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Mental Health
summer 2021

Michelle Williams Survivor

The Former Destiny’s Child Singer on Victory Over Depression and the Importance of Faith
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

As an award-winning singer and actress, best known as a member of one of the top-selling female groups of all time, Michelle Williams is widely admired for her life in the spotlight. But it’s her time in the shadows, rather than her years with Destiny’s Child and subsequent successful solo career on stage and television and in movies, that may yet prove to be her most significant role.

The longtime royal princess to Beyoncé’s “Queen B” has pulled back the curtain on her lifelong struggle with the dark cloud of depression to encourage others to face their own mental health issues. In a timely and candid new book, Checking In: How Getting Real About My Depression Saved My Life—and Can Save Yours (Nelson Books), the voice on hits like the presciently titled Grammy winner, “Survivor”—named one of the Top 10 songs of the 2000s—broaches a subject too often ignored. She spoke with WayMaker Journal about her life, her success, and how she came to be a champion of mental health.

WJ: You’ve achieved so much in your career. Did you have a vision for success from being young?

WILLIAMS: I was the little girl who sang in front of the mirror, who saw people like Whitney Houston singing and I was so inspired. I had an uncle that is a doctor and he used to drive a BMW or a Mercedes. There were functions at his house, and I’d say, “I want to live over here one day,” not knowing 30 years later I’d buy a house in that same ZIP code.

When you come from a small Midwestern town, you’re not thinking superstardom, you’re thinking, “I’ve got to get a degree,” but I knew that I would be successful. I just had that drive. I’m big on what you say versus, “Now, no one in my family has done what I am doing…” I pray for people who are reading this, that God would send one or two people in their life who can change their way of thinking. The saying is, Change your mind, change your life.

I knew that I would be successful, I just didn’t know to what capacity. I really think your body and spirit will align with what you say. And it’s important to have a mentor, someone who cultivates you mentally and takes you into their environment of success.

WJ: You must have had to take some risks to achieve what you have?
WILLIAMS:
A lot of people in my family have degrees: I have three doctors, my mom’s a nurse, her sister’s a nurse, so everybody’s successful… I went to college, but I didn’t finish. I got a call that they were looking for an alternate member for Destiny’s Child. I went to Houston to meet Beyoncé and Kelly [Rowland] and we bonded over food at Papa Doe’s. Then, not too long after that, I get a phone call asking can I fly to LA to film the video for “Say My Name.” I was like, “I don’t know,” because I was supposed to be shadowing the county coroner to view an autopsy; my major was criminal justice. I had to choose…

WJ: How did Destiny’s Child know of you?

WILLIAMS: I had been singing background for Monica in clubs. And I got that gig through a friend, Freddy, who found my number in the bottom of a moving box. He called to say she was having auditions the next day, and could I get to Atlanta? I told him I couldn’t afford a next-day plane ticket, and Greyhound wouldn’t get me there in time. So he said, “Let me call you right back.” He had an aunt that worked for United Airlines and she got me a buddy pass, so I was able to fly to Atlanta first class and do the audition.

And, let me tell you something: I can be brought to tears… because Freddy unfortunately got killed in a motorcycle accident this past Sunday—the guy who found my number in the bottom of a moving box.

WJ: You chose to go and make the video with Destiny’s Child, and look what happened. Is there a lesson there for others?

WILLIAMS: I just want to encourage people that somebody is going to call your name—just make sure it’s worth it when they call you. Make sure your name’s worth calling, because sometimes we can call your name and you aren’t ready. Your work ethic is horrible. You have got a nasty attitude, or something like that.

I tell young people all the time that I believe my name was called for Destiny’s Child because of my work ethic. Not that I’m perfect, you know, but I tell people I’ll pick somebody who may not be as talented, but they are pliable and teachable and I can mold them, over somebody that’s so talented but they’ve got a nasty attitude. I can’t work with that.

So, I say keep doing the work. Someone will call your name. Just don’t try to be seen prematurely. And then one day you’re going to get a phone call and someone will say, “Hey, so-and-so referred you to me.” That’s what happened to me.

WJ: How have you lasted so long in what can be a tough industry?

WILLIAMS: It’s going on 21 years… I would say, God and navigating purpose. My purpose just didn’t end when Destiny’s Child ended. It’s like I’m just on a floatie on the lazy river, going where God takes me. I know that he has allowed me to have this platform so that this next wave is a message of healing and impact. That’s my purpose.

WJ: How did you find yourself speaking up about mental health?

WILLIAMS: It was actually by accident. I was doing an interview with a journalist and I had no choice but to be honest in the moment and say, “You know, I’ve been dealing with depression.” I forgot the article was even coming out, and just thought it was going to be something that went under the radar. But oh my gosh. That thing hit the wire and it was on ticker tape on the news networks. I was, “Oh, what did I just do?” I didn’t think anybody was going to catch it. Well, it’s out now: what are you going to do? Retract it and say, “Sorry, you guys, I didn’t mean it”? No. I was in a studio somewhere and men pulled me to the side and thanked me for talking about it. And right then and there is when I accepted the mission to keep talking about it, because we don’t talk about it… Black people, we just taught you pray about all your issues; go to the altar, have a Pentecostal moment and go sit your tail down.

WJ: What do you want people to know?

WILLIAMS: Sometimes you just need to process a loss. Somebody might’ve died, you might’ve lost a job, and it’s overwhelming, it’s causing havoc in relationships. And it’s OK to get to the root of stuff. You’re not a bad person. Nothing’s wrong with you.

I want to encourage people that this depression or this anxiety is a signal of something going on. Just look at it as that. When you get a headache for a week, that’s a signal to something going on. When you go to the doctor, no one says, “Shame on you.” You have a heart physician, so why not somebody that helps you process the things of your mind and heart and your soul?

WJ: How was it writing so openly about your own struggle with depression?

WILLIAMS: It was more healing than I thought it would be. The person that I am today and who I was when I started writing in 2019 are two totally different people. I see a therapist every week, and just today she was brought to tears by the growth and the actual healing I have experienced. So I knew that I wanted to share my journey and let people know that they’re not alone and give them some practical steps of what to do, give them some biblical, spiritual steps and add some humor along the way.

WJ: Have you learned something about yourself during this process that you did not know before?

WILLIAMS: Yes, that I’m a pretty strong person. You don’t feel strength sometimes in the moment, when you’re laying low, when you’re down. I have found that I’m stronger than I give myself credit for at times.

WJ: What would you say to a young person struggling in some way, right now?
WILLIAMS:
Communicate with God. You don’t have to be a theologian to pray. You don’t have to be a pastor. Maybe some teenagers and college students don’t feel like they have anybody to talk to or go to. Say a simple prayer, “Send me someone that I can process something with”—a mentor, a guide, a safe person.

And I want you to inbox me and tell me what happened, because I guarantee that prayer will be answered. God is still doing that for me right now. I pray this prayer every morning, and I say, “Thank you, Lord, for sending people into my life to help me accomplish my purpose.”

WJ: How was the whole COVID-19 experience for you?
WILLIAMS:
I’m a real homebody, so when we had to be on lockdown, it worked out for me. So much of what I do is giving out so much energy that I recharge at home. I’m an extroverted introvert: when I walk back in my door, sometimes I can feel my energy charging right back up. When tours were canceled, appearances were canceled, and everything turned virtual, it ended up being fun for me. It was a time to reflect, maybe reset and restructure some things.

WJ: You’re a person of faith, but it has been tested at times, hasn’t it? How have you handled that?
WILLIAMS:
The Bible says that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. The other part of our faith is God’s track record. I just scroll his track record, and it steadily builds my faith—what he has done in my life, what I’ve seen him do in others’. His track record: it’s like, “You don’t want to trust him? You don’t want to trust that?”

WJ: You’ve got to meet many famous people during your career. Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to have a private dinner with?
WILLIAMS:
Malcolm X, Jesus, and Oprah. Because of who she is, the journalist, she is going to be interviewing Jesus and Malcolm, and I’m just going to be there sipping tea. That’s all I’ll be doing.

Below is an excerpt from “Checking In: How Getting Real About Depression Saved My Life” by Michelle Williams, available now at www.checkingwithmichelle.com.

Getting honest with yourself

There’s a difference between being transparent and being vulnerable. It’s a very important difference that cost me plenty of relationships, even friendships, along the way.

See, I have no issues being transparent. Because with transparency, there’s still a little bit of control. You can say, “Michelle, you seem a little off. Is everything okay?” I’ll be transparent even to say, “Yeah, I’m going through some stuff right now. You know, it’s hard, but God is good! I’ll be okay!” I don’t risk anything when I respond that way.

But when you’re vulnerable, you don’t have that kind of control. It’s not pretty and sometimes it doesn’t feel like God is good. You know what I mean?

When you’re vulnerable, you don’t care if your partner knows that you’re frustrated they forgot to ask how that meeting went. Or that you’re excited they called. You don’t care if they know you’re full of fear and doubt and worry. Or full of love, anticipation, and awe.

I’d say the biggest difference in being transparent and being vulnerable is that when you’re vulnerable, no one has to ask you the tough questions because you are offering the truth freely. Transparency is simply offering information and vulnerability is revealing the thoughts behind your words and actions.

And y’all, I know it’s tough. I know checking in with anyone in a vulnerable way is hard. Like, I’m never going to be with a man and say, “I just feel really insecure right now because you haven’t said anything about this new way I’m doing my makeup,” and that just be a breeze.

Vulnerability is going to cost you a little something every time because it’s human nature to hide our weaknesses. It just becomes our habit.

Guarding the truth was my crutch for so long. I don’t want to talk about how hard my childhood was, because I don’t want to hurt my parents and I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I don’t want to talk about how let down I felt after Destiny’s Child’s disbanded, because I don’t want to sound petty or like I’m not over it. I don’t want to admit that I’ve been so frantic to be loved that I’ve chosen the wrong men, because I don’t want to look stupid or desperate. Being transparent was my crutch.

We do this in lots of areas—not just when it comes to being vulnerable. We get in a habit of doing things that feel good but aren’t good. These are our coping mechanisms, the crutches we use instead of taking risks and checking in.

These things become second nature to us. Something we do without even thinking about it. For me, figuring out my “crutches” was a critical part of learning to check in.

Because you can’t check in until you’re honest with yourself about the way you’re living.