emotionally hellish periods – YES. Does that make us all needful of a mental diagnosis, medication and acquired VICTIM status. NO!

    Most humans have their own – poor, pitiful me story – full of gory and sordid details. It's the way of the world. GET OVER IT and MOVE ON.

    We as humans have got to stop needing constant emotional coddling in order to properly function in the society. If you are an ADULT and you don't like something in your life – CHANGE IT FOR THE BETTER. Simple and it works.

    Signed – child raised by narcissistic heathens and cretans.....survived just fine.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nadine

      Well that's one point of view - and you've probably never dealt with alcoholism or drug dependency. The sad fact, though, is that you and I, clean and sober (with whatever other goods and bads we possess) mean something to a handful of people, but Ms. Houston's passing actually deeply hurt many thousands, probably millions, who will really miss her. So, as the Buddhists say, her passing caused a lot more damage to the world at large than ours might - and it's always sad to see the waste of that kind of spirit.

      February 16, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • TanyaB

        I worry about the stability of a person who is hurt by the death of a stranger. Celebrity worship is not healthy. Yes, you may have bought her CDs and seen her in concert, but that does not make her close to you. That warrants a "That's too bad" and nothing more.

        February 16, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      if I ever get the chance to meet you, the first thing I would do is give you a hug............... Thanks for sharing :)

      February 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Tom

    Opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Terrie M. Williams." I was encouraged by this closing sentence. But then I read the comments and realized this statement was as phony as much of the commentary itself. Ms Williams joins a rather large group that seems to be compelled to comment on the sad death of Whitney Houston as a way to promote some agenda. She is using Whitney as selfishly as any of the people who enabled Whitney to lead a life of self destruction.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  16. urmomlol

    GAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH IT HURTS!!!

    OH GOD THE PAIN!!!!!!!!

    Ok, I feel better now.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Blondie

    Laboratory rats, when given the choice between cocaine and food, starve to death. This is a complicated neurological genetic illness that some people have worse than others. Addiction is totally complicated by associated social problems and underlying psyciatric issues like personality disorders. For those of you who don't have addictive disease, be grateful. But, before you cast stones, be sure your own slate is clean. There are numerous moral implications involved with addiction, but in itself, alone, addiction is not a moral problem. It is a medical illness, a disease, that the person cannot help having.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • TanyaB

      But that person can choose to get help. Whitney Houston had plenty of money to beat her addiction by any means needed, but chose not to. Having a treatable illness and refusing to seek treatment is a choice.

      February 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      I disagree. That may well be true of rats, but rats have neither higher mental functions nor the ability to override their own instincts. If weakness, fatalism and stupidity are a disease, then OK – this is a disease. I'm addicted to cigarettes, and I continue to smoke... because I like it. I know very well that I could beat the addiction if I felt like it, and at some point, when I can be bothered with the weeks of craving nicotine, I'll do it (probably when I'm on vacation and don't have to work in the meanwhile) – but for now, the annoyance outweighs the benefits. My ex-wife, on the other hand, is an alcoholic. She destroyed our marriage, her career and everything else around her in an almost systematic way. This had nothing to do with illness, a disease or anything else: it had to do with cowardice: refusal to face the psychological traumas that drive a person to drink, drugs, or whatever else it might be. If cowardice is a disease, then alcoholism and drug dependency are diseases. But since these dependencies go away if you simply clean up and go cold turkey – without the benefit of any other medicine – then they're not diseases: they're escapes from reality and expressions of fatalism, self-hatred and, as I say, cowardice.

      February 16, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
      • William

        did you know that drugs and alcohol abuse can change your brain. It can make you pyschotic and not be in reality? at some point it is cowardice but how quickly it can go from a moll hill to a mountain. I feel your pain brother, God bless you and your ex wife

        February 18, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
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