Originally published at The Undefeated © on October 25, 2017.
Over the past six years, the journey for my 21-year-old daughter Kennedy has taught me that life isn’t necessarily about what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens.
My wife, Cheryl, and I did everything we could to prepare our four children for success. We exposed them to as much culture, particularly black culture, as we could to give them a positive self-image. We introduced them to sports to help them understand the importance of teamwork and cooperation. Like all parents, we wanted their road to success to be as smooth as possible. We also wanted to protect them from the trials and tribulations that may come their way on that journey.
Eventually we were disabused of this notion and learned that life doesn’t work that way. Try as you might, you simply can’t protect your children from difficulties and dangers they will encounter, both seen and unseen. All you can do is help them deal with those difficulties, dangers and defeats and, as Maya Angelou says, “not be defeated” by them.
A few days ago, despite her circumstances, Kennedy decided to heed Angelou’s words and go undefeated.
Six years ago, clinical depression came roaring into our lives as an uninvited — and, at the time, unknown — guest. It all started one morning when Kennedy was in the 10th grade. She absolutely refused to get out of bed to go to school. What we thought was obstinacy and defiance was a teenager’s best way of dealing with the alternate reality that had taken up residence in her brain.
Words cannot describe how heart-wrenching it is to hear your daughter utter the words, “Daddy, I was raped.”
Kennedy describes what she was going through at the time in a letter she recently wrote to her 15-year-old self: “Six years ago you were ready to give up. You thought that the only option you had was to escape. The battle your body was fighting against your mind had hit its peak, and you couldn’t take it anymore. 106 pounds, no sunlight, no school and isolation. The whole concept of interacting with people reduced you to tears. You spent weeks in the bed and couldn’t experience high school as other students had. You didn’t eat and the thought of food disgusted you. You had no purpose to live.”
“I want the world to know what I’ve been through and what I struggle with every day.”
It took us a couple of months to figure out what was going on. I struggled at first not to make Kennedy’s situation about me and how I may have failed her as a father. Was there something that I could have done or not done to prevent this from happening? It was hard for me to come out of my initial denial and resist the urge to find a narrative that somehow absolved me of any blame for or, even worse, made me the victim of her illness. But in the end, I realized that it wasn’t about me and none of that mattered.
We were at the intersection of depression and anxiety. Kennedy was standing there in the pouring rain, at the peak of rush hour, with horns blaring all around her with tears streaming down her face.
Cheryl and I couldn’t prevent it, but we had to deal with it, and we are not alone. One in five adults has a mental health condition. More than 11 percent of youths suffered from depression in 2014, up from 8.5 percent in 2011. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, and although these disorders are highly treatable, only 36.9 percent of those suffering receive treatment.
As with most statistics, these are exacerbated in the black community. The stigma and a lack of knowledge of mental illness, along with the dearth of black mental health professionals, conspire to keep many in our communities suffering and shrouded in darkness alone.
Cheryl and I did as much research as we could and talked to as many professionals as possible to educate ourselves about what was going on with Kennedy. We were very open with our family and friends. Once we understood better, we took corrective measures through health care and counseling to help adjust her emotional rudder to guide her to some semblance of stability. We were fortunate to eventually find a black female therapist whom Kennedy could relate to.
Care and counseling aren’t a magical solution. Kennedy had to participate and buy into the process enough to be able to see beyond the horizon of her current condition and not give in to her FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real). At 16, she wasn’t quite there yet. She just wanted it all to stop. Thankfully, through the process, she was able to build up the strength to deal with this as an ongoing concern.
She continues on in her letter to herself: “Your depressed mind thought it had won the battle but it was wrong. It gets better. The small things you never appreciated are the things that bring you joy now. Your parents stood by your side through everything.”
Over the past few years, things have gotten much better, but at the same time there are still serious struggles and there will continue to be. The difference is now she is up to the fight. She’s a dean’s list student in college, and from the outside looking in everything looks great.
Just as she finally had a game plan in place to help her deal with her ongoing battle with depression and anxiety, something else devastating happened to her — she was raped.
Words cannot describe how heart-wrenching it is to hear your daughter utter the words, “Daddy, I was raped.” Had I not had the experience of dealing with her depression, I am certain that I would have either completely shut down and gone into denial or, worse, I could have become some brute macho stereotype looking to exact some kind of extrajudicial revenge.
But again, this wasn’t about me. It was about her. I quickly had to come to grips with the fact that the how and the what of the situation were much less important than helping my daughter. More than ever, I needed to be her father and be there for her. As with the depression, Cheryl and I encouraged her to go to counseling. She resisted at first, but once she looked back on the mountains that she had conquered and realized that counseling was a major part of her ascent, she acquiesced.
Life is a perpetually moving series of nows. The past is behind us, and we don’t know what the future holds. All we can really do is deal with the nows that we find ourselves in. Kennedy didn’t ask for any of this, but she is doing her best — with the help of family, friends and health care and mental health professionals — to maximize her series of nows.
Over the past few years, things have gotten much better, but at the same time there are still serious struggles and there will continue to be.
I was talking to her while I was writing the piece about Colin Kaepernick as The Accidental Activist. She told me that she thought the protests had gotten off message and through watching the whole thing unfold over the past year she actually decided, and is now actively standing up “on purpose,” to be an advocate for those living in the shadows of mental illness and sexual assault.
I am so very proud of Kennedy for her courage and conviction and how she is putting herself on the line to help others. Part of the reason that she came to this decision is because of her love for sports and her witnessing all the activity and attention that athletes like Kap have brought to the national conversation. That led me to share with her Maya Angelou’s quote that was the basis for the name of The Undefeated.
“You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away — I rose right where I’d been knocked down. And then that’s how you get to know yourself. You say, hmm, I can get up! I have enough of life in me to make somebody jealous enough to want to knock me down. I have so much courage in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand up. That’s it. That’s how you get to know who you are.”
I told her that she was the epitome of that quote. I then got a wild idea. I asked her, “What do you think about me writing about your story?”