Former Destiny’s Child star Michelle Williams decided to choose happiness after her depression diagnosis, resolving old hurts and learning new skills in therapy.
By Stephanie Stephens
If she ever felt like destiny’s darling, Michelle Williams doesn’t sound so sure in her heartfelt song “Need Your Help.”
“Standing in the middle and I don’t know which way to go/ I’m looking at my life seeing that I’m at a crossroad,” she sings on the soul-baring track from her 2014 gospel album Journey to Freedom.
Williams, who came to fame as part of the hugely popular R&B trio Destiny’s Child, has seen solo success on the gospel, dance club and R&B charts—and as an actress in splashy Broadway musicals. Journey to Freedom, her fourth album, is a personal favorite: “I think it has said everything I wanted to say through my music,” Williams reflects.
The highly personal lyrics reveal that Williams has sometimes felt lost, unsure of which direction to take. She’s just as open talking about the depression she’s experienced since her teens.
An in-demand inspirational speaker, Williams was a headliner at Mental Health America’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. in June. Her experiences with undiagnosed depression and her more recent treatment and recovery fostered a desire to motivate others facing similar challenges.
“I want to encourage those who are probably wondering if something is wrong,” she told esperanza, adding that her talk was also an opportunity of “giving love to all the mental health professionals who deal with us on a daily basis.”
But I’m tired of having those dark moments, so … I try not to let anything zap my peace and joy.”
Williams, 37, remembers depressive symptoms like sadness and alienation as early as 7th or 8th grade. She was only diagnosed in 2013, after an especially difficult bout the previous year. Although some days are easier than others, she’s made a commitment to conquer negativity and choose happiness.
“Sometimes it’s still a hard decision to make,” she says. “But I’m tired of having those dark moments, so literally I have to make a conscious choice. I have to have boundaries for myself and as far as it’s in my control, I try not to let anything zap my peace and joy.”
Beyoncé & beyond
When Williams joined up with Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé Knowles in 2000, she became part of “the best-selling female group of all time.” She remained in Destiny’s Child until the group disbanded in 2006, after releasing their album Destiny Fulfilled and completing a final world tour.
The three women still grace each other’s recordings and sometimes perform together—including at Beyoncé’s half-time show for Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
Williams patiently answers the inevitable question about whether Destiny’s Child will reunite: No, there’s no such news on the horizon. And please quash any rumors that they didn’t get along or don’t get along now, she adds. That’s just not true.
“We never had an argument,” she says. “We had respect for one another. I believe that’s why, to this day, we can still go out and have fun and be together at certain events or just go to dinner.”
Well, maybe they did argue now and then, she concedes, the way anyone would when they spend a lot of time together. That’s where respecting boundaries comes in.
“For example, I learned that if you know I’m not a morning person, don’t mess with me in the morning,” she notes. “Little things like that matter.”
Williams’ career certainly hasn’t languished post-Destiny’s Child. Even before the trio went separate ways, Williams had released her first solo album (Heart to Yours went on to top Billboard’s gospel chart) and starred in the Elton John-Tim Rice musical Aida on Broadway.
More recently, Williams played slinky felon Roxie Hart in productions of Chicago on Broadway and London’s West End. She’s also been on the U.S. tours of Chicago, The Color Purple (as Shug Avery) and Fela!
On television, she’s been a music reality show judge, cut a rug in a British dance contest, mentored up-and-coming choirs, and been a guest co-host on both The View and The Real. In April 2015, she performed for Michelle and Barak Obama in a gospel concert at the White House.
“Maybe next year, I would love to do more theater on or off-Broadway,” she says. “I love musical theater because I can sing and dance, but my other desire is to do a play without music, and to originate a role.”
Opening up to therapy
Williams is rooted in gospel music not only as a genre, but as an expression of her deep Christian faith. After revealing her inner confusion in “Need Your Help,” she continues: “Calm my mind and ease my heart/ Lord, it’s only your word that keeps me going.”
That’s partly what she relies on when depression tries to get the better of her. She trusts in the power of prayer—“I do believe in miracles,” she says—but also acknowledges that sometimes the secular world needs to step up, too.
“I know that when someone has an [emotional] issue, another person might say, ‘Oh, just pray about it.’ Or somebody might say, ‘If you weren’t in that relationship, you wouldn’t be sad.’ But if you feel that what you’re doing—to the best of your ability—is not working, you should seek help, especially if your sadness lasts longer than a week or two.”
She’s careful to differentiate between being sad because of a painful life event, such as losing your job or the death of a family member, and clinical depression. She’s also well aware of the way that daily frustrations can balloon for those with a depressive mindset, something she has to watch for in herself.
“Things are going to happen, I’ll have disappointments—maybe somebody did something behind my back—but how I choose to respond is my issue. I don’t want to let it get me down for two weeks.”
That’s when she turns to skills she learned in therapy. Prayer helps, supportive friends help, but “therapists can help you try to change any behavior that is going to prolong or make your depression worse,” she says.
In a 2012 interview with the Christian Post, Williams referred to emotional wounds from girlhood that “I carried … into my adulthood.” It wasn’t until she dealt with long-buried issues in therapy that she was able to start healing from those invisible injuries.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Only a quarter seek mental health care, however, compared to 40 percent of Americans of European descent.
Williams hopes that one day the black community will view mental health problems on par with conditions like diabetes. At the same time, she remembers her initial aversion to the idea of psychotherapy: “I used to think it was for really crazy people,” she admits.
Then she went for her first appointment and saw a man in a suit walking out of his session.
“I thought, ‘He could be a powerful executive somewhere.’ There were people who looked like me [in that office],” she says.
Williams was raised in a family rich in doctors and nurses, but she doesn’t remember mental health ever being a topic of discussion. As a teenager, she interpreted the way she felt and behaved as nothing more than “growing pains.”
“I’d come home from school, do as much homework as I could and go to bed—and if I didn’t have to be at church, I’d literally stay in my room,” she recalls.
Old habits die hard, but nowadays she retreats for rejuvenation rather than isolation.
“I just love chillin’ out in my room,” says Williams, who lives in the Chicago area.
Her upbringing around medical professionals did instill an awareness of how to take care of her whole self, however, especially after her father suffered a stroke in his 40s.
“If you feel that what you’re doing—to the best of your ability—is not working, you should seek help.”
“We saw a lot of things change for the better with what we ate,” she explains.
She says she’s trying to be more “organic” in her self-management, which includes working out three days a week. Her fitness has always been a stable anchor for her moods. She enlisted an accountability partner to help her stay on target.
“If I don’t work out, I pay my best friend $25 every time I don’t when I’m supposed to,” she says.
She also has a life coach, and sees her therapist once a month for “maintenance.”
When she has “me time” to do what she wants, with no pressure, she loves to garden and do landscaping around her house.
‘I believe in me’
Faith in herself is also important to Williams. She named her bedding and home décor collection Believe at Home. When the line launched, she told Essence magazine: “I want people to affirm themselves before they go to bed. ‘What did I believe today, am I one step closer to the things that I said that I wanted to do?’ ”
The name of the collection is a reference to her ballad “Believe in Me,” another very personal song off Journey to Freedom. The song’s lyrics touch on the disconnect between her celebrity and her self-image—“They see beauty/ I see everything wrong”—and how she can lose her way in other people’s expectations.
But she ends with uplifting determination: “Get back to the place that I left long ago/ Where no one could tell me what’s impossible/ ‘Cause I believe in me again.”
It’s a message to cultivate that inner self-embrace that’s so critical to staying the course with depression, whether you’re famous or not.
“I believe I’ve got it going on,” says Williams. “I think I’m doing pretty well with my career. But that has nothing to do with my heart, head, mind and soul. If that isn’t together, it doesn’t matter if you see somebody on TV or on Forbes’ list of billionaires.
“I may be in the public eye, but I’m the same as you. I will hold your hand, because we are all on the same journey. Don’t compare yourself to others. Everybody is fighting something.”
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Michelle Williams on:
STIGMA & SEEKING HELP: “Nothing is wrong if you go get help. You’re not less of a man or you’re still a good mother or a good human. If you think you can’t afford it, do your research if you have health insurance, and don’t forget community health centers.”
PREVENTIVE ACTION: “I believe it’s OK to have a time to be sad and mourn a loss, like with a relationship or whatever, but don’t let it get so you can’t function and you have no productivity.”
FINDING WHAT WORKS: “I am all for whatever your therapeutic choice is, if it’s [medication or] meditation or yoga or otherwise. For me right now, I’m really paying attention to my surroundings and not trying to be Superwoman.”
RECRUITING ALLIES: “If you’re going through depression, get an accountability partner who will say to you, ‘If I haven’t heard from you in more than two days, I’m going to be in touch.’ ” (That might be someone who joins you in a specific activity, like walking every day, or more free-form emotional support. Williams has a long-distance confederate who tells her, “I’ll fly to Chicago if I have to.”)
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Printed as “Michelle Williams: Changing Her Destiny”, Summer 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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