Donte Woods-Spikes is finally ready for you to empathize with him

The author, documentarian and youth mentor will speak about his recent mental health struggles at Up Front Performance Space on Friday, April 28.
Donte Woods-Spikes in a series of photos posted in March and April
Donte Woods-Spikes in a series of photos posted in March and AprilCourtesy Donte Woods-Spikes

Donte Woods-Spikes said he first felt the tug of depression as a kid, though he didn’t yet have the understanding or the vocabulary to articulate the sensation.

“I remember around age 10, my heart would start to beat, and my stomach would hurt when I went to school. … And at home, I would sit and play video games and feel empty, not feel fulfilled,” Woods-Spikes said over coffee downtown in late April. “Then once I made it to 14, I started to learn the terminology that could be applied to what I was feeling, and it was anxiety, and it was depression.”

But even armed with the terminology, Woods-Spikes avoided confronting the root causes of these emotions, instead retreating deeper into himself, seeking a sort of comfort in isolation. As a result, his grades suffered and he struggled to make connections throughout high school, describing himself as ill-equipped to navigate an upbringing in which he continually felt out of place.

“I grew up in the Linden area, and we moved to Driving Park when I was 7, and then through those teenage years it was intense isolation,” Woods-Spikes said. “I was labeled the quiet kid at school because I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know who I was at the time. How am I supposed to make any connections when I’m struggling internally and there’s nowhere I can go to feel comfortable?”

A turning point arrived when a teacher at Focus Learning Academy noticed signs of depression in the teen, enticing him and a classmate to visit a mental health care specialist at Netcare Access with the promise of a free meal. “We were poor, 16-year–old Black boys, so if anyone offered us anything, we were taking it,” Woods-Spikes said, and laughed. 

During intake, the counselor asked Woods-Spikes if he ever heard voices (he said he did not), and if he’d ever considered harming himself (he said he had). When the session ended, the specialist recommended admitting the teenager for overnight observation, which led Woods-Spikes’ friend to exclaim, “You told them the truth, didn’t you?”

“And I told him yeah, and he looked at me like, you dumbass,” Woods-Spikes said. “And the only reason I opened up in that moment is because it was the first time someone sat down with me in a space where I felt comfortable and asked me questions about my mental health. And even though it wasn’t the exact question, what I heard from them was, ‘Are you okay?’”

The vivid picture Woods-Spikes paints of these solitary early teenage years feels disconnected from the life he’s since carved for himself. An author, documentarian and youth mentor, Woods-Spikes has long been an undeniably buoyant presence in the city, expressing a genuine interest in the well-being of others that is captured by a phrase with which he is now deeply associated: “I empathize with you.”

“We don't have to be perfect all the time. We have down moments,” Woods-Spikes told Alive in 2021. “I just wanted to address that.”

But while Woods-Spikes remained effortlessly open to identifying with and absorbing those accumulated hurts felt by others, he remained hesitant to ask the same of his community, afraid he might be viewed as selfish, or that people would believe he had chosen to prioritize his own feelings at the expense of those around him.

“But I realize sometimes I have to talk about myself, and I have to talk about my real self,” Woods-Spikes said. “People get so much more from the real version of you than the curated version we all put out there. We all wake up and say, ‘Okay, if someone asks me how I’m feeling, I’m going to say, “Fine,"' and we curate and control our answers and responses. But we need to be able to say, ‘I’m still dealing with this trauma from childhood today,’ or, ‘I don’t really like being in this space, because one time somebody passed away, and the news was broken to me here.’ And instead, we hide these things. And I’m guilty of doing it myself. … I need to be able to say, 'This is a part of my life, and this is how I made it through.' I need to be able to lean on community.”

“One of the reasons I talk about empathy so much is that I believe it’s what we all want, to be felt, to be understood,” Woods-Spikes continued. “It’s important that I understand it’s a cycle of give and take. I should be able to depend on you the way you depend on me. I should be able to see you the way you see me. And if I’m making myself available to support and help people, I should allow people to do the same thing for me.”

Woods-Spikes said he started to absorb these lessons after he learned of the December 2022 death of Anthony “TJ” Williams Jr., a young man for whom he had long served as a mentor, and whose passing left him feeling completely untethered.

In conversation, Woods-Spikes described his relationship with Williams as “pivotal.” After forming a bond with the youngster, he said he became inspired to start a teen group, and then he began working with kids in elementary school, embracing a growing awareness that he could develop similarly impactful connections with other young people. “He’s the reason I’m sitting here right now,” Woods-Spikes said. “And that’s one of the reasons that it hurt so bad.”

In the months that followed Williams’ death, Woods-Spikes retreated, nursing a deep depression the likes of which he said he had not experienced since his teenage years. Occasionally, the hurt would subside, only to flare up unexpectedly, again consuming him. “I didn’t care about making another dollar. I didn’t care about paying another bill. I didn’t care about being seen, or if people liked me or hated me,” Woods-Spikes said. “I just wanted TJ back.”

While he generally refrained from posting on social media in those months, he offered occasional glimpses into his shattered state of mind, posting a black-and-white photo of himself in late February and writing in the caption, “Not back to 100 percent yet! Making progress though.”

Other selfies followed, a smile gradually returning to Woods-Spikes’ face. “Ayo, let’s put some positive energy into the atmosphere,” he wrote alongside his beaming visage on April 21 – the morning of our conversation. “Post a picture of you smiling in the comments.”

“I’m finding I’m finally in a space again where I can go places and be present,” said Woods-Spikes, who will speak about his recent mental health struggles at Up Front Performance Space on Friday, April 28. “I’m hoping when people hear my story, they understand it’s okay to be vulnerable, and it’s okay to talk about these things. We don’t have to be our perfect selves all of the time, which is the way society makes it seem. … Sometimes we hurt, and that loss, that confused feeling, can sit with you for weeks and months. And it can sit on your spirit and take over. It’s not easy to jump back into the fray after that, but I’m feeling like the intention is there again, where I'm not just putting on a show. It’s time to smile again. It’s time to talk to people again. It’s time to do work again.”

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