Elder Atum Azzahir first heard about the former first lady’s comments when a friend called to talk to her about it on Wednesday night.
Azzahir, 77, is the founder of the Cultural Wellness Center in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, a place she built to help African American women and their communities heal. Her friend, who is almost 80, wanted to talk about Michelle Obama’s revelation — that she’s been dealing with “low-grade depression” these past few months.
In almost eight decades of life, these two had never heard anything quite like it — a woman of such stature, much less a Black woman like themselves, describe exactly what they had been going through. The former first lady spoke about highs and lows, and the periods of sleeplessness she’s experienced the last few months.
“I’m waking up in the middle of the night because I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness,” Obama said on the second episode of her podcast. “Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”
“I don’t think I’m unusual,” Obama told Michele Norris, a former anchor on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and founder of the Race Card Project. “Part of this depression is also a result of what we’re seeing in terms of the protests, the continued racial unrest, that has plagued this country since its birth. I have to say that waking up to the news, waking up to how this administration has or has not responded, waking up to yet another story of a Black man or a Black person somehow being dehumanized, or hurt or killed, or falsely accused of something, it is exhausting. And it has led to a weight that I haven’t felt in my life, in a while.”
For Azzahir, the words articulated her own private thoughts.
“As Black women in particular right now, we are feeling at a very deep level a lot of the raw pain and struggle that our community is going through. Michelle gives us permission to not just talk about it in our private corners, but to talk about it publicly. ... And that’s such a powerful, permission-giving kind of thing,” she said.
Azzahir lives 10 blocks from where Floyd was killed in police custody.
“It brings tears to my eyes to think of it,” Azzahir said. “If Michelle is able to open [up], and we are able to dialogue about that, and not be silent, then we can grieve and mourn. Michelle is saying that is not a flaw in you or in us.”
Azzahir didn’t imagine that Obama could be depressed — she was the first lady, after all. She thinks that knowing that even Obama struggles will be helpful for other women of color.
Younger women who are more accustomed to talking about mental health also welcomed Obama’s frankness.
“I’m really surprised it took this long for her to share this,” Tiara Springer-Love said. “She’s married to the former president.”
Watching Obama handle criticism over her physical appearance, her politics, her parenting, her clothing choices while keeping up such a polished appearance often made Springer-Love wonder: “Do these things even bother her?”
Springer-Love, 27, is a social worker in Queens, the early epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic that saw heavy casualties before the rest of the country. She is open about her struggles with depression and says the last few months have been exhausting.
Hearing Obama talk about the heaviness many minorities feel in these strained times “normalizes it. It’s relatable,” Springer-Love said.
In her conversation with Norris, Obama talked about her coping mechanisms and the importance of giving yourself grace.
“I try to make sure I get a workout in, although there have been periods throughout this quarantine, where I just have felt too low,” Obama said. “I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel yourself, and sometimes there’s been a week or so where I had to surrender to that, and not be so hard on myself. And say, ‘You know what? You’re just not feeling that treadmill right now.’”
For Sophia Hunt, a doctoral candidate at Stanford, the restlessness of the past few months has exacerbated her tendency toward anxiety.
Hunt, 22, has younger brothers. She worries about what could happen when they go out at night. If she’ll get the awful phone call that they’ve been confronted by police — or worse.
“If Michelle Obama’s suffering, think of all of the essential workers you know who are disproportionately Black and brown. All of the care workers who we know are often women of color,” Hunt says.
For Hunt, knowing that someone like Obama is struggling gives her a reprieve from having to be a “superwoman,” constantly fighting for racial justice and educating people.
“It’s really taxing and draining. To see someone who is in a position of power feel and express how she’s feeling casts light on the fact that Black women can’t always be the superhero at the end of the day. We need help and we need support.”