Memoirs of Mental Health: Mary J. Blige

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Despite being only a month old at the release of her debut album, Mary J. Blige is one of the icons that have been a constant throughout my life (alongside Mariah Carey and Ms. Lauryn Hill.) When I saw that Mary J. released a documentary to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her second album, My Life, I was excited to learn more about her story.

The film covers a multitude of mental health challenges that inspired her music. Music that has become the soundtrack for many lives, including my own. So let’s dive in!

Depression, Drugs, and Suicidal Thoughts

The lyrics in the My Life album resulted from one of the darkest times in MJB’s life. Her first album, What’s the 411, propelled her from a tough life in the projects into a whirlwind of fame, attention, and touring. She likens her living situation growing up as “like a prison.” You can see in early interviews how this resulted in her being defensive and having her guard up as she adjusted to being in the spotlight. She also describes dissociating as she navigated from her personal and professional personas.

“You’re screaming and nothing is coming out.”

Mary J. shares about the deep depression that has ebbed and flowed throughout her life. During the My Life years, she turned to alcohol and cocaine to cope with the emotional turmoil. Her mind would ruminate on thoughts of death and suicide often. Fortunately, writing music was an outlet to release some of the pain while singing provided an escape from the suffering.

While she has always been fearless when it came to singing, Mary reports struggling to match that exterior confidence with the insecurities going on inside, which many of us can relate to.

“The only thing that’s gonna fix your life is you learning how to love yourself.”

It’s apparent that writing and music saved her life on many occasions throughout her career. I loved hearing the testimonies of fans who shared about how Mary’s vulnerability in her music prevented many of them from committing suicide and gave them the hope to keep fighting.

“When you’re feeling down, you should never fake it.” ~From the song, My Life

Domestic Violence

Mary was molested at age 5 and, like too many in the Black community, this trauma resulted in silence, confusion, and repression. She talks about how she escaped into music via her father’s record collection and from shows like Soul Train.

“I grew up in an environment where little girls aren’t safe.”

Mary J. also witnessed domestic violence between her parents and often experienced the vicarious trauma of hearing other women in the projects being abused by their partners. Unfortunately, the pattern of abuse continued into her adulthood.

“I’ve had to physically fight for my life a lot because just like my mom, I’m a fighter. My mom had to suffer a lot of physical abuse as well so as a little girl, I saw her, this little woman, fighting. So when it all started to happen to me, all I could think about was my mom. It’s not as simple as black and white to just walk out the door when you’re just beyond insecure […] You think that this is the best that you can get and now, whatever you think is love, […] is all you have to hold onto and no matter what bad happens, you don’t want to let this person go because you feel like he validates you or makes you feel like he loves you. I will never understand why we stay so long.”

What Mary is describing here is known as trauma bonding.

Conclusion

Music is so therapeutic for the artists and the listeners. Speaking for myself, I know that music has been a constant friend throughout my 29 years; for example, I have distinct memories of watching music videos from the Mary’s No More Drama album on the day of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With no adults paying attention to my distress, Mary J. served as a therapist.

I recommend checking out the documentary, Mary J. Blige’s My Life, on Prime Video for more context. I’ve been playing the My Life album as I type this. Check that out here.

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2 thoughts on “Memoirs of Mental Health: Mary J. Blige”

  1. Ashley says:

    I’ve only ever been peripherally familiar with Mary J. Blige. I had no idea she’s been through so much.

    1. I hadn’t realized the magnitude of her struggles either. Thanks for reading!

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