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The following article contains references to depression and suicidal ideation which may be sensitive for some readers.
In the summer of 2018, singer Michelle Williams was swimming in what she calls a sea of darkness.
“It was an emotional and spiritual darkness,” the singer says. “I was having thoughts of suicide. And when I say thoughts, I mean I was planning my own funeral—right down to the kind of flowers I wanted and what kind of songs would be sung at the service.”
While Williams says she didn’t have an exact plan for ending her life, those thoughts were quickly forming. She felt scared but she also felt ashamed. By this point, the star had been vocal about her struggle with her mental health for over a decade.
“It was supposed to be in the past. But no one knew how bad it had really gotten," Williams tells Yahoo Canada. “I just wasn’t feeling safe with myself anymore."
“I was getting too comfortable with those thoughts. About as comfortable as I am picking up this iPad,” she says, picking up the gadget to demonstrate her point. “I knew I had to get some help because despite how engulfed I felt by the darkness, I did want to live. But I knew that if I kept getting too comfortable with those thoughts that I was going to do something tragic.”
The world recognizes Williams as one of the three famous faces from the Grammy-award winning R&B mega girl group, "Destiny’s Child" alongside Kelly Rowland and of course, Beyoncé Knowles. More recently, Williams was seen on the second season of "The Masked Singer" in 2019.
Williams ultimately decided to get help and checked herself into a mental health facility using a false name.
Not only did Williams work on her mental health through intensive therapy, but part of her healing would also come from writing her memoir, "Checking In: How Getting Real About My Depression Saved My Life—And Can Save Yours" which releases May 25 (HarperCollins).
“Working on the book was restorative,” she says. “Even hearing my notes play back to me on my phone was therapeutic. Much of those notes came from my journal and we were able to transcribe a lot of that.”
Williams’s first feelings of depression began to surface at age thirteen when she remembers feeling "fatigued and isolated" in the seventh grade.
“My grades were dropping. I was just feeling really lost,” she recalls. Williams chalked the feelings to having started puberty. “I thought it was just me being hormonal, or having growing pains.”
Williams felt like she couldn’t talk to anyone about what was going on and kept her feelings to herself.
“My parents worked long hours and were focused on keeping food on the table. They also weren’t emotionally accessible to me and were just doing the best they could,” she says. “I didn’t have the right friendships to confide in and it was also around then that I started to get bullied by a group of girls who, for some unknown reason, started to take a dislike to me.”
Even though she knew something didn’t feel right inside of her, it would take two decades before Williams was formally diagnosed with depression.
“I didn’t have a name for what I was going through until I was in my 30s so I went all the way from being 13 to in my 30s just trying to cope with the pain,” she explains. “In fact, I was doing some of the same things in my 30s that I was doing at 13 when any of those feelings came up such as isolating myself and not wanting to go out.”
In January 2018, Williams says she began recognizing feelings as depression surfacing around the time she was in rehearsals to perform at Coachella.
"That March I got engaged, which was wonderful, but there was a lot of fear and anxiety and doubt that came with that," she explains. "There was also a lot of negative self-talk and pessimism because of work I knew I needed to do on myself.”
To top it off, Williams had also just sold her house in Illinois and was in the process of moving to California. She did her best to come from a place of gratitude because so many great things were happening.
“I was also genuinely happy to be with my girls and was excited about that,” she says referring to Beyoncé and Rowland of the 20th anniversary Destiny’s Child reunion soon to happen that spring at Coachella. “I was telling myself: ‘You’re going to be OK; you’re going to be OK’ But I wasn’t OK. I should have checked in with somebody but I didn’t. I should have reached out and said that I was feeling overwhelmed.”
Later that year, after the unchecked feelings turned suicidal Williams was fortunate to get herself the intensive therapy and healing she needed. From there, she decided to make her mental health her sole focus.
“I knew I had to make a deeper commitment to my mental health,” she says. “2019 was my year of doing nothing and just focusing on my own well-being...I was blessed to be able to take time off for in-depth treatment and healing.”
Despite the self-imposed hiatus, there were four commitments that she honoured that had been booked a year prior. One of those four commitments happened to be doing the hit show, "The Masked Singer." At first, Williams was reluctant to be part of the show.
“I was thinking: do people have to look at me? Do I want to open myself up like that? I was still emotionally fragile at that point. But when they told me that no one would even know who I was, I was like: ‘Sign me up!’” she says, laughing.
The show turned out to be one of the best solo experiences of her life. The fact that she was drawn to the butterfly as her costume also seemed symbolic.
“It was a time of renewal in my own life since I was going through a lot of introspection and healing. I got to choose my costume from a selection and I automatically went for the butterfly just because I thought it looked sexy,” she laughs. “It was only a couple of months after the show that I appreciated the significance.”
Williams says her time on the show was a transformative experience in more ways than one.
“I had put myself out there after such a long time and it was wonderful to know that my voice was so appreciated," she says. "It gave me the confidence I needed; it also made me fall in love with performing again.”
Williams says that this time of soul-searching since 2019 coupled with therapy has helped her shed a lot of ingrained beliefs.
“I’m very aware now of how I’m feeling. I ask myself why I’m feeling the way I do to self-regulate my emotions,” she says. “I check in with my circumstances, my mood and my relationship to other people.”
Just a couple of weeks ago Williams says she was feeling overwhelmed as the book’s launch date grew near.
“I was worried about how the book would be received. My body registered the emotions as depression, because it doesn’t know the difference between feeling anxious or overwhelmed and feeling depressed," she explains. "But I knew that it felt familiar to me. This time I didn’t shame myself for it like I would have in the past. Had I checked in with myself like this in 2018 I don’t think things wouldn’t have spiralled as much as they did.”
Williams says that when those feelings do crop up, she feels more empowered to take the steps necessary to centre herself and self-regulate her emotions. She also has a different perspective on the idea of pressure and feeling overwhelmed.
“Pressure can be the result of good things happening," she says. "It’s when those feelings of pressure are left unchecked that they can turn into feelings of despair.”
While singing will always be her first love, Williams says being an advocate for mental health is now her lifelong passion. She hopes the book will inspire and empower other people to get the help they need like she did.
“I hope that opening up my story will perhaps inspire people to get the help they need,” she says. “I want to help silence the shame by keeping mental health in the mainstream.”
If you or someone you know is suffering, please contact Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital.
For a full list of resources including mental health services in your area, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association.